Since reading, The Black Swan I’ve been a fan of Nassim Nicholas Taleb.
I’ve also enjoyed, Fooled by Randomness and Antifragile. And since setting down Antifragile I’ve been looking forward to his next book. Lucky for his many fans, Taleb has been leaking samples of it. Here’s where you can find a repository for chapters that are still in the process of being polished.)
Taleb is a somewhat unorthodox, Orthodox Christian from the Levant. That’s not what drew me to him though. What caught my attention a few years ago was his savvy sanity.
Anyone who has spent any time in trading–you know, buying and selling things for profit–knows there are people who understand the game (the savvy) and the rest of humanity. The lumpen mass is a docile and fleece-able animal. But the savvy can be broken down into two camps: those who do the fleecing and those who refuse to be fleeced. These can be called, the con-men and the no-B.S. men.
The con-men are the disciples of P. T. Barnum–they make their money by hoodwinking the rest of us. The no-B.S. men make their money by not being fooled by the con-men. And one of the best strategies for doing that is by betting against the con-men. Because, believe it or not, the con-men actually end up believing their cons over time. The no-B.S. men simply bet on reality winning in the end. (The film, The Big Short is all about this.)
Taleb is definitely a no-B.S. guy. But what makes him stand out from the typical no-B.S. guy is his math. (Here’s a little background on him. As you can see, he doesnt tolerate B.S. even here.) But if math is where he stopped the rest of us would be left in the fog. Taleb also excels at translating his proofs by means of amusing and enlightening books.
Complex Systems and Asymmetry
Everybody bleats in unison that we live in a complex world, but hardly anyone sees what that means. Among the many things it means is flow-charts are lies. The lumpen generally buy the flow chart (at least until the incongruity of the chart and reality is so great a revolution ensues–as we are currently witnessing with the Presidential election in the US).
Further, most people think linearly, following trends, averaging things, and so forth. That’s why they can’t account for black swans, those things that haven’t happened in the past but do have a way of happening nevertheless in the present. Because you can’t plan for those, you must plan for things happening you can’t predict. You can even make money when they happen, a lot of money.
But most people also miss asymmetry. In a complex system, very small and seemingly marginal phenomena can bring about out-sized change. We’re witnessing it right now in Syria and Iraq. A ragtag bunch of misfits (ISIS) are defying the world’s most powerful military machine–and in the process contributing to the collapse of the global economy.
What you want, when you come to understand this, is to be on the side that benefits from asymmetries. (Another name for this is leverage.)
Intolerance and Asymmetry
In a chapter entitled, The Most Intolerant Minority Wins: The Dominance of the Stubborn Minority, Taleb demonstrates how a small, widely distributed, intolerant minority can change a complex system. The example he uses is Kosher foods.
What makes the example helpful is the fact that observant Jews are not telling the rest of us that we must observe Kosher laws or face the consequences. Instead we do because it is less trouble to just make many foods Kosher than it is to make sure there is a special line of Kosher foods available for the observant all the time.
We go to the trouble because for one reason or another we want to include the observant. Perhaps we want them to come to dinners we host, or maybe we just want their business. And since it is easier to just assume there are people who will only eat what’s Kosher, people in the food business make sure their products are Kosher. (I’ve seen something along this line with gluten bread for communion, or vegetarian cuisine at church potlucks.)
And so, Taleb explains, this is one way a small group of people can have an outsized influence on a larger group. Intolerance is leverage. There are other ways to do this, and Teleb lists a few. (Being from the Levant, he knows something about religious conflict and how intolerance tends to favor the intolerant.)
It didn’t take much to see he is concerned about the outsized influence Islamists may have in the West in the not too distant future. (And already have.) But my mind shifted to a very influential intolerant minority in our society–the intolerantly tolerant.
Political Correctness and Asymmetry
I’m a social conservative; if you’ve read this blog before, you know that. One of our problems is our blinkered incomprehension when it comes to the successes of the intolerantly tolerant.
The latest developments in North Carolina and Mississippi not withstanding, when it comes to changes to the law, and the moral order of our society, the Politically Correct consistently win.
How can this be, seeing as the developments defy both the wishes of a voting majority and plain common sense? I think Teleb has something to add to our understanding. The intolerantly tolerant use asymmetry to change the rest of us. They use leverage to get their way. From the courts to the media, they’ve mastered the art of minority rule.
Those of us who don’t get the way this works resort to linear strategies and appeals to the will of the majority. The most clever thing we do is point out inconsistency or hypocrisy. But these things don’t really change minds. Everyone knows that given time the lumpen whole will settle down, but the intolerantly tolerant just won’t quit. What’s more, from the perspective of the other side, if you had to chose between being logically consistent and winning, which would you chose?
Now, anyone with a long view knows that the intolerantly tolerant can’t win in the end. They’re like the Shakers. They don’t reproduce. They rely upon conversions, which means they need the rest of us to breed, whether they like it or not. (They also take far too much for granted–the welfare state, for instance, or the business corporation. The fact that this last sentence generally leaves them blinkered is proof they’ll never see that black swan coming.)
The Asymmetrical Jesus
Christians should get this. Jesus changed the world asymmetrically. The atonement was something the Sanhedrin and the Roman authorities had no defense against. (You could say they played right into Jesus’s hands.)
Jesus spoke about leaven and lumps, sowers and seed, dying seed reproducing, and salt seasoning. It is hard to find any appeal to the will of the majority or an example of straight linear logic in his teaching. His parables and his deeds are all about getting outsized results from small things.
Let me conclude with a suggestion for all my socially conservative friends. Don’t expect to win using memes that point out flaws in logic of our adversaries. Instead study Jesus in a new way. Learn how to win for a change. Jesus still has greater leverage than the intolerantly tolerant could ever imagine. If you believe in him, you have his mind. Use it.