Thursday, 5 April 2012

Of sheep and swans*

A few days ago at Blenheim Palace I saw an unusual creature ...

There's a copy of Nassim Taleb's Black Swan sitting on one of my bookshelves, along with several other interesting books I haven't yet found time for. His thesis will be familiar to most readers. It's neatly summarised up in an essay for the May/June 2011 edition of Foreign Affairs - "The Black Swan of Cairo" (PDF):
Complex systems that have artificially suppressed volatility tend to become extremely fragile, while at the same time exhibiting no visible risks. In fact, they tend to be too calm and exhibit minimal variability as silent risks accumulate beneath the surface. Although the stated intention of political leaders and economic policymakers is to stabilize the system by inhibiting fluctuations, the result tends to be the opposite. These artificially constrained systems become prone to “Black Swans” — that is, they become extremely vulnerable to large-scale events that lie far from the statistical norm and were largely unpredictable to a given set of observers.
It makes sense to me, and Taleb seems like a generally sound chap. So I was surprised to read that he has the ear of David Cameron. Back in February 2010, the Royal Society uploaded this video of Our Leader in conversation with the best-selling author:

A quick search turned up a 2009 Guardian article that described Taleb as David Cameron's new intellectual guru, while a corresponding blog post asked "How much does association with Taleb damage Cameron?".

More recently, on the 12th of March, the BBC asked whether Taleb is "Downing Street's favourite adviser":
"I like going to 10 Downing," says Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the Lebanese-American thinker and former Wall Street trader, "seeing the offices and the most powerful person in his T-shirt and jeans".

The powerful person he is referring to is British Prime Minister David Cameron, whom he has been invited to meet several times - including at the official residence he refers to affectionately as "10 Downing".

The admiration is reciprocated. Taleb has described the prime minister as "extraordinary" and "the best thing we have left on this planet".

The striking closeness between this once obscure writer and the British leader encapsulates how Nassim Taleb's thinking has captivated senior British Conservatives.
But as Will Bancroft notes, there's not much to show for this supposed captivation.

Over on the other side of the pond, Taleb has given his support to the black sheep of American politcs - a man with rather more credibility than our buttered new potato:

I watched the election and realised that there's something wrong that's going on ... only one candidate, Ron Paul, seems to have grasped the issues, and is offering the right remedies
(It's a distractingly stuttery interview, but worth watching)

From where I'm standing, Cameron and Paul couldn't be more different. Does Taleb know something we don't? I doubt it. What little hope I had has long since evaporated.

* title inspired by Tom Paine

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