Skin in the Game – Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life – by Nassim Nicholas Taleb – A Book Review

Back in March 2017 I purchased Taleb’s four volume set “Incerto: Fooled by Randomness, The Black Swan, The Bed of Procrustes, Antifragile.”  Taleb is a retired options trader.  He made his fortune betting on unlikely events.  And the topic of that whole, almost sixteen hundred page work, was the concept of the Black Swan.  The Black Swan is the very rare but extremely disruptive event.  It’s the thousand-year storm, the “extinct” volcano eruption, the Black Monday stock crash.  The subject is extremely interesting and I plan to review these books in the future.  “Skin in the Game,” on the other hand is not about any of that.  It’s more or less exactly about what it’s named, skin in the game.  Well let me qualify that.  He explains why those without skin in the game shouldn’t be trusted with deciding what is and isn’t risky.

Taleb’s writing style is iterative.  He provides numerous examples of various aspects of this thesis.  I will now distill the whole book into one sentence.  Never trust anyone who doesn’t have skin in the game.  That’s the whole thing right there.  But Taleb provides the logic, the applications and the ethical underpinning for why those who avoid a risk have no credibility talking about risk.  One of his prime examples are the big banks who benefitted phenomenally from financial practices that ignored the risks associated with their business practices but when the meltdown finally came were bailed out by the federal government by claiming the meltdown was an act of God.  So, if they know they can’t lose they have no skin in the game and therefore can’t be trusted to avoid endangering everyone.

The list of untrustworthy authorities is defined to include any entity that is centralized, bureaucratic and otherwise insulated from accountability.  Highest on that list is anyone who either directly or indirectly partakes in the immunity of the federal bureaucracy.  EPA administrators, climate and wildlife scientists, IRS agents, FDA and banking regulators and all other petty mandarins that are immunized against real life consequences but revel in their ability to bully and dictate to the productive sectors of the population.

Taleb makes a lot of good points and reinforces his theories with examples from normal life and even adds some mathematical rigor to his argument to show that these unaccountable experts that benefit from heads-I-win-tails-the-fed-bails-me-out tactics need to be made accountable for benefitting from Black Swan government insurance.

Throughout the book Taleb makes use of concepts that he explored in his larger study Incerto.  The concepts of fragility and the above described Black Swan.  He also mentions the “Lindy Effect.”  It’s the phenomenon that the longer something is successful the longer it is predicted to continue being successful.  This highlights that one of the real advantages of skin in the game is the sorting of winners and losers along an evolutionary and survival of the fittest mechanism.  Without this accountability it’s possible for hidden bubbles to grow unnoticed and take down the system they reside in.

Skin in the Game is a strange combination of philosophical meditation and real-world critique of the unaccountable entities that put us all at risk.  I can’t and won’t pretend that this book will be enjoyed by everyone.  Taleb has an odd repetitive style that at times can seem almost garrulous.  He has many axes to grind and he can be both petty and somewhat gossipy in his personal anecdotes.  But he has a very strong case for his thesis.  And the point is a valuable one to keep in mind.  Basically, he is providing a tool to evaluate experts.  The question to ask yourself about them is what would they lose if they are wrong.  If the answer is not much then run away.

And finally, this reminds me of a story I once heard about Grouch Marx.  It might be apocryphal.  When the New York Stock Exchange crashed in 1929 Groucho Marx lost $800,000.  When Groucho received this news in his stockbroker’s office he was devastated and became almost incoherent.  His broker tried to console him by saying Marx wasn’t alone and that everyone had lost.  When Groucho thought about this he regained some composure and asked the broker how much he had lost.  When the broker replied $350, Groucho then attempted to strangle him.

Remember.  Look for skin in the game.

Brevity is the Soul of Wit

Nassim Nicholas Taleb is a mathematician and securities trader who also waxes philosophical.  The last of his books that I am reading is entitled “The Bed of Procrustes.”  Now the title alone would guarantee I would want to know about it.  In Greek Mythology, Procrustes is one of those idiosyncratic monsters that the Hero, such as Heracles or as in this case Theseus must conquer in order to eliminate Chaos and promote civilization or something like that.  Freud made much soup from this sort of thing.

So, Procrustes had a bed that he let travelers sleep on at night.  The catch was that if the sleeper was shorter than the bed then Procrustes would stretch him to the correct size.  And if the sleeper was longer than the bed then he would trim him down to fit.  According to the story up until Theseus arrived the bed-sleeper length optimization procedure had been 100% fatal to the “sleeper.”  And when Theseus shows up he turns the tables (more furniture!) on Procrustes and performs a bed fitting exercise on him.

Taleb is using the metaphor of Procrustes Bed to represent how often in life humans look at situations from the wrong point of view.  And he returns to one of the oldest formats to address his subject, the aphorism or proverb or wise saying.

The Bed of Procrustes is one hundred and fifty-six pages long.  His other books like the “Black Swan” are four or five times as long.  His next book will be written on the back of a match book cover.  I approve of this trend.

I’ve started reading them.  Some of them are pretty good.  I’m comparing them to those other aphoristic writers Solomon, Confucious and Robert A. Heinlein (through the agency of his alter ego Lazarus Long).  The emphasis is different.  Taleb is talking about life from the point of view of a savvy operator not a philosopher or a saint.  He has more in common with Lazarus Long.  But there are many interesting observations and some of them are original in some aspect.  When I finish reading Procrustes Bed and do some comparison to his peers I’ll probably have more to say, but one thing that occurs to me is to put out a regular quote of the day (week?) from someone.  I’m sure it will make me appear wiser.  Here’s the first one:

“What fools call “wasting time” is most often the best investment.”

Shakespeare has Polonius declare that brevity is the soul of wit.  Polonius is a windbag so you have to wonder whether Old Will believed this statement or not.  But I find that, many times, less is decidedly more, especially when you’re under the gun to fit in blog posting into a busy day.  I see that many bloggers churn out a couple of thousand words in a post.  I like to put up about five hundred or so (and sometimes less).  I know everybody is busy nowadays and I don’t want to impose so let’s stop right here.