Taleb and Taliban

I enjoyed this profile of Nassim Nicholas Taleb by Bryan Appleyard. I haven’t read his books yet, but I’m sympathetic to his notion that the radically unpredictable will trump your bitch-ass plans no matter how farsighted you think you are:

Last May, Taleb published The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. It said, among many other things, that most economists, and almost all bankers, are subhuman and very, very dangerous. They live in a fantasy world in which the future can be controlled by sophisticated mathematical models and elaborate risk-management systems. Bankers and economists scorned and raged at Taleb. He didn’t understand, they said. A few months later, the full global implications of the sub-prime-driven credit crunch became clear. The world banking system still teeters on the edge of meltdown. Taleb had been vindicated. “It was my greatest vindication. But to me that wasn’t a black swan; it was a white swan. I knew it would happen and I said so. It was a black swan to Ben Bernanke [the chairman of the Federal Reserve]. I wouldn’t use him to drive my car. These guys are dangerous. They’re not qualified in their own field.”

Reading the profile reminded me of a post I wrote about Ahmed Rashid’s book Taliban. I wrote

The book is also a product of its time, of course. One of the “problems” with Taliban is that oil was priced around $13/barrel in the years leading up to its publication. That fact was a key to his understanding of Russian and Iranian policy, and it’s completely understandable; who would even entertain the notion that oil would someday trade for 5x that price?

Of course, the black swan that I missed was that oil would soon trade for TEN TIMES that price. The profile is filled with some pretty neat anecdotes about the way our sophisticated models — especially the financial ones — can’t stand up to reality. Or, as Mr. Appleyard puts it:

He doesn’t make predictions, he insults people paid to do so by telling them to get another job. All forecasts about the oil price, for example, are always wrong, though people keep doing it.

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