Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s five rules for policy

Rule 1.  Think of the economy as more like a cat than a washing machine.

Rule 2.  Favor businesses that benefit from their own mistakes, not those whose mistakes percolate into the system.

Rule 3.  Small is beautiful, but it is also efficient.

Rule 4.  Trial and error beats academic knowledge.

Rule 5.  Decision-makers must have skin in the game.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb is a successful Wall Street options trader and author of a new book, ANTIFRAGILE: Things That Gain from Disorder.  In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, he laid down those five wise rules for economic policy-makers.

The economy is organic, like a cat, and not mechanical, like a washing machine.  Every kind of stress on a machine causes it to wear out faster.  But a living animal thrives on stress, up to a point.  Animals and other organic systems are best left alone, except in dire emergency.

One of Taleb’s examples of businesses that learn from their own mistakes is the airline industry.  Every time there is an airplane crash, the airline companies study the causes of the crash and incorporate that information into their practices.  In a sense, every airline crash makes the airlines safer.  Another example is Silicon Valley, where failure is not regarded as a disgrace and the idea is to “fail quickly” so you can go on to try something.   The opposite of this is the Wall Street banking industry, where every bank failure weakens the overall system.

An industry is strongest when it consists of many small units, where the failure of an individual business makes the survivors stronger.  Taleb cited the restaurant business, in which the failure of an individual restaurant is common but the failure of the restaurant industry as a whole is unimaginable.  Failures mean the best restaurants survive, and so the industry is ever-improving (assuming, I would add, that the big chain restaurants don’t drive the individually-owned restaurants out of business).  Government is least harmful, he wrote, when it is vested in the lowest and possible unit, as in Switzerland.

We should honor failed entrepreneurs in the same spirit that we honor warriors who fall in battle.  It is through their individual sacrifice contributes that society as a whole survives and prospers.

He is skeptical of top-down planning, whether done by government, corporations or some other form of corporation.  The best economic and social system is one that allows trial and error in which the errors are small and are a source of knowledge and improvement.  Experimentation and tinkering, not theory, is the source of technological and economic progress.

The trouble with most journalists, academics and government policy-makers is that they suffer no penalty for being wrong, not even a loss of reputation.  Even worse are Wall Street bankers, who are able to pocket the gains from their successes and push their losses onto the taxpayers.   He said the government in a humane society ought to provide for the weak and help the unlucky get back on their feet, but it should never bail out a failed business.  If a business is too big to fail, he said, nobody in that business should receive greater compensation than the most highly-paid civil servant.

Taleb admires Ralph Nader because he is the opposite of a Wall Street banker.  Nader accepts personal risks and sacrifices in order to confer benefits on society as a whole.

Click on Learning to Love Volatility for Nassem N. Taleb’s full essay in the Wall Street Journal.  Some of what I wrote about Taleb’s opinions, with which I agree wholeheartedly, is based on his book rather than the Wall Street Journal essay.

Click on How Debt Ruins Systems for an interview with Nassem Taleb by Nick Gillespie of Reason magazine [Added 4/2/13]

Click on Fooled by Randomness for Nassim Taleb’s home page.

Click on ANTIFRAGILE for the on-line text and a searchable table of contents of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book.  I don’t know how long this will be available on-line.

Click on the following for my previous posts about Taleb

Ten principles for a Black Swan-proof world

Aphorisms of Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Lessons for Wall Street from Hammurabi’s Code

How to live in a world you don’t understand

Tags: , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: