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The Risky Business of Being Human

May212018
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I just finished reading a book by Nassim Nicholas Taleb titled Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life and am now wondering whether I will ever be able to experience again the pleasures I felt as I followed the author-flâneur in his peregrinations across space, time, and, most intriguingly, the world of ideas. The exercise has been almost cleansing, after years of reading books about leadership by people who have much to say about the topic but show no proof of having wrestled with creating any enduring thing of value.

Our world is full of such people: Journalists and pundits; politicians and lobbyists; marketers and economists; most academics and all administrators; coaches and financial advisors; and many, many others who shape policies that affect millions but suffer no consequences when their views and policies end up causing tragedies and disaster. It is always the common person who ends up paying the price, whether through taxation or with his or her own life. There is no honor in such a system, since many of the elites who rule the world have no skin in the game. They are contemptible cowards not only because they are risk-avoiding profit-makers, but, what’s worse, they also transfer the consequences of their misguided actions to innocent people. What Taleb exposes here is a new, large class of criminals against humanity, those who appear as the pinnacle of success in our deeply flawed social system.

Applying his sharp skills of options trader, probability analyst, and risk taker to everyday life, Taleb encounters fallacies every step of the way. He is more than skeptical of the cult of innovation, finding much good in older systems—including religion, except for the Salafism inspired by Saudi Barbaria—because, for him, the ultimate test of something that works is its survival over the longue durée. He calls this theory the Lindy effect, after a deli in New York City where actors predict the longevity of Broadway shows.

Most things that last have skin in the game. Some blood sacrifice was essential to enter into a relationship with God, but the god of Abraham who demanded the ultimate gift from a desperate parent later understood that he had to give his own blood for the relationship to work. Hence the crucifixion of Jesus. The gods, Taleb reminds us, demand commitment; they “do not like cheap signaling.” The ancients knew that “life is sacrifice and risk taking” because “if you do not undertake a risk of real harm, reparable or even potentially irreparable, from an adventure, it is not an adventure.” The same is true for those who claim to love: “Love without sacrifice is theft,” says Taleb, apparently quoting the Greek mythological figure Procrustes. Such a dictum also applies to matters of the mind, since heart and mind are inseparable. “If you do not take risks with your opinion, you are nothing.”

Taleb is clearly an apostle for rigor. Good, quality work takes time—there are simply no shortcuts to real innovation. Seeking consensus is a fool's errand. History everywhere and at all times was shaped by persistent minorities. The same is true for scientific discoveries. “Had science operated by majority consensus," says Taleb, "we would still be stuck in the Middle Ages, and Einstein would have ended as a patent clerk with fruitless side hobbies.” 

This artisanal attention to quality is constantly being undermined by cheap psychobabble and by people with faux progressive sentiments. We now have rich white American students with rich parents in rich colleges denouncing “white privilege.” Meanwhile, Ivy League universities, capitalizing on their brand names, continue to siphon off hard-earned middle-class money to support useless bureaucrats and fake majors. It is racketeering, pure and simple. It does seem that, as a country, the United States is drinking its poison in a golden cup!

Taleb ends his book with “a (long) maxim that begins with “No muscles without strength, friendship without trust, opinion without consequence,” and so on, but I prefer to end where he starts. In the Introduction, we are told that the book will allow us to distinguish between “action and cheap talk (tawk), consequences and intention, practice and theory, expertise and charlatanism, concrete and abstract, ethical and legal, genuine and cosmetic, merchant and bureaucrat, entrepreneur and chief executive, strength and display, love and gold-digging . . . human beings and economists, authors and editors, scholarship and academia . . . the spirit and the letter, Cato the Elder and Barack Obama, quality and advertising, commitment and signaling . . ."  If you wonder why the author doesn’t think highly of Obama, it’s partly because he believes that it is unethical for people in a democracy to enrich themselves through politics. Just like one doesn’t enter the Jesuit order to later work for Goldman Sachs when defrocked, politicians and public servants should not use their jobs as a revolving door to corporate and other riches. On leaving the White House, Obama accepted more than $40 million to write his memoirs.

As one might guess, this is not a book for the faint of heart. It has much good and challenging stuff that is not covered here, but those who still believe in age-tested values—like honor, courage, risk taking, and trust—will find it supremely inspiring. When I wrote about Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life, I called the psychologist a prophet because I enjoyed imagining a northern nation like Canada finally producing its own messenger. I now feel even more strongly inclined to describe the Middle Eastern Taleb in similar terms because—despite the tough tawk—he is from the land of real prophets and he speaks a language that is closer to my own. We are on the same page regarding Salafism and its dangers to a West entrapped in the doctrines of political correctness. Even though I am not a Greek Orthodox of Lebanese ancestry, I recognize the cultural value of a religion without the deadly fingers of literalism. Most importantly, I hear an old Semitic voice, mixed with Greco-Roman philosophical insights and the general spirit of the Mediterranean world. Using the character of Fat Tony as a trope, as well as numerous references to ancient authors, the author naturally counterposes the wisdom of my broad native milieu to that my adopted one. Just like The Godfather, Goodfellas and other mafia movies capture an old system of Italian honor that I find familiar, this book, though written for a different audience, had the same effect on me. I kept reading even though I couldn’t categorize it. I hadn’t read Taleb’s previous work, but I found Skin in the Game to be a genre uniquely its own. Nothing that I read before sounds like it.

Taleb is a champion of freedom and dignity in an economy designed to enslave us all through dependence on salaries and fake titles. I assume that he has managed to acquire enough of what he calls “f*** you money” not to have to endure our lamentable fate, but he doesn’t try to solve our predicament by giving us some 10-step program to financial success. He simply reminds us of long-forgotten verities—that to be free we must have courage to take risks and the honor to stand up for those less fortunate than us. Playing it safe through self-serving strategies of manipulation cheapens the lives of everyone and does no good to society.

At the end of the day, being alive is the most precious asset we have. A preoccupation with money and titles at the expense of our own natural potential is degrading and a tragic waste. It’s a bad deal to trade oneself for something much less valuable. This conclusion is actually quite reassuring to a humanities professor and writer because the quest for money and power is the last refuge of empty souls.

Anouar Majid

Anouar Majid is founding director of the Center for Global Humanities in Portland, Maine; founding director of the Tangier Global Forum in Morocco; and Vice President of Global Affairs at the University of New England in Maine, USA. He has written many books and articles on the West, Islam, and the clash of ideologies in the modern world. Majid is also a novelist, the author of Si Yussef (1992, 2005).

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