Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Are You A "Fragilista"?

Taleb mug.JPGNassim Nicholas Taleb: If you are too invested in religion, or read too much in the Bible, you may well be a spiritual  "fragilista"!

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, in his book Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder   makes the claim most of us are too socially-biologically “fragile” or “fragilistas”.  If we depend on Social Security or indeed, any government program we are fragilistas. If we received VA benefits, likewise. If we are on Medicare, well ….same there too! In Taleb’s book it’s time we get right with the world, toughen up and become ANTI-fragile! Of course, the same applies to religion. If we are so uptight about following the precepts of a Church or the Ten Commandments, or reading the KJV, we are likely to be spiritual fragilistas for whom the first 'black swan' events will cause us to crumble.

Taleb basically proffers a cosmos that is governed by randomness and disorder, and for which its conscious elements (i.e. humans) can be enhanced by such provided they recognize and avoid those pitfalls, systems, and government programs that will weaken them and render them fragilistas. Am I a fragilista in Taleb’s libertarian joke world? Probably! I depend on Medicare as well as on Social Security. If I was anti-fragile, I’d disdain those “handouts” and use my wits to invest in the stock market and make money, or maybe beg for equity capital and launch a startup.

A worse proposition is that those millions of us receiving such benefits are making the entire government economic system fragile. The central proposition? Randomness, uncertainty, and volatility damage modern systems that are fundamentally fragile. Anti-fragile systems (and people!) are ones that not only respond to these forces but also get stronger as they respond, change, progress and adapt.

If then more and more of us grab benefits from the gov’t and it collapses under its own weight, say by paying out too much in “entitlements” it will be all our faults for sucking on the government’s tits.

Added to that, we need to be aware that ‘black swans’ (extreme but unlikely events like Hurricane Sandy) are liable to have more devastating consequences if they occur in places which are innately fragile, as opposed to anti-fragile. Taleb is explicit in the need to abstain from heavy handed, statist- directed and interventionist policies. The fragilista elites advancing them – say like constructing massive dykes for cities threatened by rising seas from climate change- suffer from the delusion that complex systems can be controlled, managed and their ill effects reduced.

Some of Taleb’s other assertions:

1. The corruption of large cities is avoided in smaller cities because the latter are far less dependent on statist-fragile dependencies, hence are more anti-fragile..

2. The smallest feasible unit of an organization makes it more antifragile. (In a way this is just a restatement of the ‘Peter Principle’ i.e. that people are ultimately promoted to their levels of incompetence)

Interestingly, Taleb uses the example of an elephant being "more fragile than a mouse". But, the largest organism in the world is a fungus occupying nearly 2,400 acres. Is that fragile? It is also estimated to be well over 2, 400 years old. So there must be some factor other than size that determines fragility!

3. City-states are more antifragile than our current nation-states. Nation –states erect too many interlinked systems of dependency and bureacracy for their citizens, which ultimately creates debts and deficits to soar and reach a breaking point. More self-contained states with minimal bureacracies are more anti-fragile.

4. There should be a balance between intervention and non-intervention in large companies. The gov’t bailing out General Motors made it more fragile in the long run.

5. University economic professors inhabit an ivory tower. This makes them fragilistas because they aren’t in contact with real world levels of disorder that can intrude on already fragile systems. If this were not the case, these profs should have been able to predict the 2008 credit collapse, and financial meltdown.

Taleb does make some sound points, such as any genuine progressive or leftist should never expound on the existing system or criticize it or those who profit from it, unless he himself is following his own template. In other words, if you’re making over $500,000 a year you don’t berate those making over that amount. If you’re going to lash out at the 1 percent, be sure you don’t live a 1 percent lifestyle.

Taleb also advises, based on the anti-fragile principle, a minimalist approach to medical interventions. Too many drs. meddling in your life and with your body renders you a fragilista! If you get prostate cancer and the urologist recommends a spectrum of choices, for example, you need to opt for the least drastic. If the cancer is aggressive and the choice is between radical prostatectomy, radiation therapy or administration of female hormones, you choose the least invasive. (Well, I don’t know about that!)

He then cites his own example of a spinal disc problem for which a doctor recommended surgery. He ignored it, and within weeks it healed of its own accord. Had he opted for the surgery he’d have become fragile, but by letting nature take its course he was anti-fragile.

A bit weirder, is his insistence that no beverages be imbibed that aren’t at least 1,000 years old! Hence, he drinks only coffee, water and wine! NO diet cokes, or beers! The latter new concoctions would make him fragile while confining his beverage choice to ancient fare makes him ANTI-fragile! He also insists on not comsuming any fruits that weren't present in the Mediterranean, ca. 1450 or so. Hence, no papaya for him, or mangoes, oranges also are viewed with suspicion as more a New World mutant.

Taleb’s principles and beliefs will be sure to arouse some of the pseudo-intellectual libertarian section, but they’d be advised to read the book carefully and not cherry pick. The last thing we need right now, in addressing the problems of our society, are simplified recycled bollocks under the banner of “anti-fragility”- but which in many ways resemble Ayn Rand’s principles of Objectivism.

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