Friday, June 29, 2007

Further Black Swan Bashing

I previously vented some annoyance on The Black Swan (The Impact of the Highly Improbable), by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, but that was primarily an excuse to engage in a little pedantry on the Central Limit Theorem and statistical distributions in general. This one’s going to be a little more directly critical of Taleb and his status as a self-described “maverick” and “empiricist.” Actually, I think I’m going to have some fun.

Consider this passage:

If you want to see what I mean by the arbitrariness of categories, check the situation in polarized politics. The next time a Martian visits earth, try to explain to him why those who favor allowing the elimination of a fetus in the mother’s womb also oppose capital punishment. Or try to explain to him why those who accept abortion are supposd to be favorable to high taxation but against a strong military. Why do those who prefer sexual freedom need to be against individual economic liberty?

The first thing that leaps out, of course, is that the viewpoint taken is that sort of Movement Conservative Libertarianism that so pisses me off. Is there any doubt, for example, that Taleb is anti-abortion, anti-income tax, pro-military, and a “free marketeer?” I mean, could someone who wasn’t these things make such ridiculous arguments?

Take the first one, about how explaining a Pro-Choice, Anti-Death Penalty stance to a Martian. Is there any sentient creature, imaginary or otherwise, who could not tell that there are some pretty serious differences between a fetus and an adult human being? I mean, this isn’t a matter of ideology even; it’s a matter of basic perception. Adult human: quite large. Fetus: very small, at times even microscopic.

Moreover, it’s actually very hard to find even an anti-abortion proponent who behaves as if fetuses are equivalent to even newborn infants (to say nothing of adult humans). No one who believes the fetus=infant equation can possibly be in favor of rape/incest exemptions, given that no one claims that it’s okay to kill an infant who was the product of either. And of the people who are against such exemptions, the overlap with being against all forms of birth control is very large—again not supporting the fetus=infant argument very well, but doing a good job of supporting the keeping-women-in-their-place argument.

Part of what Taleb is doing here is “inverting” a liberal argument about the hypocrisy of being “Pro-Life” and in favor of the Death Penalty. But that’s always been a pretty weak pro-Choice argument. The real issue at stake is whether or not the state, through its agent of government, should have the power of life and death. The classic Liberal position is “No,” and holds that the state should not demand that a woman give birth against her wishes (making the granting of life a matter of state power), nor should it have the power to execute (putting death on the state’s control panel as well).

So although Taleb’s first example is both weird and silly, at least his logical inversion, can, with a lot of effort, be justified (although I seriously doubt that any anti-choice crusader would admit that they were actually after the Power of Life and Death, by projection, onto religion and subsequent devolution of religious authority to the state). But the next inversion is just stupid.

Even begging the question of whether liberals are for “high taxes” or, rather, for highly progressive taxes (Taleb, being wealthy, may have some difficulty understanding the difference), to believe that there is some contradiction or even “arbitrariness” between advocating high taxes and a weak military is to believe that you can think of nothing to spend taxes on except the military. Would Taleb’s hypothetical Martian have trouble comprehending say, Sweden? Not a very bright Martian, I think.

Again, this is an inversion problem. While one can, without logical contradiction, be in favor of high taxation without a strong military, one cannot really be in favor of a strong military without advocating high taxation. (I’m ignoring the case where the military is self-financing via tribute, since, first, the tribute is still a form of taxation, and second, no one has been able to make that work since the British Empire, as nearly as I can tell, and I’ve heard arguments against that one).

True, there are some people now who do, in fact, advocate a strong military and low income tax rates, but they are advocates of Supply-Side Economics. You know, morons.

But the last one is the real tell. Isn’t “individual economic liberty” a great phrase? I wonder what Taleb thinks it means.

I’d be willing to guess that he doesn’t mean the liberty to can your own produce, spin your own thread, make your own clothing, or even grow your own marijuana for personal use. Just a guess there. But usually, “economics” carries this notion of “trade” along with it, and it takes two to tango, as it were. And it takes a lot more than two to create a market. So why this “individual” modifier?

One possibility is that Taleb put the word “individual” in the phrase, because if he’d left it at “economic liberty” then it would have occurred to someone (maybe Taleb) that he was actually talking about the “liberty” of large organizations to exert massive economic advantages over individuals.

Of course it’s also possible, even likely, that by “individual economic liberty” he was talking about the “liberty” of single individuals to go into the Big Casino and place their bets. Come to think of it though, that’s rather the same thing, isn’t it? The gamblers always think of themselves as individualists, when actually they’re just appendages of The Game.

Taleb seems to have made a nice chunk of change in the trading of derivatives in the 1980s, and one might consider the possibility that his views reflect both his experiences and the general mind-set of those around him at the time, the trader as “rugged individual.” Taleb also says that he hates narratives (though his book is primarily a string of anecdotes) and dislikes being stereotyped. He seems to believe that he has escaped from his upbringing and the narratives of his own experience to achieve clear insight and a contrarian and skeptical worldview.

To quote Karl Hess: Spare me.


Anonymous said...

I must shamefully admit that I did read this book, even after that clear warning at the outset that he would minimize his references to his vast literary experience and give his lesser readers a chance to enjoy his work.
"String of anecdotes" is too kind.
Now James, if I discovered you earlier, I might have rescued several hours of painful reading of one Taleb who has spent too much time listening to himself.

James Killus said...

Actually, I rather enjoyed the anecdotes, and the stories of expatriates of lost nations spending the rest of their lives with their bags packed "ready to return" was almost worth the price of admission.

I'll also note that, given some recent comments by some of those involved in the sub-prime mortgage meltdown, there are plenty of financial people who are even stupider than Taleb describes, so there's that.