Skin in the Game

The difference between 100 people going to a casino and one person going to a casino 100 times, i.e. between (path dependent) and conventionally understood probability. The mistake has persisted in economics and psychology since age immemorial.

A central chapter that crystallizes all my work. In forth. Skin in the Game
Time to explain ergodicity, ruin and (again) rationality. Recall from the previous chapter that to do science (and other nice things) requires survival but not the other way around?

Consider the following thought experiment.

First case, one hundred persons go to a Casino, to gamble a certain set amount each and have complimentary gin and tonic –as shown in the cartoon in Figure x. Some may lose, some may win, and we can infer at the end of the day what the “edge” is, that is, calculate the returns simply by counting the money left with the people who return. We can thus figure out if the casino is properly pricing the odds. Now assume that gambler number 28 goes bust. Will gambler number 29 be affected? No.

You can safely calculate, from your sample, that about 1% of the gamblers will go bust. And if you keep playing and playing, you will be expected have about the same ratio, 1% of gamblers over that time window.

Now compare to the second case in the thought experiment. One person, your cousin Theodorus Ibn Warqa, goes to the Casino a hundred days in a row, starting with a set amount. On day 28 cousin Theodorus Ibn Warqa is bust. Will there be day 29? No. He has hit an uncle point; there is no game no more.

No matter how good he is or how alert your cousin Theodorus Ibn Warqa can be, you can safely calculate that he has a 100% probability of eventually going bust.

The probabilities of success from the collection of people does not apply to cousin Theodorus Ibn Warqa. Let us call the first set ensemble probability, and the second one time probability (since one is concerned with a collection of people and the other with a single person through time). Now, when you read material by finance professors, finance gurus or your local bank making investment recommendations based on the long term returns of the market, beware. Even if their forecast were true (it isn’t), no person can get the returns of the market unless he has infinite pockets and no uncle points. The are conflating ensemble probability and time probability. If the investor has to eventually reduce his exposure because of losses, or because of retirement, or because he remarried his neighbor’s wife, or because he changed his mind about life, his returns will be divorced from those of the market, period.

We saw with the earlier comment by Warren Buffet that, literally, anyone who survived in the risk taking business has a version of “in order to succeed, you must first survive.” My own version has been: “never cross a river if it is on average four feet deep.” I effectively organized all my life around the point that sequence matters and the presence of ruin does not allow cost-benefit analyses; but it never hit me that the flaw in decision theory was so deep. Until came out of nowhere a paper by the physicist Ole Peters, working with the great Murray Gell-Mann. They presented a version of the difference between the ensemble and the time probabilities with a similar thought experiment as mine above, and showed that about everything in social science about probability is flawed. Deeply flawed. Very deeply flawed. For, in the quarter millennia since the formulation by the mathematician Jacob Bernoulli, and one that became standard, almost all people involved in decision theory made a severe mistake. Everyone? Not quite: every economist, but not everyone: the applied mathematicians Claude Shannon, Ed Thorp, and the physicist J.-L. Kelly of the Kelly Criterion got it right. They also got it in a very simple way. The father of insurance mathematics, the Swedish applied mathematician Harald Cramér also got the point. And, more than two decades ago, practitioners such as Mark Spitznagel and myself build our entire business careers around it. (I personally get it right in words and when I trade and decisions, and detect when ergodicity is violated, but I never explicitly got the overall mathematical structure –ergodicity is actually discussed in Fooled by Randomness). Spitznagel and I even started an entire business to help investors eliminate uncle points so they can get the returns of the market. While I retired to do some flaneuring, Mark continued at his Universa relentlessly (and successfully, while all others have failed). Mark and I have been frustrated by economists who, not getting ergodicity, keep saying that worrying about the tails is “irrational”.

Now there is a skin in the game problem in the blindness to the point. The idea I just presented is very very simple. But how come nobody for 250 years got it? Skin in the game, skin in the game.

It looks like you need a lot of intelligence to figure probabilistic things out when you don’t have skin in the game. There are things one can only get if one has some risk on the line: what I said above is, in retrospect, obvious. But to figure it out for an overeducated nonpractitioner is hard. Unless one is a genius, that is have the clarity of mind to see through the mud, or have such a profound command of probability theory to see through the nonsense. Now, certifiably, Murray Gell-Mann is a genius (and, likely, Peters). Gell-Mann is a famed physicist, with Nobel, and discovered the subatomic particles he himself called quarks. Peters said that when he presented the idea to him, “he got it instantly”. Claude Shannon, Ed Thorp, Kelly and Cramér are, no doubt, geniuses –I can vouch for this unmistakable clarity of mind combined with depth of thinking that juts out when in conversation with Thorp. These people could get it without skin in the game. But economists, psychologists and decision-theorists have no genius (unless one counts the polymath Herb Simon who did some psychology on the side) and odds are will never have one. Adding people without fundamental insights does not sum up to insight; looking for clarity in these fields is like looking for aesthetic in the attic of a highly disorganized electrician.

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[One of the more technical (and optional) chapters, at the end of Skin of the Game]

Rory Sutherland claims that the real function for swimming pools is allowing the middle class to sit around in bathing suits without looking ridiculous. Same with New York restaurants: you think their mission is to feed people, but that’s not what they do. They are in the business of selling you overpriced liquor or Great Tuscan wines by the glass, yet get you into the door by serving you your low-carb (or low-something) dishes at breakeven cost. (This business model, of course, fails to work in Saudi Arabia).


Nassim Nicholas Taleb talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about the manuscript version of his forthcoming book, Skin in the Game. Topics discussed include the role of skin in the game in labor markets, the power of minorities, the Lindy effect, Taleb’s blind spots and regrets, and the politics of globalization.

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Skin in the Game is necessary to reduce the effects of the following divergences that arose mainly as a side effect of civilization: action and cheap talk (tawk), consequence and intention, practice and theory, honor and reputation, expertise and pseudoexpertise, concrete and abstract, ethical and legal, genuine and cosmetic, entrepreneur and bureaucrat, entrepreneur and chief executive, strength and display, love and gold-digging, Coventry and Brussels, Omaha and Washington, D.C., economists and human beings, authors and editors, scholarship and academia, democracy and governance, science and scientism, politics and politicians, love and money, the spirit and the letter, Cato the Elder and Barack Obama, quality and advertising, commitment and signaling, and, centrally, collective and individual.

But, to this author, is mostly about justice, honor, and sacrifice as something existential for humans.

Let us first connect a few dots of items the list above.

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Writing for Family Capital, David Bain talks about the Lindy Effect, as elaborated upon by Nassim, in terms of family businesses and their longevity.

Could something called the Lindy Effect help to understand why family businesses often survive for so long? Possibly – but one thing is for sure, the Effect offers an intriguing explanation for why some businesses survive longer than others.

The Lindy Effect says that the observed lifespan of a non-perishable item like a business is most likely to be at its half-life. So, if a business is 100 years old, it should expect it to be around for another 100 years. And a business that has been around for 10 years should be around for another 10 years. Under the Effect, the mortality of a business actually decreases with time.

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You who caught the turtles better eat them (Ipsi testudines edite, qui cepistis) goes the ancient adage.

The origin of the expression is as follows. It was said that a group of fishermen caught a large number of turtles. After cooking them, they found out at the communal meal that these sea animals were much less edible that they thought: not many members of the group were willing to eat them. But Mercury happened to be passing by –Mercury was the most multitasking, sort of put-together god, as he was the boss of commerce, abundance, messengers, the underworld, as well as the patron of thieves and brigands and, not surprisingly, luck. The group invited him to join them and offered him the turtles to eat. Detecting that he was only invited to relieve them of the unwanted food, he forced them all to eat the turtles, thus establishing the principle that you need to eat what you feed others.

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When people get rich, they shed their skin-in-the game driven experiential mechanism. They lose control of their preferences, substituting constructed preferences to their own, complicating their lives unnecessarily, triggering their own misery. And these are of course the preferences of those who want to sell them something. This is a skin-in-the-game problem as the choices of the rich are dictated by others who have something to gain, and no side effects, from the sale. And given that they are rich, and their exploiters not often so, nobody would shout victim.

I once had dinner in a Michelin-starred restaurant with a fellow who insisted on eating there instead of my selection of a casual Greek taverna with a friendly owner operator, his second cousin as a manager and his third cousin once removed as a receptionist. The other customers seemed, as we say in Mediterranean languages, to have a cork plugged in their behind obstructing proper ventilation, causing the vapors to build on the inside of the gastrointestinal walls, leading to the irritable type of decorum you only notice in the educated upper classes. I note that, in addition to the plugged corks, all men wore ties.

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There is inequality and inequality.

The first is the inequality people tolerate, such as one’s understanding compared to that of people deemed heroes, say Einstein, Michelangelo, or the recluse mathematician Grisha Perelman, in comparison to whom one has no difficulty acknowledging a large surplus. This applies to entrepreneurs, artists, soldiers, heroes, the singer Bob Dylan, Socrates, the current local celebrity chef, some Roman Emperor of good repute, say Marcus Aurelius; in short those for whom one can naturally be a “fan”. You may like to imitate them, you may aspire to be like them; but you don’t resent them.

The second is the inequality people find intolerable because the subject appears to be just a person like you, except that he has been playing the system, and getting himself into rent seeking, acquiring privileges that are not warranted –and although he has something you would not mind having (which may include his Russian girlfriend), he is exactly the type of whom you cannot possibly become a fan. The latter category includes bankers, bureaucrats who get rich, former senators shilling for the evil firm Monsanto, clean-shaven chief executives who wear ties, and talking heads on television making outsized bonuses. You don’t just envy them; you take umbrage at their fame, and the sight of their expensive or even semi-expensive car trigger some feeling of bitterness. They make you feel smaller.

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