Skin in the Game

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.

Link to episode: http://www.econtalk.org/archives/2017/08/nassim_nicholas_1.html

Direct Download Link: http://files.libertyfund.org/econtalk/y2017/Talebgame.mp3

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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.

Click through to read the rest of Bain’s article.

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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On Medium, Nassim posts an excerpt from Skin in the Game:

What we have been seeing worldwide, from India to the UK to the US, is the rebellion against the inner circle of no-skin-in-the-game policymaking “clerks” and journalists-insiders, that class of paternalistic semi-intellectual experts with some Ivy league, Oxford-Cambridge, or similar label-driven education who are telling the rest of us 1) what to do, 2) what to eat, 3) how to speak, 4) how to think… and 5) who to vote for.

But the problem is the one-eyed following the blind: these self-described members of the “intelligenzia” can’t find a coconut in Coconut Island, meaning they aren’t intelligent enough to define intelligence hence fall into circularities — but their main skill is capacity to pass exams written by people like them. With psychology papers replicating less than 40%, dietary advice reversing after 30 years of fatphobia, macroeconomic analysis working worse than astrology, the appointment of Bernanke who was less than clueless of the risks, and pharmaceutical trials replicating at best only 1/3 of the time, people are perfectly entitled to rely on their own ancestral instinct and listen to their grandmothers (or Montaigne and such filtered classical knowledge) with a better track record than these policymaking goons.

Indeed one can see that these academico-bureaucrats who feel entitled to run our lives aren’t even rigorous, whether in medical statistics or policymaking. They cant tell science from scientism — in fact in their eyes scientism looks more scientific than real science. (For instance it is trivial to show the following: much of what the Cass-Sunstein-Richard Thaler types — those who want to “nudge” us into some behavior — much of what they would classify as “rational” or “irrational” (or some such categories indicating deviation from a desired or prescribed protocol) comes from their misunderstanding of probability theory and cosmetic use of first-order models.) They are also prone to mistake the ensemble for the linear aggregation of its components as we saw in the chapter extending the minority rule.


The Intellectual Yet Idiot is a production of modernity hence has been accelerating since the mid twentieth century, to reach its local supremum today, along with the broad category of people without skin-in-the-game who have been invading many walks of life. Why? Simply, in most countries, the government’s role is between five and ten times what it was a century ago (expressed in percentage of GDP). The IYI seems ubiquitous in our lives but is still a small minority and is rarely seen outside specialized outlets, think tanks, the media, and universities — most people have proper jobs and there are not many openings for the IYI.

Beware the semi-erudite who thinks he is an erudite. He fails to naturally detect sophistry.

The IYI pathologizes others for doing things he doesn’t understand without ever realizing it is his understanding that may be limited. He thinks people should act according to their best interests and he knows their interests, particularly if they are “red necks” or English non-crisp-vowel class who voted for Brexit. When plebeians do something that makes sense to them, but not to him, the IYI uses the term “uneducated”. What we generally call participation in the political process, he calls by two distinct designations: “democracy” when it fits the IYI, and “populism” when the plebeians dare voting in a way that contradicts his preferences. While rich people believe in one tax dollar one vote, more humanistic ones in one man one vote, Monsanto in one lobbyist one vote, the IYI believes in one Ivy League degree one-vote, with some equivalence for foreign elite schools and PhDs as these are needed in the club.

More socially, the IYI subscribes to The New Yorker. He never curses on twitter. He speaks of “equality of races” and “economic equality” but never went out drinking with a minority cab driver (again, no real skin in the game as the concept is foreign to the IYI). Those in the U.K. have been taken for a ride by Tony Blair. The modern IYI has attended more than one TEDx talks in person or watched more than two TED talks on Youtube. Not only will he vote for Hillary Monsanto-Malmaison because she seems electable and some such circular reasoning, but holds that anyone who doesn’t do so is mentally ill.

The IYI has a copy of the first hardback edition of The Black Swan on his shelves, but mistakes absence of evidence for evidence of absence. He believes that GMOs are “science”, that the “technology” is not different from conventional breeding as a result of his readiness to confuse science with scientism.

Typically, the IYI get the first order logic right, but not second-order (or higher) effects making him totally incompetent in complex domains. In the comfort of his suburban home with 2-car garage, he advocated the “removal” of Gadhafi because he was “a dictator”, not realizing that removals have consequences (recall that he has no skin in the game and doesn’t pay for results).

The IYI has been wrong, historically, on Stalinism, Maoism, GMOs, Iraq, Libya, Syria, lobotomies, urban planning, low carbohydrate diets, gym machines, behaviorism, transfats, freudianism, portfolio theory, linear regression, Gaussianism, Salafism, dynamic stochastic equilibrium modeling, housing projects, selfish gene, Bernie Madoff (pre-blowup) and p-values. But he is convinced that his current position is right.

The IYI is member of a club to get traveling privileges; if social scientist he uses statistics without knowing how they are derived (like Steven Pinker and psycholophasters in general); when in the UK, he goes to literary festivals; he drinks red wine with steak (never white); he used to believe that fat was harmful and has now completely reversed; he takes statins because his doctor told him to do so; he fails to understand ergodicity and when explained to him, he forgets about it soon later; he doesn’t use Yiddish words even when talking business; he studies grammar before speaking a language; he has a cousin who worked with someone who knows the Queen; he has never read Frederic Dard, Libanius Antiochus, Michael Oakeshot, John Gray, Amianus Marcellinus, Ibn Battuta, Saadiah Gaon, or Joseph De Maistre; he has never gotten drunk with Russians; he never drank to the point when one starts breaking glasses (or, preferably, chairs); he doesn’t even know the difference between Hecate and Hecuba (which in Brooklynese is “can’t tell sh**t from chinola”); he doesn’t know that there is no difference between “pseudointellectual” and “intellectual” in the absence of skin in the game; has mentioned quantum mechanics at least twice in the past five years in conversations that had nothing to do with physics.

He knows at any point in time what his words or actions are doing to his reputation.

But a much easier marker: he doesn’t even deadlift.

Not a IYI

Nassim shares an excerpt from his work-in-progess Skin in the Game, at Evonomics. In a fascinating article called How To Legally Own Another Person, he discusses how and why well-paid employees behave much like slaves. It begins:

In its early phase, as the church was starting to get established in Europe, there was a group of itinerant people called the gyrovagues. They were gyrating and roaming monks without any affiliation to any institution. Theirs was a free-lance (and ambulatory) variety of monasticism, and their order was sustainable as the members lived off begging and from the good graces of townsmen who took interest in them. It is a weak form of sustainability, as one can hardly call sustainable a group of a people with vows of celibacy: they cannot grow organically and would need continuous enrollment. But their members managed to survive thanks to help from the population, which provided them with food and temporary shelter.

Sometimes around the fifth century, they started disappearing –they are now extinct. The gyrovagues were unpopular with the church, banned by the council of Chalcedon in the Fifth Century, then again by the second council of Nicaea about three hundred years later. In the West, Saint Benedict of Nurcia, their greatest detractor, favored a more institutional brand of monasticism and ended up prevailing with his rules that codified the activity, with a hierarchy and strong supervision by an abbot. For instance, Benedict’s rulesiii, put together in a sort of instruction manual, stipulate that a monk’s possessions should be in the hands of the abbot (Rule 33) and Rule 70 bans angry monks from hitting other monks.

Why were they banned? They were, simply, totally free. They were financially free, and secure, not because of their means but because of their wants. Ironically by being beggars, they had the equivalent of f*** you money, the one can get more easily by being at the lowest rung than by being member of the income dependent class.

You can read the rest of the article at Evonomics.