Tag: <span>Antifragility</span>

The Change Hurricane: Are we Polish Jews in 1937 or East German’s in 1988?

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Every so often in history everything changes, and people can find themselves in situations which seemed unthinkable just a few years or even a few months beforehand. Examples of this include the Sack of Baghdad (which I’ve already talked about), Poland during World War II, the Taiping Rebellion, the fall of the Aztecs and of course the recent Syrian Civil War. In all of these cases there was definitely a certain degree of surprise attached, which is not to say that these catastrophes came out of nowhere, or even that no one could have predicted them, just that they generally happened more quickly than expected and when they did happen the consequences were much worse than generally anticipated.

As we look back at these catastrophes they are all strong arguments in favor of preparing for the worst. Of course preparing for the worst is costly, but these are all situations where even large costs would have been worth it if you could be sure of avoiding the one big catastrophe. As just one example if you were a Jew in Poland in 1937, however inconvenient it might have been to take your family to America, it would have been way better than any outcome which involved staying in Poland. Yes you may not have spoken the language. Yes immigration would have been costly and difficult. Yes, you may have left friends and family and your home, but anything is better than what did happen.

Some people will argue that while all of this is obvious in hindsight, could you really expect the Polish Jews to realize all of that was coming in 1937? And this is an excellent point. To put it in more recent terms, no one imagined in January of 2011 that the Syrian Civil War would still be going on in November of 2016, that Assad would still be in power (and likely to remain in power) and that 400,000 people would have died. But in the same vein of things being clear only in hindsight, once things have happened it’s too late to do anything about them. Obviously the ideal solution is to see things before they happen, but that’s impossible. Or is it?

It is impossible to be sure about anything that hasn’t happened. Our hypothetical Jew could have fled Poland in 1937 only to have Hitler assassinated in November of 1939 by Johann Georg Elser, perhaps leading to a situation where death camps never happened. In other words it could have very easily ended up being a bad idea to make huge sacrifices in order to flee Poland. To use an actual example you could have crafted a daring plan to escape from East Berlin to West Berlin in May of 1989, risking death, when all you had to do was wait six months.

This is the question we’re faced with. Are we Polish Jews in 1937 or East Germans in 1988? And that’s nearly impossible to know, but this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t pay attention to which way the wind is blowing and whether it’s a gentle breeze or hurricane force winds. Lately it appears that it might be the latter and that it might be blowing in the wrong direction.

As I said in my last episode, I’m at least as worried about the reaction to the election of Trump as I am about the actual election. But it’s not just the US where winds seem to be blowing in a worrisome direction and with powerful force. I’m seeing things all over the world that are worrisome and potentially catastrophic. Here’s a quick sample of some areas of concern from around the world:

1- NATO could be disintegrating: First there’s the election of Trump, but on top of that we have the top two candidates in the upcoming French Election both favoring closer ties to Russia, with even the establishment candidate saying “Russia poses no threat to the west.” As I have argued in the past Russia views NATO expansion as a major threat and a major betrayal, there’s no easier way to get on their good side than pulling back from that expansion and no quicker way to get on their bad side than seeking to continue NATO expansion.

2- Italy might be on the verge of collapse. You may or may not have heard about the huge vote recently in Italy, regarding some constitutional reforms. The leader of Italy, Matteo Renzi, said that the reforms were necessary to bring stability to Italy and he consequently resigned when they were not passed. Having a change of governments in Italy is nothing newsworthy, but Italy is in a serious financial crisis and Italian bonds represent the third largest bond market in the world. Italy may be facing a financial Armageddon regardless of what happens.

3- Turkey is getting progressively more autocratic. Turkey is still a democracy, and they still hold elections (also there’s the occasional coup) but those elections are becoming increasingly pointless. Recep Erdogan has a pretty good chokehold on things and it’s unlikely to change anytime soon. Also as Turkey becomes more autocratic, the ideological split between them and Europe widens. As an example the EU Parliament recently voted to end talks on Turkey’s membership in the EU. Turkey is still part of NATO, but on that issue I refer you back to point number 1.

4- The Middle East and North Africa are still a mess. We’ve already talked about the Syrian Civil War, and of course there’s ISIS. The good news is that ISIS appears to be near defeat, the bad news is that no one knows what happens once the various players in the region no longer have a common enemy. Also, like most people you may have forgotten about Libya, or if you haven’t you may have heard that a peace deal was signed. Well whatever the effects of that deal there’s still a vast civil war taking place, with Obama saying that not being prepared for a post Gaddafi Libya was the biggest mistake of his presidency.

5- Venezuela is suffering from hyperinflation and economic collapse. Of course the economic problems are the result of a huge power struggle between President Nicolás Maduro and his opponents, but just because there’s an explanation doesn’t mean that there’s an easy to fix. And as a side effect of this Venezuela has the highest per capita murder rate in the world.

As it stands, individually, none of these five items seems like that big of a deal or that catastrophic. Just the normal rumblings of the world. But each of them could grow into something huge. Going back through the list:

The end of NATO would mean the end of American hegemony. It has to end eventually, and better it end with a whimper than a bang, but the world that comes after it ends could be very different.

Events in Italy could mean the end of the EU, which is already looking shaky after Brexit. Also we’ve see how financial contagion spreads. The failure of Italian banks or bonds could mean another global financial crisis.

Turkey is the traditional foe of Russia. If both are resurgent and NATO goes away, do hostilities start again? How soon before Turkey and Erdogen decide that they need nukes?

The Middle East and North Africa have never been poster childs for stability, but now the chaos is beginning to spread. Refugees from these two areas are one of the major driving factors behind the EU crisis and a contributing factor to what’s happening in Italy. Syria seems bad enough already but it could get worse.

Venezuela is on it’s way to becoming a failed state. Does having a failed state to our south look the same as Europe having failed states to the south of them? It seems like, best case scenario, we end up in a situation similar to Argentina under Pinochet, and as someone who spent the latter half of the 80’s in high school debate, I can vouch for how much hand-wringing he caused.

But perhaps you remain unconvinced. So I will turn to something which does involve potential global catastrophe, nukes, war, China and shamans… I’m speaking of course about North and South Korea.

We all know that North Korea has nukes, but since the death of Kim Jong Il in 2011, the rate of advancement North Korea has shown both with nuclear weapons and missiles, has been, well, impressive. Just this year they’ve done two nuclear tests and 21 missile tests. There has always been an appalling lack of any concrete options with respect to North Korea, but as their technology gets better all the former bad options just keep getting worse.

When North Korea had just one nuke they mostly used it for leverage to acquire food aid, and as one more deterrent against invasion. Now that they have several nukes and increasingly advanced delivery systems what will they do? I think people kind of assume that things would continue as before, there would be a lot of bluster. Minor cross border incidents involving fatalities, a general despair, but nothing big would happen. But increasingly the winds of change in that region appear to be blowing more strongly. A sense of urgency is growing, and a consensus developing that North Korea is planning to use its weapons to dictate events on the peninsula. Perhaps demanding that the Americans leave.

I’ve talked before, at some length, about how nukes are qualitatively different than any previous weapon. And this illustrates the point. Imagine that North Korea got to the point where they could hit the west coast with an nuke. (Some estimates put this at only five years away.) And they threaten to nuke San Francisco unless we  remove all our forces from the Korean Peninsula. What are our options? We might hope that China would cut off trade, but it’s not like the North Koreans aren’t used to sanctions and hardship. In other words I’m sure there would be all sorts of diplomatic reactions, but there’s a good chance they wouldn’t work. So we’re looking at the threat of a nuke hitting San Francisco, and we’re out of diplomatic options. Now what?

Obviously it would be great if we could shoot the missile down, but as I mentioned in the previous episode on nukes, that’s actually difficult. A lot would depend on whether we had the right ships in place to shoot the missile down when it was launched. But let’s say, optimistically, that we have an 80% chance of shooting it down. Are we willing refuse their demands and accept a 20% chance of SF getting nuked? If we’re not willing to do that (and I suspect we wouldn’t be) what other options do we have? We could, of course, always invade, but that just changes the SF missile from a possibility to a certainty. And adds enormous war deaths on top of it.

In addition to the increased external tension between South and North Korea. South Korea is dealing with a major political crisis of its own. It’s current president Park Geun-hye has an approval rating among 19-39 year olds of 0%. Yes, you read that right, the number of people under 40 who like her is statistically undetectable. This is where the shamans come in. The reason for her unpopularity is that she has engaged in frequent consultation with an old friend who is the leader of a shamanistic cult. (In a fashion similar to Nancy Reagan.) Just the consultation might be a storm that could be weathered, but the president also funneled money to her friend.

Does the weakness and unpopularity of the South Korean president make the North Korean situation worse? That’s hard to say for sure, but it certainly doesn’t make it any better. And it seems safe to assume that for people living in South Korea things must seem pretty chaotic. Thus just like the Polish Jew in 1937 and the East German in 1988. The South Korean of 2016 is faced with a choice. They can do nothing and take their chances. Or they can spend time and money trying to mitigate the downsides of various potential catastrophes. In the latter case they’re still taking their chances they’re just trying to lower the odds of something truly bad happening.

It’s always possible that the North Korean government will collapse (though this isn’t necessarily great for South Korea either) or that some other, positive black swan will emerge, and the 2016 South Korean will be in the situation of the 1988 East German. But it’s also possible that the 2016 South Korean will be much closer in circumstances to the 1937 Polish Jew. As I said you can’t know for sure. And it’s always a balancing act between the admittedly high probability that things will be okay which makes preparing for the worst just wasted time and money, or, on the other hand, the small possibility that things will be awful, and you’ll be grateful for every bit of preparation and upset that you didn’t do more.

One of the reasons I’m recording this episode and indeed one of the reasons for having this podcast in general is that people have a tendency to underestimate the chances of something bad happening. So if you’re on the fence about which course to choose I think you should choose to be prepared. But perhaps even more important I think you need to be aware of the political weather. If you’re a 1937 Polish Jew and you’re not paying attention to Hitler then of course you’re going to make the wrong choice. On the other hand for those East Germans preparing to escape in 1988 Gorbachev had been in power since 1985, so for them the wind was blowing the opposite direction and they just had to wait.

The title of the episode is The Change Hurricane, and thus far all I’ve talked about is some local storms which, while scary, and possibly globally significant (I can only imagine what would happen if North Korea nuked San Francisco) are still fairly local. If we’re talking about hurricane’s one would expect something bigger than just a spat between the two Koreas which has been going on since 1948. I am of the opinion that things are bigger than just the isolated incidents I mentioned above, but this is also where things get more speculative. Also it’s time for another list.

Outside of the storms I’ve mentioned here are some of the longer term weather patterns which I think are blowing in the wrong direction:

1- Declining American Power: We’ve already talked about the end of the American hegemony and as I mentioned it has to end eventually, and when it does I doubt we’re going to transition to another unipolar world, or even a bipolar world. I think there will be lots of countries trying to fill the gap. Certainly China and Russia, but also Turkey, Iran, India and Brazil are all going to want a piece of the pie. And that could play out in interesting and potentially violent ways.

2- Nuclear proliferation: Closely related to the last point. There are a lot of countries who could currently make a nuclear weapon, but have chosen not to because they consider themselves to be under the US nuclear umbrella. Turkey and Japan would certainly fall into this category. Does a declining America and a belligerent Russia and China set off a new round of proliferation? If it does the chances of weapons being used goes way up.

3- Immigration: This is a hot button issue with lots of emotion on both sides, and by classifying it as a negative trend you may feel that I’m already choosing a side, and perhaps I am, But in a sense this is a secondary effect. If things get worse because of wars or famine or global warming, then the number of people willing to risk nearly anything to get to a better country (similar to our 1937 Polish Jew) is going to go way up. And insofar as I am taking a side I think that there is a limit to the rate at which immigrants can be assimilated, and when this limit is exceeded, things can start changing in unexpected ways, as we’re seeing in Europe.

4- Debt: The modern, developed nation state, is able to accumulate debt in amounts never before imagined. I see that as a huge source of fragility. Perhaps it is or perhaps it isn’t, but we could be getting an example of how bad it can be if Italy runs into problems with its bonds. One early indication that makes me worry about Trump is it looks like he might explode the deficit.

5- Social Unrest: I think by historical standards the level of social unrest is still pretty low. But, as a consequence our tolerance for it is not that high either. What happens if Trump is as bad as his worst critics fear, and we have riots every night in most major cities? I can’t even begin to predict what that looks like, but I think, at a minimum, It’s safe to say that the anti-cop/pro-cop division would become much more pronounced.

6- Environmental concerns: I already mentioned this to a certain extent under immigration, but for many people the trend that worries them the most is global warming. One of the chief arguments is that this makes things worse in places where it’s already pretty bad, like Sub-Saharan Africa. But also if the sea level rises by six meters that’s not good either. I think this is more slow moving than the rest, but it could also be the hardest to do anything about.

This entire episode could be written off as nothing more than fear-mongering. We’re probably not the 1937 Polish Jews and I assume most of my readers aren’t even 2016 South Koreans. We could in fact all be like the 1988 East Germans and we’re only a short time away from the dawning of a new age where we never have to worry about another Hitler, or Nuclear Proliferation or Global Warming, and any preparation you do now is just a waste of time. As they say, anything is possible, but that particular scenario seems unlikely, and not just because we’ve completely neglected to mention things like natural disasters. At least with Korea and Syria we have some control.

In other words.Bad things happen, and most people are surprised by them. But you don’t have to be. If you see which way the wind is blowing you can take steps to lower your risk. And it’s possible that those steps will be a waste of time and money, but it’s also possible that in 2019 when President Trump defaults on the debt, and panic grips the world, that you’ll be glad you spent some time preparing for the worst.


Not Intellectuals Yet Not Idiots

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Back at the time of the Second Gulf War I made a real attempt to up my political engagement. I wanted to understand what was really going on. History was being made and I didn’t want to miss it.

It wasn’t as if before then I had been completely disengaged. I had certainly spent quite a bit of time digging into things during the 2000 election and its aftermath, but I wanted to go a step beyond that. I started watching the Sunday morning talk shows. I began reading Christopher Hitchens. I think it would be fair to say that I immersed myself in the the arguments for and against the war in the months leading up to it. (When it was pretty obvious it was going to happen, but hadn’t yet.)

In the midst of all this I remember repeatedly coming across the term neocon, used in such a way that you were assumed to know what it meant. I mean doesn’t everybody? I confess I didn’t. I had an idea from the context, but it was also clear that I was missing most of the nuance. I asked my father what a neocon was and he mumbled something about them being generally in favor of the invasion, and then, perhaps realizing that, perhaps, he wasn’t 100% sure either, said Bill Kristol is definitely a neocon, listen to him if you want to know.

Now, many years later, I have a pretty good handle on what a neocon is, which I would explain to you if that what this post were about. It’s not. It’s about how sometimes a single word or short phrase can encapsulate a fairly complicated ideology. There are frequently bundles of traits, attitudes and even behavior that can resist an easy definition, but are nevertheless easy to label. Similar to the definition of pornography used by Justice Stewart when the Supreme Court was considering an obscenity case,

I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [“hard-core pornography”], and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it(my emphasis)

It may be hard to define what a neocon is exactly, but I know one when I see it. Of course, as you have already surmised, neocon is not the only example of this. Other examples include, hipster, or social justice warrior, and lest I appear too biased towards the college millennial set, you could also add the term “red neck” or perhaps even Walmart shopper.

To those terms that already exist, it’s time to add another one: “Intellectual Yet Idiot” or IYI for short. This new label was coined by Taleb in just the last few days. As you may already be aware, I’m a big fan of Taleb, and I try to read just about everything he writes. Sometimes what he writes makes a fairly big splash, and this was one of those times. In the same way that people recognized that there was a group of mostly Jewish, pro-israel, idealistic, unilateralists, with a strong urge to intervene who could be labeled as neocons, it was immediately obvious that there was an analogous bundle of attitudes and behavior that is currently common in academia and government and it also needed a label. Consequently when Taleb provided one it fit into a hole that lots of people had recognized, but no one had gotten around to filling until then. Of course now that it has been filled it immediately becomes difficult to imagine how we ever got along without it before.

Having spent a lot of space just to introduce an article by Taleb, you would naturally expect that the next step would be for me to comment on the article, point out any trenchant phrasing, remark on anything that seemed particularly interesting, and offer amendments to any points where he missed the mark. However, I’m not going to do that. Instead I’m going to approach things from an entirely different perspective, with a view towards ending up in the same place Taleb did, and only then will I return to Taleb’s article.

I’m going to start my approach with a very broad question. What do we do with history? And to broaden that even further, I’m not only talking about HISTORY! As in wars and rulers, nations and disasters, I’m also talking about historical behaviors, marriage customs, dietary norms, traditional conduct, etc. In other words if everyone from Australian Aborigines to the indigenous tribes of the Amazon to the Romans had marriage in some form or another, what use should we make of that knowledge? Now, if you’ve actually been reading me from the beginning you will know that I already touched on this, but that’s okay, because it’s a topic that deserves as much attention as I can give it.

Returning to the question. While I want “history” to be considered as broadly as possible, I want the term “we” to be considered more narrowly. By “we” I’m not referring to everyone, I’m specifically referring to the decision makers, the pundits, the academics, the politicians, etc. And as long as we’re applying labels, you might label these people the “movers and shakers” or less colloquially the ruling class, and in answer to the original question, I would say that they do very little with history.

I would think claiming that the current ruling class pays very little attention to history, particularly history from more than 100 years ago (and even that might be stretching it), is not an idea which needs very much support. But if you remain unconvinced allow me to offer up the following examples of historically unprecedented things:

1- The financial system – The idea of floating currency, without the backing of gold or silver (or land) has only been around for, under the most optimistic estimate, 100 or so years, and our current run only dates from 1971.

2- The deemphasis of marriage – Refer to the post I already mentioned to see how widespread even the taboo against pre-marital sex was. But also look at the gigantic rise in single parent households. (And of course most of these graphs start around 1960, what was the single parent household percentage in the 1800s? Particularly if you filtered out widows?)

3- Government stability – So much of our thinking is based on the idea that 10 years from now will almost certainly look very similar to right now, when any look at history would declare that to be profoundly, and almost certainly, naive.

4- Constant growth rate – I covered this at great length previously, but once again we are counting on something continuing that is otherwise without precedent.

5- Pornography – While the demand for pornography has probably been fairly steady, the supply of it has, by any estimate, increased a thousand fold in just the last 20 years. Do we have any idea of the long term effect of messing with something as fundamental as reproduction and sex?

Obviously not all of these things are being ignored by all people. Some people are genuinely concerned about issue 1, and possibly issue 2. And I guess Utah (and Russia) is concerned with issue 5, but apparently no one else is, and in fact when Utah recently declared pornography to be a public health crisis, reactions ranged from skeptical to wrong all the way up to hypocritical and, the capper, labeled it pure pseudoscience. In my experience you’ll find similar reactions to those people expressing concerns about issues 1 and 2. They won’t be quite so extreme as the reactions to Utah’s recent actions, but they will be similar.

As a personal example, I once emailed Matt Yglesias about the national debt and while he was gracious enough to respond that response couldn’t have been more patronizing. (I’d dig it up but it was in an old account, but you can find similar stuff from him if you look.) In fact, rather than ignoring history, as you can see from Yglesias’ response, the ruling case often actively disdains it.

Everywhere you turn these days you can see and hear condemnation of our stupid and uptight ancestors and their ridiculous traditions and beliefs. We hear from the atheists that all wars were caused by the superstitions of religions (not true by the way). We hear from the libertines that premarital sex is good for both you and society, and any attempt to suppress it is primitive and tyrannical. We hear from economists that we need to spend more and save less. We heard from doctors and healthcare professionals that narcotics could be taken without risk of addiction. This list goes on and on.

For a moment I’d like to focus on that last one. As I already mentioned I recently read the book Dreamland by Sam Quinones. The book was fascinating on a number of levels, but he mentioned one thing near the start of the book that really stuck with me.

The book as a whole was largely concerned with the opioid epidemic in America, but this particular passage had to do with the developing world, specifically Kenya. In 1980 Jan Stjernsward was made chief of the World Health Organization’s cancer program. As he approached this job he drew upon his time in Kenya years before being appointed to his new position. In particular he remembered the unnecessary pain experienced by people in Kenya who were dying of cancer. Pain that could have been completely alleviated by morphine. He was now in a position to do something about that, and, what’s more morphine is incredibly cheap, so there was no financial barrier. Accordingly, taking advantage of his role at the WHO he established some norms for treating dying cancer patients with opiates, particularly morphine. I’ll turn to Quinones’ excellent book to pick up the story:

But then a strange thing happened. Use didn’t rise in the developing world, which might reasonably be viewed as the region in the most acute pain. Instead, the wealthiest countries, with 20 percent of the world’s population came to consume almost all–more than 90 percent–of the world’s morphine. This was due to prejudice against opiates and regulations on their use in poor countries, on which the WHO ladder apparently had little effect. An opiophobia ruled these countries and still does, as patients are allowed to die in grotesque agony rather than be provided the relief that opium-based painkillers offer.

I agree with the facts, as Quinones lays them out, but I disagree with his interpretation. He claims that prejudice kept the poorer countries from using morphine and other opiates, that they suffered from opiophobia, implying that their fear was irrational. Could it be instead, that they just weren’t idiots

In fact the question should not be why the developing countries had problems with widespread opioid use, but rather why America and the rest of the developing world didn’t. I mean any idiot can tell you that heroin is insanely addictive, but somehow (and Quinones goes into great detail on how this happened) doctors, pain management specialists, pharmaceutical companies, scientist, etc. all convinced themselves that things very much like heroin weren’t that addictive. The people Stjernsward worked with in Kenya didn’t fall into this trap because basically they’re not idiots.

Did the Kenyan doctors make this decision by comparing historical addiction rates? Did they run double-blind studies? Did they peruse back issues of the JAMA and Lancet? Maybe, but probably not. In any case whatever their method for arriving at the decision (and I strongly suspect it was less intellectual than the approach used by western doctors) in hindsight they arrived at the correct decision, while the intellectual decision, backed up by data and a modern progressive morality ended up resulting in  exactly the wrong decision when it came time to decide whether to expand access to opioids. This is what Taleb means by intellectual yet idiot.

To give you a sense of how bad the decision was, in 2014, the last year for which numbers are available 47,000 people died from overdosing on drugs. That’s more than annual automobile deaths, gun deaths, or the number of people that died during the worst year of the AIDS epidemic. You might be wondering what kind of an increase that represents. Switching gears slightly to look just at prescription opioid deaths they’ve increased by 3.4 times since 2000. A net increase of around 13,000 deaths a year. If you add up the net increase over all the years you come up with an additional 100,00 deaths. No matter how you slice it or how you apportion blame, it was a spectacularly bad decision. Intellectual yet idiot.

And sure, we can wish for a world where morphine is available so people don’t die in grotesque agony, but also is simultaneously never abused. But I’m not sure that’s realistic. We may in fact have to choose between serious restrictions on opiates and letting some people experience a lot of pain or fewer restrictions on opiates and watching young healthy people die from overdosing. And while developing countries might arguably do a better job with pain relief for the dying, when we consider the staggering number of deaths, when it came to the big question they undoubtedly made the right decision. Not intellectual yet not an idiot.

It should be clear now that the opiate epidemic is a prime example of the IYI mindset. The smallest degree of wisdom would have told the US decision makers that heroin is bad. I can hear some people already saying, “But it’s not heroin it’s time released oxycodone.” And that is where the battle was lost, that is precisely what Taleb is talking about, that’s the intellectual response which allowed the idiocy to happen. Yes, it is a different molecular structure (though not as different as most people think) but this is precisely the kind of missing the forest for the trees that the IYI mindset specializes in.

Having arrived back at Taleb’s subject by a different route, let’s finally turn to his article and see what he had to say. I’ve already talked about paying attention to history. And in the case of the opiate epidemic we’re not even talking about that much history. Just enough historical awareness to have been more cautious about stuff that is closely related to heroin. But of course I also talked about the developing countries and how they didn’t make that mistake. But I’ve somewhat undercut my point. When you picture doctors in Kenya you don’t picture somehow who knows in intimate detail the history of Bayer’s introduction of heroin in 1898 as a cough suppressant and the later complete ban of heroin in 1924 because it was monstrously addictive.

In other words, I’ve been making the case for greater historical awareness, and yet the people I’ve used as examples are not the first people you think of when the term historical awareness starts being tossed around. However, there are two ways to have historical awareness. The first involves reading Virgil or at least Stephen Ambrose, and is the kind we most commonly think of. But the second is far more prevalent and arguably far more effective. These are people who don’t think about history at all, but nevertheless continue to follow the traditions, customs, and prohibitions which have been passed down to them through countless generations back into the historical depths. This second group doesn’t think about history, but they definitely live history.

I mentioned “red necks” earlier as an example of one of those labels which cover a cluster of attitudes and behaviors. They are also an example of this second group. And further, I would argue, that they should be classified in the not intellectual yet not idiots group.

As Taleb points there is a tension between this group and the IYI’s. From the article:

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.

The story of the developing countries refusal to make opiates more widely available is a perfect example of the IYI’s thinking that they know what someone’s best interests are better than they themselves. And yet what we saw is that despite, not even being able to explain their prejudice against opiates, that the doctors in these countries, instinctively, protected their interests better than the IYIs. They were not intellectuals, yet they were also not idiots.

Now this is not to say, that “red necks” and the people who voted for the Brexit are never wrong (though I think they got that right) or that the IYI’s are never right. The question which we have to consider is who is more right on balance, and this is where we return to a consideration of history. Are historical behaviors, traditional conduct, religious norms and long-standing attitudes always correct? No. But they have survived the crucible of time, which is no mean feat. The same cannot be said of the proposals of the IYI. They will counter that their ideas are based on the sure foundation of science, without taking into account the many limitations of science. Or as Taleb explains:

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.

With a record like that which horse do you want to back? Is it more important to sound right or to be right? Is it more important to be an intellectual or more important to not be an idiot? Has technology and progress saved us? Maybe, but if it has then it has done so only by abandoning what has got us this far: history and tradition, and there are strong reasons to suspect both that it hasn’t saved us (see all previous blog posts) and that we have abandoned tradition and history to our detriment.

In the contest between the the intellectual idiots and the non-intellectual non-idiots. I choose to not be an idiot.