Nassim Taleb: We worry about terror, but disease will be the Black Swan of the world

What does tomorrow hold for the world? Terrorist attacks, political crises, financial crashes, plague, war and unrest threaten the peace of our lives every day. Global powers strive to keep the planet intact, but can they handle the pressure? How volatile is the state of the world today? Is there a way to cope with even the most unpredictable events? We ask someone whose work focuses on the problems of randomness and uncertainty – the author of bestselling books The Black Swan and Antifragile, risk analyst Nassim Nicholas Taleb, is my guest today.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Professor Nassim Nicholas Taleb, it's a real pleasure to have you on our show today.

Nassim Taleb: Thank you, I’m honoured to be here. Thanks for inviting me.

SS: You’ve said that there’s no way to control economic cycles and prevent crashes, right? So, basically, I quote: “what we need is citizens to become robust to them and to be immune to their impact”. Now, how does that happen in a real world? How can you make yourself immune?

NT: So, before that, let’s talk about the error of trying to control economic cycles. It’s sort of like doctor trying to micromanage your body temperature. If you take anything organic and you try to control its variability, you’ll end up with less variability than you started with but the system would become more fragile. Take a forest. If you micromanage a forest to try to extinguish every single fire, you’ll end up with a lot of flammable material and you’ll have a forest with no cycles and the first fire you can’t control will destroy your forest. The same thing will happen with the economy. In order to micromanage the cycle... if you have no volatility for a long time, you never have a dip in economic activity - what happens to businesses that are around? You’re going to have a lot of fragile businesses, and so a lot of flammable material, so to speak, and these businesses… we will have more and more of them, okay, and the first crisis that you can no longer control will be vastly deeper than otherwise. So, a little bit of variability in the economy is very healthy.

SS: So, basically, not ever trying to control or prevent a crisis is what makes you immune to the next one?

NT: Exactly. So what do you do is, maybe, manage a big crisis, but the small ones - let things take care of themselves.

SS: Do you have a precise example of, like, when that happened in a country?

NT: Okay. We can talk about the U.S. There’s a fellow called Alan Greenspan, who discovered the business cycles and discovered monetary policy on the job. He came to the Fed in 1980s, around 1987, right before the crisis, the Crash, and he realised that, hey, you can lower rates and inject funds in a system to prevent crisis from happening. In 1987 it was very useful and allowed us to recover from the Big Dip in the stock market - it was the biggest crash ever, a one-day crash. We came back and it was good. So he thought he had the magic formula, and had you given him nature he would eliminate seasons. So he tried to do the same thing - every time the first sign of a problem, he would lower rates. So what happened is that he lowered rates so much that now we have rates at zero, we can no longer lower them, so we lost the effectiveness of that monetary policy. So, not only that, but we can’t bring rates back to their original level because the whole thing may collapse, and everybody is extremely scared of raising back rates. So, here you see what happened - 1987, 1991, 2000, again, 2002, and then again, I think, a couple of times, you know, micro-times after that. So he tried to manage a cycle. The way you should do things is be there for big problems, and let small things to care of themselves.

SS: I just came out of your lecture and you’ve said something very interesting that if you had a choice, you’d rather invest in Russia than Saudi Arabia. Now, for many that sounds odd. Can you explain why?

NT: Let me explain that idea. The first thing, I’ve always hesitated to talk about the investments I don’t have.

SS: But you’re a philosopher, so you can talk about that.

NT: My scheme in the game ethics force me to have something at risk - and currently I have nothing at risk in Russia, but thank God, nothing at risk in Saudi Arabia. Let me explain the point - if you look at history, you’ll realise that companies, countries, entities -let’s call them entities - that have sustained more trauma in this recent history, like a stock that bounces back, goes through hell and comes back, generally have given us information about how much heat they can sustain. So, on that account, the fact that Russia went through the problems of early 1990s shows that the system can handle a huge drop in economic activity, a huge rise in unemployment, severe disruptions in the institutional structure without falling apart. Now we have that, okay. We have that evidence. Russia has things that Saudi Arabia doesn’t have, okay. Iran, for example, compared to Saudi Arabia - these countries can take a lot of volatility. So, I’m much more comfortable in a place like that because I know that social order is not likely to collapse, no matter what happens. Saudi Arabia - I don’t know if SA can go through the dip in oil prices, I don’t know what would be the catalyst, but I know that eventually something is going to collapse.

SS: But then there’s another problem - Russia, like you’ve pointed out, has gone through so much chaos and crises and volatile situations that we really built our anti-fragility gene and we have a very high ability to adapt.

NT: I don’t think Russia is antifragile, yet. I think it is robust.

SS: Let’s talk about that, because I feel like we know how to adapt but then this sort of high-ability to adapt has in some way turned into…

NT: Complacency.

SS: Indifference, yeah. Like, instead of tackling the problem you’re just accepting it, basically. How do you overcome that?

NT: It is a problem of Russia. If you take countries like what you see in South East Asia and places like that, these countries went through shocks and they bounce back with a vengeance. They came back with a vengeance. We know that China will have a problem, it will be some kind of economic problem that will lead to some kind of restructuring, maybe organic restructuring, and China will bounce back and impress everyone again. Now, Russia, you have two or three things hindering Russia. Let’s talk about them. When people talk about Russia - I don’t care about geopolitics, geopolitics has absolutely nothing to do with anything - what matters are two things. First one, you need a huge pool of middle-sized companies. You can retain your structure, you need a lot of small companies, the middle market that really made Germany. The second one you need to find ways to stop your brain-drain. In my field - probability theory - out of the 20 top names maybe 14 are Russian - I mean, this is mind-boggling. No field is dominated by any nationality to that extent. So, you don’t see that many Germans, you see few French people, you don’t see that many people from the UK. So where’s that talent? That talent is being exported, right? So that's the problem of Russia, Russia needs to deal with its brain-drain and with middle-size companies. Now, maybe they’re connected, maybe you can find ways to encourage people to stay, I don’t know, give them some emotional support - whatever. I don’t know how these things are done, but I am saying that this is a problem of Russia.

SS: We keep bringing up China - is it a worrying sign that there are some real problems in Chinese economy, what would that mean for the world economy?

NT: What you’re saying is journalistic, and let me explain why. I’m going to give you a bit of hard time.

SS: Please.

NT: You can frame things the way you want - I can look at the story of China, I don’t have the exact numbers, and I can tell you “Well, in the past 10-15 years it rose by that amount”, but I can look at the losses of the past two weeks - right. So, it depends on how you frame China. You’ve got to see where they started, where they're now. If you frame it journalistically, people are going to take the most sensational. But journalists don’t invest, and investors don’t work for newspapers... So let’s frame it properly - I see zero problem in China so far. I am much more worried about things that have been fuelled by low interest rates, like the U.S., where we created inequality with economic policy that lowered rates monstrously, so assets went up disproportionately, stock market, real estate and luxury areas, and not for the regular American family. This I am more worried about and I am more worried that we may have a more severe effect from a drop in asset prices in U.S. Plus, we have to realize that the Chinese stock market is huge and the other thing for the rest of the world is that the Chinese don’t buy stuff from the rest of the world.

SS: We buy from them.

NT: I mean, I computed that the entire U.S. export to China is less than what’s sold in Walmart - I mean, it’s still substantial, but it’s few points, one point of GDP or two points… It’s more of a psychological thing than a practical thing. On the other hand, a slowdown in the U.S. would affect the Chinese big time. So you’ve got to worry about the U.S., not about China, if you’re concerned about China.

SS: I want to talk to you about debt. You’ve said that debt actually causes wars, it’s never good, it’s never accumulated in moderation - well, today the world is suffering from vast debt. If you compare it to 2007 it has accumulated $57 trillion. Countries like China and America that we’ve been talking about - how are they going to deal with their debt? Austerity, more borrowing, maybe defaulting? What’s your take.

NT: That’s what worries me. Governments engage in debt. Why? Not because governments ever say “okay, economic policy means we going to have to borrow” - the point is that, the French government, for example, I think when I wrote “The Black Swan” I looked at 53 out of 54 years - they’ve underestimated their deficit, okay. That’s where debt comes in. So it’s something that civil servants who don’t understand, who underestimate uncertainty, have to face, when they raise what they can’t raise via taxation they raise via debt, and try to inflate things out of the system. So this is why debt is not very good. Now, if you read economic textbooks, they give you some models in which debt works, but then if you put the meta-model on top, much more rigorous analytically and takes into account model errors, then you realise that debt compounds all these problems that you have, beyond certain small amount to help families. This is why debt is not a good thing. Where we are now today? The crisis, the debt crisis, had the huge rise in debt, again, for businesses that do not necessarily need that debt, that’s a speculative thing, and they kept going. After the crisis we had a lot of borrowers who were not… you know, shouldn’t be borrowing. Who paid the price? The taxpayers. How? Because private debt was transformed via magic wands into public debt. That’s not good, you see.

SS: So what now?

NT: Now that we have a lot of debt, we’re facing situation where shrinking the debt would cause a huge contraction of economic activity. That is where we’re facing problems, so my point is that we should educate people, to undo all this debt we need education, we need to send the message that debt is not good. We can give them examples that Microsoft wasn’t built on debt, Apple is not built on debt. Name a company that is successful and let’s look at its debt history, and name a country that was successful, or the phase when it was successful and let’s look at its debt history , and you can realise that debt is something that economists like to promote simply because it’s good for civil servants, that’s it. So educate people to avoid debt.

SS:You have a recurring theme of forecast and how it’s silly to actually base your predictions analysing history or economics because it gives you a false illusion of knowing the world that you live in today. So, if you can’t really analyse your mistakes, right, you can’t analyse history - is there really no effective way to measure risks to predict the outcome, ever?

NT: Of course, you can. That was my lecture, that’s my last book, that’s everything I’ve done - I keep explaining that, this, I know, is very fragile, I know what would break it, but I cannot forecast with precision when it would break. But I know this is breakable, much more breakable than a styrofoam cup. So, we know that, we know which companies are likely to go bust, so we can measure fragility. You cannot predict the event, but you can say that company with debt for example cannot sustain the stress that the company without debt would be able to go through. Decentralised system can withstand shocks a lot better than a centralised system. Organic, self-organised system - and that’s complexity theory - let’s take the restaurant business, which is the ideal business. Have you ever had a restaurant crisis in the West?

SS: Nowhere, not only in the West.

NT: Nowhere. So, government doesn’t have to bail out restaurants. Why? Because it’s… it seems disorganised, but it’s very well organised, a self-organised system, in which people make their mistakes and go bust early, you see. And then they can start again, and consumers have the optimal price almost all the time, except in form of a payup, and you don’t have bailouts, you don’t have a generalised restaurant crisis, not like the banking crisis or not like a car-maker crisis. This system is not based on prediction, this system operates in a way that is organically very stable. Nature does not predict, what nature does is focus on robustness, and the metaphor I’ve used in the past is that nature or God - depends on your theology - gave you two kidneys. You don’t need two kidneys, you can operate perfectly on one, except that second kidney allows us to not have to predict the environment, so you don’t have to know exactly what will cause you to lose the kidney. So, it’s the same thing with corporations. If you have a buffer, some layers of redundancy, you can withstand economic shocks and you don’t have to hire some economist. And then let’s look at the track record of people in prediction - zero! Let’s go back to the point of forecasting, let me summarise - forecasting is the province of the charlatans. Unless it’s done properly. You can say rigorously that “this is fragile”, “this bridge is going to collapse”, instead of predicting what and where and who. You can build a better bridge. And forecasting makes you fragile because those who forecast develop overconfidence about the future and start to engage in debt and other risky activities. Look at track record of forecasting - pitiful.

SS: Can I ask you something - to what extent should we be accepting our fate?

NT: I’ve spoken to a lot of people. A lot of people, a lot of successful people, a lot of unsuccessful people. It seems to me that those who have the best control of their environment are those who think that the environment is more random. And those who think that it’s all, you know, we can get the cause and effects and we can see everything, there’s no opacity - these people are the ones who fail. It’s very strange that those who succeed are those who control randomness the best by accepting that it’s there and working the best around the corners of things that are predictable and that other people are not predicting. You see, because, there are some pockets of predictability, I know that something very fragile is going to collapse. If you accept that unpredictability, then you engage in tinkering, so that when you’re wrong it will cost you little and when you’re right, it will make you a lot. It’s not what happened to the world that counts, it’s your strategy of minimising shocks from random events and opening up for the good randomness.

SS: Talking about “Black Swans”, I mean, we live in a very fast-paced world, and it’s very unpredictable. Do you feel like because everything’s happening so fast, there’s going to be more and more “black swans” to come? Are we to expect more of them?

NT: The only thing that’s happening today in our world is that we have more connectedness, therefore things can happen much faster than before. I wouldn’t worry about one central thing, because it’s not just money, it’s viruses, viral bacteria, germs.

SS: Ebola?

NT: For example. I was very depressed when I saw reaction to Ebola.

SS: Because that’s more dangerous than spread of ISIS, in your opinion?

NT: That’s much more dangerous than anything because it multiplies, it multiplies very quickly. The world has had one plague and today  everything seems under control. ISIS is definitely not the danger. They’re good on Youtube, but it’s not… the Millennials, if you’re talking about indigo generation, the millennials seem to care more about what happens on Youtube than reality, alright, and hopefully that would change through selection, but the worry is not Al-Qaeda, it’s not these guys. These guys are less dangerous than… it’s a fraction of suicides in the West, it’s a fraction of people killed falling from ladders - it’s nothing. The point that you have to worry about is the fact that the plague was travelling at the speed of 30 miles a day, maximum speed. Today, what is it?

SS: We don’t know, where’s Ebola now?

NT: Tomorrow I go back to New York and I’m going to be travelling several thousand miles in 10 hours... So, you realise, it will multiply much faster. So, Ebola was not the problem, but something similar… And what depressed me was the reaction by people, the complacency. They don’t realise that something like that needs to be systematically stopped at its source. You see, you don’t wait for things to multiply. Lucky countries like Singapore, places like that, they understand the point, but we need a little bit more active management of… you know, we need to sit down and say - ok, what if we have another ebola, how do we manage it? The journalists are using what I call “naive empiricism” of comparing it to other bigger diseases - yeah, but cancer is not doubling every week. You don’t have to worry, it’s not an epidemic, it’s just something that we have. Diabetes kills a lot of people, but the odds of that number changing hugely from year to the next are very small. These things are locally predictable. But Ebola has much higher degree of unpredictability because of what I call the “extreme strain” the “fat tail”, so this is a Black Swan domain, the Black Swan territory and we have to take it seriously. So, not Ebola, other things like that, we’re not equipped today. Tomorrow, if there’s an emergency like Ebola, you know… We have a very well organised system to prevent terrorists from travelling, you know, everybody’s blocking them and cooperates, but we don’t have the same level of cooperation to immediately stop the spread of something of this sort. That worries me because, one thing, antibiotic resistance is serious.

SS: Do you have power in you for one more question?

NT: Yeah, of course.

SS: I know that “Black Swan” has been huge. A lot of world leaders love your book. If politicians were to embrace your thinking, what would that mean for politics?

NT: I don’t pay attention to politicians. I am blunt about it because I think that politicians play a smaller role than you think. Politicians are more like actors put on a job and then they respond via polling, the environment and stuff like that. I don’t pay attention to politicians, I pay attention to… the structure of political life, unfortunately, has not been very adapted to the nature of the complex system that we have. So, I don’t pay attention to politicians at all. For me they don’t exist. It’s a parallel world and I don’t want to be part of it, I don’t want to go to Davos, I don’t want  to do this or do that, I don’t want to advise anyone, I don’t want to be advised by anyone. It’s a separate world for me.

SS: Alright, hopefully, they will listen more to you, because I still live in a world where politics decide a lot of things. Thank you very much for this interview, it’s been a pleasure.

NT: Thanks.