Taleb's Skin in the Game (also, Antifragility)

Skin in the Game: a scorching view of personal ethics and policy from an engineering professor, with mathematical theorems and proofs

The book Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (2018), follows his earlier 'The Black Swan', which did not refer just to Darren Aronofksy's 2010 film or Tchaikovsky ballets. A 'black swan' is an improbable catastrophic event that changes everything. The author is a professor at New York University's school of engineering.

The book argues a theory of morality and virtue that is not articulated often in policy circles, and is not very 'popular'. But my three 'Do Ask Do Tell' books get at something very similar (starting with how I handled military conscription) and his Chapter 13, 'The Merchandising of Virtue' tracks pretty well to what I said in Chapter 6 (the non-fiction 'epilogue') of my 2014 DADT III book. Like me, he includes a glossary of his own terms (like 'agency', 'Lindy effect', 'Ergodicity', 'Principle of Charity'). But he follows with a series of mathematical proofs about risk that every actuary should read right out of a graduate school analysis course

Taleb's basic idea is that, with modern neo-liberalism, people get individual credit (and often make a lot of money) for activity that transfers risk to others, especially the black-swan tail risk. Social justice, he argues, involves better risk sharing and removing the opportunities for small interests to cause enormous changes to the world through asymmetry. Of course, today we see that with the Internet (most recently with all the scandals of 'surveillance capitalism'). But there are so many examples from history (how probable was Hitler's rise?) Early (p 45-46) he has a table that analyzes asymmetry (skin in the game, soul in the game).

The book has nineteen short chapters divided into sections with anecdotal titles. He starts each chapter with an intellectual riddle, usually from deep in history, or with some parlor problem. The he builds back into his themes. He will often wind up stating 'inevitable epigrams'.' One of his most visible is the 'Silver Rule', which is the contrapositive of the Golden Rule - don't do to others what you don't want done to you. Does that mean, mind your own business?

His ideas are many. One is 'minority rule', how societies usually wind up having to accommodate the needs of minorities by imposing on all. Another is that religious faith is based on belief (just as Christ demanded) and belief predicts what kinds of risks people will really take. A startling sequence in the last chapter defines courage and implies that the longevity of the group is more important that saving the life of every individual, and sometimes people really should give up their lives. Taleb hits the 'Black Swan' idea for society's long-term survival hard, saying that sometimes 'religious superstition' does work out to protect the group as a whole. (Food laws in Judaism and Islam, however unscientific, tend to prevent food poisoning. Imagine 'black swan' type of thinking early in the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s.)

But the most significant part of his argument is that which deals with talk vs. action. On p 28 there appears this epigram, Those who talk should do and only those who do should talk. In Chapter 13, on p 189, after discussing simony, he argues for a system of personal ethics as follows (1) never commit virtue signaling (2) never collect rents (3) You must start a business (presumably transactional in nature). Oh, he tears Thomas Piketty's book apart. He says that and 'intellectual idiot' who can't change his own oil (so to speak) is an 'idiot' (remember that line from 'Cold Mountain': 'I can embroider but I can't darn'). And he sees many journalists as watchers rather than doers, as if he had never heard of conflict reporting (or of journalists in jail).

Yet he has some support for writers and authors whom he views as proletariat artisans. He gets critical of doing superficial stuff just to sell books (self-help?). Yet, I would think you could turn his 'skin in the game' theory to criticize my own model for writing without trying to sell.

Presumably, I would think, if you can sell ethically to people, you have something they want and need, which implies you really care about people. (This idea breaks down in some areas, like porn.) I am in a position to write about issues that other people think are not my business, since they don't affect me directly (like I shouldn't dare criticize BLM because I never get profiled as a white cis male person). Skin in the game would seem to mean having dependents to support, to the point that one (or 'I') can really care about people who are less competitive and can life them up (like in Josh Groban's song). Yet at one point Taleb would turn this thinking around (common today among moralists on both right and left on 'family values' and 'intersectionality'), saying that one way to stop suicide terrorism is indeed to punish the families. That sounds a little Trump-like (although in other places Taleb claims to be a libertarian, rather of the Charles Murray kind). Most of the time, Taleb does seem to be concerned about tail-risk passers who are financially motivated, from CEO's to hedge fund managers (the 'credit default swap' of 2008 deserved discussion, as would subprime mortgages; but old fashioned insider trading is illegal for Taleb's reasons).

Many other examples of the 'skin in the game' idea come to my mind. Back in 2001, the National Writers Union stumbled trying to offer media perils insurance to novice authors and bloggers, because the insurance companies found the tail risk (of frivolous litigation) impossible to underwrite reliably. That idea could come roaring back today. I think China's proposal for a 'social credit score' for all its citizens (by 2020) reflects a demand that everyone put his communal skin in the game. A young indie filmmaker is enthusiastic about putting a visibly disabled person on his Facebook page as his best friend, something I would not want to do publicly (the expectation that people would be willing to do that is part of the way Facebook wants users to put their emotional skin in the game now, rather than just talk and report to the point of Facebook's prodding users to run their own charity campaigns under their own names on their pages).

And I think there is a really basic dichotomy when family (and 'loyalty to blood', as in Jake 2.0) is part of one's own skin, or whether it is external to the deepest self.

I note also that Taleb takes issue with the idea of 'conflict of interest' in journalism the way I have often discussed it (as in my own past employment and possible conflict with publicized political activity on the 'gays in the military' issue), on p. 63. He says in general, skin in the game comes with conflict of interest and considers the skin a higher moral priority. I even wonder if he was aware of my specific circumstance when writing this.

I could think of another riddle that would even confound J. D. Salinger's Holden Caulfield: should old guys wear shorts in public to put their own skin back in the game?

ISBN 9780425284629

Publication: Random House: 280 pages, 19 chapters, glossary, mathematical appendix, index, hardcover and e-book