This is an extremely good and important article from Simon Kuper in the UK Financial Times, that could have been written specifically for my optimistic, it will all turn out right friend RH. I don’t think it will turn out well, and Kuper has some interesting disciplines for systemic caution from Taleb, and Kahneman and Tversky among others:
The Minuteman story is especially scary and I would add: the Airforce Academy in Colorado Springs is in the hands of religious fanatics and the quality of leadership from there I experienced ten years ago was appalling compared with West Point or Annapolis or their British equivalent service academies. I have posted it in full to avoid it being behind a fire wall: it is too important for that.
How to avert catastrophe:‘We need to expand our imaginations. The next catastrophe may take an unprecedented form’
“When Nassim Nicholas Taleb was a teenager in Lebanon in 1975, an ethnic civil war broke out. Locals were baffled. They had thought they lived in a “stable paradise”. Once the unforeseen catastrophe began, even Taleb’s grandfather, the deputy prime minister, “did not seem to know what was going to happen any more than his driver, Mikhail”, wrote Taleb in his 2007 classic, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable.
In 1940, when Daniel Kahneman was a Jewish boy living in Paris, the Germans invaded France. Kahneman’s family decided to stay put. Then came the Holocaust. While the family was in hiding, Kahneman’s father could not get treatment for his diabetes, and died. Kahneman was left wondering why humans fail to foresee catastrophe.
Black Swan has just been reissued. Almost simultaneously, Michael Lewis has published The Undoing Project, about Kahneman’s intellectual collaboration with fellow psychologist Amos Tversky. Both books share an argument: people make bad judgments and terrible predictions. It’s a timely point. The risk of some kind of catastrophe — armed conflict, natural disaster, and/or democratic collapse — appears to have risen. The incoming US president has talked about first use of nuclear weapons, and seems happy to let Russia invade nearby countries. Most other big states are led by militant nationalists. Meanwhile, the polar ice caps are melting fast. How can we fallible humans avert catastrophe?
Today’s elites are often mocked for failing to foresee the financial crisis of 2008 but, in fact, such blindness is standard. In 1914, few people expected the first world war: the historian Niall Ferguson has shown that bond prices held up that summer, meaning that investors didn’t foresee higher government borrowing. Forecasters also missed the Holocaust, China’s Cultural Revolution and September 11.
Our western generation is particularly ill-equipped to foresee catastrophes, because our countries have hardly experienced any since 1945. (We tend to forget our various close shaves with nuclear war, accidental and otherwise.) Now we are like Taleb’s famous turkey. Every day, he gets fed by a nice farmer. The turkey’s risk analysts make a forecast: based on past trends, he will keep getting fatter. Then, just before Thanksgiving . . .
How not to be that turkey? Taleb has some tips:
• You can’t know which catastrophe will happen, but expect that any day some catastrophe could. In Tversky’s words: “Surprises are expected.” Better to worry than die blasé. Mobilise politically to forestall catastrophe.
• Don’t presume that future catastrophes will repeat the forms of past catastrophes. The only catastrophes we seem able to imagine are ones that have happened before. After September 11, the US re-engineered itself to prevent another September 11. Now the cliché is that we’re back in the 1930s. Even Donald Trump, complaining about US intelligence agencies, asked, “Are we living in Nazi Germany?” However, we need to expand our imaginations. The next catastrophe may take an unprecedented form.
• Don’t follow the noise. Terrorist attacks and Trump’s tweets are spectacular. But some catastrophes unfold silently: climate change, or people dying after they lose their jobs or their health insurance. (The financial crisis was associated with about 260,000 extra deaths from cancer in developed countries alone, estimated a study in The Lancet.)
• Ignore banalities. Most westerners instinctively tune out serious news because they have learnt that it rarely affects their lives. In the US in particular, so-called “TV news” is, in fact, entertainment. It fixates on “stories” such as Trump’s spat with the actor Meryl Streep. But these distractions have become dangerous. We now need to stretch and bore ourselves with important stuff.
• Strengthen democratic institutions. The only western state designed specifically to ward off catastrophe is the Federal Republic of Germany. Unelected German judges are charged with defending the constitution against the people, if necessary. By contrast, France now exists under an endless state of emergency. If Marine Le Pen becomes president in May, she’ll have a fairly free hand.
• Strengthen the boring, neglected bits of the state that can either prevent or cause catastrophe. Examples are the collapsing dam in Mosul, Iraq, or the US’s ropy nuclear command centres. Eric Schlosser, author of Command and Control, reports that in 2013 the general overseeing the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles “was removed from duty after going on a drunken bender” in Russia, where his exploits included “asking repeatedly if he could sing with a Beatles cover band at a Mexican restaurant in Moscow, and insulting his military hosts”. A year later, nearly 100 Minuteman launch officers were caught cheating on their proficiency exams. Then a launch officer was jailed for 25 years for running a violent street gang. These people have the keys to launch nukes. A check-up may be in order.
• Listen to older people who have experienced catastrophes. Taleb notes that elephant tribes often rely on elderly females to assess threats.
• Be conservative. Many Americans hope Trump will “shake things up”. As Noam Chomsky says, the risk is that he will. Often it’s smarter to maintain a flawed status quo. In Taleb’s words: “Don’t mess with complex systems, because we don’t understand them.”
Stock markets hit all-time highs after Trump’s election. What could possibly go wrong?
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