I recently finished reading Skin in the Game – Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. It was a thought-provoking read, boiling down observations about the impact of personal vestment (or lack thereof) in decision-making and social interactions, producing frequent pithy remarks such as this:
“Bureaucracy is a construction by which a person is conveniently separated from the consequences of his or her actions.”
The gem above appears at the end of a section discussing the consistently foolish policy of interventionism the U.S. has maintained overseas. Our national leaders never seem to learn proper lessons about the consequences of their actions, largely because they are insulated and isolated from those consequences. Not so, unfortunately, for many people on the ground where their policies have impact (and for the Americans put in harm’s way to enact those policies). He notes that more than 2,400 years ago the Athenian Isocrates wrote “Deal with weaker states as you think it appropriate for stronger states to deal with you.” Application of that thought would certainly result in some change to our foreign policy. The author’s discussion of a perceived distinction between “the Golden Rule” and what he terms “the Silver Rule” makes for interesting reading as well.
Taleb later labels the worldwide political developments of 2014-2018 (Brexit, the election of Trump, etc) as “a rebellion against the inner circle of no-skin-in-the-game policymaking ‘clerks’ and journalist-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) whom to vote for.” Couldn’t have put it better myself.
The book applies the concept of personal interest in a wide-reaching manner, far more broadly than the two quotes I’ve provided would indicate. He uses the lens to examine everything from the positive roles of risk-taking to “the dominance of the stubborn minority,” and whether a society can afford to tolerate an intolerant system such as Salafi Islam. The prose is highly readable, specifically summarizing premises as it goes along. But it’s not a quick read if you’re engaging the material and thinking about larger implications. I found myself breaking out the highlighter and bending page corners repeatedly so I could go back and review.
The concept of the book first interested me because I believe the loss of “skin in the game” for our political, business, science and educational leaders is a key reason why our institutions are in such decline. Taleb seems to agree. As I’ve put it on this blog more than once, accountability seems to be out of favor. Businesses deemed “too big to fail” are allowed to reap profits while saddling taxpayers with losses. Government officials seem to have a different legal system applied to their actions than would the common citizen. Politicized “science” drives policymaking with few, if any repercussions to the industry when the “settled” view is later shown to be in error.
At any rate, if you’re looking for something weightier to read than the usual New York Times bestseller lightweights, this one is worth your attention.