Handle without care

29 January 2013 - 03:01 By TJ Strydom
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Many people wish Lebanese-born American thinker Nassim Taleb would redesign the world economy, rebooting it like a computer, making it more durable to shocks, panic and unforeseen tragedies.

In his new book, Antifragile, he makes it clear that he won't, and that no one should even try.

He distinguishes between three concepts: fragility, robustness and antifragility. Anyone who has ever dropped an anvil on an iPad knows that the first is robust, and the second is fragile. Fragile things can stop working even if a small part is damaged. Robust things seem able to withstand any assault, but over time a tiny crack or a spot of rust will grow into something devastating.

The only way to stand the test of time, according to Taleb, is to be "antifragile". It is the term he coins for "a mechanism by which the system regenerates itself continuously by using, rather than suffering from, random events, shocks, stressors and volatility".

He applies this to the world economy, political systems, the human body and even love. The book is a riveting collection of anecdotes and well-reasoned examples. He strings them together quite elegantly to make the argument that some things are best left alone. Systems, people and economies can often heal themselves.

But hold on: his argument is not the simple old "invisible hand" so often quoted - or misquoted - by laissez-faire capitalists. He merely cautions that some systems need small tragedies to stave off a devastating collapse. The occasional fire in a forest gets rid of flammable material and avoids a sweeping blaze when all is dry and the wind is blowing.

Taleb makes no secret of his distaste for the policies of former US Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan, "which caused risks to go hide under the carpet and accumulate there until they blew up the economy".

He warns against what he calls "naive intervention", but that is not to say intervention is never an option. Often, doing nothing is better than doing something based on forecasts and hunches of so-called experts.

There is one section in Antifragile that is quite technical for the layman. But don't be intimidated by references to the bell curve, nonlinear and so forth. Taleb explains these well, using examples - like the overconfidence of a turkey on the day before he is slaughtered: what a friendly farmer. He does, however, welcome the non-technical reader to skip this section.

Some would equate him to Malcolm Gladwell, of Tipping Point and Outliers, or the authors of Freakonomics, Steven D Levitt and Stephen J Dubner. But this would not be a fair comparison. Taleb is Test cricket, the others are the hit and run you see in Twenty20.

Taleb was thrust into the limelight after the success of his 2007 bestseller, Black Swan. It was not the story of an insane ballerina, but a book about how unforeseen events have massive consequences.

In Europe swans are white, and the thought of a black swan existing was inconceivable. That was until the discovery of Australia, where all swans are black. Taleb used this fact to illustrate that, in the prediction game, if you are wrong, you can be very, very wrong.

Whoever thought a member of the European Union would have problems paying its debt? But then this happened to Greece - the black sheep and a black swan. Ireland soon followed, then Portugal and Spain. Now even the regional powerhouse Italy is making global investors nervous.

In Antifragile, Taleb builds on some of his ideas in Black Swan. The reader will be reintroduced to Fat Tony and the domains of Mediocristan and Extremistan. There is repetition, but it works nicely.

His earlier book, Fooled by Randomness, is a powerful wake-up call for anyone who thinks success is a straightforward phenomenon.

Antifragile is the most enjoyable so far and, yes, no one should try and engineer the world economy, not even Taleb.

'Antifragile' is published by Penguin. Available at Exclusive Books for R231

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