Why Nassim Taleb Thinks Leaders Make Poor Decisions

Why do experts, CEOs, politicians, and other apparently highly capable people make such terrible decisions so often? Is because they’re ill-intentioned? Or because, despite appearances, they’re actually stupid? Nassim Nicholas Taleb, philosopher, businessman, perpetual troublemaker, and author of, among other works, the groundbreaking Fooled by Randomness, says it’s neither.

It’s because these authorities face the wrong incentives.

They are rewarded according to whether they look good to their superiors, not according to whether they are effective. They have no skin in the game.

Seasoned readers of Taleb will be pleased to see the so-called “experts problem” pop up in living color in Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life, Taleb’s latest collection of essays on risk, rationality, and randomness. According to Taleb, dentists, pilots, plumbers, structural engineers, and “scholars of Portuguese irregular verbs” are real experts; sociologists, policy analysts, “management theorist[s], publishing executive[s], and macroeconomist[s]” are not.

The difference is that, when people from the first list are wrong about something, it’s obvious from the results and they suffer; they have skin in the game. Bad teeth, crashed planes, and leaky pipes are bad for business. People from the second list rationalize by substituting a different theory. They were not really wrong but just early, and, if they’re lucky, which is to say skillful at apple-polishing, earn promotion after promotion by not failing utterly. (Financial advisors can argue that the fiduciary standard is the most powerful tool for putting them in the first list.) Skin in the Game is full of insights like this, some recycled from his earlier work but many of them new. It is well worth the relatively quick read.

Despite the many good qualities of Skin in the Game, Taleb’s work, including the present volume, is often infuriating. He is too sure of himself, too unkind to his enemies, too full of bluster and obscure humor. Acting on his belief that some kinds of experts are worthless, he has populated the book’s dust jacket with anonymous tweets instead of celebrity testimonials. Here’s the first tweet: “The problem with Taleb is not that he’s an ass— (spelled out in full on the jacket). He is an ass—. The problem with Taleb is that he is right.” I agree.

Asymmetry, or why we are ruled by the most easily offended

In chapter two of Skin in the Game, entitled “The Most Intolerant Wins,” Taleb asks why we seem to be governed by the most easily offended. You have to refrain from smoking in the non-smoking section, but you don’t have to smoke (that is, refrain from not smoking) in the smoking section, which, by the way, is much smaller. Few people really care whether you say Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays, but the latter has become de rigueur in some circles. Almost all soft drinks are kosher.