One of the books I downloaded during my recent convalescence was Skin in the Game by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. I’ve been a fan of his work since I first encountered The Black Swan in my local library back in 2008. His books show up variously under “business,” “finance,” “systems,” and “self-help” in bookstores, but basically he’s a philosopher, complete with his own collection of aphorisms. His prose puts me in mind of Camille Paglia in her Sexual Personae days, only he’s writing/lucidly ranting about financial markets, probability, ethics, and the many wrongs of academia instead of writing/lucidly ranting about literature, aesthetics, sexuality, and the many wrongs of academia. (Paglia and Taleb are also loosely connected in my mind by their their pugnacity and their Mediterranean cultural frames of reference – his Lebanon/Phoenecia, hers the Italy of her grandparents and Greco-Roman antiquity. Also, I find myself alternately relishing their wisdom and wanting to argue with the conclusions they draw from it. But arguing with famous people on the internet when one is not famous has always struck me as a pointless activity.)
Skin in the Game (SITG) is heady stuff. Taleb’s invective is learned, literate, and fun to read. His descriptions of meals make me hungry. His excoriation of the ways that conventional wisdom fails in recognizing and responding to extremes and rare occurrences is downright invigorating. Then it occurs to me that I’ve long since forgotten how to read the equations in his books and that I bear more than a superficial resemblance to one of his Intellectual Yet Idiot foils. I deflate.
Indeed, what skin in the game can a Salary Mom (or Taleb’s latter-day Salary Man, the “Company Person”) actually have? That was the main problem that preoccupied me after I finished reading SITG. I understand the Maestro to be saying that, in purely economic terms, we People of the Paycheck are somewhere between debt peons in the counting houses of antiquity and landless vassals who give fealty to a particular House (or Constitution or a corporate mission statement) and do homage to the Sovereign or CEO in hopes that we will be rewarded with modest lands and sufficient means to educate our children for their own eventual service at Court.
So let us say I take my oath seriously* and try to make myself a better vassal by improving my understanding of Real World Risk. I read Taleb’s books and adjust my physical fitness regimen.** To my horror, I come to the conclusion that I am adding to the ultimate fragility of the U.S. Government just by showing up for work. If I consciously try to simplify processes, by David Graeber’s Iron Law of Liberalism (not in SITG, merely a connection in my brain), I will ultimately wind up creating more bureaucracy and hence more fragility. In the event that I achieve anything significant, it will likely lead to counter-productive consequences. On the other hand, if I go Bartleby and refrain from further work, I could lose my livelihood. Quit smirking, this does actually happen sometimes in federal government.
(A couple of years ago I asked Taleb on Twitter what a self-identified IYI should do to avoid causing harm. He suggested taking a relaxing job with lots of free time. That sounds like more fun than taking extended periods of sick leave every couple of years to birth children or remove/repair body parts! but I think the net impact winds up being similar.)
In SITG Taleb speaks of wolves among the dogs***, Company Persons who signal their independence from organizational mind-lock with unorthodox behavior or dress at risk of their “corridor reputations.” His examples of this tendency include temperamental geniuses whose contribution to a corporate bottom line makes them irreplaceable, people who curse a lot, and – in a separate discussion – people who do not look the part of whatever it is they are supposed to be doing (surgeons who do not look like surgeons). The idea is that these Company Werepersons put their skin in the game by inviting scrutiny or blame for their actions, having made themselves too unpleasant or just plain weird to blend in with the rest of the dogs and debt peons. In this, at least, I can see where my skin in the game is beyond just earning my keep. I am good at “plain weird.” But to what purpose if everything I touch supports an inherently counter-productive enterprise?
My father is a long-retired Salary Man who spent his career working for utility and transportation companies and trying unsuccessfully to make engineers out of his children. Early on in my professional life, he told me two things about working in a bureaucracy: first, that middle managers exist for the purpose of absorbing the resentment and fear of their subordinates and their bosses, and second, that the purpose of a bureaucracy is to prevent stupid things from making their way out of an organization and into the world. I guess that this via negativa winds up being the name of the game for the Company Person and his or her skin. So the true end of all worthwhile bureaucromancy is apophatocracy, or the attempt through selective application of institutional rules to prevent the institution from loosing bullsh*t upon the world as it performs its stated purpose. I wonder what Taleb would think.
NOTES AND DISCLAIMERS
* Have some disclaimers with that.
** Taleb’s thoughts on physical fitness (spelled out in Antifragile) are persuasive. That being said, after birthing three human kettleballs and failing to maintain core strength for years thereafter, I have no intention of deadlifting anything any time soon. Using my son’s barbels did make my time on crutches much easier, though, so I’m sticking with getting better at that.
*** I see where the wolf metaphor applies in terms of differentiating between the run of Company Persons and the rarer individuals who can hunt their own game in the wild even after years of organizational captivity. But what dog doesn’t see himself as a wolf? Howling, scowling, and marking the carpet tile are empty signals in an organization without a mandate to turn profits or a real likelihood of failure. Real wolves do not lurk the halls of such institutions, by and large. You want something done in a dog-ocracy? Find a vulture or a raccoon.