Debt

Deep Read: Nassim Taleb (The Black Swan Guy)

Here's the latest Planet Money Deep Read — our occasional series of long-ish interviews with writers and thinkers.

Today, we hear from Nassim Taleb, the former Wall Street trader who published a book called the Black Swan back in 2007. The book was re-issued earlier this year, with a long new section called "On Robustness & Fragility."

The book argues that most economic models fail because they don't take into account rare, high-impact events that wind up driving history. (Taleb calls these events Black Swans.) The argument came out looking pretty good after the 2008 financial crisis.

The new section of the book includes, among other things, a prescription for withstanding a Black Swan.

The short version: Get rid of debt.

In our conversation, I asked Taleb about the current debate between austerity and stimulus. Not surprisingly, he's a big austerity guy. He compared the developed world's persistent dependence on debt to a drug addiction:

What's worse, the period in which he has to suffer withdrawl pains, or giving him more cocaine, or heroin or whatever he's addicted to? ...

The governments should know that what matters for us is cure the problem, not postpone it. We've postponed the problem for two years. ...

It's like Madoff. ... Had we propped up Madoff, nobody would have suffered ... You suffer on the day when Madoff collapses.

Taleb Bonus: Like the rest of the Black Swan, the new section is quirky, erudite, arrogant and full of tidbits that are either illuminating or digressive, I'm not sure which.

He spends a while explaining his workout regimen, and how it relates to risk and human evolution. He takes lots of long, slow walks around cities. Occasionally, he sprints. And once in a while, he ducks into a gym and lifts heavy weights over his head.

More Deep Reads: Raghu Rajan, "Let Them Eat Credit"; Ian Bremmer, "A War Between States And Corporations"

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