How Suppressing Volatility Makes the World Less Predictable and More Dangerous
Why is surprise the permanent condition of the U.S. political and economic elite? In 2007-8, when the global financial system imploded, the cry that no one could have seen this coming was heard everywhere, despite the existence of numerous analyses showing that a crisis was unavoidable. It is no surprise that one hears precisely the same response today regarding the current turmoil in the
Complex systems that have artificially suppressed volatility tend to become extremely fragile, while at the same time exhibiting no visible risks. In fact, they tend to be too calm and exhibit minimal variability as silent risks accumulate beneath the surface. Although the stated intention of political leaders and economic policymakers is to stabilize the system by inhibiting fluctuations, the result tends to be the opposite. These artificially constrained systems become prone to "Black Swans" -- that is, they become extremely vulnerable to large-scale events that lie far from the statistical norm and were largely unpredictable to a given set of observers.
Such environments eventually experience massive blowups, catching everyone off-guard and undoing years of stability or, in some cases, ending up far worse than they were in their initial volatile state. Indeed, the longer it takes for the blowup to occur, the worse the resulting harm in both economic and political systems.
Seeking to restrict variability seems to be good policy (who does not prefer stability to chaos?), so it is with very good intentions that policymakers unwittingly increase the risk of major blowups. And it is the same misperception of the properties of natural systems that led to both the economic crisis of 2007-8 and the current turmoil in the Arab world. The policy implications are identical: to make systems robust, all risks must be visible and out in the open -- fluctuat nec mergitur (it fluctuates but does not sink) goes the Latin saying.
Just as a robust economic system is one that encourages early failures (the concepts of "fail small" and "fail fast"), the U.S. government should stop supporting dictatorial regimes for the sake of pseudostability and instead allow political noise to rise to the surface. Making an economy robust in the face of business swings requires allowing risk to be visible; the same is true in politics.
SEDUCED BY STABILITY
Both the recent financial crisis and the current political crisis in the
Putatively independent central bankers fell into the same trap. During the 1990s, U.S. Federal Reserve Chair
The foreign policy equivalent is to support the incumbent no matter what. And just as banks took wild risks thanks to Greenspan's implicit insurance policy, client governments such as
Those who seek to prevent volatility on the grounds that any and all bumps in the road must be avoided paradoxically increase the probability that a tail risk will cause a major explosion. Consider as a thought experiment a man placed in an artificially sterilized environment for a decade and then invited to take a ride on a crowded subway; he would be expected to die quickly. Likewise, preventing small forest fires can cause larger forest fires to become devastating. This property is shared by all complex systems.
In the realm of economics, price controls are designed to constrain volatility on the grounds that stable prices are a good thing. But although these controls might work in some rare situations, the long-term effect of any such system is an eventual and extremely costly blowup whose cleanup costs can far exceed the benefits accrued. The risks of a dictatorship, no matter how seemingly stable, are no different, in the long run, from those of an artificially controlled price.
Such attempts to institutionally engineer the world come in two types: those that conform to the world as it is and those that attempt to reform the world. The nature of humans, quite reasonably, is to intervene in an effort to alter their world and the outcomes it produces. But government interventions are laden with unintended -- and unforeseen -- consequences, particularly in complex systems, so humans must work with nature by tolerating systems that absorb human imperfections rather than seek to change them.
Take, for example, the recent celebrated documentary on the financial crisis, Inside Job, which blames the crisis on the malfeasance and dishonesty of bankers and the incompetence of regulators. Although it is morally satisfying, the film naively overlooks the fact that humans have always been dishonest and regulators have always been behind the curve. The only difference this time around was the unprecedented magnitude of the hidden risks and a misunderstanding of the statistical properties of the system.
What is needed is a system that can prevent the harm done to citizens by the dishonesty of business elites; the limited competence of forecasters, economists, and statisticians; and the imperfections of regulation, not one that aims to eliminate these flaws. Humans must try to resist the illusion of control: just as foreign policy should be intelligence-proof (it should minimize its reliance on the competence of information-gathering organizations and the predictions of "experts" in what are inherently unpredictable domains), the economy should be regulator-proof, given that some regulations simply make the system itself more fragile. Due to the complexity of markets, intricate regulations simply serve to generate fees for lawyers and profits for sophisticated derivatives traders who can build complicated financial products that skirt those regulations.
DON'T BE A TURKEY
The life of a turkey before
The turkey problem for humans is the result of mistaking one environment for another. Humans simultaneously inhabit two systems: the linear and the complex. The linear domain is characterized by its predictability and the low degree of interaction among its components, which allows the use of mathematical methods that make forecasts reliable. In complex systems, there is an absence of visible causal links between the elements, masking a high degree of interdependence and extremely low predictability. Nonlinear elements are also present, such as those commonly known, and generally misunderstood, as "tipping points." Imagine someone who keeps adding sand to a sand pile without any visible consequence, until suddenly the entire pile crumbles. It would be foolish to blame the collapse on the last grain of sand rather than the structure of the pile, but that is what people do consistently, and that is the policy error.
U.S. President Barack Obama may blame an intelligence failure for the government's not foreseeing the revolution in
Engineering, architecture, astronomy, most of physics, and much of common science are linear domains. The complex domain is the realm of the social world, epidemics, and economics. Crucially, the linear domain delivers mild variations without large shocks, whereas the complex domain delivers massive jumps and gaps. Complex systems are misunderstood, mostly because humans' sophistication, obtained over the history of human knowledge in the linear domain, does not transfer properly to the complex domain. Humans can predict a solar eclipse and the trajectory of a space vessel, but not the stock market or Egyptian political events. All man-made complex systems have commonalities and even universalities. Sadly, deceptive calm (followed by Black Swan surprises) seems to be one of those properties.
THE ERROR OF PREDICTION
As with a crumbling sand pile, it would be foolish to attribute the collapse of a fragile bridge to the last truck that crossed it, and even more foolish to try to predict in advance which truck might bring it down. The system is responsible, not the components. But after the financial crisis of 2007-8, many people thought that predicting the subprime meltdown would have helped. It would not have, since it was a symptom of the crisis, not its underlying cause. Likewise, Obama's blaming "bad intelligence" for his administration's failure to predict the crisis in
Obama's mistake illustrates the illusion of local causal chains -- that is, confusing catalysts for causes and assuming that one can know which catalyst will produce which effect. The final episode of the upheaval in
Most explanations being offered for the current turmoil in the
When dealing with a system that is inherently unpredictable, what should be done? Differentiating between two types of countries is useful. In the first, changes in government do not lead to meaningful differences in political outcomes (since political tensions are out in the open). In the second type, changes in government lead to both drastic and deeply unpredictable changes.
In contrast, consider
THE FEAR OF RANDOMNESS
Humans fear randomness -- a healthy ancestral trait inherited from a different environment. Whereas in the past, which was a more linear world, this trait enhanced fitness and increased chances of survival, it can have the reverse effect in today's complex world, making volatility take the shape of nasty Black Swans hiding behind deceptive periods of "great moderation." This is not to say that any and all volatility should be embraced. Insurance should not be banned, for example.
But alongside the "catalysts as causes" confusion sit two mental biases: the illusion of control and the action bias (the illusion that doing something is always better than doing nothing). This leads to the desire to impose man-made solutions. Greenspan's actions were harmful, but it would have been hard to justify inaction in a democracy where the incentive is to always promise a better outcome than the other guy, regardless of the actual, delayed cost.
Variation is information. When there is no variation, there is no information. This explains the CIA's failure to predict the Egyptian revolution and, a generation before, the Iranian Revolution -- in both cases, the revolutionaries themselves did not have a clear idea of their relative strength with respect to the regime they were hoping to topple. So rather than subsidize and praise as a "force for stability" every tin-pot potentate on the planet, the U.S. government should encourage countries to let information flow upward through the transparency that comes with political agitation. It should not fear fluctuations per se, since allowing them to be in the open, as
U.S. policy toward the
NASSIM NICHOLAS TALEB is Distinguished Professor of Risk Engineering at New York University's Polytechnic Institute and the author of The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. MARK BLYTH is Professor of International Political Economy at Brown University.
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