Looking For the Black Swan

Riffing on Nassim Nicholas Taleb's The Black Swan, Rod Dreher writes:

Taleb's discussion of the role of randomness in our lives, and how we cannot anticipate freak events (all we can know for sure is that they'll happen, sooner or later) makes me reflect on how I've never really gotten over watching 9/11 unfold right before my eyes. The anger is gone, mostly, but the sense of dread and unease isn't. I saw -- we all saw, but I saw it and heard it and smelled it, and I couldn't get away from it for a long time, because you always smelled it when you went outside for months afterward -- that our entire world could change radically in the course of a morning. Taleb talks about how his native Lebanon had lived in relative communal piece for centuries, such that nobody there could imagine the civil war that came upon them in the 1980s. And when it did happen, everybody assumed it would end quickly, because, well, it had to. But it didn't, and it was terrible.

I wonder if in some small way, I have a touch of the dread that people who went through the Depression (a far more traumatic event, cumulatively, than 9/11) do. My dad and mom have different attitudes toward money. He was a child of the Depression; she was born just after it ended. Neither had much money growing up, but my father is far more cautious with it, as if he feared the Thing coming back. Taleb makes me wonder to what extent much of my own intellectual preoccupations these days, and for the past few years, grow out of a general fear that everything around us that seems solid is really not, and that all this could be revealed to us in a terrible Black Swan moment. And that most of my work is done in light of preparing for the next Black Swan moment, such that whatever it is, we are as prepared to deal with it and prevail over it, no matter what it is.

What I find interesting about this is that I share Rod’s premise – the assumption that various inherently unpredictable disasters are lurking ahead of us – without sharing his tendency to scan the headlines looking for harbingers of the apocalypse. If anything, I lean in the opposite direction, and tend to be dismissive of the various doom-and-destruction scenarios that make their way into print these days. I think Rod and I draw similar political conclusions from the “black swan” premise, in the sense that both his “crunchy” politics and my Sam’s Club politics are dedicated to shoring up the sort of habits and institutions that are especially useful in times of dislocation and upheaval, and cultivating what Reihan has termed, in conversation if not in print, the “resilient society.” (Though of course Rod and I would often disagree on what that cultivation and shoring up ought entail.) But when it comes to specific scenarios for dislocation and upheaval, my default instinct tends to be that precisely because “black swan” events are by their nature wildly unpredictable, there’s little to be gained by trying to predict which one – peak oil? avian flu? the next Great Depression? – will actually end up throwing our society for a loop. Better to pursue a politics geared toward all eventualities, in other words, than to play a guessing game that’s only likely to cost you precious resources, and still more precious sleep.

Of course, this approach has its own set of problems: Some calamities are predictable, some unpredictable ones are dire enough to militate for action even when the odds are that the action in question will prove unnecessary, and I worry that my instincts may incline me toward an unwarranted panglossianism about a variety of problems, from global warming to the current economic situation. Somewhere between Rod’s approach and mine, then, lies the happy medium that policymakers ought to strive – so they should read us both, and split the difference.