“I hope for Goldman Sachs’ bankruptcy”: Nassim Nicholas Taleb on Skin in the Game

In Taleb’s universe, the fieriest circle of hell is reserved for bankers and neoconservatives.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb is an intellectual brawler, a philosophical pugilist. His new book, Skin in the Game, put me in mind of the final scene of The Godfather or Reservoir Dogs: everybody gets whacked. Bankers and bureaucrats, warmongers and wonks – all are targeted by Taleb.

For the Lebanese-American thinker, their shared sin is that (with some exceptions) they lack “skin in the game”. By this, Taleb means they are insulated from the consequences of their actions: they do not have “a share of the harm” or “pay a penalty if something goes wrong”. This “asymmetry in risk bearing”, he warns, leads to “imbalances”, “black swans” (the rare but high-impact events described in his 2007 mega-seller) and “potentially, to systemic ruin”.

When I meet Taleb, 57, at the Club Quarters hotel in central London I am mentally primed for conflict (journalists are another of his targets). But the self-described flâneur is courteous and polite, helpfully advising me to add an espresso to the hotel’s insufficiently strong coffee. I ask him how his deadlifts are (the stocky Taleb once boasted of lifting 400lbs). An unrelated injury, he laments, has “set him back” but he has shed fat, not muscle (“it could be that when you deadlift you’re always hungry”).

“I consider myself in the same business as journalists,” Taleb says when I raise the subject of my trade. “But if you don’t take risks it becomes propaganda or PR.” Taleb, a man sometimes described as having praise only for himself, speaks admiringly of the New Statesman’s in-house philosopher John Gray. “My respect for him is so great… He, visibly, has skin in the game, he was not afraid to be a Thatcherite when it was unpopular and later an anti-Thatcherite when it was also unpopular.”

In Taleb’s universe, the fieriest circle of hell is reserved for bankers and neoconservatives. “The best thing that could happen to society is the bankruptcy of Goldman Sachs,” he tells me. “Banking is rent-seeking of industrial proportions.” Taleb, who became rich as a derivatives trader, is not a foe of capitalism but of “cronyism”. “If you’re taking risks, God bless you. This is why I accept inequality. I’ve seen people go from trader to cab driver and back again.”

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