World o Declinism (II)


In last week’s New Yorker, Ben McGrath writes about his travels amongst the dystopians, aka declinists. You know the types — the various apocalyptos, misanthropes, primitivists, and eco-pornographers who fantasize of the day when our obsession with cars, suburbs, and Xboxes and hamburgers will finally whipsaw us back to the stone age.  

It’s very much worth reading, if only to realize what an odious jackass James Howard Kunstler really is. But more surprising was the discovery that Nassim Taleb — he of Black Swan fame — is pretty much insane.  Of course, he’s apparently being paid $4 million bucks for his next book, proving that you can never get too rich telling Americans how dumb capitalism is. 

When the most sensible person in the piece is a 46 year old Russian software developer who lives in a sailboat with his wife and a six-month supply of propane, beans and rice, you know you’ve found the lunatic fringe. Terrific journalism.

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World o Declinism (II)

  1. “In its resentment of modernity, the declinist left finds itself in agreement with a broad spectrum of Islamofascists, evangelical nuts and tinfoil-hat anarchists, who equally fear the globalized future and pray for a return to a glorious but thoroughly imaginary past. If it takes a global catastrophe to get us there, so much the better.”

    Quite an intellectual leap there Mr. Potter. Congratulations — you have joined the ranks of the irresponsible “jump-to-conclusionists.”

    Some of those on the “lunatic fringe” might really be “canaries in the coalmine.”

  2. Such a bile-spitting, spiteful response from Andrew Potter makes my eyebrow go up. Why so angry? It would seem like the New Yorker article really touched a cord, because Potter’s commentary is hardly objective, but rather seems to be unhinged and reactionary. Perhaps there’s some fear buried down in him somewhere that’s lashing out.

    Claims that Nassim Taleb is “insane” need some kind of evidence. Particularly since if so, Benoit Mandelbrot must be equally insane. See this interview:

    Now, what’s more likely: that both Nassim Taleb and Benoit Mandelbrot, two towering intellects, are completely nuts, or that Andrew Potter doesn’t want to begin to even wonder whether things might be worse than they superficially seem?

    Maybe there’s something to the current doomerism after all.

  3. As someone sympathetic to Taleb’s main points about unpredictability, I was amazed that he often gets very basic facts wrong in ways that undermine his larger point.

    And I continue to be amazed that reviewers and readers haven’t noticed, or, if they have, don’t care.

    • “What Taleb’s examples demonstrate is not that highly improbable events can’t be predicted. They show that it’s very hard to separate accurate predictions from all the other noise until after the event. And they show it’s very hard to get institutions to respond to improbable risks because acting carries a cost while doing nothing is free — unless the improbable actually happens, which is, by definition, very unlikely.”

      See, now there’s evidence. While it doesn’t speak directly to Taleb’s analysis of finance and economics in the present, it raises some doubts about his general competence. That’s a good start if Potter’s going to continue making his argument.

      But he’s got a long way to go if he’s going to tar a whole collection of people as insane and jackasses.

  4. How is Taleb insane? I don’t see anything in those links that would paint him as insane or otherwise.

    As for Dan Gardiner’s comment, it’s true Taleb makes numerous small factual errors, (some downright silly, like holding up Daniel Kanheman as the most influential economist of all time – if only) but those errors hardly take away from his core hypotheses. Those core hypotheses, by the way, have held out rather nicely through the past two years of financial collapse.

    • Oops, sorry Dan, spelled your last name wrong. But that small factual error shouldn’t take away from my post.