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Monday, Mar 26, 2018 - 21:55 SGT
Posted By: Gilbert

Skin In The Art (Part II)

"This is definitely not a cosmetic relaunch...
a lot of effort and a lot of thinking had been put in to create this new logo... if we keep emphasising the four pillars, we hope that it will bring results and it (the rebranding) is not a cosmetic change.

- the FAS president on renaming the S.League,
the Singapore Premier League

Well, looks like somebody needs to boost his stock pronto, as discussed last October. Of course, given all the previous heavily-marketed "bold changes" in the past twenty-two years, there wasn't much left to up the ante except a full-on label switch. Our FAS president was at least under no illusions about how it would (rightly) be perceived, given his repeated assertions that "it is not just a cosmetic change" (it probably is).

This serves nicely as an introduction to the concept of "skin in the game" - the league admins, and their political masters based in the relevant ministry, share next to none of the risks of the footballers who are actually practising sport. If a player finds himself just missing the cut-off to join a club, or has his career stopped short by injury, it's all on himself.

As oft raised here previously, the disjunction between the rewards to the actual do-ers (recall, capped at S$2.5k monthly, even for national teamers), and the management, is absolutely ridiculous by this point. Benchmarking against international standards, the average English League Two (i.e. fourth division) player earns over S$10k a month; let's just say that I'm still waiting for the higher-ups to put their money (skin) where their mouth is.

Incerto, Hot Air?

Taleb is one of those that readers tend to be divided on (as previously seen with Antifragile), and his many detractors tend to dislike his insufferably-smug style (actually not entirely uncommon with famous academics, including Taleb's favourite "psycholophaster*", Steven Pinker). In short, he is - and accepts that he is - an asshole.

[*in particular, Taleb writes that "seeing the psychologist Steven Pinker making pronouncements of things intellectual has a similar effect to encountering a drive-in Burger King while hiking in the middle of a national park".]

One way of understanding this would be his advice that "surgeons should not look like surgeons", giving as an example the wisdom of picking a guy who looks - and behaves - like a butcher for an operation, over one that is the very picture of a soft-spoken physician, assuming they are both at the same institution. The logic here is that the butcher-lookalike would have had to survive far more challenges to his competency, due to prejudice at him not looking the part; one can imagine the higher-ups itching to cut him loose at any excuse. It follows, then, that he should be very, very good at what he does.

Setting aside other factors (e.g. race-based quotas, second-degree gamesmanship), this does make some sense, especially when applied to recent winners who were derided for going against the grain: Scott Adams and GOD-EMPEROR TRUMP. Definitely, merely affecting being a rebel doesn't indicate fitness, but we can well observe the innate cognitive resistance to recognizing that they weren't merely lucky, but in fact extremely wise, simply because they didn't talk and behave the parts of "(liberal) cartoonist" and "President" respectively.

[N.B. See interesting signalling/countersignalling paper, which happens to support Fussell's observations on class (the averagely-talented are most anxious to distinguish themselves from those they view as beneath them - amusingly, they find that those with merely average reputations defend themselves most vigorously, which makes sense applied to local politics)]

Trawling your data is only smart when our guy does it!
(Source: r/the_donald)

Here, we deliver a similar verdict on Taleb. While one might not like the way he comes across, he is, as with Adams and TRUMP, generally accurate (one recalls his prescient explanation that the TRUMP election was simply the people voting to destroy the establishment), which is what should be important. One can certainly complain that quite a number of his concepts have been covered in his previous works, and that, if carefully distilled, Skin in the Game could be much shorter than it is. Neither detracts materially from his fundamental accuracy.

The next criticism would then be that Taleb's ideas are mostly just folk wisdom, which he doesn't deny (recall the Lindy principle [Chapter Eight here] on antifragility). The point, however, is that such received knowledge has of late been undeservingly drowned out by formalism. Taleb in particular delights in calling out macroeconomics, which he accuses (as did Romer, remember) of becoming ever more self-referential - since there is no foolproof way to disprove theories, prestige in the form of top journal publications tends to become a closed circle, admitting only compatible ideas (intellectual-yet-idiot).

One might reasonably bristle at Taleb's hypocrisy here - isn't he a professor (one-fourth commitment, admittedly) at NYU himself? In his defence here, he has a longer history of actually doing stuff as a trader, even if not always successfully, which happens to be also be what he lauds about TRUMP - TRUMP was, if nothing else, real, and not just yet another figurehead in hock to his donors. They wanted an independent who could say "f**k you" when required... and they got him.

For example, take the recent tariff spat. America had somehow been cast as the bad guy for trying to do what many other countries, in particular China, had been doing for years (try getting into business in the Middle Kingdom without a local partner), and for all the gabbing about tariffs harming profits, the thing is that these excess profits were never going to the guys on the ground anyway (as one r/economics commentator sagely put, "the average person doesn't trust economists - they understand, intuitively if not academically, that economists and average people have goals that don't align")!

Basically, what previous presidents like Obama had done, was to sit at the negotiating table, hear a "no" from China and Europe, and shrug their shoulders complacently (well, they said no negotiating, what would you have me do? One can imagine Jeb! thanking them after this, had he somehow gotten elected). The lousiest Walmart purchaser couldn't get away with that crap! Well, no more Mr. Nice Guy, and yes, TRUMP's winning it.

But Does It Make Sense?

Since it's unrealistic to cover all the details, I'll move on to a couple of arguments against the concepts in Skin.

The first would be Taleb's seeming antipathy against all things theoretical. Surely this isn't entirely justified? Wouldn't a dab of theory save a ton of experiment, borrowed from Tesla's jab at Edison?

The important distinction that Taleb presupposes, from my understanding, is that theory is too often worshipped, where it is not properly proven. Therefore, one does not see him having much trouble with, say, Newton's Laws. However, returning to macroecons, with its huge and frankly near-unmodellable domain, he would caution against placing too much faith in stacks of equations. One supposes that isolated systems - as in, say, high-frequency trading - would be another matter.

The next question might be even more cutting - Taleb states that one should not engage in virtue signalling and rent-seeking. However, a bit of thought suggests that these behaviors are exactly what should be done, in an economic sense.

To put it another way, consider the exercise of portfolio management. It is a given that risk and reward are directly correlated here - to chase higher rewards, one has to take on higher risks. Then, if one comes across an opportunity to reap higher rewards without proportionate risks - for example, on mispriced U.S. Treasuries - one would just be stupid not to leap at the opportunity. But isn't this equivalent to rent-seeking?

Well, here is where the ethical dimension comes in. Rent-seeking is wrong, inasmuch as the rent-seeker profits disproportionately - if there were no rent-seekers, so it goes, society as a whole would be better off, with people reaping rewards based purely on the skin put in. The trouble is that everyone hates rent-seekers... only until they get to become one themselves. Further, disentangling legitimate profit and rent isn't always easy - is a surgeon who refuses to take on cases below a certain price rent-seeking, if he took decades to accumulate his experience and knowledge?

Skin And Belief

"I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark."

- the late Stephen Hawking, in his fifty-year foxhole

Taleb devotes a good portion of the book to the application of skin-in-the-game to religion, which includes the usual jibe that when the Pope gets shot, he gets sent to hospital pronto, instead of getting prayed over at leisure. Therefore, Taleb claims, the Pope is ipso facto an atheist (note that Scott Adams made similar arguments with "truck reality" in God's Debris)

The evolution of skin-in-the-game in the Abrahamic traditions is a worthy study in itself. In the beginning, you had the tribal incarnation, who demanded - and got - animal sacrifice from His first believers (no, no wussy veganism for The Most High). However, one can note that there is literally skin-in-the-game, that from the offered creatures. Believers had to be serious then - "without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness". YHWH had no truck with flowery words - you want something, you better pay in kind (in other words: "Blood for the Blood God, Skulls for the Skull Throne"!)

However one might feel about animal slaughter, this state of affairs was moderated by Second Wave Abrahamism, and its most prominent expression in Catholicism, which declared, in somewhat technical language, that believers should pursue both faith and good works ("faith of itself, if it does not have work, is dead"... with plenty of small print on the specific interaction; I'd like to posit that the general intent remains clear)

Then Wave 2.5 came along, together with sola fide - "by faith alone, one is saved", if admittedly with certain exceptions. The consequence, then, is that even were one a complete monster, one could just say the magic words on one's deathbed, and be fully expiated. Indeed, following by the logic of Pascal's Wager, that would be the most rational thing to do! On the contrary, a reasonably decent fellow who had done most everything okay, less the admission of faith (and having been served notice), was doomed. Personally, there's no justice to be found in this setup, and if a Creator had to resort to this sort of rules-lawyering, I'd gather that it'd just delay the screwing-over to the afterlife.

Simplifying just a tad, much of theology appears a dance between two conceptions of a High God - in the first form, He is ineffable, indescribable, unimaginable, wholly beyond human understanding; impersonal, abstract, the "God" of Spinoza and Einstein and Hawking, because what is this God but Natural Law? Note that none of these luminaries claimed knowledge of this entity's intentions - only that the Universe has certain Rules, that may be apprehended with some honest work.

In the second, far more popular form, God cares. This form has variously been said to be born of a rock or an egg or a virgin or sea foam, and He has wants, which on some reflection appear strangely petty for a being of His stature - he wants roast beef, of course, but also the neighbouring tribe to be put to the sword, for big houses and shiny decorations and all manner of abasement. Summing it up, Form Two's behaviour and mentality differs little from that of a megalomaniac human ruler.

The trick of organized religion, then, lies in deftly bridging these forms - the first form removes Him from logical assault and defends his universality, and once that is established, the second form states His - generally rather mundane - wants. One can only smile at this presumption; Cao Cao got derided for speaking for the Emperor, but the humblest fellow nowadays thinks nothing of making declarations for the Almighty!

Taleb, in his usual clear thinking, characterizes believers as being uniformly religious in words. However, when it comes to actions, he classes most - including the Pope - as atheist in action, reserving the religious in action honour to "Salafi Islamists and suicide bombers". But really, "through deed only" makes the most sense. Does helping an old lady cross the road get discounted because one visits a different building on a particular day of the week? In fact, wouldn't it be far more noble if no reward, in this life or the next, were expected at all?

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