Turtle Soup

Nassim Taleb tells this story about a bunch of fisherman who catch some turtles one day. They try to eat the turtles, but the turtles taste bad, so instead they offer the meat to the god Mercury, who happens to be passing by at just that moment. Mercury, an immortal being with supernatural powers, perceives the deception, and dispenses justice. As punishment for offering Mercury bad food, the fishermen are then forced to eat the turtles themselves. And thus the principle of equality of uncertainty is established.

First of all, I want to point to most unrealistic part of this story: the presence of an immortal being with supernatural powers. I feel it is common knowledge that such beings do not exist, and that, likewise, principles are not enforced by them. And justice enforced by coercive power is no justice besides.

Taleb’s primary lesson deriving from the story of the fishermen and the turtles is to beware of salesmen. My gut level response to that is “have you been outdoors lately?” Everyday life is saturated with commecials and advertisements. The drumbeat of salesmanship is ubiquitous, steady, and relentless for most people. It is woven into the fabric of social interaction. Televised sporting events are – both on-screen and live – orgies of salesmanship. Social media commodifies the advertising subject itself – Facebook users are the product – advertisers are the consumers.

Taleb discusses his career as a trader at a “white shoe firm” – the partners at the firm would never sell each other crap – all the crap they would sell to faceless outsiders – well, actually the salesmen sell all the crap to faceless outsiders, and are well compensated for it – the salient point here is that what Taleb finds laudable about the traders at his firm is their ability to off-load inferior product onto outsiders.

If Taleb had an ethical motto it might be “Capitalism is for the capitalists” – or, it’s people screwing each other all the way down. If possible, be the person at the top. In general, try to be as close to the top as possible. Most people live in a fog of lies, platitudes, and fear but it’s easier to just assume they’re stupid and therefore deserve to get screwed. The odd thing is that I imagine that Taleb’s audience fantisizes themselves being part of elite in the know – “most people are suckers, but not us. I think they’re just as confused as anybody. I’ve only read parts of Skin in the Game – not any of his better known work – but Taleb comes across to me as breathtakingly cynical.

 

 

 

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