Opinion

Felix Salmon

Counterparties

Felix Salmon
Apr 30, 2011 08:21 UTC

“Recent investments include $3.50 for a controlling stake in the editorial integrity of Forbes.com” — Techcrunch

Sheelah Kolhatkar on Donald Trump — Businessweek

Amazon explains what went wrong with its cloud — Amazon

Why John McCain chose Sarah Palin as his running mate — NYT

First and Second Avenue Redesigns Are a Success — Streetsblog

The guy who wants to buy the Boston Globe has “spent months researching the media business” — Boston

Here Is The Worst Thing Ever Written About The Conflict In Libya Or About Cappuccino — HuffPo

Highly critical report on EPA’s Office of Civil Rights — WaPo

“On pages 5·130 and 6·98, the recipe for Sous Vide Pigeon Offal should call for 150 g of pigeon gizzards” — Modernist Cuisine

Inside The Frick’s Secret Rooms — Gothamist

French planes have started dropping bomb-shaped chunks of concrete in Libya — Atlantic Wire

Old Fashioned In The Rocks — YouTube

Ordinary people getting married — Atlantic

The F.D.I.C.’s Lehman Fantasy — NYT

Steven Boone on the soup kitchens of Toronto and New York — Capital

David Hume’s Tercentenary: So When Do The Celebrations Start? — Bella Caledonia

Why text shouldn’t be laid out in columns for browsers & apps, even tho it’s easier than ever to do so — Subtraction

HuffPo’s huge, must-read piece on the politics of swipe fees — HuffPo

Mathematician rediscovers ‘perfect’ voting system: the random ballot — New Scientist

Citigroup will pay Ben Stein $45k for not giving a speech — Bloomberg

Visa Invests in Mobile Payment Company Square — All Things D

Why the SEC should look at levered ETFs

Felix Salmon
Apr 30, 2011 02:22 UTC

TBT, the ProShares UltraShort 20+ Year US Treasury fund, is an ETF which returns double the daily decline in an index linked to long-dated government bonds. There are 173 million shares of TBT outstanding, which at a price of $35.65 apiece, means that more than $6 billion is tied up in TBT shares. But average daily volume is just 10.7 million shares — which means that the overwhelming majority of TBT shares are not traded on any given day.

The helpful bloggers at Symmetric Info have explained in great detail — here’s Part 1 and Part 2 — why this is bonkers. But suffice to say that no one should ever hold a leveraged ETF overnight. These things are intraday trading vehicles; they’re not medium-term or even short-term investments.

Given how many people are clearly Doing It Wrong when it comes to TBT, I think there’s a strong case for the SEC to step in here and take a very hard look at TBT in particular, and levered ETFs in general. If day-traders want to day-trade using ETFs, that’s fine — and they can bring their own leverage, if they’re so inclined. But ETFs with embedded leverage are clearly being bought by people who aren’t day-traders at all, and who have no business buying these securities. It’s the SEC’s job to protect those people. It should get on the case.

COMMENT

“no one should ever hold a leveraged ETF overnight” may not be true. This article http://ddnum.com/articles/leveragedETFs. php says that the above statement is a myth and that leveraged ETFs CAN be held long term. I would add another qualification to that article: PROVIDED THAT THE VOLATILITY OF THE ETF IS LOW ENOUGH it may be held long term. Indexes have relatively lower volatility than other securities so may be good candidates for long term holding in a leveraged form.

Posted by inoddy | Report as abusive

Adam Lindemann and the game of art

Felix Salmon
Apr 29, 2011 22:40 UTC

Adam Lindemann has replied to my post on art as a game. He makes a number of points worth responding to:

First, your idea of challenging me to buy a work of art that would have no economic value sounds clever but is in fact naïve from many perspectives. The notion that great art can be of no value, or that one should “buy what you like” even if it is worthless, is an opinion often held by those who have no background in art or willingness to learn and appreciate art in its full context.

There’s a bunch of stuff to unpack here. For starters, there’s more to art than great art. Is it possible for great art to have no value? Maybe not — I can see an argument which says that for art to achieve greatness, intrinsic qualities aren’t enough; it also needs a certain amount of institutional support which in turn guarantees that it will have monetary value. And so I suppose a reasonable (if rather puffed-up) answer to my question might have been “I only buy great art, and great art always has value”. But most collectors buy a lot of art, including art which doesn’t aspire to greatness, or art which hasn’t achieved greatness yet and which is awaiting the institutional support which might confer greatness upon it. (This covers, among other things, just about everything by so-called “emerging artists”.)

And of course people should buy what they like. Buying art you don’t like is something done only by schmucks or by dealers — and the latter will never admit it. So the question is only whether people should buy what they like even if it is worthless.

My view here is very much that they should, and I continue to hold that view even if it’s also held by people with no background in art or willingness to appreciate it in its full context. As I said back in December, when I buy art I tend to want to buy unlimited editions or other work with no resale value. Because the art-as-luxury-object game has become completely disconnected, at this point, from the art-as-art game, and has become little more than a pissing match between oligarchs to see who has the largest bankroll.

So I would say that I buy worthless art precisely because I appreciate the full context of expensive art. And that’s simply not something I want to — literally — buy into.

Lindemann continues:

Economic value is how the world recognizes aesthetic, social or historical value in art. The concept that there is something fresh and undiscovered that you alone you would cherish and that no one else would assign any economic value to if they discovered it, too, is idealized and naïve (an object of personal or sentimental value is another matter).

Economic value is one way that the world recognizes aesthetic, social or historical value in art. It’s far from the only way. Indeed, the fact that masterpieces are frequently described as “priceless” is a good indication that there’s much more to art than economic value. Look at the old masters that Jeff Koons is collecting: all of them are cheaper than many of Koons’s own works. Does that mean that the world has officially recognized that a big Koons sculpture has more aesthetic, social and historical value than the old masters in Koons’s collection? No. But a big Koons sculpture is a much more effective way for an oligarch to flaunt his wealth than a smallish Courbet bull. And so it sells for more.

As for worthlessness, I’m not talking about “something fresh and undiscovered that you alone you would cherish and that no one else would assign any economic value to”. Instead, I’m talking about the natural state of 99% of the art which has ever been produced. Much of it is loved; virtually none of it can be sold, whether or not it has aesthetic, social or historical value. Right now, in fact, my family is grappling with the issue of what to do with the substantial body of work of a now-forgotten artist; LACMA has said they would be interested in a donation of a couple of works, which they wouldn’t do if the pieces didn’t have significant value, but there’s no economic value to these paintings in the sense that there’s any kind of a market for them.

I do agree with Lindemann here:

We are all a product of our cultural surroundings and this process begins from the time the doctor cuts the umbilical cord. So there is no fresh and unbiased view of anything, least of all art. The search for the work of art valuable to you and you alone is futile and pointless, art history is a dialogue.

I’m certainly not looking for a work of art valuable to me and me alone. Indeed, I’ve been known, upon buying a piece, to post it and write about it at length — to share my enthusiasm for it with as many people as possible. I’m just being realistic — in the case of all the artists I know personally, the supply of their work is significantly greater than the demand for it. In that context, anybody wanting to buy their work can and should do so in the primary market. These people are constantly trying to find willing buyers, and they’re not having a huge amount of luck; there’s no reason for me to believe that if I put my own piece up for sale then it would easily catch a bid.

Lindemann, of course, moves in different circles. He buys only the work of artists represented by established galleries — the kind of galleries where there’s an implicit promise to buy the work back if you ever tire of it. That’s fine — but if I choose not to play that game, that doesn’t mean I’m looking for art valuable to me and me alone. It just means that I don’t need to know that there’s a secondary-market bid out there before I buy a piece.

Lindemann then admits that he views collecting art as a business:

Next, regarding your complaint that I treat the art business as a game, well, yes and no. As you’ve noted in your blogs, any business is a game of buying or selling, whether stocks, bonds etc… I am a collector, but I am also a businessman…

I couldn’t be more serious about collecting, and you might not feel art is an investment, but there is a lot of money changing hands.

This is a fair point: if buying and selling art is a game, then buying and selling stocks is a game, too. But that kind of mindset — reducing art collecting to the level of stock-market speculation — is exactly what I find distasteful. There is indeed a lot of money changing hands — and Lindemann is indeed a businessman. But when you look at the art world through the eyes of a businessman, something important is lost; for one thing, you stop thinking about art as something to buy, and start thinking about art as something to invest in. Art moves from being a consumption good to being an investment.

When you buy art, you should be looking for something you love. When you buy an investment, you should be looking for something which is going to increase in value over time. Conflating the two helps to persuade people like Lindemann that spending millions of dollars on art is a sensible thing to do. But it also massively reduces the universe of artworks you can choose from, and exacerbates the star system whereby a handful of artists sell for millions of dollars while most struggle to sell anything at all.

Finally, Lindemann says that I’m “mistaken” when I say he can afford to lose millions investing in art, and that I’m attacking his credibility when I call him a plutocrat. He also asked me, in an email, to go light on the personal stuff in my response. So I’ll leave those objections unanswered; they’re not central to our differences in any case.

The main point here is the difference in the way that each of us buys art, and thinks it should be bought. I like to buy work that I love, ideally directly from the artist, with no eye to ever being able to sell it. Adam prefers to buy work which has garnered so much institutional ratification that it can cost him millions of dollars — and even then has significant economic upside potential. He also sells work, when he can do so at a profit — that’s the game he likes to play. It’s a game which reduces something complex and beautiful to a banal P&L. Which means that even as his pieces are selling for enormous sums, they’re being cheapened at the same time.

COMMENT

I like buying art at auction by good artists selling for a lot less than it would sell in a gallery. It does have to appeal to me. Most art isn’t a financial investment at least to the person who buys it from a gallery. A lot of times it is treated like used furniture.

Posted by Judgetoo | Report as abusive

Vericrest Financial: homicidally otiose

Felix Salmon
Apr 29, 2011 18:47 UTC

We’ve heard a fair amount about the human toll of the subprime crisis — although, frankly, not enough. So this story deserves wide play: Manuel Lopez and Christina Garcia, and their 12-year-old son Christian Garcia, died in a grisly fire Monday morning, because the building they lived in was full of illegally built walls which blocked access to the fire escape. Who was responsible for looking after the building and making sure it was up to code? The message I get from the NYT‘s Jim Dwyer is that it’s a Dallas company called Vericrest Financial.

The insouciance of Vericrest, here, is downright breathtaking:

Did Vericrest take care of the building while it was in foreclosure, or even know that it was supposed to?

“Vericrest is not going to comment,” a spokesman said.

The backstory, as pieced together by Dwyer, is that the three-family building at 2321 Prospect Avenue went into strategic default long ago, after the owner, Domingo Cedano, who bought the building with no money down, stopped making his mortgage payments.

Under New York state law, when that happens, and once foreclosure proceedings begin, the lender becomes responsible for the property. In this case, the loan is owned by a trust, Bank of New York Mellon is the trustee, and the bank in turn has hired Vericrest to handle the loans in the trust.

Here’s what Vericrest says about itself:

Vericrest Financial, Inc. is a privately held, premier financial services company primarily engaged in the servicing of residential mortgage and consumer finance loans. Vericrest Financial, Inc. is led by a seasoned team of financial services industry professionals who have over 20 years of experience in working with customers and investors. Our business operations are located in Oklahoma, New Jersey, California and Texas.

Vericrest Financial, Inc. is dedicated to providing superior customer care and maintaining the highest level of quality, integrity and trust that our customers, employees, investors and other business associates expect and deserve. Vericrest Financial, Inc. is regulated by numerous state and federal regulatory agencies and holds the requisite licenses to service mortgage and consumer finance loans and to conduct other aspects of its business in those states where it does business.

It’s fair to assume that Vericrest, as the holder of all the requisite licenses to do what it does in New York state, is indeed cognizant of any legal obligation it had to maintain 2321 Prospect Avenue, since it was “abandoned by the mortgagor but occupied by a tenant.” Assuming that somewhere along the line foreclosure proceedings were initiated, the law is clear:

For the purposes of this section “maintain” shall mean keeping the subject property in a manner that is consistent with the standards set forth in the New York property maintenance code… provided, however, that if the property is occupied by a tenant, then such property must also be maintained in a safe and habitable condition.

What we’re seeing here is a particularly tragic instance of something that has been happening a lot over the course of the subprime crisis — the way in which mortgages, once they become transmogrified into purely financial instruments, lose all connection to real-world buildings and humans. When my credit union makes a mortgage loan, we know the borrower and we know the building and we have relationships there. When Vericrest Financial takes on responsibility for loans in an investment trust, there’s no relationship at all, and there’s precious little incentive for the company to send someone out to the Bronx to find out what it’s responsible for.

If the law was indeed broken by Vericrest in this case, I hope that it and its principals face criminal prosecution. Only that will make these “premier financial services companies” wake up and realize what their real-world responsibilities can mean.

COMMENT

Or if there is no receiver, Vericrest probably would have hired a management company.

Posted by Yahonza | Report as abusive

Jeff Bezos is secure

Felix Salmon
Apr 29, 2011 17:05 UTC

Michelle Leder picks up on an unfortunate bit of English in Amazon’s latest proxy filing, in the discussion of the $1.6 million that the company spent on security for CEO Jeff Bezos:

We provide security for Mr. Bezos, including security in addition to that provided at business facilities and during business-related travel. We believe that all Company-incurred security costs are reasonable and necessary and for the Company’s benefit, and we believe that the amount of the reported security expenses is especially reasonable in light of Mr. Bezos’ low salary and the fact that he has never received any stock-based compensation.

If you read this closely, it’s hard to see any internal consistency here.

First of all, Amazon admits that the $1.6 million is over and above the security which is provided for Bezos at work and “during business-related travel.” I don’t have the imagination to envisage what kind of personal security $1.6 million per year buys, but I wonder whether such expenditure can ever be money well spent.

At some point, security expenses stop making executives safer, and start just making them more paranoid. Nobody ever wants to be the kind of person who sends out staffers a few days in advance when they’ve been invited over somewhere for dinner, just to check out the entrances, exits, and safe rooms. And even fewer people spend their own money on such services. But if your employer is giving you such services “for free,” then it probably gets harder to politely decline the offer — especially when your employer, which is also the company you founded, says that those services are “necessary and for the Company’s benefit.”

But then comes that telling phrase: the $1.6 million, says Amazon, “is especially reasonable in light of Mr. Bezos’ low salary.” This is basically the what-do-you-give-the-man-who-has-everything argument: Bezos neither wants nor needs a regular paycheck or more stock in Amazon, so how are we to compensate him for all the work he does? Spending $1.6 million a year on his security is a way of giving him something he otherwise wouldn’t have, but which is still valuable to him — the perfect gift. Or, in this case, compensation. It’s the Amazon equivalent of the G5 that a grateful Apple board gave Steve Jobs in 2000.

Amazon is saying here, in as many words, that if Bezos were paid the kind of money that most CEOs get paid, it would be much less reasonable for the company to spend $1.6 million a year on his personal security. But it’s hard to say that at the same time as you’re saying that the expenditure is both reasonable and necessary for the company’s benefit: you can’t really have it both ways.

I wonder how long it’s been since Bezos felt free to do something spontaneous, without worrying about the security implications. If Amazon could give him the ability to do that, it would probably be worth much more than $1.6 million to him. But the next time you’re invited round to Jeff’s place, know this: he’s paying a bunch of people a lot of money to consider you a potential risk to his security. Which might be worth bearing in mind before you offer to help with the dishes.

COMMENT

Does anyone know the security company that provides services for Mr. Bezo? i am a Executive Protection agent moving to the seattle area and am looking for employment. Any info would be greatly appreciated

Posted by selflessservice | Report as abusive

Keynes vs Hayek: The ultimate smackdown

Felix Salmon
Apr 28, 2011 19:47 UTC

The long-awaited second round of Keynes vs Hayek is out, and it’s spectacular. As you might imagine from something written by Russ Roberts and funded by the Mercatus Center, Hayek gets the better of the fight — but Keynes gets to make all his best points. And the production values rock.

This is the best macroeconomic debate I’ve ever seen — put your headphones on, enjoy the next ten minutes, and look out for cameos from Ludwig von Mises and Thomas Malthus.

COMMENT

The first minute is kind of dumb, but once the fight starts, this is pure genius.

I had to circulate it immediately to some freinds and family.

Posted by EconWatcher | Report as abusive

The uncanny valley of advertising

Felix Salmon
Apr 28, 2011 09:25 UTC

From an economic point of view, improvements in ad-targeting technology seem as though they’re pretty obviously Pareto-optimal: everybody benefits. Advertisers get to waste fewer of their ad dollars putting messages in front of people they don’t want to reach; publishers get to charge more money; and consumers get to see only things which are germane and relevant to them.

So why is it that many people hate ad targeting, and hate being served targeted ads?

Part of the reason, I think, is just that targeted ads are better at getting our attention than non-targeted ads — but they’re still an unwelcome distraction from whatever it is we’re wanting to read. Most of us have become pretty good at unconsciously ignoring advertising, especially online. (Often I find myself looking hard for a big special report on a website, because it’s presented on the home page in much the same way as an ad might be, and so I ignore it, in much the same way as it’s easy to miss the big letters spelling out continent names on a world map.) Every time there’s an improvement in targeted advertising, it cuts through that wall and annoys us anew before we slowly learn to ignore it over time.

But more generally and more interestingly I wonder whether what we’re seeing here is what you might call the uncanny valley of advertising.

Every so often, we get glimpses of the Holy Grail of advertising: the point at which the advertising message is so perfectly crafted and targeted for the consumer that the consumer doesn’t want to ignore it at all, and prefers it to most media output. (One common slogan found in advertising circles is “every company is a media company”.) American Express has been working this seam for a while, with its custom publishing unit; another example is Red Bull, which produces more extreme-sport content than any dedicated TV production company.

And of course we’re all used to traditional mass-market advertising, which is barely targeted at all: the 30-second spots in popular sitcoms, say, or the Netflix pop-up ads we have to clear out every so often when uncluttering our browser windows.

The former is better than the latter — but in between things get weird. Especially when the targeting is done by keyword-recognition algorithms or cookies placed on your computer by robots which track you across the internet.

You look for a pair of socks online, and then for weeks afterwards you see ads for socks popping up in the most unlikely websites. You mention Palm Springs in an status update, and suddenly ads for weekend getaways in Palm Springs start appearing in your webmail client. Or more distressingly and creepily, after sending a difficult and highly personal email to a close friend, you start seeing ads for abortion service providers.

We all naturally anthropomorphize computers at the best of times, so it’s impossible not to feel, in these cases, that we’re being spied on, and that our most private activities are really not private at all. But I think the emphasis on privacy, in these debates, is misplaced. It’s not like some individual human being out there knows something about me personally that I’d rather they didn’t. And a computer or an algorithm, of course, can’t really know anything at all. But we feel spied on and invaded, because we don’t think of activities like online shopping or social networking or emailing as things we do in public: in fact we would never want to do them in a very public way.

Eventually, advertisers will be able to get much smarter than they are right now, and the ad-serving algorithms will stop being dumb things based on keyword searches, and will start being able to construct a much more well-rounded idea of who we are and what kind of advertising we’re likely to be interested in. At that point, when the ads we see are targeted to us based on much more than the content of our emails or the goods that we shop for online, they probably won’t feel nearly as creepy or intrusive as they do now. But for the time being, a lot of people are going to continue to get freaked out by these ads, and are going to think that the answer is greater “online privacy”. When I’m not really convinced that’s the problem at all.

COMMENT

Hello. My name is Trifon. This information is very useful for me. I found this very difficult and I am grateful to you.
I want to share with you this information:
HEMORRHOIDS or SWOLLEN ANAL VEINS
‘Hemorrhoids’ is the medical term for swollen anal veins within the anal canal … in every day terms, sufferers often refer to this condition as ‘piles’.
But if you are reading this article, then there’s a good chance you already know what hemorrhoids are …. And you are looking for a way to cure them. And know the pain and discomfort of swollen anal veins.
And be assured, you are not alone! Common in both men and women, about half of the population has hemorrhoids by age 50. They are also common among pregnant women as a result of the pressure of the fetus on the abdomen, together with hormonal changes, causing swollen anal veins. These veins are also placed under severe pressure during childbirth. Fortunately, in these instances, the problem is a temporary one.

Posted by Trifon | Report as abusive

Ecuador’s market manipulation: The WikiLeaks cable

Felix Salmon
Apr 28, 2011 02:08 UTC

I’ve posted on the subject of possible Ecuadorean bond-market manipulation in various places over the years, including roubini.com, felixsalmon.com, and portfolio.com as well as reuters.com. So it’s gratifying for me to see the subject come up in an official State Department cable, which has now been published by Ecuador’s El Universo newspaper in conjunction — of course — with WikiLeaks.

Here’s the relevant bit of the cable, was sent in June 2009 by US ambassador Heather Hodges, who has already been expelled from the country in the wake of the release of a different cable.

Market Manipulation?

——————–

3. (SBU) The repurchase of $2.9 billion worth of 2012 and 2030 bonds at a price of 35 cents on the dollar would represent a disbursement of about $1 billion. However, according to official figures, government reserves showed a drop of only $243 million between May 22 and May 29, the time the bond repurchase went through. This amount is much less than would be needed to repurchase the bonds, and lends credence to the widely held belief that the GOE repurchased some of the bonds previously in December 2008, following its report that the debt was illegitimate. An earlier purchase could have given the GOE an advantage by possibly reducing the number of remaining bondholders and their influence. Contacts from the Central Bank confirmed privately that the amount disbursed for the bond repurchase on May 29 was only $305 million.

SBU, here, stands for “sensitive but unclassified”; GOE is government of Ecuador. And the background, here, is the widespread belief that after Ecuador announced its bond default in December 2008, the government used Banco del Pacifico, a large Ecuadorean bank, to start buying bonds at levels above 20 cents on the dollar. That was just high enough that vulture investors didn’t want to amass a large position, but also low enough that buying bonds at 20 cents in the secondary market was a much smarter move than buying them back at 35 cents in the official restructuring.

There’s nothing particularly surprising here — the government’s intervention through Banco del Pacifico has been something of an open secret for a while. But it’s still startling to see it explicitly called “market manipulation” in a State Department cable. And it’s good to see State keeping an eye on such matters, which normally fall more under the purview of Treasury. A government which pulls dubiously-legal stunts like this is not one which can be trusted in diplomatic matters, so it’s good to see State paying attention. Not that they really needed to be told that the Ecuadorean government was prone to shenanigans.

The Black Swan of Cairo

Felix Salmon
Apr 27, 2011 17:59 UTC

Go read the essay by Nassim Taleb and Mark Blythe on “The Black Swan of Cairo” — it does a fantastic job of explaining how tail risk works in geopolitics. I’m reminded of this exchange from the film the title references:

Gil’s Agent: Tom Baxter’s come down off the screen and he’s running around New Jersey!… Nobody knows how it happened, but he’s done it.
Gil Shepherd: How can he do that? It’s not physically possible!
Gil’s Agent: In New Jersey anything can happen.

The point here is that it’s all too easy to confuse the unprecedented with the impossible. There’s a weak form of this fallacy and a strong form: the weak form is seen in US foreign policy, where analysts never expect something which hasn’t happened before. And the strong form is seen in Middle Eastern domestic policy, where repressive authoritarianism is considered a means of preventing revolution, rather than a guarantee that something violently unexpected is sure to happen at some point.

It’s easy to see what this means in theory. Taleb and Blythe write:

Seeking to restrict variability seems to be good policy (who does not prefer stability to chaos?), so it is with very good intentions that policymakers unwittingly increase the risk of major blowups. And it is the same misperception of the properties of natural systems that led to both the economic crisis of 2007-8 and the current turmoil in the Arab world. The policy implications are identical: to make systems robust, all risks must be visible and out in the open — fluctuat nec mergitur (it fluctuates but does not sink) goes the Latin saying.

Just as a robust economic system is one that encourages early failures (the concepts of “fail small” and “fail fast”), the U.S. government should stop supporting dictatorial regimes for the sake of pseudostability and instead allow political noise to rise to the surface. Making an economy robust in the face of business swings requires allowing risk to be visible; the same is true in politics.

And in practice?

Consider that Italy, with its much-maligned “cabinet instability,” is economically and politically stable despite having had more than 60 governments since World War II (indeed, one may say Italy’s stability is because of these switches of government). Similarly, in spite of consistently bad press, Lebanon is a relatively safe bet in terms of how far governments can jump from equilibrium; in spite of all the noise, shifting alliances, and street protests, changes in government there tend to be comparatively mild. For example, a shift in the ruling coalition from Christian parties to Hezbollah is not such a consequential jump in terms of the country’s economic and political stability. Switching equilibrium, with control of the government changing from one party to another, in such systems acts as a shock absorber. Since a single party cannot have total and more than temporary control, the possibility of a large jump in the regime type is constrained…

U.S. policy toward the Middle East has historically, and especially since 9/11, been unduly focused on the repression of any and all political fluctuations in the name of preventing “Islamic fundamentalism” — a trope that Mubarak repeated until his last moments in power and that Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi continues to emphasize today, blaming Osama bin Laden for what has befallen him. This is wrong. The West and its autocratic Arab allies have strengthened Islamic fundamentalists by forcing them underground, and even more so by killing them.

As Jean-Jacques Rousseau put it, “A little bit of agitation gives motivation to the soul, and what really makes the species prosper is not peace so much as freedom.” With freedom comes some unpredictable fluctuation. This is one of life’s packages: there is no freedom without noise — and no stability without volatility.

The problem here, of course, is that when Islamic fundamentalism turns violently murderous, you can’t simply sit back and let it happen on the grounds that there is no stability without volatility. And while Taleb might extol his beloved Lebanon as a “relatively safe” country with “economic and political stability”, it’s unacceptably volatile and dangerous by the standards of most of the rest of us. I’m happy to agree that it’s better to be Lebanon than to be Iran. But I’d like to hope we can significantly improve on both, and help to build a region which has less volatility than Lebanon and less tail risk than, say, Saudi Arabia.

Update: Some readers were having difficulty getting to the article, I’ve changed the link and it should be better now.

COMMENT

“Go read the essay by Nassim Taleb and Mark Blythe on “The Black Swan of Cairo””

Why start a post like this when the essay in question is a premium access article?

Posted by dm1csg | Report as abusive
  •