In What the Dog Saw (2009), Malcolm Gladwell maintains that Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s highly unorthodox trading technique—which, to some extent, involves expecting, and preparing for, worst case scenarios—can be explained with reference to his personal biography. Taleb came of age, Gladwell claims, amidst the chaos unleashed by the Lebanese Civil War. He watched his country turn “from paradise to hell” in six months. And this rendered him careful, cautious, and conservative: a man who sees Armageddon around every corner. As you might expect, Taleb wasn’t particularly pleased with Gladwell’s piece. No one likes to be reduced in such a facile manner, especially when your trading strategy is an elaborate intellectual system—which you’ve taken the time to describe, at length, in a book that’s 528-pages-long: Dynamic Hedging (1997). Regardless, as it turns out, Gladwell was wrong about the relationship between the civil war, Lebanese traders, and caution. Taleb found 30 Christian Lebanese traders of his generation and asked them how they traded: “all (I mean all) of them sell tail options (i.e. bet against the Black Swan). On the other hand my associate Mark Spitznagel is from the Mid-West.”
When your ideas about the world have evolved, sometimes painfully, over the course of decades—through trial and error, mistakes, reflection, reading, learning—it’s incredibly insulting to have someone imply that your politics are a mere function of your biography. And yet it’s hard to deny that the two are interconnected. For instance, I was disappointed to learn, in Rüdiger Safranski’s Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography (2003), that most of Nietzsche’s deep-seated hatred of antisemitism was based, not so much on general principle, as on his visceral contempt for his virulently antisemitic brother-in-law. Likewise, in his outstanding article on antislavery activism in The Journal of Southern History (November 1990)—”The Experiential Basis of the Northern Antislavery Impulse”—historian John Huston demonstrates that the vast majority of those who joined the antislavery cause did so, not because they were convinced by a detached, theoretical, Enlightenment critique of the institution of slavery, but rather because they were radicalized by a visceral, traumatizing experience, wherein they were exposed (usually by accident) to the brutality and violence of slavery up-close-and-personal (e.g., watching a drunken slaveholder beat his slave to death whilst vacationing in Newport).
Some people are unbelievably cynical in spite of the evidence of their own experience: e.g., the privileged white dude from the States who’s had nothing but positive experiences with “the system” and yet assumes everyone in power is either corrupt or incompetent. Likewise, some people are ridiculously trusting in spite of the evidence of their own experience: e.g., the bus driver from Juárez who says he still trusts the Mexican police despite the fact that he knows plenty of corrupt cops, and has witnessed numerous cases of police brutality. Alas, some people are stupidly and dogmatically trusting, just as some people are stupidly and dogmatically cynical. But most of us aren’t like this. Most of us come to our view of authority by way of experience not ideology. Our faith in the people in charge—much like our faith in each other, and our faith in institutions—is shaped by thousands and thousands of experiences: some big, some small, some good, some bad.
My own politics are a case in point. I was brought up to believe that the rich were all thieves (or the descendants of thieves): “If you’ve got money, you stole it” (a working-class proverb) was a common refrain in my neighborhood. What’s more, I was brought up to believe that the people in charge are all either clueless or corrupt. And yet these are not my views. I tend to believe that: (i) plenty of the people in power in our society are in power because they know what the fuck they’re doing (i.e., they’re competent); (ii) truly corrupt people are the exception, not the rule; (iii) many of our institutions function remarkably well, all things considered; (iv) you don’t have to steal to get rich in our society; and, (v) there are plenty of ways to make money in a virtuous fashion. I hold these views, I hasten to add, not because I’m a law-and-order conservative traditionalist who refuses to question authority, and reflexively assumes that Father Knows Best, but rather because—in my formative years—I saw the adult world working, and working well, often. For instance, the district manager of the clothing store I worked at when I was a teenager (let’s call him Steve) was actually the smartest person in the room. And he had his job precisely because his competence was noticed and rewarded by the American owner of the company. There were, at the time, 256 stores in North America: five in the Montreal area. Steve was in charge of these five stores.
Each store had a general manager and two assistant managers: an operations supervisor, who oversaw everything that happened in that part of the store which was open to the public (e.g., cashiers, customer service, loss prevention, etc.), and a production supervisor, who oversaw everything that happened in the factory-like part of the store which was not open to the public (e.g, sorters, testers, pricers, balers, etc.). The job of a production supervisor was, by a significant margin, more demanding than that of the operations supervisor: it involved, among other things, managing a larger staff. So they were paid more. And promoted to general manger far more often. An outstanding operations supervisor might be promoted to the rank of production supervisor; an outstanding production supervisor would, sooner or later, be promoted to general manager; and an outstanding general manager might one day become a district manager. And yet I had heard through the lunchroom grapevine that Steve had somehow managed to defy this corporate logic, that he was promoted from operations supervisor to district manager—by the Big Boss, the owner of the company, who apparently flew up to Montreal just so he could meet, and promote, Steve!
I’m not sure how the subject came up, but, at some point, curiosity got the best of me and I asked Steve how he managed to catapult from the operations supervisor of one of Montreal’s smallest stores to district manager. We were at the annual Christmas party, and he was chattier than usual on account of the eggnog. He said that he had figured out how to vastly increase sales by having special weekend Sale Days. The advertising budget was devoted to commercial spots in crappy, forgettable, non-prime-time TV slots, some radio spots (once again, rarely at good times), and a few full-page ads in local newspapers (usually during the holidays, where they were probably drowned out by the rest of the holiday noise). Regardless, as an operations supervisor, Steve didn’t have anything to do with city-wide advertising decisions. Spending of the advertising budget was at the discretion of the district manager. The DM often consulted with the five general managers before making advertising decisions, but he never consulted with the operations supervisors. That just wasn’t done. And yet here was Steve: an annoying operations supervisor, who kept calling his district manager, again and again and again, with ideas about how to best spend the advertising budget, and requests for discretionary spending.
Although it took awhile, Steve was eventually able to secure a small slice of the advertising budget: “Pretty sure the DM gave me the money just so I’d go away and leave him alone. I think I was getting on his nerves. Whatever. It wasn’t much. Just enough to have flyers printed out.” He scheduled his first Sale Day on a Sunday and promoted the event solely with the flyers: no TV, no radio, no newspaper ads. His boss, the general manager of the store, thought it was a stupid idea, said no one would show up. In fact, sales on the first Sale Day amounted to a little over $8000 (sales on a typical Sunday were somewhere in the neighborhood of $1000-$2000). The next Sale Day was on a Saturday. Sales topped $17,000 this time (sales on a typical Saturday were in the $3000-$5000 range). A year later, the 10th Sale Day grossed close to $25,000. And yet his boss, the general manager, hated the Sale Days with a passion—for a remarkably petty, shortsighted reason.
His boss didn’t hate the Sale Days because he was jealous, proven wrong, or pissed that someone else’s idea was working. Nope. He hated them because they were messy. A successful Sale Day could easily bring in ten times as many customers as usual. And that meant far more heaping shopping carts filled with ill-fitting clothes left at the changing rooms, far more fallen clothes to pick up off the sales floor, and far more abandoned clothes at the registers. What’s more, if a Sunday Sale Day was especially busy, the cashiers working on those days would end up spending the vast majority of their shift at the cash register, which meant that they didn’t have much time left over for clean-up throughout the day. At first, Steve offered free pizza and time-and-a-half to any cashier who stuck around after the store closed to tackle the mess. But as the Sale Days grew more and more successful, the clean-up grew more and more onerous—even when every available cashier was working the Sale Day (e.g., leaving the store at midnight after a Sale Day wasn’t unheard of). Six months into the experiment, Steve decided to set reasonable limits on how late employees stayed after close (6:00 p.m.) to clean up the mess. Henceforth, they would do as much as they could before 9:00 p.m. And then they would go home.
Steve asked the general manager to hire two more cashiers. He said NO. He asked him to have production staff from the back of the store help out with Monday-morning clean-up following Sale Days. He said NO. In fact, his boss refused to reimburse him for the pizza! Steve asked his district manager if he could divert a little more of the advertising budget to Sale Day promotion. He said NO. He asked him if he was interested in bringing the Sale Day idea to the other four stores. He said NO. The Sale Days were clearly working. It was a great idea. And yet Steve was hanging on to his job by a thread. He had just received his third written warning, when the owner of the company walked into his general manager’s office. It was a Monday, a Monday morning in May, and the owner of the company wanted to know how this little Montreal store had managed to achieve the single biggest sales jump in the company’s history. As you might expect, he and Steve had a nice long chat. After which the owner fired the general manger, fired the district manager, and promoted Steve. Sometimes the world makes sense. Sometimes the people in charge have a clue.
—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2016)