July 6, 2010 | Commentary on Disaster Response
Why are we so shocked by implausible events of massive consequence?
Nassin Nicholas Taleb explores that question in his bestselling book, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable.
Taleb is Lebanese. As a child, his world seemed like paradise. His parents told him war was impossible. When war came, they said it wouldn’t last. Yet violence wracked Lebanon for decades. In retrospect, the spiral of destruction seemed inevitable not inconceivable. How could they have not seen it coming?
It was a question the mathematician and scholar pondered throughout his adult life.
Taleb uses black swans metaphorically. From time immemorial, he writes, Europeans believed all swans were white. They never expected to see anything else. But, when Europeans landed in Australia, they found black swans galore.
The lesson of the black swan—you don’t know what you don’t know.
Disasters are unimaginable because we don’t imagine them. Taleb argues we “overvalue” factual information, pretending like Old Europe that this is all the information that is out there. Worse, we sometimes ignore facts we don’t like because they might lead to conclusions we don’t want to make.
Taleb’s book offers plenty of lessons for thinking about future disasters. Unfortunately, the White House seems oblivious to all of them.
On the one hand, the president acts as though he can prevent future disasters simply by eliminating risk and controlling everything. Yet no nation can be “child-proofed.”
The Obama administration is living a black swan fantasy if it thinks they can know it all—and that only they know what is best.
Case in point: Obama’s knee-jerk response to the spill. His suspension of deepwater drilling did nothing to stop the leak or clean up the spill. It just put more people out of work. He then doubled-down, pressing for climate control legislation that will cost trillions and kill millions more jobs while lowering temperatures by a mere fraction of a degree. In his quest for environmental utopia, he ignores the enormous economic risks he creates.
Or consider the president’s push for ratification of the New START treaty. Again, his utopian quest for a world without nukes leads him to ignore the obvious facts that 1) Russia continues to modernize its nuclear arsenal, 2) that the pace of nuclear proliferation is accelerating and 3) the treaty addresses neither of these realities. Meanwhile, the Pentagon crafts plans for spending cuts and troop withdrawals, despite evidence that the world is becoming less—not more—stable and secure.
All these initiatives can be justified only by a belief that the president has mastered knowledge of world events, present and future: that the black swans are not out there; that a series of improbable events won’t combine to produce the next catastrophe; or that the once-in-hundred-year event won’t happen tomorrow.
Those comfortable assumptions didn’t work out for Lebanon and they won’t serve America well, either. The White House must start dealing with the facts it now ignores and admitting there is a lot it can’t know.
The best way to prepare for future shock is to build up strength now. On defense, Obama should drop the New START “peace through palaver” approach and follow Reagan’s proven model of “peace through strength.”
Likewise, rather than hamstring the economy with job-killing regulations and taxation, the White House should cut it loose. The occasional bad bank or irresponsible oil company is no excuse to put the government boot on the neck of free markets.
Facing the unknown with a pack full of guns and butter is better than sauntering into the wilderness hungry and unarmed.
Examiner columnist James Jay Carafano is senior defense analyst for the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in The Washington Examiner