The Final Countdown
by Tim Price
“Under the circumstances, discussions with Greece and the official sector are paused for reflection on the benefits of a voluntary approach.” Debt talks “have not produced a constructive response.”
– The Institute of International Finance, January 13, 2012
“The war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage.”
– Japanese Emperor Hirohito after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, announcing Japan’s surrender to the Allies.
There is a terrible hubris at the heart of mankind. Like every other living thing on the planet we are products of nature, but we consider ourselves to be well above it. We are beset by regular reminders of our vulnerability, but quickly dismiss them off-handedly to a spiritual plane, calling them “acts of God” as if to show that we could never have prevented them.
In a significant essay for Foreign Affairs, “The Black Swan of Cairo,” Nassim Taleb shows how the efforts of our authorities to suppress volatility actually end up making the world less predictable and more dangerous.
“Although the stated intention of political leaders and economic policy makers is to stabilize the system by inhibiting fluctuations, the result tends to be the opposite. These artificially constrained systems become prone to “Black Swans” – that is, they become extremely vulnerable to large-scale events that lie far from the statistical norm and were largely unpredictable to a given set of observers.”
There is an analogy from the natural world. In the 1960s and 1970s, mid-western American states fell victim to scores of wildfires. Constant interventions by the US Forest Service appeared to have little positive impact – if anything, the problems seemed to worsen. Over time, foresters came to appreciate that fires were a normal and healthy element of the forest ecosystem.
By continually suppressing small fires, they were unwittingly creating the conditions for larger and less containable wildfires in the future. Naturally occurring fires are necessary to remove old forest cover, underbrush and debris. If they are suppressed, the inevitable fire to come has a far greater store of latent fuel at its disposal.