Waves and Swans: Black Marks (on Swans)

Mr Taleb in The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable makes an essentially clean distinction between “Mediocristan” and “Extremistan” (I’ll attempt to summarize those in a bit). This distinction however is strained. He cites, for example, the extreme income disparities in Extremistan occupations, for example the high wages pulled in by celebrities. Now, there are fundamental differences in some high wage situations. It may be argued, perhaps successfully, that hundreds, if not thousands, could step into the shoes of say any given news broadcast anchor and pick up with not a big hitch. However, consider another big category of very visible salary discrepancies … sports. It might be interesting to say that Tom Warner(for example who is playing on MNF right now), any given baseball pitcher, or to pick on my favorite sport cycling do not deserve their wage. The problem is … people pay and are interested in that sport and their place is not replaceable. Their status and position is very much meritocratic. The reason that I, a once and future (ahem) amateur cyclist, am not a “highly compensated” star of the international peloton is not a factor of luck. Not luck but the meritocratic factors talent, abililty, and training tell more. Or consider for a moment your fate on a professional football field.

Actually, this touches on one of several arguments that Mr Taleb makes which is arguably wrong. Mr Taleb argues that swimmers (and specifically cyclists) and boxers look like they do because people who don’t fit that physical mold … don’t become swimmers or cyclists. While there is indeed (in cycling) some body types sizes which cannot fit in the professional peloton the fact is there are a wide variety that do. We are more akin to Gumby than we pretend. To descend to personal narrative for a moment, when I was in high school and though much of my undergraduate career I was a small skinny kid. Then I got “into” weightlifting and added 30 or so of muscle to my frame, rebuilding myself. A decade or more later, I re-gumbied, and got “into” cycling … losing most of that mass and getting more and more of the “look” of an endurance athlete. Mr Taleb is categorically wrong about athletics and the effect on our bodies. The training that swimmers, cyclists, football players, and others undergo in a large part shapes their bodies and it is not that the shape is evidence of a selection process … it is in a larger degree a developmental process.

Mediocristan is the “world” in which rewards are based directly on your efforts as opposed Extremistans in which your rewards are due more to improbable fortuitous events. The profession of novelist for example is a extremistan profession. Writing talents and abilities of highly compensated authors as compared to those for whom writing is a unpaid passion are very similar. However, the rewards have a large divergence. In dentistry, car maintenance, or prostitution on the other hand your rewards are basically tied to the hours and the average hourly wage of the calling.

Another argument made by Mr Taleb which is mistaken is his short sally against the “toughened by circumstance” argument. He cites disdain against the “toughened by the Gulag” argument made regarding the Russian mafia and their encroachment into the West. His counter argument is that if one took a group of rats and attempted to “toughen them with radiation poisoning” it wouldn’t work. But, we live in a modern world in which guns and other devices exist. In that world, the physical hardships and their results from the gulag have less impact than the moral and ethical. Those surviving the gulag have a different attitude and outlook on the value of human life, its dignity, and matters of loyalty . It is that ethical “toughening” (or more accurately coarsening) that might make a difference in the rough and tumble world of organized crime. The gulag it is true would not “toughen” and prepare a man (or woman) for athletic competition but that is not what is meant nor more importantly … the point.

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2 comments

  1. Boonton says:

    Mr Taleb is categorically wrong about athletics and the effect on our bodies. The training that swimmers, cyclists, football players, and others undergo in a large part shapes their bodies and it is not that the shape is evidence of a selection process … it is in a larger degree a developmental process.

    I suspect his response would be that yes your training shapes your body but at the same time your body dictates what types of training it will ‘take’ and what types it will not. To use an extreme example consider summo wrestling. If you had choosen to devote your athletic life to that I don’t doubt you’d look more like a summo wrestler today than you would a cyclist but wouldn’t look like a very good one.

    Mediocristan is the “world” in which rewards are based directly on your efforts as opposed Extremistans in which your rewards are due more to improbable fortuitous events.

    Agreed but I think we should make it clear he is not saying the best paid cyclist isn’t putting out a lot of effort. The other term he uses here is scalable. consider cycling as two jobs in one. One job is actually cycling and winning prizes. This would be an example of a non-scalable profession. You only win two prizes by winning two races just like the barbara can double his income by cutting two heads of hair instead of one….but there’s only so many hours in a day….so many prize races in a month. But the other aspect of cycling is the celebrity athlete. Here your income derives from endorsements, contracts, deals etc. This is scaleable. If cycling is a hot sport this year (as swimming was at the Olympics), you may score a million dollars on the cover of cereal boxes while the big star last year, who did exactly what you did, only got $250K.

    I think Taleb’s argument is that we assume we are in mediocristan. If you want to know how much, say, a skateboarder can make and it’s 1990 you look at a sample of professional boarders, get an average of…say…$35,000 a year and standard deviation and work from there with your friendly bell curve. But this is deceptive. A hot movie and changing tastes may very well make the top skateboarders in the 2000’s making million dollar plus incomes. Something your bell curve might say should happen once in a billion years.

    If you were Jerry McGuire in the 1980’s the conventional wisdom of sports talent management might tell you to look for promising football and baseball players because that’s who made the big money. But I suspect Taleb would say McGuire should cultivate a wide array of talent from ho-hum sports…even ‘non-sports’ because the black swan idea says you’re likely to see an unexpected even over your career lifetime (like ‘professional poker players’ becoming big time celebrities).

  2. Mark says:

    Boonton,
    Is height a requirement for Sumo? I’m short, and their ain’t no way to “gumby” that … and a basketball physique is out for that reason too. But I think you too seem to underestimate the “gumby” effect, or how much we can reshape our own bodies with training.

    And on cycling. There is a somewhat wide berth between the average and the top cyclists in salary and not just the windfall ‘celebrity’ profits. The question then arises, is this windfall accidental or not? Are the higher pay for the stars because of skills and talents or not? (BTW, most cycling teams divvy up the prize money … salary is what is not shared. As an extreme example, Lance Armstrong gave all his Tour prize money to his teammates … his compensation was his greater sponsorship and salary … which in part he owed to the sacrifice of his teammates.

    My criticism of Taleb here is that even as he claims we are “in mediocristan” when often we aren’t, offering that the division is not as clean as he pretends. Pro-football benefits look like a extremistan profession with rewards in the millions per year. But there is a catch. You need to bench 300 lbs for 40 reps or run a 4.2 40 or something else, which is a just part of being an exceptional member of Mediocristan.

    That is, if mediocristan=meritocristan then there part and parcel with meritocristan come exponentially growing rewards for those with exceptional (world class) talents. And that pattern is a odd mix with extremistan rewards.