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Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life (English Edition) Format Kindle
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From the bestselling author of The Black Swan, a bold book that challenges many of our long-held beliefs about risk and reward, politics and religion, finance and personal responsibility
'Skin in the game means that you do not pay attention to what people say, only to what they do, and how much of their neck they are putting on the line'
Citizens, artisans, police, fishermen, political activists and entrepreneurs all have skin in the game. Policy wonks, corporate executives, many academics, bankers and most journalists don't. It's all about having something to lose and sharing risks with others. In his most provocative and practical book yet, Nassim Nicholas Taleb shows that skin in the game, often seen as the foundation of risk management, in fact applies to all aspects of our lives.
In his inimitable style, Taleb draws on everything from Antaeus the Giant to Hammurabi to Donald Trump, from ethics to used car salesmen, to create a jaw-dropping framework for understanding this idea. Among his insights:
For social justice, focus on symmetry and risk sharing.
Minorities, not majorities, run the world.
You can be an intellectual yet still be an idiot.
Beware of complicated solutions (that someone was paid to find).
Just as The Black Swan did during the 2007 financial crisis, Skin in the Game comes at precisely the right moment to challenge our long-held beliefs about risk, reward, politics, religion and business - and make us rethink everything we thought we knew.
Description du produit
Why Each One Should Eat His Own Turtles: Equality in Uncertainty
Taste of turtle—Where are the new customers?—Sharia and asymmetry—There are the Swiss, and other people—Rav Safra and the Swiss (but different Swiss)
You who caught the turtles better eat them, goes the ancient adage.
The origin of the expression is as follows. It was said that a group of fishermen caught a large number of turtles. After cooking them, they found out at the communal meal that these sea animals were much less edible than they thought: not many members of the group were willing to eat them. But Mercury happened to be passing by—Mercury was the most multitasking, sort of put-together god, as he was the boss of commerce, abundance, messengers, the underworld, as well as the patron of thieves and brigands and, not surprisingly, luck. The group invited him to join them and offered him the turtles to eat. Detecting that he was only invited to relieve them of the unwanted food, he forced them all to eat the turtles, thus establishing the principle that you need to eat what you feed others.
A Customer Is Born Every Day
I have learned a lesson from my own naive experiences:
Beware of the person who gives advice, telling you that a certain action on your part is “good for you” while it is also good for him, while the harm to you doesn’t directly affect him.
Of course such advice is usually unsolicited. The asymmetry is when said advice applies to you but not to him—he may be selling you something, or trying to get you to marry his daughter or hire his son-in-law.
Years ago I received a letter from a lecture agent. His letter was clear; it had about ten questions of the type “Do you have the time to field requests?,” “Can you handle the organization of the trip?” The gist of it was that a lecture agent would make my life better and make room for the pursuit of knowledge or whatever else I was about (a deeper understanding of gardening, stamp collections, Mediterranean genetics, or squid-ink recipes) while the burden of the gritty would fall on someone else. And it wasn’t any lecture agent: only he could do all these things; he reads books and can get in the mind of intellectuals (at the time I didn’t feel insulted by being called an intellectual). As is typical with people who volunteer unsolicited advice, I smelled a rat: at no phase in the discussion did he refrain from letting me know that it was “good for me.”
As a sucker, while I didn’t buy into the argument, I ended up doing business with him, letting him handle a booking in the foreign country where he was based. Things went fine until, six years later, I received a letter from the tax authorities of that country. I immediately contacted him to wonder if similar U.S. citizens he had hired incurred such tax conflict, or if he had heard of similar situations. His reply was immediate and curt: “I am not your tax attorney”—volunteering no information as to whether other U.S. customers who hired him because it was “good for them” encountered such a problem.
Indeed, in the dozen or so cases I can pull from memory, it always turns out that what is presented as good for you is not really good for you but certainly good for the other party. As a trader, you learn to identify and deal with upright people, those who inform you that they have something to sell, by explaining that the transaction arises for their own benefit, with such questions as “Do you have an ax?” (meaning an inquiry whether you have a certain interest). Avoid at all costs those who call you to tout a certain product disguised with advice. In fact the story of the turtle is the archetype of the history of transactions between mortals.
I worked once for a U.S. investment bank, one of the prestigious variety, called “white shoe” because the partners were members of hard-to-join golf clubs for proto-aristocrats where they played the game wearing white footwear. As with all such firms, an image of ethics and professionalism was cultivated, emphasized, and protected. But the job of the salespeople (actually, salesmen) on days when they wore black shoes was to “unload” inventory with which traders were “stuffed,” that is, securities they had in excess in their books and needed to get rid of to lower their risk profile. Selling to other dealers was out of the question as professional traders, typically non-golfers, would smell excess inventory and cause the price to drop. So they needed to sell to some client, on what is called the “buy side.” Some traders paid the sales force with (percentage) “points,” a variable compensation that increased with our eagerness to part with securities. Salesmen took clients out to dinner, bought them expensive wine (often, ostensibly the highest on the menu), and got a huge return on the thousands of dollars of restaurant bills by unloading the unwanted stuff on them. One expert salesman candidly explained to me: “If I buy the client, someone working for the finance department of a municipality who buys his suits at some department store in New Jersey, a bottle of $2,000 wine, I own him for the next few months. I can get at least $100,000 profits out of him. Nothing in the mahket gives you such return.”
Salesmen hawked how a given security would be perfect for the client’s portfolio, how they were certain it would rise in price and how the client would suffer great regret if he missed “such an opportunity”—that type of discourse. Salespeople are experts in the art of psychological manipulation, making the client trade, often against his own interest, all the while being happy about it and loving them and their company. One of the top salesmen at the firm, a man with huge charisma who came to work in a chauffeured Rolls Royce, was once asked whether customers didn’t get upset when they got the short end of the stick. “Rip them off, don’t tick them off” was his answer. He also added, “Remember that every day a new customer is born.”
As the Romans were fully aware, one lauds merrily the merchandise to get rid of it.
The Price of Corn in Rhodes
So, “giving advice” as a sales pitch is fundamentally unethical—selling cannot be deemed advice. We can safely settle on that. You can give advice, or you can sell (by advertising the quality of the product), and the two need to be kept separate.
But there is an associated problem in the course of the transactions: how much should the seller reveal to the buyer?
The question “Is it ethical to sell something to someone knowing the price will eventually drop?” is an ancient one—but its solution is no less straightforward. The debate goes back to a disagreement between two stoic philosophers, Diogenes of Babylon and his student Antipater of Tarsus, who took the higher moral ground on asymmetric information and seems to match the ethics endorsed by this author. Not a piece from both authors is extant, but we know quite a bit from secondary sources, or, in the case of Cicero, tertiary. The question was presented as follows, retailed by Cicero in De Officiis. Assume a man brought a large shipment of corn from Alexandria to Rhodes, at a time when corn was expensive in Rhodes because of shortage and famine. Suppose that he also knew that many boats had set sail from Alexandria on their way to Rhodes with similar merchandise. Does he have to inform the Rhodians? How can one act honorably or dishonorably in these circumstances?
We traders had a straightforward answer. Again, “stuffing”—selling quantities to people without informing them that there are large inventories waiting to be sold. An upright trader will not do that to other professional traders; it was a no-no. The penalty was ostracism. But it was sort of permissible to do it to the anonymous market and the faceless nontraders, or those we called “the Swiss,” some random suckers far away. There were people with whom we had a relational rapport, others with whom we had a transactional one. The two were separated by an ethical wall, much like the case with domestic animals that cannot be harmed, while rules on cruelty are lifted when it comes to cockroaches.
Diogenes held that the seller ought to disclose as much as civil law requires. As for Antipater, he believed that everything ought to be disclosed—beyond the law—so that there was nothing that the seller knew that the buyer didn’t know.
Clearly Antipater’s position is more robust—robust being invariant to time, place, situation, and color of the eyes of the participants. Take for now that
The ethical is always more robust than the legal. Over time, it is the legal that should converge to the ethical, never the reverse.
Laws come and go; ethics stay.
For the notion of “law” is ambiguous and highly jurisdiction dependent: in the U.S., civil law, thanks to consumer advocates and similar movements, integrates such disclosures, while other countries have different laws. This is particularly visible with securities laws, as there are “front running” regulations and those concerning insider information that make such disclosure mandatory in the U.S., though this wasn’t so for a long time in Europe.
Indeed much of the work of investment banks in my day was to play on regulations, find loopholes in the laws. And, counterintuitively, the more regulations, the easier it was to make money.
Equality in Uncertainty
Which brings us to asymmetry, the core concept behind skin in the game. The question becomes: to what extent can people in a transaction have an informational differential between them? The ancient Mediterranean and, to some extent, the modern world, seem to have converged to Antipater’s position. While we have “buyer beware” (caveat emptor) in the Anglo-Saxon West, the idea is rather new, and never general, often mitigated by lemon laws. (A “lemon” was originally a chronically defective car, say, my convertible Mini, in love with the garage, now generalized to apply to anything that moves).
So, to the question voiced by Cicero in the debate between the two ancient stoics, “If a man knowingly offers for sale wine that is spoiling, ought he to tell his customers?,” the world is getting closer to the position of transparency, not necessarily via regulations as much as thanks to tort laws, and one’s ability to sue for harm in the event a seller deceives him or her. Recall that tort laws put some of the seller’s skin back into the game—which is why they are reviled, hated by corporations. But tort laws have side effects—they should only be used in a nonnaive way, that is, in a way that cannot be gamed. As we will see in the discussion of the visit to the doctor, they will be gamed.
Sharia, in particular the law regulating Islamic transactions and finance, is of interest to us insofar as it preserves some of the lost Mediterranean and Babylonian methods and practices—not to prop up the ego of Saudi princes. It exists at the intersection of Greco-Roman law (as reflected from people in Semitic territories’ contact with the school of law of Berytus), Phoenician trading rules, Babylonian legislations, and Arab tribal commercial customs and, as such, it provides a repository of ancient Mediterranean and Semitic lore. I hence view Sharia as a museum of the history of ideas on symmetry in transactions. Sharia establishes the interdict of gharar, drastic enough to be totally banned in any form of transaction. It is an extremely sophisticated term in decision theory that does not exist in English; it means both uncertainty and deception—my personal take is that it means something beyond informational asymmetry between agents: inequality of uncertainty. Simply, as the aim is for both parties in a transaction to have the same uncertainty facing random outcomes, an asymmetry becomes equivalent to theft. Or more robustly:
No person in a transaction should have certainty about the outcome while the other one has uncertainty.
Gharar, like every legalistic construct, will have its flaws; it remains weaker than Antipater’s approach. If only one party in a transaction has certainty all the way through, it is a violation of Sharia. But if there is a weak form of asymmetry, say, someone has inside information which gives an edge in the markets, there is no gharar as there remains enough uncertainty for both parties, given that the price is in the future and only God knows the future. Selling a defective product (where there is certainty as to the defect), on the other hand, is illegal. So the knowledge by the seller of corn in Rhodes in my first example does not fall under gharar, while the second case, that of a defective liquid, would.
As we see, the problem of asymmetry is so complicated that different schools give different ethical solutions, so let us look at the Talmudic approach.
Rav Safra and the Swiss
Jewish ethics on the matter is closer to Antipater than Diogenes in its aims at transparency. Not only should there be transparency concerning the merchandise, but perhaps there has to be transparency concerning what the seller has in mind, what he thinks deep down. The medieval rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki (aka Salomon Isaacides), known as “Rashi,” relates the following story. Rav Safra, a third-century Babylonian scholar who was also an active trader, was offering some goods for sale. A buyer came as he was praying in silence, tried to purchase the merchandise at an initial price, and given that the rabbi did not reply, raised the price. But Rav Safra had no intention of selling at a higher price than the initial offer, and felt that he had to honor the initial intention. Now the question: Is Rav Safra obligated to sell at the initial price, or should he take the improved one?
Such total transparency is not absurd and not uncommon in what seems to be a cutthroat world of transactions, my former world of trading. I have frequently faced that problem as a trader and will side in favor of Rav Safra’s action in the debate. Let us follow the logic. Recall the rapacity of salespeople earlier in the chapter. Sometimes I would offer something for sale for, say, $5, but communicated with the client through a salesperson, and the salesperson would come back with an “improvement,” of $5.10. Something never felt right about the extra ten cents. It was, simply, not a sustainable way of doing business. What if the customer subsequently discovered that my initial offer was $5? No compensation is worth the feeling of shame. The overcharge falls in the same category as the act of “stuffing” people with bad merchandise. Now, to apply this to Rav Safra’s story, what if he sold to one client at the marked-up price, and to another one the exact same item for the initial price, and the two buyers happened to know one another? What if they were agents for the same customer? --Ce texte fait référence à l'édition hardcover.
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Détails sur le produit
- ASIN : B077QY23RV
- Éditeur : Penguin (20 février 2018)
- Langue : Anglais
- Taille du fichier : 4249 KB
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- Nombre de pages de l'édition imprimée : 259 pages
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UPDATE: I did carry on to the end of the book for old times' sake. I left it feeling that Taleb is like a friend who has some dodgy politics, likes to make a lot 0f "controversial" remarks, occasionally makes some insightful points, can be amusing and can also be a crashing bore. In other words, you're pleased to see your old friend but rather relieved when he finally leaves and glad to have a bit of time away from each other before meeting up again.
Some 1,150 days of seclusion in the years following The Black Swan (2007) afforded time not only to devour the 550 or so books listed in the bibliography to the much lengthier Antifragile (2012) but also to develop what he himself previously detested - the random use of borrowed wisdom (though it was fascinating to read why use of the wheel initially disappeared from the Levant after the Arab invasion) - and to wield his keyboard repeatedly and unkindly to hammer perceived nails in the shape of some fine fellow professionals with whom he now finds himself increasingly and violently disagreeing.
In Skin in the Game we see these aberrations taken even further with surprisingly gratuitous and sarcastic references ("Hillary Monsanto-Malmaison, sometimes known as Hillary Clinton" and Joseph Stiglitz as “Intellectual Yet Idiot") along with random Daily Mail-type stories about how increased halal lamb imports from New Zealand and the numbers of automatic shifting vehicles are instances of minority dictatorship and how Italians regard McDonalds in Milan Centrale as refuge from a risky meal. Mr Taleb has of course written that it’s only when you don’t care about your reputation that you tend to have a good one, but it seems to me that after accumulating a steady stream of positive returns he has given us his own unfortunate, highly unexpected event.
In many ways this is a deeply moral book with important messages for how we live. This realization becomes suddenly clear in the rather poetic epilogue, which I loved. Collective action (the game) generates many meaningful benefits, but, to be symmetrical and ethical, it always requires contribution of players, and contribution implies risk (the skin). Taleb has no time for people in authority who don't get this and consequently promote dangerous ideas which lead to ignorant policy or business decisions. For them he reserves his full scorn (for example, in his view, Monsanto and its dangerous development of GM crops). Through ignorance, they risk catastrophically ruining the systems we depend on for everyone for ever.
On the downside, Taleb's style of relentlessly 'speaking truth to power' can feel a bit uncomfortable and negative. However we are compensated by his practical, ethical and logical reasoning - made more clear in an appendix devoted to the maths that underpins the conclusions, and further leavened with fascinating personal stories.
By the way, like many books it's one worth starting at the back with the glossary, where you will be able to learn to speak 'Taleb'.
Firstly, I was expecting one or two original ideas from one of the world’s most renowned flaneurs and risk-takers, but none were there. One would get more useful and well thought through advice from a drunk in a bar or a bored hairdresser. Lots of stories about asymmetry, antifragility, and some made up phenomena, with the author’s own viewpoint, without any evidence to support it. If you’re looking for the original ideas, there is no better book to get you to sleep.
Arrogance is fine, even a desired feature, when supported with anything more than having a lot of money, but once it appears that that is one’s only real achievement, it’s just disgusting. About half of this book is just about the author’s grandeur and stories about him having powerful enemies that have not been able to dismiss his arguments and who are shaking in presence of the author’s boldness and righteousness. When you read it, however, it sounds more like paranoid schizophrenic ranting about how the establishment is trying to destroy this virtuous knight, but his strength and wittiness keep him one step ahead of the evil lords (who by the way, are weak and stupid). Pathetic, to put it mildly…
Even some interesting observations are put upside down and explained without persuasive evidence, e.g. the fact that the rich get ripped off in the expensive restaurants for bland food is attributed to them being fooled by vultures, rather than to awkward social rituals that people get into when trying to prove their status. Taleb doesn’t even consider that his observation could be wrong, or not well thought through.
Quoting Greek, Roman and other classics looks like it is there just to show how well-read and educated author is than to pass on any useful information or idea. I could not help but notice the similarity of such use of classic literature with his description of IYIs that he loathes, yet he clearly acts like one.
The most disappointing thing was the actual use of the “skin in the game” term in a totally arbitrary fashion. Whenever it suits his narrative, Taleb would attribute the person or a group with “skin in the game”, without any clear criteria.
I guess that Taleb might have had some interesting contribution through Black Swan, but must admit I haven’t read it, and certainly won’t read anything from him after this experience. Life’s just too short.