Metric-Suppression is “Muzzling the Baby”

Technically, you can stop a baby from crying by duct-taping the poor child’s mouth, but who would be monstrous enough to think of this as a solution?

In Nassim Taleb’s excellent book AntiFragile; things that benefit from disorder, he takes a chapter to lament modern civilization’s poor track-record in what he calls “recursive thinking”; or thinking in second-orders… essentially, thinking steps ahead, and admitting when we cannot– choosing inaction over his aptly-named “naive interventionism”.

“Naive Empiricism”, or the belief that we can rely on statistical significance to justify violently superimposing our loose narratives onto social, medical, essentially, organic phenomena because we’ve made the math work… coupled with a similar fallacy, “naive interventionism”, the idea that if something is the matter, however the likelihood of a natural solution or of worsening things exponentially by intervention, we nevertheless must do something.

The case is beautifully laid out for the reader with plenty of examples.

Inflammation-fighters like Celebrex and and Vioxx leading to horrible side-effects and eliminating all the benefits nature embedded in the body’s responses.  Drugs helping to reduce morning-sickness leading to birth-defects… we now know that greater morning-sickness often leads to healthier babies.

As we’ll argue time and again, while the economy has many man-made parts, its composite whole is an organic, natural system– layered in complexity, and like any ecology, it is therefore allergic or hostile to mechanistic treatment. The key distinction one more time: non-complex + mechanistic vs. complex + organic systems.

We currently suffer under a chronic naive-Intervening culture in the west because of confusion between these two.  We have also desperately confused comfort for health, and we use drugs, laws, and artificial liquidity to stave off any momentary discomfort. Perhaps because our economy requires our active work and participation, we’ve ceased to see ourselves as component parts of an organic whole, and decided that we are component parts of a “well oiled machine” that must be actively oiled, run, and rebuilt upon any “breakdown”, but the metaphor doesn’t carry over.

For one, the economy isn’t something any human designed; its laws are each discoveries and usually loose, if sound, analogies and metaphors. A poor metaphor, like comparing debt-liquidity to fuel, or comparing our national economy to a vehicle, puts our research and theory desperately.* Many of our best minds are consumed with which input to alter to what degree to optimize outputs… like with a machine.
A more modest/honest view would acknowledge that even our successes in economic apprehension don’t capture what’s really going on, but are simply useful attitudes and heuristics.

So we aren’t good enough at recursive thinking to really achieve much outside of damage–we can’t see the second- and third-order effects well enough to centrally intervene precisely or comprehensively enough to keep from catastrophe.

So we treat symptoms. We suppress the uncomfortable metric. The baby cries and instead of trying to understand and respond to the signal with some nourishing, we muzzle the noise… and we blame all the dumbest things as the baby slowly dies.

The US economy, circa 2008, is a great muzzled baby.  But in this case it badly needed to shift in its crib and to vomit out all its caustic assets and insolvent firms… its poison and its literal parasites. (GM for instance)

Bernanke’s Fed, arm in arm with Poulson’s treasury, buried this baby in so much muzzle that it’ll be a miracle if we don’t smother.


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