A Measure of Accountability

JU News Desk
Published: July 2018

Taleb’s new book talks about a theory on how the world should be

There are phrases we learn in lecture halls, taught by erudite scholars. Their grave faces and somber demeanor sometimes strangely fail to convey the meaning of these phrases until we experience them in real life. Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s fifth book derives its title from such a phrase, skin in the game. The argument he presents is deceptively charming in its simplicity; if you are a person who does not have skin in the game, you have no business being in the game.

It sounds simple and at least at a superficial level it is difficult to deny the logic of it. If you are a person who is not going to experience the consequences of a particular policy, phenomenon or communication, you have no right to be a stakeholder in it. Truth however, we all know, lies somewhere in between, in that gray area waiting to catch us unawares. So much so for the phrase and the argument, let us come to the book. It can be read either as a stand-alone or a trilogy with the Black Swan and Antifragile.

Taleb presents vehement arguments throughout the book against everything. He picks the most recent debacles that have left the world economy, politics and the society reeling under the onslaughts which he terms as, ‘consequences of not being able to understand the complexity of a system’. The book is in eight parts, beginning with the title, Antaeus Whacked and comprising several others with an especially devoted part titled, Risk and Rationality meant to reinforce the logic argued in the book.

“Now some innocent people- Ezidis, Christian minorities in Near and Middle East, Mandeans, Syrians, Iraqis and Lybians- had to pay a price for the mistakes of these interventionists currently sitting in comfortable air-conditioned offices,” – this is Taleb’s take on the Middle East and wars perpetrated by the West in several other regions in the name of establishing democracy. He argues that the decision-makers whose say so led to these unstable situations had no skin in the game or had very little accountability. Taleb takes several such cases right from the global financial crisis of 2007-08 perpetrated by excessive risk taking by big investment banks such as Lehman Brothers to a number of other smaller incidents which affected smaller pockets of people.

Bureaucrats are also on the author’s list of people with no skin in the game. He writes, “Bureaucracy is a construction by which a person is conveniently separated from the consequences of his or her actions.” Does he advocate abdication of all bureaucrats or suggest their accountability should be somehow expanded so that they have to deal with a bigger chunk of fallout from their actions? That remains unclear. Nor is there any clear-cut path shown to any alternative system in place if bureaucracy has to be replaced. Taleb borrows heavily from Hammurabi’s laws to modern theorists and his own experiences to illustrate his arguments. Politics, religion, social norms, airline staff, the reader is made privy to several facets from the author’s points of view.

He manages to remain prolific throughout the prose. The style and craft seldom falter throughout the book. What does not seem convincing at certain points are the ideas. When Taleb says, “The curse of modernity is that we are increasingly populated by a class of people who are better at explaining than understanding,” one can sympathise, even agree but it becomes somewhat difficult to employ the same principles to an airline pilot, a doctor and complex social, political and economic systems. That said, it does offer a different perspective on the way we see the world and it is very ‘Taleb’ in every possible way.

The Woman in the Window

By A.J. Finn | pp. 448, Rs.319 | Harper Collins
Already being sold in 40 territories across the world, being produced as a motion picture by Fox 2000 by none other than Oscar winner Scott Rudin, called ‘unputdownable’ by the master of thrillers, Stephen King himself, the Woman in the Window has certainly a lot going for it for a debut novel. A.J. Finn has peopled his books with interesting characters, unexpected twists in the plot and a thriller that keeps you going till the end.

The protagonist of the story is Anna Fox 38. She is a child psychologist. Anna’s husband has left and taken their eight year-old daughter with him. She lives by herself and spends her days mostly spying on her neighbours. Enter Russells, a troubled family, and that is when the action starts. At times poetic, at others fast-faced, the prose and plot both keep readers busy. Does it have overtones of The Girl on the Train? There might be some similarities that can be drawn between the two lead characters, but the plots and even the nuances of protagonists are way different. Last bit of information, A.J. Finn is a pseudonym for Daniel Mallory, an executive editor at William Morrow.

Why I am a Hindu

By Shashi Tharoor | pp. 320, Rs.350 | Aleph Book Company
Back to Hinduism’, ‘getting back to our roots’, are some of the most popular slogans these days. Shashi Tharoor’s, Why I am a Hindu also talks about taking Hinduism back but with very different connotations. The book is divided into three parts. The first part begins with the author’s own interpretation of Hinduism, his beliefs and customs that he follows. It delves into what constitutes Hinduism, its philosophies and customs. By the author’s own admission, defining Hinduism and Hindu was one of the very first challenges he faced while writing. In the second part, Shashi Tharoor explores Hindutva and the politics that has attached itself to Hinduism. The third part is devoted to the concept of reclaiming Hinduism back from the murky politics. The author takes recourse of Vedas, ancient texts, ascetics and philosophers to explain Hinduism; contemporary politics and its religious facets are argued upon and discussed. The book leaves readers with several important questions to ask about the Hindu identity, the politics and the intertwined facets of the two.

A Century is Not Enough: My Roller Coaster Ride to Success

By Saurav Ganguly | pp. 399, Rs.524 | Juggernaut
Cricket is almost a religion in India and the Indian fans cannot get enough of their revered idols. Sourav Chandidas Ganguly is a name that has left a long lasting imprint on Indian cricket. His autobiography gives readers a glimpse behind the public figure. It traces his behind-the-scenes struggles, trials and triumphs adding a new dimension to the Indian skipper.