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.

Filed under: Book ReviewsBooksMark O.

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