Taleb and the Talmud

"Your bathtub's not trying to kill you." I think that's my favorite line in Nassim Nicholas Taleb's book, Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life. That's part of a short section on why pointing out that more people die in bathtubs than from terrorists attacks are so much nonsense.  That's near the end of the book.

Earlier on he deals more squarely with what it means to have skin in the game with many facets of religion thrown in. Taleb has clearly read up a lot on Jewish thought so that now he can even cite the account of Hillel that he was clearly not familiar with when Yossi Vardi asked him to express his idea "while standing on one leg." See http://kallahmagazine.blogspot.com/2012/01/was-he-pulling-his-leg.html (He refers to same Vardi again in this book on p. 35; perhaps he finally clued him in about what the expression "on one foot" means in a Jewish context. While Taleb doesn't mention that expression specifically, he does cite other Jewish sayings -- in translation.)

I see that when I wrote that I said that Taleb was more concerned with perception than in telling people how to live. That may have been true of The Black Swan, but by the time he got to this book, he has become more concerned with living virtuously rather than merely virtue-signalling. My favorite chapter is the 13th, "The Merchandising of Virtue." He makes a point I've made many times in arguing about why I have no respect for certain celebrities who publicly embrace a cause. They literally make a show of caring about humanity, the planet, etc. and make demands on other to support their causes but not making any sacrifices themselves.

One thing I admire about Taleb is that he has this deep-seated sense of integrity, a quality that is extremely rare these days when so much is just about showing the right kind of values in public but not necessarily exercising them in private. That's the true test, as he says about seeing how these people who are so public about virtues treat those not in a position of power that  they come in contact with.

But to return to the Jewish ideas in the book, withe respect to living up to one's own standards, he relates the story of  Rav Safra (p. 57). Here it is as related in https://aishcenter.com/2017/07/the-basic-principles-of-jewish-business-ethics/
It happened that Rav Safra had some wine for sale, and a potential buyer came to him while he was reciting the Shema. The customer said “Sell me this wine for such and such a price.” Rav Safra did not answer [so as not to interrupt the Shema]. Assuming that he was unwilling to settle for the price offered, the customer added to his original offer, and said, “Sell me this wine for such and such a price.” Rav Safra still did not answer. [Presumably, this cycle was repeated, with ever-escalating prices.] Upon finishing the Shema, Rav Safra said to him: “From the time you made your first offer, I had resolved in my mind to sell it to you. Therefore I may take no greater amount [than your first bid].” (Sheiltot Vayehi, No. 38, ed. Mirsky, Vol. 2, p. 252 and parallels).

That's the ultimate in integrity because the buyer had no way of knowing that Rav Safra had mentally accepted the first bid. However, Taleb points out that this kind of virtue is not one without reward. If a seller takes advantage of such situations to take more money but then accepts the usual, lower price from other buyers, likely the buyer who paid more will find out at some point and so trust is eroded. Ultimately, then you could have won the battle of one sale but lost the war in terms of customer loyalty and retention.

Perhaps for Taleb's next book, he would want to include yet another Jewish teaching on skin in the game and the nature of sacrifice that shows integrity. That is the Midrash on Haran's death learned out from the significance of the name of Ur Kasdim:

After Avram destroyed his father's idols, his father turned him ino King Nimrod ... Nimrod was a fire worshipper and threatened to throw Avram into a furnace to see if he would be saved by his God. Haran  was uncertain which side to take - his brother's or Nimrod's He calculated as follows: if Avram was to emerge unscathed, then he would tell Nimrod that he supported Avram. If Avram died, then he would claim to support Nimrod. Avram was thrown into the furnace and emerged unscathed. When Nimrod demanded that Haran pledge his allegiance, he said that he supported his brother. They threw Haran into the furnace, and he was burned to death. (Bereishis Rabbah 38:23)

G-d doesn't fall for the show of allegiance that only manifests itself when there is no risk.

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