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December 6, 2012

IMF advisor argues merits of stress

International Monetary Fund advisor and Oxford University professor Nassim Taleb disparaged the tendency to eliminate stressors and argued that stress can actually strengthen systems in a discussion of the ideas set forth in his new book Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder at International House on Friday evening.

He began the lecture by asking audience members to think of antonyms of “fragility.” After rejecting the suggestions “resilience” and “robustness,” Taleb proposed that a new word was needed to denote systems that grow stronger under pressure: “antifragile.”

To illustrate the concept of “antifragility,” Taleb turned to systems found in nature. He quoted Nietzsche’s famed dictum, “That which does not kill me makes me stronger” and pointed out that bones in the human body become stronger when subjected to a limited amount of stress. Similarly, he argued, seemingly undesirable events like bankruptcy and plane crashes are actually good for systems in the long run.

Taleb said that he is critical of the tendency to micromanage risk in order to eliminate stressors, which is an outgrowth of the modern age.

“Stifling natural fluctuations masks real problems, causing the explosions to be both delayed and more intense when they do take place,” he said.

He blamed Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the Federal Reserve, for attempting to smooth out the peaks and troughs of the economic cycle, which ultimately imposed systemic risks to the economy that contributed to the 2007 financial crisis.

Asked about the economic models developed at the University of Chicago, Taleb said, “I don’t like economic models because I think they are bullshit. We don’t put theories into practice, we create theories out of practice.”

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