Podcast • March 24, 2011

Mark Blyth (3): The Black Swan of Cairo

Mark Blyth, the know-it-all professor with the Sean Connery delivery, is back in the pub tonight, and not a moment to soon. When the political economy of energy is screaming red-alert, from Japan melting to ...

Mark Blyth, the know-it-all professor with the Sean Connery delivery, is back in the pub tonight, and not a moment to soon. When the political economy of energy is screaming red-alert, from Japan melting to Libya’s oilfield civil war, cheerful chatter from a certified political economist can sound like music. Let’s just forget that Mark Blyth, on our last round, told us that austerity would be our nightmare in 2011. And let’s remember it was Mark Blyth’s friend Nassim Nicholas Taleb who cautioned us almost a year ago that we seem to have entered the Age of the Black Swan — a black swan (think: BP oil blowout in the Gulf of Mexico) being an unimaginable event with big consequences and its own impervious mythology of cause and effect. The social service of black swans is to remind us that fragility is a main mark of global systems. In conversation at the Watson Institute, Mark Blyth is generously scooping himself from an article he and Mr. Taleb have co-authored for the magazine Foreign Affairs.

Let’s not get too bent out of shape about it, because complex systems, when they’re tightly coupled, are Black-Swan prone. And if all the volatility in the mix gets packed and shoved under the carpet, so to speak, then they become prone to these explosions. We also have a remarkable capacity to bounce back. Let’s think about what happened with Japan. You had the Trifecta from hell: first you have an earthquake at 9.0, so let’s follow up with a tsunami, and then a nuclear accident. What happens? Global stock markets fall off a cliff. A week later, they’re back. And the Japanese look like they might actually just pull this off. Why? Because they are a very technologically advanced society. Because they’ve got more experience with nuclear energy than anyone else. And because we got lucky. Let’s face facts, it could have been a lot worse. Now what is the lesson that we’re going to take from that? Being humans we’ll probably learn too much, which is to say, “Well, that shows that nuclear power is safe.” No it’s not. We got a sixty year track record. We’ve been lucky so far, but that doesn’t mean we’re not turkeys looking for Thanksgiving once again.

So we become more tightly coupled, there will be more Black Swan events, but our capacity to bounce back is always there… But you don’t want to get in a position whereby what you’re saying is don’t touch anything ever, don’t try anything ever, because it will end up creating some kind of downstream consequence you can’t calculate. Some of those consequences might be good.

Let me give you an example of this. A long time ago, back in the nineteenth century–before they had a fully formed notion of how diseases were transmitted through bacteria and viruses, etc.–there was a theory of disease that said it traveled on the wind, it was smell. And it was the stench that really made you sick. Hence why the Victorians were always running out to get “good air” and go out into the countryside and all that sort of stuff. Now, they were completely wrong. But one of the things that they did, because they were obsessed with smell, was to build sewers. Now that was exactly the right thing to do, had you had the proper theory of disease. So on the wrong theory, they got the smell and literally got the shit off the streets and put it all underground. And in doing so, they made the biggest advance in public health ever, for all the wrong reasons. Sometimes, nonlinearities work out in a really good way.

Mark Blyth in conversation with Chris Lydon at Brown University, March 22, 2011.

Podcast • December 21, 2010

Mark Blyth (2): 2011 Will Be Worse… and Life Will Go On

Mark Blyth is back in the pub tonight, played by Sean Connery, as usual, and demonstrating again how far a man can go in political economy just by talking fast and infallibly with a strong ...

Mark Blyth is back in the pub tonight, played by Sean Connery, as usual, and demonstrating again how far a man can go in political economy just by talking fast and infallibly with a strong Scots’ accent.

The Democrats in Washington have taken up again their modern mission: cleaning up a Republican mess in America, for which they will get no thanks in 2011 or 2012, says our corridor mate at the Watson Institute. The Tea Party rebellion demonstrates anew that American voters are crazy but not necessarily stupid: when they see debt and deficits skyrocketing and unemployment still climbing, the Republican campaign writes itself, and wins. “You don’t get any credit for putting an emergency floor in the building when the roof is still falling into the basement. That’s what the Democrats have done for the last two years, and will keep doing.”

Mark Blyth is a man of rough opinions, as you’ve gathered, on top of learning and experience. The civilized expert world has decided, he notes, that “austerity” is to be the bad idea that governs economic policy in 2011. “If it’s not hurting, it’s not working,” is the rule. It won’t work, Blyth says. It won’t even be sustained, because democracies (like Ireland, maybe even the US) have discovered that they’re paying twice for the meltdown: first through the bank bailout, second through service cuts on the altar of the austere. Sooner or later, he says, the holders of sovereign debt will “take a haircut” but that day of reckoning could yet be years away. At the end of the day, he is telling us, the American economy has staying power that a lot of nervous Americans forget. This sounds like the Mark Blyth version of the line attributed to Bismarck, that “God has a special providence for fools, drunks, and the United States of America.” Is not the empire at risk, I am asking…

MB: It depends on what you mean by “empire,” right? This is the funny thing about American Empire. As an immigrant to the United States, along with hundreds of millions who have done it over the past hundred years, it’s this funny empire that people keep wanting to join. It’s a really weird thing. The Italians are the best at this, they got six US military bases on their soil that fly unimpeded missions to Afghanistan and God knows where else, whatever the Americans want to do, and then they come over here, probably flying Business Class to get here, and then moan about the American Empire. It’s a strange creature, this one.

CL: Some of them come here to get out of range of American foreign policy.

MB: When the British had an empire you knew where you stood. You had no rights, you had only responsibilities. We owned the stuff and you got shat on. When the French had an empire it was even clearer. This is a very odd empire where you get preferential trading agreements, better access to markets, technology transfers, and then all the sort of benefits that go along with hanging around in the dollar club. Oh, and then we’ll also do this thing called NATO where basically we’ll bankroll your militaries for 35 years and we’ll keep it going 20 years after the Cold War because it’s just a good idea. If you had to design an empire from scratch and you could do whatever you want, this would not be it. This is a seriously funny empire.

One example of this. So let’s go into Iraq for oil, right? Okay… But if you went out in 2002 and went on the spot market, and basically bought oil future contracts at about $36 a barrel, you could have bought the entire Iraqi oil stock for one quarter of what we spent on the war. This is the stupidest empire the world has ever seen. If there really was an empire, it should have fallen years ago.

Next time, perhaps: Mark Blyth on the post-bubble blues, reflecting on the ruins of the equity and tech boom (1987-1997) and then real estate and housing (1997-2007): “There’s a whole conversation we could have sometime about whether the model for investment banking is bust. I personally think it is, and it’s not coming back. So saving the banks was maybe wrong for different reasons than people thought.”