Friday, August 21, 2015

Career politicians are Stoics

In his powerful and compelling books, Nassim Taleb discusses the ancient philosophy of Stoicism and reconceptualizes it as a way of viewing the world that inoculates oneself against randomness. It is a deep internalization of the truth that all complex causal phenomenon exist in only a probabilistic sense - the best you can do is set up a life that maximizes your chances for achieving your goals. Necessary is the appreciation of unforeseen or unanticipated events.

Politicians exist in a strange career environment for many reasons, but one that I ponder frequently is their high level of exposure to one-off events. Unlike most jobs, a single misstatement can lead to ruin. Elections are determined by numerous factors unrelated to candidate quality. With this in mind, I grudgingly find myself holding a strange degree of respect for those career politicians who have lasted for many years. Political scientist Jonathan Bernstein encapsulates this sentiment perfectly in the context of Joe Biden's presidential strategy:
Most likely, nothing will shake Clinton's hold on the nomination. But there's always a chance that something could -- scandal, health or some unforeseeable circumstance.
In that event, someone has to be the Democratic candidate. As Nate Silver pointed out weeks ago, Biden is doing what he can to make himself the obvious fallback.
This strategic realism arguably reveals a sophisticated understanding of the role of chance in politics. Despite the probabilities of great outcomes being extremely low, because the payoffs are so great (Pres. Biden) it's worth working hard to set up a structure that maximizes those desired outcomes.

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