Law school cut down on my pleasure reading this year but I did manage to get through a dozen or so interesting books. I think the Black Swan by Nassim Taleb will have the most lasting impact--although the works of Noam Chomsky were pretty interesting.
Taleb's previous book, Fooled by Randomness really affected my thinking and I was looking forward to the Black Swan. I will have to admit that it's a really tough book; Taleb has a pretty annoying style and he spends a lot of time discussing obscure French philosphers who I've never heard of. I found myself skipping large sections. I think book will be like Hawking's "A Brief History of Time" which everyone bought but no one finished.
A "Black Swan" is Taleb's term for an event that is extremely rare, catastrophic and in retrospect appears obvious. That last part is important because it fools us into thinking that Black Swans don't happen.
Taleb's point is that Black Swans are responsible for most events. The world is dominated by Black Swans, but we don't predict them or recognize them. The book was written in 2007 and Taleb, for example, said that Wall Street and the banking system are vulnerable to collapse because the guys running them are sitting on huge risks that they don't understand and haven't accounted for. So they will go on happily making small but steady returns until they get wiped out. Hmm, that sounds pretty smart now.
Taleb finds it frustrating that Government forecasters can completely miss the financial meltdown, but will tell you to three digits what's going to happen to Medicare in 2025. That's because they have no idea what the world is going to look like. World War One was a Black Swan. So was 9/11 and the Internet.
Naturally the book made me think of Janet Napolitano.
The Governor has just accepted the worst job in the United States Government. If nothing happens, then she will go down in history as an obscure figure who is responsible for you having to take off your shoes at the airport. Even if she manages to prevent a disaster, you will never hear about it. The job has no up side.
But what about a Black Swan? What if someone puts Anthrax in the Metro, a comet hits Houston, a 500 year flood wipes out a good chunk of the Midwest, or a ticked off engineer from Pakistan, Turkmenistan or Uzbekistan crosses the border from Canada with a nuclear bomb in the back of a VW Micro Bus?
What then? Then Janet becomes Michael Brown after Katrina, Neville Chamberlain after Munich or Bill Buckner after the 1986 World Series.
Her tenure at Homeland Security will either entail year after year of career-ending obscurity, or sudden, total, unexpected and unmitigated disaster.
Her mistakes at Homeland Security could actually leave the country worse off than her mistakes as Governor have left the state...the only difference will be that she won't have a sycophantic media to bail her out.
Black Swans are by definition extremely rare. It may be a twenty years before the US is hit by an Oklahoma City Bombing, a Katrina or a 9/11. But if there's anything I learned from Taleb's books it is that it's not a good idea to bet your life or your career that a Black Swan isn't going to happen on your watch.
Post Script: One of the comments points out that some Black Swans are positive. That's true and Taleb tries to position himself to take advantage of those unforeseen opportunities. However, for purposes of this post, the DHS Director isn't in any position to benefit from positive Black Swans. My point is the office only has downsides.