A “black swan” is the term of art for something that is highly improbable, even unimaginable. It comes from the observation that European explorers in Australia were amazed to see black swans for the first time, because they could only picture swans as being white. Nassim Nicholas Taleb popularized the term in his book of the same name, published in 2007 shortly before all financial hell broke loose.
The black swan, only visible in hindsight, is a convenient narrative. During the financial crisis, those in power — portfolio managers, politicians — could excuse their failure to spot warning signs by claiming, “Nobody could have seen it coming!”
It is just as false today as it was then.
An obsession with the “unforeseeable” black swan metaphor has promoted a mentality that led us straight into the mess we’re in now: a sense of helplessness in the face of daunting threats and a sucker’s mentality that encourages people to keep throwing good money after bad. And the facile willingness to see crises as black swans has provided policymakers cover for failing to act in the face of clear and present dangers from climate change to health care to economic insecurity. This accountability vacuum has pervaded U.S. policy on financial risk and on the pandemic.
A better metaphor for these dynamics is what I call the “gray rhino,” the term I wrote about in my 2016 book. The gray rhino is the massive two-ton thing with its horn pointed at you, stomping the ground and getting ready to charge — and, most important, giving you the chance to act. It’s the thing we avoid calling what it is, like the so-called “black” and “white” rhino species that in reality are both gray. Paying attention to the gray rhino — that is, working to head off the things we can see in front of us — would be a far better use of our time than retroactively spotting black swans.
In this vein, we have seen both financial crashes and pandemics many times before and know they will continue to occur. If you cannot picture another one coming, you are willfully blind. Well before the 2008 crash, many people and organizations — the International Monetary Fund, the Bank for International Settlements, dogged financial reporters, G-7 ministers and many others — had raised the red flag about subprime loans, fraudulent lending, lax loan standards, market bubbles inflated by low interest rates and dizzying rises in home prices.
Similarly, epidemiologists and other public health experts have been warning that the world was ripe for the next pandemic, and that global air travel, climate change and antibiotic resistance make us more vulnerable. The 2019 Global Preparedness Monitoring Board report warned of the real danger of a fast-moving, lethal pandemic that could kill 50 million to 80 million people worldwide and destroy 5 percent of global GDP. Epidemiologists have been on alert for when, not if, “Disease X,” the next socially disrupting pandemic, would strike.
“The United States and the world will remain vulnerable to the next flu pandemic or large-scale outbreak of a contagious disease that could lead to massive rates of death and disability, severely affect the world economy, strain international resources, and increase calls on the United States for support,” the Department of National Intelligence warned in its 2019 worldwide threat assessment. In the fall, the Center for Strategic and International Studies ran an eerily prescient pandemic simulation involving a coronavirus similar to the current one: around a 3 percent mortality rate, transmissible before symptoms showed and highly contagious.
In the world of finance, meanwhile, smart analysts have been warning for months, even years, of the dangers lurking: leveraged loans, record corporate debt, an epic stock market bubble, share buybacks endangering corporate balance sheets, falling capital investment, contracting corporate earnings, rising inequality that erodes the real economy, a trade war that backfired, yawning budget deficits created by counterproductive tax cuts, and a leadership vacuum. They have raised the red flag that the Federal Reserve doesn’t have the tools to mop up the next crisis by itself, and that its policies combined with congressional cacophony probably have been setting us up for a worse disaster.
Could anyone have predicted when exactly the next pandemic would hit? No. But there have been many warnings that it was only a matter of time, and that the world was not ready. Could anyone have predicted that a pandemic would be the thing that popped the giant market bubble? No. But it has been clear that a crash was coming, no matter how much the financial industry has tried to convince people otherwise.
The gray rhino is most helpful when looking ahead, where there are plenty of red flags pointing to problems we can confront aggressively now instead of waiting for disaster. The increasing number of record-setting temperatures, storms, droughts, wildfires and other extreme weather-related disruptions are getting harder to ignore, as is the scientific consensus over the role of human activity in creating it. Technology has been changing the workplace while adding to inequality and uncertainty. In turn, education and social safety net systems need to adapt. America’s infrastructure is crumbling, inadequate for the present, much less for a changing future. We’re behind on dealing with all of these challenges and more.
The black swan has one benefit, which is that it encourages people to expand their ideas of what might happen. If they take the concept to heart, they can build resilient systems with safeguards. But mostly the metaphor has been a justification for inertia and inaction in face of expert warnings. It reinforces a dysfunctional status quo in which too many people are making money off our willingness to believe that neither we nor our government nor the people we have entrusted with our money have any power to stand up to looming dangers.
The coronavirus crisis can become the catalyst for facing up to the real challenges that cripple our economy and democracy. The first thing is to keep the coronavirus from overwhelming our hospitals. The United States has perhaps a tenth of the hospital beds and less than one-fifth of the ventilators that a severe pandemic could require. If we don’t slow the spread, medical staff will have to choose who lives or dies because they don’t have the resources to save everyone.
We likewise need to build a system in which a virus does not mean economic ruin, especially for the four out of 10 Americans who would struggle to pay a $400 emergency expense, much less weeks out of work or giant medical bills. This means deep reforms to make health care more accessible and affordable, which would improve daily life as well as protect from pandemics.
Personal debts, especially medical ones, are a drag on the economy, leaving people with less money to spend and more likely to default on what they owe. They also hurt productivity because people who are unable to get proper care are more likely to underperform or lose their jobs. We similarly must find a better way to channel the Federal Reserve’s liquidity efforts into the real economy instead of into market speculation. By various estimates, 75 percent or more of the Fed’s “quantitative easing” policy simply boosted stock and bond prices — and that was before the recent market rout wiped out most of those gains, the lion’s share of which went to the richest Americans rather than those most likely to spend on consumer goods and boost the economy. This time, we need to channel recovery resources toward small businesses, good jobs, clean energy and the Americans who have been left behind: in other words, to creating an economy that works for the future and the many instead of just the present and the few.
The coronavirus is an opportunity for a reset in mentality to put these obvious risks front and center. Let’s trade the black swan for the gray rhino: a mind-set that holds ourselves and our government accountable for heeding warnings and acting when we still have a chance to change the course of events for the better instead of waiting for a crisis to act.