Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk

Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk

by Peter L. Bernstein

ISBN: 9780471121046

Publisher John Wiley & Sons

Published in Business & Investing/Accounting, Business & Investing/Finance, Health, Mind & Body/Psychology & Counseling

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Sample Chapter


The Winds of the Greeks and the Role of the Dice

Why is the mastery of risk such a uniquely modern concept? Why did humanity wait the many thousands of years leading up to the Renaissance before breaking down the barriers that stood in the way of measuring and controlling risk?

These questions defy easy answers. But we begin with a clue. Since the beginning of recorded history, gambling—the very essence of risk-taking—has been a popular pastime and often an addiction. It was a game of chance that inspired Pascal and Fermat's revolutionary breakthrough into the laws of probability, not some profound question about the nature of capitalism or visions of the future. Yet until that moment, throughout history, people had wagered and played games without using any system of odds that determines winnings and losings today. The act of risk-taking floated free, untrammeled by the theory of risk management.

Human beings have always been infatuated with gambling because it puts us head-to-head against the fates, with no holds barred. We enter this daunting battle because we are convinced that we have a powerful ally: Lady Luck will interpose herself between us and the fates (or the odds) to bring victory to our side. Adam Smith, a masterful student of human nature, defined the motivation: "The overweening conceit which the greater part of men have of their own abilities [and] their absurd presumption in their own good fortune." Although Smith was keenly aware that the human propensity to take risk propelled economic progress, he feared that society would suffer when that propensity ran amuck. So he was careful to balance moral sentiments against the benefits of a free market. A hundred and sixty years later, another great English economist, John Maynard Keynes, agreed: "When the capital development of a country becomes the by-product of the activities of a casino, the job is likely to be ill-done."

Yet the world would be a dull place if people lacked conceit and confidence in their own good fortune. Keynes had to admit that "If human nature felt no temptation to take a chance ... there might not be much investment merely as a result of cold calculation." Nobody takes a risk in the expectation that it will fail. When the Soviets tried to administer uncertainty out of existence through government fiat and planning, they choked off social and economic progress.

* * *

Gambling has held human beings in thrall for millennia. It has been engaged in everywhere, from the dregs of society to the most respectable circles.

Pontius Pilate's soldiers cast lots for Christ's robe as He suffered on the cross. The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius was regularly accompanied by his personal croupier. The Earl of Sandwich invented the snack that bears his name so that he could avoid leaving the gaming table in order to eat. George Washington hosted games in his tent during the American Revolution. Gambling is synonymous with the Wild West. And "Luck Be a Lady Tonight" is one of the most memorable numbers in Guys and Dolls, a musical about a compulsive gambler and his floating crap game.

The earliest-known form of gambling was a kind of dice game played with what was known as an astragalus, or knuckle-bone. This early ancestor of today's dice was a squarish bone taken from the ankles of sheep or deer, solid and without marrow, and so hard as to be virtually indestructible. Astragali have surfaced in archeological digs in many parts of the world. Egyptian tomb paintings picture games played with astragali dating from 3500 BC, and Greek vases show young men tossing the bones into a circle. Although Egypt punished compulsive gamblers by forcing them to hone stones for the pyramids, excavations show that the pharaohs were not above using loaded dice in their own games. Craps, an American invention, derives from various dice games brought into Europe via the Crusades. Those games were generally referred to as "hazard," from al zahr, the Arabic word for dice.

Card games developed in Asia from ancient forms of fortune-telling, but they did not become popular in Europe until the invention of printing. Cards originally were large and square, with no identifying figures or pips in the corners. Court cards were printed with only one head instead of double-headed, which meant that players often had to identify them from the feet—turning the cards around would reveal a holding of court cards. Square corners made cheating easy for players who could turn down a tiny part of the corner to identify cards in the deck later on. Double-headed court cards and cards with rounded corners came into use only in the nineteenth century.

Like craps, poker is an American variation on an older form—the game is only about 150 years old. David Hayano has described poker as "Secret ploys, monumental deceptions, calculated strategies, and fervent beliefs [with] deep, invisible structures.... A game to experience rather than to observe." According to Hayano, about forty million Americans play poker regularly, all confident of their ability to outwit their opponents.

The most addictive forms of gambling seem to be the pure games of chance played at the casinos that are now spreading like wildfire through once staid American communities. An article in The New York Times of September 25, 1995, datelined Davenport, Iowa, reports that gambling is the fastest-growing industry in the United States, "a $40 billion business that draws more customers than baseball parks or movie theaters." The Times cites a University of Illinois professor who estimates that state governments pay three dollars in costs to social agencies and the criminal justice system for every dollar of revenue they take in from the casinos—a calculus that Adam Smith might have predicted.

Iowa, for example, which did not even have a lottery until 1985, had ten big casinos by 1995, plus a horse track and a dog track with 24-hour slot machines. The article states that "nearly nine out of ten Iowans say they gamble," with 5.4% of them reporting that they have a gambling problem, up from 1.7% five years earlier. This in a state where a Catholic priest went to jail in the 1970s on charges of running a bingo game. AI zahr in its purest form is apparently still with us.

* * *

Games of chance must be distinguished from games in which skill makes a difference. The principles at work in roulette, dice, and slot machines are identical, but they explain only part of what is involved in poker, betting on the horses, and backgammon. With one group of games the outcome is determined by fate; with the other group, choice comes into play. The odds—the probability of winning—are all you need to know for betting in a game of chance, but you need far more information to predict who will win and who will lose when the outcome depends on skill as well as luck. There are cardplayers and racetrack bettors who are genuine professionals, but no one makes a successful profession out of shooting craps.

Many observers consider the stock market itself little more than a gambling casino. Is winning in the stock market the result of skill combined with luck, or is it just the result of a lucky gamble? We shall return to this question in Chapter 12.

Losing streaks and winning streaks occur frequently in games of chance, as they do in real life. Gamblers respond to these events in asymmetric fashion: they appeal to the law of averages to bring losing streaks to a speedy end. And they appeal to that same law of averages to suspend itself so that winning streaks will go on and on. The law of averages hears neither appeal. The last sequence of throws of the dice conveys absolutely no information about what the next throw will bring. Cards, coins, dice, and roulette wheels have no memory.

Gamblers may think they are betting on red or seven or four-of-a-kind, but in reality they are betting on the clock. The loser wants a short run to look like a long run, so that the odds will prevail. The winner wants a long run to look like a short run, so that the odds will be suspended. Far away from the gaming tables, the managers of insurance companies conduct their affairs in the same fashion. They set their premiums to cover the losses they will sustain in the long run; but when earthquakes and fires and hurricanes all happen at about the same time, the short run can be very painful. Unlike gamblers, insurance companies carry capital and put aside reserves to tide them over during the inevitable sequences of short runs of bad luck.

Time is the dominant factor in gambling. Risk and time are opposite sides of the same coin, for if there were no tomorrow there would be no risk. Time transforms risk, and the nature of risk is shaped by the time horizon: the future is the playing field.

Time matters most when decisions are irreversible. And yet many irreversible decisions must be made on the basis of incomplete information. Irreversibility dominates decisions ranging all the way from taking the subway instead of a taxi, to building an automobile factory in Brazil, to changing jobs, to declaring war.

If we buy a stock today, we can always sell it tomorrow. But what do we do after the croupier at the roulette table cries, "No more bets!" or after a poker bet is doubled? There is no going back. Should we refrain from acting in the hope that the passage of time will make luck or the probabilities turn in our favor?

Hamlet complained that too much hesitation in the face of uncertain outcomes is bad because "the native hue of resolution is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought ... and enterprises of great pith and moment ... lose the name of action." Yet once we act, we forfeit the option of waiting until new information comes along. As a result, not-acting has value. The more uncertain the outcome, the greater may be the value of procrastination. Hamlet had it wrong: he who hesitates is halfway home.

* * *

To explain the beginning of everything, Greek mythology drew on a giant game of craps to explain what modern scientists call the Big Bang. Three brothers rolled dice for the universe, with Zeus winning the heavens, Poseidon the seas, and Hades, the loser, going to hell as master of the underworld.

Probability theory seems a subject made to order for the Greeks, given their zest for gambling, their skill as mathematicians, their mastery of logic, and their obsession with proof. Yet, though the most civilized of all the ancients, they never ventured into that fascinating world. Their failure to do so is astonishing because the Greeks had the only recorded civilization up to that point untrammeled by a dominating priesthood that claimed a monopoly on the lines of communication with the powers of mystery. Civilization as we know it might have progressed at a much faster pace if the Greeks had anticipated what their intellectual progeny—the men of the Renaissance—were to discover some thousand years later.

Despite the emphasis that the Greeks placed on theory, they had little interest in applying it to any kind of technology that would have changed their views of the manageability of the future. When Archimedes invented the lever, he claimed that he could move the earth if only he could find a place to stand. But apparently he gave no thought to changing it. The daily life of the Greeks, and their standard of living, were much the same as the way that their forebears had subsisted for thousands of years. They hunted, fished, grew crops, bore children, and used architectural techniques that were only variations on themes developed much earlier in the Tigris-Euphrates valley and in Egypt.

Genuflection before the winds was the only form of risk management that caught their attention: their poets and dramatists sing repeatedly of their dependence on the winds, and beloved children were sacrificed to appease the winds. Most important, the Greeks lacked a numbering system that would have enabled them to calculate instead of just recording the results of their activities.

I do not mean to suggest that the Greeks gave no thought to the nature of probability. The ancient Greek word [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (ikos), which meant plausible or probable, had the same sense as the modern concept of probability: "to be expected with some degree of certainty." Socrates defines [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] as "likeness to truth."

Socrates' definition reveals a subtle point of great importance. Likeness to truth is not the same thing as truth. Truth to the Greeks was only what could be proved by logic and axioms. Their insistence on proof set truth in direct contrast to empirical experimentation. For example, in Phaedo, Simmias points out to Socrates that "the proposition that the soul is in harmony has not been demonstrated at all but rests only on probability." Aristotle complains about philosophers who, "... while they speak plausibly, ... do not speak what is true." Elsewhere, Socrates anticipates Aristotle when he declares that a "mathematician who argues from probabilities in geometry is not worth an ace." For another thousand years, thinking about games and playing them remained separate activities.

Shmuel Sambursky, a distinguished Israeli historian and philosopher of science, provides the only convincing thesis I could find to explain why the Greeks failed to take the strategic step of developing a quantitative approach to probability. With their sharp distinction between truth and probability, Sambursky contends in a paper written in 1956, the Greeks could not conceive of any kind of solid structure or harmony in the messy nature of day-to-day existence. Although Aristotle suggested that people should make decisions on the basis of "desire and reasoning directed to some end," he offered no guidance to the likelihood of a successful outcome. Greek dramas tell tale after tale of the helplessness of human beings in the grasp of impersonal fates. When the Greeks wanted a prediction of what tomorrow might bring, they turned to the oracles instead of consulting their wisest philosophers.

The Greeks believed that order is to be found only in the skies, where the planets and stars regularly appear in their appointed places with an unmatched regularity. To this harmonious performance, the Greeks paid deep respect, and their mathematicians studied it intensely. But the perfection of the heavens served only to highlight the disarray of life on earth. Moreover, the predictability of the firmament contrasted sharply with the behavior of the fickle, foolish gods who dwelt on high.

The old Talmudic Jewish philosophers may have come a bit closer to quantifying risk. But here, too, we find no indication that they followed up on their reasoning by developing a methodical approach to risk. Sambursky cites a passage in the Talmud, Kethuboth 9q, where the philosopher explains that a man may divorce his wife for adultery without any penalty, but not if he claims that the adultery occurred before marriage.

"It is a double doubt," declares the Talmud. If it is established (method unspecified) that the bride came to the marriage bed no longer a virgin, one side of the double doubt is whether the man responsible was the prospective groom himself—whether the event occurred "under him ... or not under him." As to the second side of the doubt, the argument continues: "And if you say that it was under him, there is doubt whether it was by violence or by her free will." Each side of the double doubt is given a 50–50 chance. With impressive statistical sophistication, the philosophers conclude that there is only one chance in four (1/2 × 1/2) that the woman committed adultery before marriage. Therefore, the husband cannot divorce her on those grounds.

* * *

One is tempted to assume that the lapse of time between the invention of the astragalus and the invention of the laws of probability was nothing more than a historical accident. The Greeks and the Talmudic scholars were so maddeningly close to the analysis that Pascal and Fermat would undertake centuries later that only a slight push would have moved them on to the next step.

That the push did not occur was not an accident. Before a society could incorporate the concept of risk into its culture, change would have to come, not in views of the present, but in attitudes about the future.

Up to the time of the Renaissance, people perceived the future as little more than a matter of luck or the result of random variations, and most of their decisions were driven by instinct. When the conditions of life are so closely linked to nature, not much is left to human control. As long as the demands of survival limit people to the basic functions of bearing children, growing crops, hunting, fishing, and providing shelter, they are simply unable to conceive of circumstances in which they might be able to influence the outcomes of their decisions. A penny saved is not a penny earned unless the future is something more than a black hole.

Over the centuries, at least until the Crusades, most people met with few surprises as they ambled along from day to day. Nestled in a stable social structure, they gave little heed to the wars that swept across the land, to the occasions when bad rulers succeeded good ones, and even to the permutations of religions. Weather was the most apparent variable. As the Egyptologist Henri Frankfort has remarked, "The past and the future—far from being a matter of concern—were wholly implicit in the present."

Excerpted from "Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk" by Peter L. Bernstein. Copyright © 2013 by Peter L. Bernstein. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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