A Flock of Black Swans

“Black swan” events are usually thought to be so improbable that they can be ruled out. But such events are considered virtually impossible only by those whose frame of reference is limited in time and geographical area, while those who account for other countries and other decades or centuries know better.

CAMBRIDGE – Throughout history, major political and economic shocks have often occurred in August, when leaders have gone on vacation believing that world affairs are quiet. Consider World War I’s outbreak in 1914, the Nazi-Soviet pact in 1939, the Sputnik launch in 1957, the Berlin Wall in 1961, and the failed coup in Moscow of 1991. Then there was the Nixon shock of 1971 (when the American president took the dollar off the gold standard and imposed wage, price, and trade controls), the 1982 international debt crisis in Mexico, the 1992 crisis in the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, and the 2007 subprime mortgage crisis in the United States.

Many of these shocks constituted events that had previously been considered unthinkable. They were not even on the radar screen. Such developments have been called “black swans” – events of inconceivably tiny probability.

But, in my view, “black swan” should refer to something else: an event that is considered virtually impossible by those whose frame of reference is limited in time and geographical area, but not by those who consider other countries and other decades or centuries.

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