Wall street’s implosion has brought an economic thinker by the name of Nassim Nicholas Taleb back in the news.  A little over a year ago, his book, “The Black Swan:  The Impact of the Highly Improbable”  garnered a certain amount of attention in North America because of its startling implications on an American mental landscape dominated by ideology.  Taleb’s thesis was that we humans are highly susceptible to getting caught out by random events because we have such a strong tendency to discount their existence.

If you have spent your entire life in the northern hemisphere, you will conclude that swans are white.  And that will be true as long as you never go to Australia, where swans are black.  The difficulty is that we seem to be psychologically programmed to confuse improbability with impossibility.  Taleb suggests that this may be because evolution does not favor probabilistic thinking.  Not every snake is deadly, but those who avoid snakes may have more offspring than those who don’t.  Particularly in Australia.

Taleb is also highly suspicious of historians who analyze events (like the start of World War I or the Great Depression) in great detail and then reconstruct the dominoes leading up to the disaster. They assume that they are reconstructing the reasons for the event, when in fact, they are simply predicting in reverse.  There were plenty of crises in the Balkans that did not lead to World War I.

Taleb suggests that the real world is much messier and less predictable than historians, economists, social scientists or politicians believe. Perhaps my exposure to other parts of the planet at an early age made me less resistant to the black swan, and more skeptical of collective wisdom.  I am inclined to believe that  most conventional wisdom is wrong, but willing to entertain the idea that it may, occasionally, be true.

There are black swans, kangaroos, cassowaries and (the most unlikely of all), platypuses.  The animal with a bill like a duck, that lays eggs like a bird, but is a mammal and suckles its young.  And just for good measure, is venomous.  European naturalists who never visited Australia maintained the animal was a hoax, concocted out of the parts of other creatures.

What is less easily understood is how the wizards of Wall Street did not see this particular disaster coming.  This was not a black swan.  This was home economics.  It must have been obvious to people on the ‘street’ that the financial meltdown was coming.  There was the Savings and Loan Crisis, after all, the collapse of Long-Term Capital Management.  Did anyone really think that allowing the biggest brokerage firms in the world to take on extravagant debt in derivatives was a good idea?  What about selling houses to people with no ability to repay mortgage loans?

I never saw an emu eye to eye until I arrived in Australia, but its African relative, the ostrich, must have been lurking all around me in North America, brilliantly hidden by human forms.  Bipeds with their handsome heads in the sand, blinded by a belief in free markets and deregulation, cutting taxes for the rich, taking on the world’s bad guys with smart bombs and spy satellites, and going shopping to keep the economy strong.

I was born at the beginning of America’s powerful march toward world leadership and I never thought I would witness its finale.  But this may be the end of the American age.  The fate of empires can be sealed by greed, hubris and a blind march down the path of crippling debt and disastrous wars.

It is time for Americans to wake up and resume their vital roles as caretakers, creative thinkers, practical tinkerers;  to re-engage with the world around them rather than trying to control it.  We are all interconnected.  There are black swans everywhere.