In An Uncertain World

I just finished Robert Rubin’s memoir In An Uncertain World: Tough Choices from Wall Street to Washington, co-authored with Jacob Weisberg.

Robert Rubin was Treasury Secretary during President Clinton’s second term. Prior to that, he was head of the National Economic Council, serving as President Clinton’s economic adviser. He joined public service after twenty-six years at Goldman Sachs, ultimately as Co-Chairman and Co-Senior Partner. 

The book is incredibly well done. It’s not only well-written, but it also has incredible insights into the White House decision making process and politics in general. The best thing about the book is that Rubin talks in detail about his own thought process.

A key theme throughout is the fundamental uncertainty in everything. Having started at Goldman Sachs in the risk arbitrage department, Rubin learned to think in probabilistic terms.

At the core of this outlook is the conviction that nothing can be proven to be certain. Modern science says this is so even in physics and chemistry, where the most familiar and fundamental precepts are based on assumptions about perception and reality that cannot be proven. 

He continues…

And once you enter the realm of probabilities, nothing is ever simple again. A truly probabilistic view of life leads quickly to the recognition that almost all significant issues are enormously complex and demand that one delve into those complexities to identify the relevant considerations and the inevitable trade-offs. Some people I’ve encountered in various phases of my career seem more certain about everything than I am about anything. That kind of certainty isn’t just a personality trait I lack. It’s an attitude that seems to me to misunderstand the very nature of reality—it’s complexity and ambiguity—and thereby to provide a rather poor basis for working through decisions in a way that is likely to lead to the best results. 

It’s not all dark and serious, though. He talks about his lighter view of the world, too, which he shared with many of his most impressive colleagues:

Many of these people combine an ironic attitude toward human pretension, including their own, with a strong sense of purpose and commitment. That mixture of seriousness and irreverence, which especially marked my colleagues and my time at Treasury, is as good an attitude toward daily life as I know.