When I was growing up, the 80’s cartoons each had standard issue goods guys and bad guys. Autobots battled Decepticons, G.I. Joes battled Cobra, and He-Man battled Skeletor. I think I outgrew cartoons (at least this style of animation) when the villains’ consistent focus on “evilness” began to ring false. The most extreme case of this would be Beastly on Care Bears who would cackle “I’m *SO* bad!” In real life “villain” is often a matter of perspective, and no one thinks of themselves as evil. We’re all the “good guy” in our own story (even when we play the villain in someone else’s).
I’m not entirely sure why we feel this is a good way to structure conflicts when we present them to children. Clearly it becomes an easy framework to convey values to children. If we feel generosity is a valuable trait, then we assign it to the Care Bears (and show No Heart being stingy) and it is clearly conveyed to them which is the better trait. I think it can lead to a variety of problems with viewing the world as black and white as adults, however I’m not sure that early socialization is really to blame (Xenophobia seems to come quite naturally to the human race and I suspect “black and white” thinking derives quite naturally from an “us and them” world view).
This kind of thinking creeps into personal finance in two ways. First, there is a tendency to break people into two groups: those providing good information and those providing bad information. I wrote a pretty scathing review of “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” by Robert T. Kiyosaki, so people might be inclined to think I disagree with everything he writes. I find some of his material incorrect, some of it poorly presented, and some of it worthwhile. Trying to sort these out isn’t worth the benefit, so I recommend steering clear of his books. He suggests joining MLM as a way to learn how to sell, which isn’t AWFUL advice (I think it might be the only worthwhile reason to get involved with “network marketing”). Conversely, I like most of what John Reed has to say about real estate, investing and life. One big idea that he pushes in a number of books and articles is the “unlimited downside” of toxic contamination as a risk in real estate investing. I agree that it’s a concern (and agree with him that it does give you an unlimited downside) however I disagree with his conclusion that it means you should avoid buy & hold real estate strategies.
This sort of thing can creep in to blogging. Long term readers will have a mental image of Mike and myself, and I can pretty much guarantee we don’t match it in real life (Guiness416 and Preet have both met us after reading the blog, please feel free to comment). One reader was briefly very enthusiastic about the blog (she wrote me an e-mail comparing some of what I’d written to Shakespeare and the Dalai Lama). Later she discovered I invest in tobacco stock and told me off. I’m not as good *OR* as bad as she thinks I am. A while back OperaBob took exception to a comment about the DRiP Investing Resource Center. It seemed to me what he couldn’t wrap his head around is that I said good things and bad things about the community he’s a part of. His community isn’t all good (or all bad): nothing is.
Our infamous real estate agents posts have similarly been interpreted as us saying agents are bad, which we never said in the posts or comments (and, in fact, we repeatedly point out parts of the process where the agent is useful). However, because we don’t agree that agents are absolutely good in every way, some people interpret this as meaning we think they are all absolutely bad.
The second way this creeps into personal finance is people who want to view investments as “good” or “bad”. In my recent post “Beginning Investment Strategies to Avoid” Mark Wolfinger left a comment disputing characterizing stock options as a zero sum game. Mark’s comments were interesting (he certainly knows more about options than I do), and presented situations where stock options could be used effectively, however that wasn’t what I discussed in the article. In that post I said that stock options were a) not for beginners and b) a zero-sum game. This was taken as saying options are “bad”, which wasn’t at all what I wrote (or meant).
We sometimes get commenters who want to figure out which is the “right” investment strategy. Cory recently commented on one of my posts that GICs have outperformed stocks over the last 10 years (I’m not 100% sure I even buy this, it’s probably ignoring dividend reinvestment, but let’s accept it at face value for the purpose of this post). There’s another chestnut showing that you’d be better off buying beer, drinking them, then returning the cans for a refund instead of investing in the stock market. These are true, for what they are, but they’re absolutely useless unless we have a time machine. I don’t care whether GICs outperformed stocks over the last 10 years, I want to know if they will over the NEXT 10 years (and no one can know that).
There are people who have made fortunes with Multi-Level Marketting (probably by starting them), there are people who have lost big in passive investing. Some have lost “safe” money when banks collapse, and others who have never lost a dime but have danced through one risky investment after another. There are no absolutes (in investing or in life), and you’re wasting your time and money if you go looking for them.