I’ve just made a realization that took 38 years to make: I’ve been wrong about so many things. Over the last few months I’ve been trying to catch up on the 60-some past episodes of the podcast, “You’re Wrong About.” The two hosts, Michael Hobbes and Sarah Marshall take turns researching and presenting news stories and major events of the past few decades. Some of the issues, like Iran-Contra, are political and some, such as the Tonya Harding saga, are more esoteric “cultural events.” But whatever the issue, the end result is almost always the same, we were all so very wrong.
It’s critical to note that the “we” here, is the general public, not everyone was wrong. In finance, being right when everyone else is wrong is the ideal scenario. Facilitating everyone else’s “wrongness,” spreading false information to increase the value of your asymmetric information, is as invaluable as it is fraudulent. While countless examples of trading on asymmetric information occur on a near-daily basis, it’s difficult to prove and those tasked with enforcement have relatively no resources/appetite to enforce laws.
Many of the issues discussed have villains which profit off of spreading false/misleading information. Scare-mongering sells newspapers and magazines. It also sells wars and ineffective government programs. Keeping fraud quiet at Enron or ignoring Bernie Madoff’s 30 year ponzi scheme made a lot of people rich, not just the executives of Enron and Bernie Madoff.
So, why? Why are we so easy to fool? Why is it that we believe whatever we’re told so easily? Some of it has to do with the economics of gathering information. It’s time-consuming to spend hours gathering information on an issue and it’s also just more comfortable to believe what we’ve been told. Homelessness, for example, is an issue it seems so many have been wrong about for so long. The podcast does a great job of explaining what perceptions are, what government has done to fix the problems and what has worked and what hasn’t. Spoiler alert, all of society's problems are far more nuanced than a 10 second sound bite. Spend some time to understand the broader issues and you won’t regret it.
I’ve read some of the critical reviews of the podcast and many criticize the informal nature of the episodes. They are as informal as two friends talking about an important issue, one whose grasp of the information is superficial while the other has done a deep-dive into the topic. This is by design and works wonderfully. We, the listening public, are the friend that knows nothing/remembers little about that episode’s topic and can ask questions accordingly. As every episode ends, I get the same feeling I get after I hang up on an hour-long conference call with a few good friends. I’ve learned a lot and, most importantly, now know how much I don’t know. This is perhaps the greatest takeaway from “You’re Wrong About,” the ability to critically question simplistic coverage of news we’ve been so accustomed to. Thank you Sarah and Michael.
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