Sunday, January 7, 2018

Tell Me What To Do! (Don't Tell Me What To Do!)

Online review sites basically suck - yet people flock to the Internet for advice on every aspect of daily living.  And then they decry people "telling them what to do."  People - go figure!

A reader recently sent me a link to a nonsensical video by a chirpy young woman wearing what appeared to be a one-piece bathing suit, standing in front of a string of Christmas lights, giving shit advice on how to pay off your mortgage by using credit cards.    It was utter nonsense.

The reader was startled by how many people in the comments section were so mindlessly positive on this "strategy" until I pointed out that most of the comments were fake.   For a small sum, you can hire people in third-world countries and they will post comments, "like" your video or blog, and bring up your click-rate and search engine ranking.   Many of the comments, tellingly, were in pidgin English and poorly written.   One even spelled "loans" wrong.

But this got me thinking - which is a dangerous thing - that people go online for all sorts of advice.  People even ask me for advice, which I am loathe to give, as I have detailed before.   People, it seems, are scared to death to trust their own instincts, or to take even the smallest of risks, even on something as simple as lunch.

Yes, restaurant reviews.   You go online to Yelp! or Google or Trip Adviser and there are tons and tons of reviews of restaurants, hotels, and whatnot.   And yes, I've even left some myself, which was kind of stupid in retrospect.   No one really gives a damn about your opinion, in a larger sense.

But in a smaller sense, people are so afraid of making a wrong choice, that they will rely upon the opinions of thousands of their clueless fellow citizens (you know, the same sort who elect our Presidents) as to which restaurant is any good.  I used to try to dissect or parse these reviews to determine whether they could provide some useful information or not.   Today, I rarely try to, as in many cases, most of the reviews are either unrealistic, uninformed, or just spam.

But that's not the point.  The point is, we all look to the rest of the herd for normative cues as to what we should do, think, act, and behave.   This is part and parcel of being human, to some extent.  We want to "fit in" as it was beaten into our heads in Junior High School that "being different" marked you for abuse and ridicule.   So we tend to take risks a lot less, if we let things like that get to us.

I think also, a lot of people like the attention they get by asking for advice.   For some reason, I would never ever think to ask someone for advice on my marriage, relationship, or other aspects of my personal life.   But others, they pour their hearts out and ask whether they should divorce their husband or leave their girlfriend or not.   And by the way, never get drawn into one of those deals - no matter what advice you offer, it will be the wrong advice.   Just stay out of the advice business, if you want my advice!  (irony alert).

But seriously, it is interesting.   I have asked people for financial advice on occasion, but I find that the answers I get are lacking.   For example, Social Security is looming for me, and I ask oldsters whether I should claim it at 62, 67, or 70 or what.   And the advice I get is, "well, that depends" which is also the name of an undergarment I can look forward to wearing when I collect Social Security.   So the advice I get is indefinite.

Financial advisers I found to be self-serving.  I went to talk with one at State Farm one day, and Mark spotted the whole thing more quickly than I did.   I wanted to know (a) do I have enough money to retire? (b) should I be investing in other things?  and (c) is there something I am missing in my retirement planning?   The answer I got to all three was a non-answer:  Cash in all my investments and deposit them in State Farm Bank!

I asked similar advice from my Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance agent - after all, they call themselves a "Financial Network" now.   But what I found out was, he was just a salesman, and if I wasn't interested in buying some new policy, he didn't want to talk to me.   The same questions I had before, went unanswered.

So I tried Fidelity.   We already had accounts there, and a local "adviser" agreed to meet with us.   I asked the same questions as before and he hemmed and hawed.   His advice was to mortgage our house and the give the proceeds to him to invest.   He also suggested I roll over some other funds with other companies, to Fidelity, which I did.   He was a little more helpful, and Fidelity sent us these indecipherable pie chart "reports" which I could never make heads or tails of.   But a pattern started to emerge.

And the pattern is this:  Financial advisers are just salesmen on commission.   And they are paid to get you to invest as much as possible with their company.   Their first piece of advice is always to roll over whatever you have into an account with them.   And this is self-service advice, which is the problem with seeking advice.

While we still have some accounts with Fidelity, I rolled mine over to Merrill Edge.   Merrill cut to the chase and paid me $600 cash to roll over some funds to their system, and also provided ancillary benefits with my Bank of America account (such as waiving some bank fees).   Finally, some self-serving advice that also served me well.   Oh, that and free trades, which is more than Fidelity ever offered.

So looking for advice is often pointless.    Either you will get vague hand-waving, platitudes, or self-serving advice.   Being an advice-seeker marks you as a clueless sucker, ready to be plucked by the thieves and con-men of the world.   It is like stopping to ask for directions in a bad neighborhood.   You are basically advertising to the world that you are clueless and lost, and you can expect to be taken advantage of, as a result.

But this also got me to thinking - again, a dangerous preoccupation - that people by and large seek out advice or try to figure out what the herd is doing but at the same time bristle when being "told what to do" by anyone.   During the last election, the "don't tell me what to do" refrain was raised again and again with regard to Hillary and the Democrats, who were going to enact regulations that would stifle your non-existent business and take your guns away.  It was raised before that during the Obama administration when Michelle Obama, taking on nutrition as her cause, was accused of "telling people what to do" with regard to good nutrition.

It is almost humorous.   Here we have people who are too scared to risk a bad meal at a restaurant without checking Yelp! or Trip Adviser first, but at the same time revolt if you were to tell them that a platter of fried mayonnaise balls was probably bad for your heart.  People, in the aggregate, are idiots.   And yes, this includes all of us, even me.

So what is the answer?  I wish I knew.   I think that doing research is the first step - and by that I mean reading real books, not online reviews or chirpy videos.   Next is critical thinking - is what I am reading self-serving advice?   Is the author selling something or trying to get me to think a certain way?  Are they affiliated with a business, political cause, or whatnot?  Why are they giving advice in the first place?

Third, and most important, is to consider whether the advice seems to be too good to be true.   I am skeptical of anything that sounds like it might be in my favor.   This is just based on experience in life, where life serves you a shit sandwich more often than roast beef.   For example, I recently got an exhortation from Capital One to put $10,000 into a savings account with them.   They promised a $200 bonus if I kept the money there 60 days.    I fully expected this to be some sort of scam or con, like these idiotic rebate coupons, and thus checked the damn thing daily for the last two weeks.   I am happy to report that both Mark and I were credited the $200 bonus in the accounts, as well as $4.25 interest, which seems like a lot more than the 10 cents Bank of America gives me every month.

But more often than not, I get the shit sandwich, such as these stupid rebate deals that evaporate into thin air.   This is not to say that I am an optimist or a pessimist, but skeptical, which is what everyone should be.   You should not think everything is bad or good - that is just idiotic.   But you should not take things at face value.   When you go to an online review site, you should first wonder to yourself why the site exists.   I mean, how do they make money by posting online reviews?   All websites have to make money somehow, and they do.   So what is the trick they use on these review sites?  In some cases, it is ways of whitewashing reputations or blackmailing them, for cash.

And even if you figure that out, you have to figure out whether the electronic equivalent of vandals have spammed or trolled the site to skew the results.  It isn't hard to set up phony online accounts or ask friends to put up fake positive comments on a review site.   Like I said, for a few Rubles or Rupees, you can hire people from third world countries to do this for you - hundreds of times.  Taking comments at face value these days is something only an idiot would do.

So what does that leave you with?   Well, what we used before we had the Internet, which was something we called "common sense."    Yes, people got ripped-off before the Internet, and we had little sympathy for them back then.  The secret is to not get taken in and walk away    When something sounds "too good to be true" is probably is.

But then again, today, when you say this, people chime in, "You're telling us what to do!" as if that was some horrible rotten thing - particularly after they explicitly ask you what to do all the time.   You can see how sympathy fatigue sets in!