Set forth below is the text of an e-mail that I sent to Mike Piper (author of the Oblivious Investor blog) on November 6, 2010, in response to the e-mail set forth in yesterday’s blog entry.
Thanks for letting me know where you stand.
I’d be grateful if you would link to the article next week. It is of course the substance that people most need to know about (whether they find themselves being persuaded or not).
I am of course sympathetic to your unease about being involved in the nastiness. I know that there are many good people with an interest in this subject who feel as you do. For a long time I felt that way myself. I’ll write a few words here trying to explain why I feel that those of us trying to take things in a positive direction ultimately have no choice but to get involved in small ways re the nastiness as a means of bringing it quickly to a final and complete stop.
There of course was no “back and forth name calling” in that thread. All of the name calling came from one direction. What I did was to stand up (in a perfectly civil way, given the vileness of the attacks at issue here) in defense of a friend of mine who just happens to be the most valuable contributor in the history of both the Retire Early and Indexing discussion-board communities.
John had just retired when our discussions of safe withdrawal rates began. So he was able to devote himself full time to doing the research we needed to learn some very important things about how investing works in the real world. He elected to spend 50 hour weeks for over seven years helping his fellow community members with their questions without receiving one dime of compensation.
We all have a responsibility to protect people like that when they are under attack. We all form friendships on the internet when we interact with people for a long time. It is unnatural for us to fail to speak up when the hateful things that have been said about John are said about someone we care about. When we fail to speak up (and, yes, I too was afraid to speak up for a long time), we become sub-human. I want no part of it after what I have seen it do to many friends of mine. And I have a strong confidence that, if you look at your behavior everywhere except on the internet, you will see that you do not tolerate this degree of ugliness in other areas of your life either.
The internet is a powerful communications medium of the future. We can use it to learn things we could never learn before (because humans learn from talking things over and the internet permits a level of sharing of ideas that was never possible before). However, the very thing that is good about the internet (the learning process it enables) is viewed as a threat by the small number who feel such intense envy when others learn that they are willing to twist themselves into very ugly shapes to block such learning processes from going forward. The 90 percent of us who have a desire to use the internet for positive and constructive purposes have a decision to make. Are we going to let this dark side of human nature destroy all the good that could be achieved through this new communications medium? Or are we going to insist that the rules of human interaction that were developed during the first several thousand years of civilized human life apply on the internet as they have applied everywhere else during those many centuries?
I believe that we are going to need to permit the rules of civilized life to apply on the internet as well. There are laws that protect people from death threats in all other places in which humans engage in discourse. Those laws need to be made applicable to the internet. There are laws that protect people from defamation in all other place in which humans engage in discourse. Those laws need to be made applicable to the internet. There are laws that protect people’s businesses from attack in all other places in which humans engage in discourse. Those laws need to be made applicable to the internet.
I understand that you would be prefer not to “be involved.” I would prefer not to “be involved” too. So would the thousands of members of the Retire Early and Indexing discussion-board communities who have expressed a desire that honest posting be permitted on our boards. We are all “involved” whether we happen to like the idea or not.
I put forward the post that pointed out the errors in the Old School Safe Withdrawal Rate Studies on May 13, 2002. There are thousands just in our community whose retirements could have been saved if the research that John did in response to the community’s strong positive reaction to that post had promptly been given the publicity that it obviously merited. There are millions in the larger community of investors in the same circumstances. Many, many. many people were done huge financial harm.
My guess is that there are going to be thousands of lawsuits filed in coming days as a result of the cover-up of the research that showed that Passive Investing does not work in the real world, research that would have been widely publicized in the Summer of 2002 had there not been Goon posters threatening physical violence on anyone who posted honestly on these matters as a means of destroying the wonderful board community at which these findings were first brought to light.
There is also the matter of the reputations of the “experts” involved in the discussions. John Bogle has told us that he looks at the Vanguard Diehards board on an almost weekly basis. The most vicious Smear Campaign in the history of the internet was waged at that board for nearly two year running. There were hundreds of threads destroyed by Mel Lindauer and his Goon Squad. Do you not think that learning about this is going to enrage people whose businesses have failed or whose marriages have failed or whose retirements have failed because they could not for many years gain access to the information they needed to save their businesses or their marriages or their retirements? You write about these topics on a daily basis, Mike. You make reference to John Bogle in your writings, you make reference to Lindauer in your writings. You are involved.
I don’t want you to be involved. So our ultimate goal is the same. Our difference is over how to get things to where we both want things to be.
I believe that the answer is to bring the ugliness to a quick and immediate stop. That cannot happen until the Goons come to discover that there are CONSEQUENCES that follow from engaging in the sort of behavior that they have engaged in. That’s the missing element in the story. That is what needs to change to make life 100 times better for each and every one of us (including the Goons themselves, to be sure).
The idea that we could permit death threats without having any consequences apply was an INSANE idea. When we elected as a community to permit death threats without having any consequences apply we elected to live in hell forever after. We made a terrible, terrible, terrible mistake. We need to reverse that terrible mistake. That is the way to a better and more fruitful and more loving and more human path.
I want the ugliness brought to a quick and immediate stop. I wanted that on the afternoon of May 13, 2002. I said so publicly at that time and I have said so on numerous occasions since. My take had always been that those of us who want the ugliness brought to a quick and immediate stop should reach out the hand of kindness as far as we can possibly reach it without crossing the line that we may never cross and agreeing to post dishonestly on safe withdrawal rates or other important investment topics. We need to mix as much charity as possible with as much honesty as is absolutely demanded of us. I don’t see any other way that this ugliness can be brought to an end without causing even greater damage to our entire economic and political system.
We’re all involved, Mike. Anyone with any interest in the subject of investing is involved. Anyone who cares about John Bogle’s many wonderful contributions and the reputation he is going to have in future days is involved. Anyone who has a blog (on investing or any other topic) is involved. Anyone who wants to see the U.S. economic and political system survive its current troubles is involved.
Anyone who is human or cares about other humans is involved. A man is not an island. We all benefit from our connections with others. When we stop caring about the others to the extent we need to stop caring about the others to permit this sort of ugliness to continue, we sacrifice what makes us human in doing so.
You are in a position to influence the future of investing in a very powerful and very positive way, Mike. That’s the good news. The bad news is that it will be a scary thing to do. I have sympathy for you re that reality but I do not have the power to change the reality. It is what it is. That’s so for all of us.
There is no escape from this for anyone who has elected to use the internet to help people learn the realities of stock investing. I have learned this lesson over and over and over again over the course of the past seven years.
I will always stand ready to work in a spirit of cooperation and mutual respect and affection with anyone who tries to deal with these matters in a constructive and positive way. That’s what I can contribute, I have been offered “deals” in which I would agree to post dishonestly on safe withdrawal rates in return for a lifting of the Campaign of Terror. No can do. I think of many of the people who I have met on the boards and blogs as friends. A failed retirement is a serious life setback. I am going to continue to post honestly on what the historical data says about safe withdrawal rates.
If that one is worked out, all the rest follows. All of the wonderful insights that our communities have developed over the past seven years become available to us because of our willingness to accept what the historical data says about safe withdrawal rates. If we tell the truth about that one thing, we will end up telling the truth about many, many things. It may well be that I will learn as a result of the national debate on the realities of stock investing that will follow that I have gotten some things wrong. If that is how it goes, I will of course express gratitude to those who taught me what I needed to know. If those on the other side approach the upcoming national debate in the same spirit, we cannot lose. This will become a win/win/win/win/win. It’s rare when one of those comes along. We should not pass up the golden opportunity that has presented itself to us.
Please let me know if you have any questions or concerns either now or at any later date. In the event that you elect to take a pass on the process issues, I of course understand and remain grateful for your willingness to let your readers know about the article linking to the 20 studies. I would love to see some reaction to them. I know that we may not see that but I cannot help but be excited about the possibility that we might. It’s by generating such reactions that we take our ever developing understanding of the realities of stock investing to new places and thereby become empowered to learn even more in the days that follow.
To learning experiences!