Today’s guest on the Consumerism Commentary is author Zac Bissonnette. Zac last appeared on the show four years ago, and he’s back today to talk about his new book, Good Advice from Bad People: Selected Wisdom from Murderers, Stock Swindlers, and Lance Armstrong.
The study of hypocrisy seems to be infinite, but it is particularly evident in the self-help and motivational genres — and you don’t have to look far from personal finance advice to find some of the most egregious examples of experts and gurus living by rules different than those they preach. Zac’s book is a fascinating read about the lives of notorious people who, if judged by their words of advice alone, should be saints.
You might be familiar with Bernie Madoff, but reading about the lives of motivational swindlers like Charles Givens, Barry Minkow, and Myron Scholes gave a different kind of context to the words they’ve written and the speeches they’ve performed.
Can you separate the advice from the people who speak it? What makes someone worthy of offering advice? Zac and I discuss these things — and Tim Tebow. Continue reading this article to listen to or download the podcast. You can also subscribe to the podcast in iTunes.
Luke: Welcome to the Consumerism Commentary Podcast. I’m Luke Landes, and my guest is Zac Bissonnette, author of Good Advice From Bad People, a new book available in paperback and digital formats from Amazon.com and other retailers. Hi Zac, how are you?
Zac: Great to be here. How are you?
Luke: Great, and it’s great to have you back. I know you’ve been on the show before and it’s always good to talk.
So in the new book, you take a look at financial gurus and executives who have perpetuated financial fraud, moralists who get caught with their pants down, politicians who spout advice about ethical behavior who wind up embroiled in scandal, athletes as role models for kids, who are cheating. Once someone gives advice, does that open that person up to more scruitny and judgment than your average individual who’s not a best-selling author?
Zac: Well, it certainly should. I don’t know that it often does, which is sorted interested me, and made me want to write this book. One of the things that fascinated me the most was — and I didn’t really know this until I was actually going over edits on it — was how relatively few of these people really paid a particularly significant price for their incredible hypocrisy.
William Bennett, who’s this right-wing moralist, who turned out to be a degernate gambler — he had his scandal, and it was in the newspaper for a few weeks, and now he’s back with his radio show and his best-selling books. They put themselves on a pedestal — giving great advice doesn’t make them any more likely to follow that advice, and in many cases it often doesn’t result in the kind of penalties you would think it would.
Luke: Why aren’t they receiving these penalties that your average criminal might get?
Zac: Part of the thing that really interests me on this topic of hypocritical icons is that it’s just way too easy to become an inspirational icon in America in the 21st century. There’s very little vetting of these people. All you have to do is have a certani kind of smarmy charisma and tell people things that will make them think highly of you, and sort of sound like good advice, and people start sending you money and buying your books.
One of the criticisms I got a little bit, not a ton, is that a lotof these people are not really “bad people,” and I totally get that. That’s why we put Lance Armstrong in the subtitle. I wanted people to think “bad people” as in people who fell to their own humanity and were immoral by the standards of conduct they set for everyone else.
I don’t sit around judging people, but these guys sure did.
Luke: I want to start with a quotation that I don’t think was in your book. It comes from Al Franken. He said,
Remember that good advice can come from bad people and bad advice from good people. The important thing about advice is that it is simply that: advice.
Luke: Can we evaluate advice on its own merit or do we have to tie it to the individual who speaks that advice?
Zac: First of all, I’m embarrassed that you found that quote from Al Franken before I did, and I did a book with that title. So that’s kind of tragic. It’s definitely an interesting line. Part of the idea with the book is that I wanted it all to be good advice that stands on its own, so if you want, you can take this book and just read the self-help quotes, and not read who said them, and not read the biographies of who said them, and you’d have a book that will be approximately as helpful as any other book of self-help aphorisms.
I think you can separate te advice from the person who said it, but I think that it’s almost better not to because you get to see the contrast between a life that doesn’t follow the advice, which in a way ends up highlighting how important the advice is.
Luke: What is the difference between advice and aphorisms?
Zac: I always think that an aphorism is kind of — mos tof the stuff in here would qualify as aphoristic. Aphorisms are usually just made to kind of be quotes, whereas advice can be wordiers and less pithy.
Luke: A lot of the advice we read from best-selling authors is general tips, common sense, that could be interpreted lots of different ways. If you’re looking for advice, you need to speak to someone who understands who you are, what your situation is. That’s kind of my criticims of the who self-help industry.
Zac: That it’s not personalized and that often anyone could say this stuff and it’s manifestly true in everything, and it’s not particularly helpful.
Luke: Sure, exactly.
Zac: I think there was a piece I read in the Financial Times saying that a lot of times the advice that gurus and politicians and self-help authors give isn’t really meant to be advice. It’s not really about whether you follow it. The stuff is being written or said in order to brand the speaker as someone you want to trust to give money to. The effect of following or not following the advice is a secondary concern, if that.
Luke: It’s all about selling books, or selling something.
Zac: Absolutely. Thank God I’m not doing that!
Luke: Present company excluded, of course.
I want to start with Bernie Madoff, because I think he’s probably one of the biggest names. Do you have his quote that is in your book off hand? Do you want to read that? I like the way you read the quotes.
Zac: This is from Bernie Madoff:
The best chance for the average investor is to put money in an index fund.
Luke: OK now, here we have Bernie Madoff who is telling the average investor to put money into an index fund, at the same time that he is perpetrating a huge fraud. Did he think that the investors who trusted him with their own money were less than average, or that his skills were above average? Which would persuade him to do something contraty to his own advice?
Zac: That quote’s actually a little different than most of them. That quote actually came from a letter to a reporter after he had been incarcerated. Although he was actually giving similar advice when he did media interviews, the pithiest version of that I found was there. The reason I included it, I liked it so much, is that it really is the single best — and you would agree with me on this I think — the single best piece of investment advice for the average investor. Put money in an index fund, and if bernie Madoff were to by some miracle become the person who convinced people of that, he would, to me at least, immediately redeem himself in terms of the crimes he committed.
I guess by publicizing that little bit of advice he gave, I doing my part to rebiold him.
Luke: Do you think redemption was on his mind when he wrote that to the reporter?
Updated May 5, 2014 and originally published April 28, 2014.