How The Big Short Got Me Thinking About Dangerous Assumptions

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“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”  This is the quote that begins the popular 2015 film The Big Short.  Ironically, researchers have discovered the film mistakenly attributed the quote to Mark Twain although no evidence ties him to the aphorism.  Regardless, the quote succinctly sums up the problem with not investigating assumptions, especially core assumptions which guide major life decisions.  Of course in the aforementioned movie, the quote alludes to the assumption of most Americans that the housing market cannot possibly fail.  The film refers to other assumptions too such as the belief that huge organizations tasked with serious responsibilities could not possibly be fraudulently ignoring them.  There are several great moments in the film when “the good guys” are shocked at the moral bankruptcy of the credit rating agencies, the banks, landlords and brokers.  Even the cynics like Mark Baum (played by Steve Carell) are flabbergasted at the irresponsibility of formidable organizations like Standard and Poor’s credit rating agency.  One of my favourite scenes in the movie features Baum and a colleague grilling a Standard and Poor’s employee about the credit agency’s lack of action in downgrading loans despite the failure of several mortgage brokerage firms.  After the employee admits that the agency just rates loans at whatever the bank wants for fear of losing business to the rating agency down the block, she counter-attacks Baum asking him about the self-interest that he is obviously pursuing in interrogating her.  This leads to another assumption that is certainly held by investors Jared Vanett (played by Ryan Gosling), and Michael Burry (Christian Bale), namely that there is nothing wrong with anticipating and making money off a monumental economic collapse.  Burry is purely analytical in his approach, while Vanett is disdainful of the greedy groupthink that prevented most in the industry from even imagining a breakdown.  It takes Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) to remind his proteges and the audience that making piles of money off the misery of many is no cause for dancing.  It explains later in the film why Baum hesitates before putting in the sell call that will make him and his colleagues filthy rich; there is no elation in profiting off a broken system.  Sometimes, there is no joy in being right.

The movie and the quote encourage us to examine beliefs that are so ingrained that most people wouldn’t even dream of questioning them.  For example, is democracy necessarily the best political system for all countries?  People who ask this question aloud are often given a wide berth by most of us who have been trained to believe that democracy is a more mature and ethical political form than oligarchy, monarchy or dictatorship for example.  But in our world of information overload and massive media manipulation, is it really crazy to consider that allowing everyone to vote is not only ineffective, but perhaps downright dangerous?  I don’t really know what would be a superior system, but the fact that such inquiry is discouraged and sometimes considered a sign of mental imbalance, means democracy becomes a non-thinking default.  How many times have we heard a just defeated politician mouth the cliché “The people have spoken and I respect that”?  What if allowing all the people to speak continually gets us into bigger and bigger trouble?  We wouldn’t let “the people” perform heart surgery on us or build a bridge, yet we are content to let them decide who will determine questions of war and peace, finances, health, culture, identity and education.  What if the people are not qualified to make that call?  A related question is whether human rights are worth pursuing at every cost.  Again, it sounds awful.  ‘Can you believe that guy is  questioning human rights?  What’s wrong with him?’  But it is easier to publicly support human rights than it is to answer some of the tricky questions that flow from that support.  Some of these questions include:  ‘what is it exactly that all humans have a right to and should this list evolve over time?’, ‘who determines if these rights are being violated and who enforces them and how’?, ‘what is our individual responsibility if we know that human rights are being violated somewhere?’, and ‘what if these human rights collide?’  Maybe the idea of human rights is just not tenable in an inter-connected world.  What if it just leads to half measures, hypocrisy and loopholes?  Before I am pilloried by humanists, let me assure you that this line of thought does not stem from a lack of concern for my fellow humans.  What I am wondering is whether the assumption that human rights are inviolable ties us in knots and prevents other kind of thinking that might actually result in more practical gains in quality of life for humans living in difficult situations.  One more example sure to enrage anyone reading this concerns our assumption that living in family units is the best organizing principle.  Again, I assure you, I love my family, enjoy living with them and feel a strong connection to my extended family.  But as Plato explored in The Republic, perhaps the allegiance that comes out of family grouping is actually counter-productive to society as a whole.  It goes without saying that we favour our family members over strangers; what if that destroys meritocracy, fuels a sense of injustice and holds us back from progressing as a society?  To those quick to respond that animal mothers raise their young and that it is natural, I stand with David Hume and his critique of the naturalistic fallacy that states that you can derive an ought from an is.  In addition, non-human animals do not use the internet, do not participate in a globalized economy and do not build weapons capable of incinerating the planet, so perhaps we should stop comparing our situation to “the natural world”.  My point remains that there is just a basic assumption that children should be brought up by their parents, and this is an assumption that could be hindering our progress as a species.

The pace and preoccupations of our world do not encourage questioning such fundamental facets.  We are immersed in work or a break from work, in distractions and trends, in short term goals and private vindications.  Who has the time and energy in such a society to seriously consider whether our assumptions are right?  And who will listen to such inquiry?  Many great works of literature have suggested that when a populace is too busy to think, it is too busy to rebel and is, therefore, easily oppressed.  We are so busy surviving or consuming or enjoying or hating or maintaining or one upping that we never stop to ask if there is another way.

Again, it’s not our ignorance that is dangerous, so much as our confidence that our knowledge is infallible.  If, as Socrates posited so long ago, that “the unexamined life is not worth living”, we may very well be a species adding numbers but not value to life on this planet.