My good friend, the late Norman Horowitz (1932- 2015), used to call me twice a week to tell me the same thing over and over: “No one knows anything!” Perhaps, quoting American screenwriter William Goldman who wrote, “nobody known anything” in his 1983 book, “Adventures in The Screen Trade.” Horowitz called himself a negativist (although he was really more of a contrarian), but he was a humorous one.
Throughout an active 32-year career, he spent time as head of U.S. and international content distribution for one studio after another (Screen Gems, CBS, Columbia, PolyGram, MGM, etc.). He was convinced that executives wanted others to believe that they were the experts, even though — deep inside — they had the same doubts, reservations, and insecurities as everyone else.
Norman used to wonder aloud, “If there are such good experts out there, why aren’t things [in general in the world] fixed?” He attributed good programming to luck more than knowledge. And he would invariably recount the story about the time when his boss asked his opinion about a new series: “I really couldn’t guess whether the show would succeed or not, so in meetings I used to carry two reviews: One positive, the other negative. By judging the inclination of my boss toward the series, I would hand out one or another.”
I’m mentioning this “no one knows anything” maxim because it can actually be applied to almost everything: Politics, finances, forecasting, investments — even marriages.
Take, for example, the failure rate of new series, which can reach as high as 80 percent (the remaining 20 percent can be attributed with 90 percent accuracy to pure luck). And yet, program executives who greenlight new series invariably pretend they know what works and what doesn’t with viewers.
At the corporate level, executives tend to be publicly buoyant, but privately they’re less sure about their decisions, and therefore protect their backs by hiring consultants. Here’s how it works: The executives interview consultants, and those who reflect the bosses’ visions get hired. The consultants prepare reports for the board of directors praising the higherup’s strategies. If the plans work out, the boss gets the credit. If they bomb, the consultants take the blame. After all, that’s what they’re paid for.
Naturally, not all executives need this kind of safety net. One example is Sergio Marchionne, the late president of Fiat-Chrysler, who famously approved a TV spot with the utter conviction that it would be a winner with consumers. After an associate suggested otherwise, he at first disparaged him, but then decided to test the spot anyway. And upon learning that his beloved ad was in fact a dud, he changed it — but not before publicly belittling himself.
And what about politicians who enter into elections convinced that they know what their electorate wants, only to find out too late that they absolutely don’t?
But those who know the least are financial analysts, who tend to make more wrong and damaging predictions than even the most mediocre of TV meteorologists.
Of course, economists and financial pundits are well known for having strong opinions — until they are proved wrong, that is.
Former Fed chair Alan Greenspan warned in his 2007 book The Age of Turbulence that the world might need double-digit interest rates to control inflation in the near future. Rates have been near zero for the vast majority of the time since. Greenspan is the father of the mortgage crisis and a “market knows best” deregulator, who admitted in a congressional hearing that he had “made a mistake in presuming” that financial firms could regulate themselves.
Then there is the case of Joseph Cassano, who ran insurer AIG’s Financial Products division. In August 2007, Cassano said he couldn’t see AIG “losing one dollar in any of those [credit derivative] transactions.” AIG was bailed out in 2008.
As for meteorologists, for them it is always “partially cloudy” on weekdays, and “partially sunny” on weekends.
I guess you get the message.
(By Dom Serafini)