By Josh Katzowitz, WCI Content Director
If you ever find yourself working in the publishing business, you’ll quickly learn that no matter how well-conceived, well-researched, and well-written your pieces are, somebody is going to hate them. Even the most innocuous subjects can stir the ire of a reader, and the reaction oftentimes of those who read your writing can often surprise you with its fervor and intensity.
When you publish more than 400 posts a year, like we do at The White Coat Investor, there is bound to be controversy. In my eyes, that’s a positive. It makes people think. It makes people click. It makes people comment. And it brings them back to the post to see what was said after they last departed.
I’ve certainly had my fair share of columns that upset readers (one person actually threatened to leave the site they’ve loved for years and never return if they had to read more of my writing), and when Dr. Jim Dahle writes about crypto or whole life insurance, hundreds of commenters make their feelings known.
But we’re not the only ones who get people upset. As I’ve written before:
“Beginning in 2021, we introduced a slew of new writers to the WCI community, and sometimes, these columnists have opinions that don’t necessarily mesh with what Jim would normally write. Since this website isn’t simply one person’s blog, differing ideas are beneficial. Quite honestly, they should be expected. The same goes for guest writers who wish to make public their thoughts on Bitcoin or why you should invest in mobile homes.
Sometimes, those competing philosophies make people really mad.
So, let’s revisit some of our most controversial pieces (here was part 1 of what will be an occasional series on our most controversial articles) and see how Jim and I feel about them in retrospect. Were we wrong to post them at all? What was the point of publishing them in the first place, and, in hindsight, would I make the same decision to run them?”
Jim and I recently had an email conversation about some of WCI’s most controversial pieces. Here’s what we discussed.
Why Every Doctor Should Own Half a Home by guest writer Dr. Zachary Zemore on March 17, 2023
Josh Katzowitz: I very rarely send you a column or guest post before it publishes so you can look it over for any potential issues. You're usually the one to write the real nitty-gritty finance stuff—the nuts and bolts—of WCI's content anyway, so your expertise on most columns and guest posts usually is not needed (since most columns and guest posts are more anecdote-based). I can't remember if I sent this guest post to you beforehand to take a look, though I don't think I did. I know we briefly went over it in our quarterly content meeting a few months before this published. The controversy around this one—with the author laying out the reasons why people should pay down the first half of their mortgage as quickly as possible—caught me a little by surprise. I didn't expect people to be so adamant that the guest poster was wrong. I think the post made good points, especially the overall theme, but people seemed pretty upset about it. Now that it's been posted and a lot of the 70-something comments are saying the guest poster has it wrong, what do you think?
Dr. Jim Dahle: I thought 99% of the post was great. I totally agree with the main point of it, that paying additional payments on your mortgage early on has a greater effect for paying it off early than additional payments late in the mortgage term. The reason for that is because there is more time for that “investment” to compound at its rate of return. The rate of return, of course, is the after-tax interest rate on the mortgage. It cannot be anything else. If you have a 5% mortgage, making extra principal payments is the equivalent of earning a risk-free 5% rate of return. It will be slightly lower if that interest is deductible to you.
I think readers reacted negatively to two things in the post. The first was the somewhat unusual calculation of “return on investment” for the dollars put into the mortgage early on. We're all so used to seeing annualized rates of return, whereas the guest poster was using a cumulative rate of return to emphasize his main point. Was that technically wrong? Not really, but it could have been explained better. One line about how the annualized rate of return is the mortgage interest rate would have stopped much of the criticism the post received. The other thing that caused readers to react negatively was simply the suggestion that paying extra on a mortgage was a good thing. There always has been and always will be a debate between paying off debt and investing, and everyone wants confirmation that what they did is right. So, people who are carrying a mortgage and investing don't like to be told what they're doing is wrong and react to it. Those who paid off their entire mortgage early feel the same way. By saying “Pay off half of your mortgage quickly” in this particular post told both of those groups that what they were doing was wrong so that caused double the usual amount of hate to be directed toward the post and its author. He was getting both barrels from both ends of the spectrum!
I felt particularly bad about it, because I think if I would have read it more carefully before publication, I would have suggested a couple of little tweaks that would have completely changed the dynamic and tone in the comments section. Anonymous, negative internet comments, even on WCI, can be brutal. At least one of them was just so rude I had to delete it. I don't think people realize how difficult it can be to be a guest poster putting your name, face, and ideas out there for public criticism. People who have actually done so are far nicer when they comment on the work of others.
JK: Exactly. That's what I told the guest poster in the aftermath. I emailed him and wrote something like, “Hey man, it takes real guts to put your name out there on a post that might rub people the wrong way.” Especially for somebody who's not used to writing and subjecting themselves to criticism (and sometimes ridicule), it can be a real bummer of an experience. Our comments section is usually pretty good about not insulting or belittling the writer if they disagree. But it did seem like there was a pile-on effect on this one. I feel bad about the writer taking so much crap, especially because he responded to comments early on to give his side of things. But after a while, it was probably overwhelming. Sometimes, it's better just to stop reading the comments.
Recovering from a Financially Abusive Marriage by Dr. Margaret Curtis on March 6, 2023
Josh Katzowitz: This is one of the most sensitive stories we've published since I started at WCI in August 2021. I thought the unnamed person who wrote this (with Margaret's help) was amazingly brave, and Margaret and I worked together to make sure this person's truth was revealed while their identity was kept hidden. More importantly, it laid out the truth that many people feel in their marriage. Like a lot of these posts that turn out to be controversial, I didn't really expect to see much controversy here.
But some of the commenters made it clear that they do NOT like stories that have anything to do with gender. And since this person who was being financially abused in this marriage is a woman, that led to some people saying, “Everybody wants to be a victim these days” and that WCI is promoting divorce and that this kind of post shouldn't appear on a financial website. We've talked about the gender wage gap and getting divorced for financial gain before. I guess we have not yet gotten to a point where we can write about these issues and not be inundated with people who don't think there's any truth to them.
Dr. Jim Dahle: It gets frustrating sometimes to put a bunch of effort into a post about index funds and have nobody read it and nobody comments on it and know that if I just threw in one line about some politically sensitive topic that it would go viral (although maybe not in a good way). I was also blindsided by the controversy here. I really didn't expect to see so many people standing up for the unnamed “financial abuser” on this anonymous post. Unlike posts about the financial benefits of not getting married or getting divorced (which actually do bother me ethically, given my feelings about marriage), I'm all for the end of abuse, including financial abuse. It would be nice to see it end without the marriage ending, though.
JK: It just seems that we walk a fine line when we write about these more nuanced issues instead of, simply, the nuts and bolts of finance. I wonder if that's part of the generation gap, as well. Maybe Baby Boomers and Gen X'ers didn't grow up with as much discussion about the gender gap, institutional racism, and emotional/financial abuse, and maybe they think that it's 1) not a real thing or 2) not worthy of discussion on a financial website. We're about the same age (though you're a little older than me). Do you think there will always be this divide on WCI?
JD: It's not just a divide on WCI. It's a divide in society that just shows up everywhere you look. The only way to avoid it on WCI is to deliberately squelch it. I'm not sure I'd put abuse in the same category as institutional racism and a gender wage gap. There are reasonable people who truly believe there is no such thing as institutional racism or a real gender wage gap. I don't know anybody reasonable who believes there is no such thing as abuse. In that particular article, I think people just felt like they wanted to hear the “abuser's” side of the story too. Which isn't unreasonable.
What to Do If You’re Not on the Same Financial Page as Your Spouse by Dr. Rikki Racela on April 18, 2023
Josh Katzowitz: Some commenters tried to make the same point on this column that others failed to see in Margaret's column: namely, that Rikki was being put in a bad spot by his wife. Some of Rikki's columns get plenty of heat (probably second only to Margaret, for that matter), and this became a little controversial because while Rikki said he and his wife are simply misaligned with their financial mindsets, one or two people said he was being manipulated, especially since she wants to stop working before he does.
One person even wrote, “This doesn’t sound healthy at all. Your article is basically ‘just give in to whatever your wife wants.’ I recommend you start watching Andrew Tate. Sure—he’s a lolcow, but there is a kernel of truth to his advice to low-status men, like the author.” As I wrote back in response, “You talking about the guy who was in prison for suspicion of human trafficking, alleged rape, and allegedly forming an organized crime group? Yeah, maybe don’t take advice from that guy.” I don't know, the comments section got a little weird on this one.
Dr. Jim Dahle: Poor Rikki. He didn't get the benefit of blogging for a gradually growing audience and learning through experience with just a few readers what to say and not say and how many readers tend to focus in on one line and miss the forest for the trees. Just thrown into the fire where he got to learn that not everyone is kind when you are vulnerable.
One thing about internet comments, though, is that they involve fewer than 1% of readers. Most WCIers don't even read the whole blog post, much less the comments afterward. Heck, many of them are reading the post in their email where the comments never show up. So, I don't worry too much when the comments go sidewise. But putting your stuff out there means you're going to get some negative feedback. It reminds me of a New York doc who was so mad at me that she went to the trouble to record a speak pipe message just to blast me for congratulating someone on their geographic arbitrage (lower cost of living, lower taxes, higher income, better medicolegal climate, etc.) move to Texas because the Texas government (like many state governments) recently passed an anti-abortion law.
JK: In some ways, I guess it can be good to have readers who are that passionate and engaged.
A Quick Note on Artificial Intelligence at WCI
With so much chatter about artificial intelligence (AI), WCI has created its own policy surrounding this controversial topic. We’ve sent this policy to all of our contributors and columnists, and we’ve added it to our guest post policy. We’ve also added it to all of our writer contracts for future posts. In the interest of reader transparency, here is our AI policy.
“WCI writers will not use artificial intelligence (AI) or any similar tools in place of their own writing to complete their work. WCI views AI-generated content as plagiarism, and it often yields biased content that is incorrect or incomplete. WCI readers expect human input, and AI cannot and should not replace that. We agree with what Wired wrote: “We think someone who writes for a living needs to constantly be thinking about the best way to express complex ideas in their own words.” Any content that is found to have been AI-generated will not be published, and the writer will not be paid for that piece (and will be subject to termination).
Using AI for other purposes, however, is acceptable. That includes utilizing AI for research (though finding multiple sources to verify your findings is a must) and/or for generating story ideas or keywords.
Since AI is nebulous and constantly changing, we will continue to review this policy to determine what makes sense for WCI writers and readers.”
Money Song of the Week
After her death in 2018, Aretha Franklin’s estate was estimated to be worth $18 million. The Queen of Soul died without a will, and after paying $8 million to the IRS, it was believed that the rest of her estate would be divided up among her children. But as the New York Times reported, two separate documents were eventually discovered (one under a couch cushion in Franklin’s Michigan home and the other in a locked cabinet) that showed Franklin had contradictory thoughts about where her money should go.
Now, her sons are continuing the fight in probate court to determine who gets what.
It reminds me of Franklin’s 1968 cover of a James Brown tune called “Money Won’t Change You.” Listening to the song again reminds us of how much of a vocal powerhouse Franklin was, and the lyrics also provide an interesting (and perhaps an ironically predictive) perspective.
“Money won't change you/I said money won't change you/But time is taking you on/Yes, it is.”
Franklin isn’t the only wealthy celebrity to die without a will. According to Forbes, that list also includes Prince and Amy Winehouse, and when actors Heath Ledger and Philip Seymour Hoffman died, their outdated wills excluded important members of their families.
What this means for you: Even if you don’t have tens of millions of dollars in your portfolio, even if you don’t have 18 Grammys, even if you haven’t been on the Billboard charts more than 100 times like Franklin, you’d better do your estate planning.
Otherwise, your estate can be plunged into total confusion that can only be unwound by a probate court.
Reddit Post of the Week
Remember, robbing banks is a young person’s game.
What do you think about our most controversial topics? Were there other posts that we missed that made you absolutely steam? Comment below!
[Editor's Note: For comments, complaints, suggestions, or plaudits, email Josh Katzowitz at [email protected].]