GUEST BLOG [In]Securities: A Worried Song By Aegis Frumento Esq

January 22, 2021


A Worried Song

Many years ago, I took a train from Grand Central up the Hudson Line, coming home late from work. The train was practically empty. I had a 3-seat row to myself, there was a woman sitting across the aisle, and at the front of the car this boisterous man was standing up regaling a seated passenger with some loud tale. Shortly before departing a tall, skinny elderly gentleman with a long white straggly beard ambled through the car to take a seat. The old man was carrying a banjo case, which prompted the stand-up guy to yell back at him, "Hey old fella, how long you been playing that banjo?" "Oh, about 50 years," the old man said. "Well, keep at it and you'll be pretty good someday." My traveling companion across the aisle and I looked at each other and rolled our eyes in unison. 

Sometime later the talker decided to engage the old man in a conversation. He told the old man that he played the banjo too, and then proceeded to describe a picking technique he had discovered. And so, for the next 15 minutes this guy explained to the old man in intricate detail how to pluck the banjo strings in a particular way. The old man just nodded. Finally, the banjo picker introduced himself. The old man politely shook the guy's hand and said, "I'm pleased to meet you. I'm Pete Seeger." 

I'm sure I stopped laughing at some point. What karmic coincidence that of all the banjo players in all the world, this guy chose to pontificate about banjo playing to the world's greatest banjo player. 

We've all known people like that. They are all around us. Folks who, dangerously laden with a little knowledge but thinking they know more than they do, are all too eager to impress us with what they think they know. But we never had a good vocabulary for describing them. So we just call them "jerks" and leave it at that. And we don't know what to call the particular act of jerkiness they engage in. But now we do. 

"Epistemic trespassing" is a term coined by Fordham University philosopher Nathan Ballantyne to describe experts in one field who pretend to be experts outside their fields too. See Epistemology is that branch of philosophy that deals with how we know whatever we think we know. For example, when you know what you know because that's what the people you surround yourself with know they know, it's called "epistemic closure," or, more colloquially, drinking the Kool-Aid. Trespassing, a legal term, means entering someone else's land without permission, overstepping on someone else's turf. For example, if a bare-chested guy sprouting cow horns presided over the United States Senate, he would be trespassing. A far-fetched example, I know.
. Epistemic trespassing is the intellectual equivalent of that. It's when an amateur, dressed in a little brief authority but most ignorant of what he's most assured, shows that ignorance off to the world by doing something like telling Pete Seeger how to pluck a banjo. 

The past couple of days has highlighted the extent to which the Trump administration, chock-full of political hacks, yes-men, and other toadies, was a gaudy display of epistemic trespass from the Trespasser-in-Chief all the way down. It is no exaggeration to say that we were inundated with tweets and twaddle from administration officials who clearly did not know what they were talking about. Of course, in order to get us to listen to them they had to assert some simulacrum of "expertise." It started at the top -- it always starts at the top -- with the President asserting over and over, despite all contrary evidence, how "smart" he was. See And, of course, being so smart gave him the right to chime in on all sorts of things he was ignorant of. Like, for example, how best to treat Covid 19:

The inauguration of President Biden is perhaps most auspicious for its wholesale eviction of the epistemic trespassers who squatted throughout the executive branch. Today was the first full day of the Biden Administration, and for the first time in four years I heard not a word of idiocy from any executive branch official. These people actually seem to know what they are talking about. I'm having a hard time processing it. 

One reason I know these folks know what they are about is by the level of worry that one can feel in the new President and his spokespersons. Anthony Fauci seems relieved not to be doing face-plants anymore when the President speaks, but candidly told us the worst of the pandemic is still to come. Press secretary Jen Psaki gave real press briefings -- two days in a row -- and issued press releases that gave facts. Those alone puts this White House as far removed from the Spicer-Huckabee-McEnany alternative facts show as one could get. However, because no one is blowing smoke, the worry is palpable. Finally, the government is honestly telling us how deep in shit we've sunk, and how much digging we need to do to get out of it. The Biden folks are right to speak with confidence and hope. Every new administration must kick off with a joyous chorus; but a worried song wafts through it. 

And yet that is good beyond expectations. It takes a worried man to sing a worried song. Epistemic trespassers never worry; they don't know enough to worry. Only real experts, who know how much they don't know, worry. But after 4 years of lies parading as facts, of idiocy parading as intellect, of bravado parading as gospel, a little honest worry soothes like a balm. There's hope in it.


Aegis J. Frumento

380 Lexington Avenue
New York, NY 10168

Aegis Frumento co-heads the Financial Markets Practice of Stern Tannenbaum & Bell, New York City.  He represents persons and businesses in all aspects of commercial, corporate and securities matters and dispute resolution (including trials and arbitrations).  He has decades of experience representing SEC, CFTC and FINRA regulated firms and persons in regulatory enforcement investigations, hearings and lawsuits.  Drawing on his five years managing the Executive Financial Services Department of Morgan Stanley Smith Barney, Aegis has rare depth of experience in the securities and corporate governance laws affecting senior executives of public corporations.  When not litigating, Aegis enjoys working with new and existing broker-dealers, registered investment advisers, and private equity funds, covering all legal aspects from formation to capital raising. Those clients now include industry professionals looking to adapt blockchain technologies to finance and financial market enterprises, including the use of cryptosecurities to represent equity and debt interests. 

Aegis's long and distinguished career includes having been a Managing Director of Citigroup and Morgan Stanley, a partner and the head of the financial markets group of Duane Morris LLP, and the managing partner of Singer Frumento LLP.  He graduated from Harvard College in 1976 and New York University School of Law in 1979.  Aegis is a frequent author and speaker on securities law issues, and is often quoted in the media on current securities law developments.  He is the current Chairman of the New York City Bar Association's standing Committee on Professional Responsibility.

NOTE: The views expressed in this Guest Blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Blog.