What makes the Very Serious People so very serious?

by on July 22, 2015 at 1:34 am in Current Affairs, Economics, Political Science, Uncategorized | Permalink

I mean that question quite um…seriously.

Paul Krugman, who I believe originated the concept, recently defined it as follows: “…someone distinguished by his faith in received orthodoxy no matter the evidence.”  I would rather have something less normative and also more specific.

I think of it this way: the People are Very Serious if they realize that common sense morality must, to a considerable extent, rule politics.  At least if voters are watching.

So what is common sense morality in this context?  It embodies a number of propositions, including, for instance (with cultural variants across nations):

1. Political decisions should be based on what people and institutions deserve, based on their prior conduct and also on their contributions to the general good.

2. Economic nationalism.

3. Traditional morality, based on respect for authority, repayment of debts, savings, and hard work.

4. Inflation is bad, in part because it violates #1 and #3, and in the case of the eurozone it often violates #2 as well.

5. “I don’t care what you all say, the government should be able to find some way of arranging things so that I don’t have to suffer too badly from this.”

Now here’s the thing: common sense morality very often is wrong, or when it is right that is often with qualifications.

Therefore at the margin there is almost always a way to improve on what the Very Serious People are pushing for.  The Very Serious People realize this themselves, though not usually to the full extent, because they have been cognitively captured by their situations.  They see themselves as “a wee bit off due to political constraints,” instead of “a fair amount off due to political constraints.”  So there is usually some quite justified criticism of the Very Serious People.  Common sense morality is needed at some level, but still at the margin we wish to deviate from it.

That said, it is a big mistake to try to throw the Very Serious People under the bus.  The Very Serious People understand pretty well how to deal with a public which believes in some version of 1-5, and furthermore they often know that such public beliefs, whatever their limitations, are useful too.  Anyone else trying to manage the situation may come up with some favorable breakthroughs, but also may make a total hash of it, as was the case with Syriza.  Syriza failed to realize the import of 1-5 for both domestic and foreign politics,and so they drove the Greek economy to the point of total desperation.  There is a nested game going on, where the public has a big say on the heavily publicized issues, and the politicians must in some way heed that.

If you want to try the “replace the Very Serious People” game, and assume the subsequent risks, that is a judgment which can be made.  The mistake is to think that the partial wrongness of the Very Serious People is necessarily a reason to take matters out of their hands.

Addendum: Via Tim, here is the entry on Very Serious People on RationalWiki, it seems Atrios first put forward the concept.  And here are the remarks of Tsipras.

1 Sam Bhagwat July 22, 2015 at 1:48 am

The Straussian reading of this is that it’s about Donald Trump.

2 Mark P Xu Neyer July 22, 2015 at 1:53 am

it’s time for uncommon sense – ideas that sound crazy until you explore them further and see them backed by evidence.

3 John July 22, 2015 at 9:28 am

I’m terrible about remembering names (and even the exact quote I’m sure) but someone famous for quips once said (something like) “the problem with common sense is that it’s not very common”.

4 JWatts July 22, 2015 at 10:26 am

“ideas that sound crazy until you explore them further and see them backed by evidence.”

If the idea is extraordinary, the evidence needs to be compelling. Often radical ideas are pushed on the basis of marginal evidence.

5 Tom July 23, 2015 at 5:30 am

Doesn’t mean the Supreme Court can’t find the marginal idea was plain and unshakable truth from time eternal.

6 Jason K. July 22, 2015 at 2:07 am

1: There is a hidden assumption: the very serious people do what they do for some other reason than their own gain. As this is almost invariably not the case, I don’t extend them any more forgiveness than I would extend forgiveness towards anyone else that harms others for their own gain. Such behavior is the core definition of evil.

2: if their wrongness isn’t enough, then what would disqualify them? Isn’t doing what’s right what they are obstensibly in power to do? Failing at your explicit job is generally cause for being fired. The more someone goes with what’s popular, the less of a leader they are. So if they are making significant compromises on doing the right thing to maintain their position, that makes them poor leaders.

7 Alain July 22, 2015 at 3:56 am

Evil, harm, wrongness, the right thing. That is a pretty loaded post.

So what, exact, is “the right thing” and who decides?

8 Pshrnk July 22, 2015 at 9:55 am

I DECIDE!

I decide with my common sense.

9 Thiago Ribeiro July 22, 2015 at 10:25 am

“They called me mad, and I called them mad, and damn them, they outvoted me.”– Nathaniel Lee

10 JWatts July 22, 2015 at 10:30 am

No, Pshrnk’s ideas are loaded with evil, are blatantly wrong and will harm the children and poor! Vote for ME and the platform of Rationality and Science!

11 Ian Maitland July 22, 2015 at 10:36 am

Alas, Jason K confirms my worst fear; the charges against very serious people are thinly disguised ad hominem attacks.

If you’re not very serious, that beats having to show where they got their arguments wrong.

12 Jimmy July 22, 2015 at 10:52 am

Denouncing others as gain-seeking evil-doers has historically proved to be a very effective way to harm others for your own gain precisely because it appeals to the popular vengefulness that is, unfortunately, also a part of common sense.

13 dirk July 22, 2015 at 2:13 am

What’s so funny about peace, love and understanding?

14 Kevin Erdmann July 22, 2015 at 3:13 am

Sometimes 5 gets flipped on its head. Sometimes we think we need to suffer. (eg. We had to suffer the Great Depression because we overdid it in the 1920s.)

So, we had to have a housing bust because of 1, 3, 4, and flipped 5. How else are people going to learn that flipping houses for profit is gauche? I believe in this case, Krugman is a VSP.

As with the Great Depression, in about 50 years, economists will decide it was unnecessary and maybe in 100 VSPs will too, although flipped 5 is strong enough that the VSP haven’t come to that realization about the GD yet.

15 BC July 22, 2015 at 5:48 am

Great point on flipped 5. Another component of VSP’s common sense, perhaps the most misguided of all, is that one can enjoy “sustainable” benefits only if one is willing to endure some sort of sacrifice. That’s part of the notion of “deserve” in 1 and why “hard work” rather than “productive work” or “valuable work” appears in 3. It also leads to the elevation of “shared sacrifice” over “mutual gain”.

In America, we often attribute these instincts to our Puritan roots. However, these instincts are probably more universal given that they seem to be just as strong in Europe, from which the Puritans were of course exiled.

16 BC July 22, 2015 at 5:54 am

I would also add that flipped 5 is not so much a notion that “we” need to suffer; it’s that Other People should have to suffer to “deserve” their gains. “We” had to have the housing bust so that Other People would stop earning profits by flipping houses.

17 Kevin Erdmann July 22, 2015 at 6:22 am

Great points.

18 chuck martel July 22, 2015 at 6:45 am

The Puritans had their shot in Europe, especially during Cromwell’s regime. People were so happy about it that his head was publicly displayed on a pike for eighteen years after his death. There’s nothing universal about Puritan ideas even if they still survive in altered forms in the US.

19 Kevin Erdmann July 22, 2015 at 10:40 am

As Charles Mann says in 1491, when the Pilgrims preached that the Native Americans were dying for lack of God’s support, it wasn’t just a self-serving rationalization. The Native Americans believed it too. The idea that we did something to deserve famine and pestilence, or abundance, seems pretty deeply ingrained.

20 Kevin Erdmann July 22, 2015 at 1:39 pm

…as is the idea that we must make ritualistic sacrifices as a cause of and response to abundance.

21 Art Deco July 22, 2015 at 3:31 pm

As Charles Mann says in 1491

Caveat lector.

22 chuck martel July 22, 2015 at 5:38 pm

Everything the Pilgrims/Puritans do or did is self-serving.

23 JvdM July 23, 2015 at 7:53 am

That is so half backed. I don’t know about the Puritans, but in the Netherlands and Germany you have a VERY strong Reformed history with Calvin. Although not the dominant religion anymore, the Dutch and Germans still have an extreme tendency to push for soberness and a suffer-the-consequences mentality. The USA really really really pales in comparison.

24 Tim July 22, 2015 at 3:20 am

I’d start here: http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Very_Serious_People

I think Atrios once defined it simply as people who have very specific policy prescriptions (in this context it was American politics) but imagine themselves as non-ideological and above “politics”. They think of their ideas as “just common sense” and probably imagine that most people would agree with them on the topic. For example, a youngish guy in a suit from a Washington think tank who goes on CSPAN and says (and fully believes) “I think the American people are demanding that politicians stop their dumb bickering and simply take the right reforms to federal code 23-54b in regards to the proper indexing of unrealized capitol gains. I’m mean, it’s just the right thing to do.” No matter what the actual policy being discussed, the person imagines that 90% of the county is behind them and that their proposed solution is really the only sensible solution – which means people who disagree with them aren’t “serious”. That’s the origin of the term – the whole of idea of Very Serious People are people who simply declare that anyone who disagrees with them simply “isn’t being serious”.

The definition has been expanded, especially in the aftermath of the 2008 economic downturn, to include people who believe in their economic prescriptions regardless of evidence. For example, a VSP in the 1930’s would probably have proclaimed that the gold standard was working fine, monetary policy was too loose, and that politicians were just too scared to do what everyone knows is right and implement the proper reforms of balancing the budget to get things moving again.

I think your injection or morality is a little off base here, except so far as many people imagine that economics should play out according to their own views of morality – i.e. since Greece overborrowed they “deserve” their problems.

25 Agra Brum July 22, 2015 at 8:00 pm

A good general description; I’d add that it started with Iraq, and that the VSPs were all for the invasion, and despite the dubious and somewhat revolutionary nature of a ‘preemptive war’ against a rather weak foe with no conventional force projection, invading and overthrowing Saddam became a bit of a VSP litmus test.
Then, once in Iraq, any discussion of withdrawal in 2004-2007 was also the mark of a non-VSP (until the Bush administration negotiated a withdrawal agreement down the road, when it was ok in theory, until it came time to implement that agreement).
After 2008 the foreign policy scene is much more fractured and there is no consensus; the VSP moved to promotion of austerity and liquidation (except for larger financial institutions, which deserve bailouts), and as a corollary to austerity, to promoting deficit reduction through slashing social services.

26 Tom July 23, 2015 at 6:08 am

In other words, the public debate and implemented economic policies have been driven by Unserious People? Well, there may be something to that.

The term VSP mostly sounds like the snideness du jour, to be honest. If Nobel Prize Winning Economist Paul Krugman came up with it, case closed.

27 Michael July 22, 2015 at 4:20 am

Wow, Tyler, you’ve lost the debate before it even began.

The problem with the Very Serious People is that they are married to moral precepts that cloud their understanding of very basic, simple economic concepts that are wholly orthodox and proven by decades of data. Your focus on morality in this post really confirms Krugman’s accusation–that the VSP are not motivated by reason and data but by mood affiliation.

28 A Definite Beta Guy July 22, 2015 at 9:18 am

Very Serious People get married, have babies, pay their mortgages, and show up to their jobs on time, every day. Very Serious Politicians deal with these Very Serious People. By all means, dismiss the Very Serious Politicians, but then the Very Serious People will not like you very much, and will vote for Trump or Perot.

29 JWatts July 22, 2015 at 10:33 am

“Wow, Tyler, you’ve lost the debate before it even began.”

Agreed, clearly you are correct and when Tyler disagrees he isn’t being serious. /sacrasm

30 prior_approval July 22, 2015 at 4:33 am

‘so they drove the Greek economy to the point of total desperation’

Apparently, Syriza is responsible for everything that occurred in Greece before taking power in January 2015. And the IMF, EZB, etc. have nothing to do with the state of the Greek economy at all.

31 Gabe Athouse July 22, 2015 at 8:40 am

Right, the Greek government deserves total amnesty. See, this game is fun! Deliberately misinterpreting and exaggerating what people who disagree with you say. Why not consider why it is that the IMF (which, full disclosure, I believe is a pernicious institution) loaned Greece billions of euro’s? I actually don’t know the answer, but I would guess it was to help them service their debt under the condition that they renegotiate some of their public sector contracts. So Greece needs a loan, the IMF gives them a loan (with reasonable or unreasonable interest rates, depending on your affiliation), and they become responsible for the Greek debt crisis? Hmm, I’m not sure I follow. Do you believe that interest rates are rent? If so, don’t bother responding, because you’ll already have said everything I need to know you inside and out.

32 prior_approval July 22, 2015 at 9:23 am

Which Greek government? (Bonus points for using the Greek character set, by the way.)

33 JWatts July 22, 2015 at 10:41 am

“Right, the Greek government deserves total amnesty.” … “Which Greek government?”

Swoosh, that’s Gabe’s point going over your head. If Greece can get out from it’s obligations by claiming the ‘current’ government isn’t responsible for them, then Greeks will just elect a ‘new’ party every few years and claim it’s not the ‘current’ governments fault.

For clarification, I still think the best move in the medium to long term would be: 1) Greece bankrupts on the current debt, 2) No additional foreign loans, 3) Greece issues a new currency (staying in or out of the political EU is irrelevant) 4) the new currency inflates until the government can meet it’s obligations in the 20-30% of GDP range 5) the new currency exchange rate makes Greece’s balance of trade much closer to zero

34 Art Deco July 22, 2015 at 12:12 pm

They’d could have done that five years ago. The economic contraction would have been ferocious but (one can wager) less severe and certainly less enduring than the one they’ve suffered anyway attempting to maintain the Euro. As for the crew of economists chuffering about ‘austerity’, if Germany was not willing to provide credit to grease the wheels of an exit from the Euro, what was the alternative?

35 Thiago Ribeiro July 22, 2015 at 1:47 pm

“If Greece can get out from it’s obligations by claiming the ‘current’ government isn’t responsible for them, then Greeks will just elect a ‘new’ party every few years and claim it’s not the ‘current’ governments fault.”
To sum it up: “Syriza is guilty even if it is not”
“‘I don’t care,’ snarled the Wolf; ‘if it was not you it was your father;’and with that he rushed upon the poor little Lamb and ate her all up.”
Well, it is a Greek story, isn’t?

36 JWatts July 22, 2015 at 2:19 pm

To sum it up: “Syriza is guilty even if it is not”

That’s a strawman version of my post. Syriza isn’t responsible for the debts, the Greek people are. It’s irrelevant which party is “in charge” this year.

Again, to re-iterate I still believe, If Greece can’t afford to repay the debt, then a full default and separate currency is probably the best option. But trying to shift the blame around is not a valid argument.

37 Thiago Ribeiro July 22, 2015 at 2:51 pm

I admit your point is a different one, but it is inextricably linked to a simple fact: Syriza is being accused of having driven “the Greek economy to the point of total desperation.” And when it is pointed out that they didn’t implode Greece’s economy–it was the Troika and its star pupils, the very serious Greeks (well, as much serious as Greeks go, I mean, and the damage was already done when Syriza rose to power thanks to its very damage), we are told that they are all Greeks, let God sort them out. If the (unpayable) debt is the problem, I can’t see why so much energy is being wasted badmouthing the Greeks who not in fact destroyed Greece. The debt is unpayable except with very generous and risky renegotiation. If it can’t be done, then kick Greece out, invade the country, kill the Greeks, but let’s stop pretending Syriza is the problem.

38 MOFO. July 22, 2015 at 4:20 pm

I admit your point is a different one, but it is inextricably linked to a simple fact: Syriza is being accused of having driven “the Greek economy to the point of total desperation.” And when it is pointed out that they didn’t implode Greece’s economy–it was the Troika and its star pupils, the very serious Greeks”

No one forced the Greeks to borrow to the point of absurdity. Your hanging it on the nebulous “very serious Greeks” only underscores the real point, that ‘very serious people’ is just code for “people i dont like”

And while you cant blame Syriza for the debt, you can blame them for doing less than nothing to deal with the situation they walked into. Willingly walked into, i might add, they ran for office knowing full well the situation the country was in, and claiming they could fix it, and when the got into office they did nothing productive. Id say thats a good definition of driving the Greek economy to the point of total desperation.

39 Thiago Ribeiro July 22, 2015 at 5:26 pm

I can say for sure that whatever it is Syriza is doing it is better than whatever the VSP want done. Proof? The last 8 years. The guys who presd over the destruction of Greece’s economy were very serious (Syriza, we are told, is not).

40 MOFO. July 22, 2015 at 7:07 pm

Id say you are proving my point nicely. The greeks in charge today arent too much different than the greeks of the recent past, neither group had any desire to confront the problems their country was facing, neither took any steps to deal with their growing debt problems or engage their creditors in a meaningful way, yet by your telling Syriza are not VSPs and the previous group were VSPs. This leads me to believe that VSP == people i dont like, nothing more.

41 Thiago Ribeiro July 22, 2015 at 7:59 pm

“yet by your telling Syriza are not VSPs and the previous group were VSPs.”
Not my telling. Somehow Syriza has become the “focus of evil in the modern world” (to borrow Reagan’s characterization of the Soviet Union) according to Troika’s apologists everywhere. Again, let me be clear: Troika’s prescriptions were tried, they failed, they destroyed an economy. As tempting as it may be for the VSP–I read many such articles–to assure us it was a success and the horse was almost learning to live without eating just before dying and it all was not a great madness from the beginning, it was a unmitigated disaster–maybe you have a better plan than what Syruza is doing, but neither the Greeks, any Greek, nor the Germans have one–if they had, they wouldn’t have allowed the economic equivalent of shock and awe happen to an European country for the best part of a decade. It is strange that the group that, I repeat, have not destroyed Greece is being attacked for having stopped the onslaught by those who in fact destroyed the coyntry.

42 MOFO. July 22, 2015 at 8:57 pm

You are totally incoherent. Again no one forced Greece to borrow money. No one. You can stamp your feet and shout Troika Troika all day long, but the only ones who destroyed Greece’s economy is Greece. This isnt a morality tale about good and evil, its simple cause and effect, you borrow too much money, you go broke. The seeds of the current crisis were sown long before Syriza ever came about, but they did nothing to stop it, they just made it worse. If they are being attacked in any way its because of that, not some grand conspiracy by the Troika.

In any event, you are again confirming what i said before, the whole ‘very serious person’ thing is just an ad hom to be used against those you dont like.

43 Thiago Ribeiro July 22, 2015 at 9:21 pm

“The seeds of the current crisis were sown long before Syriza ever came about, but they did nothing to stop it, they just made it worse.”
No, they didn’t. They stopped the bleeding. You may not care, but, under the VSP prescriptions, one-third of Greece’s GDP vanished. If the (unpayble) debt is the problem, it is game over, the situation should have been dealt with five years ago–when things were a little better. There is no way Syriza or the Very Serious Greek will ever pay it back in conditions approaching the original ones. Again, where was all this zeal, all this “concern” about Greece while Troika’s puppets were overseeing the melt down of Greece’s economy? However, if the problem is how to force Greece to re-enact the economic policy which ate about one-third of Greece’s GDP, well, then and only them, all the Syriza bashing begins to make sense, there is method in the madness.

44 MOFO. July 22, 2015 at 10:27 pm

“under the VSP prescriptions, one-third of Greece’s GDP vanished”

And what would have happened under any other set of prescriptions? Greece’s economic crisis wasnt force upon them by some melevelent Troika, it is a natural and, frankly, obvious consequence of spending more than you can afford. Its called bankruptcy. There are no good outcomes for Greece, just a series of shitty ones. Syriza didnt even bother to pick a shitty one on their own, they just show boated around until one was forced upon them.

45 IRON BANK July 22, 2015 at 12:33 pm

which government? doesn’t matter…the debts will be paid.

46 Unanimous July 22, 2015 at 4:35 am

I always thought that Very Serious People were just people who think the key to success is to be serious. If someone has failed it’s proof that they weren’t serious enough. If someone isn’t serious enough, then they will only succeed by accident. If someone doesn’t agree with a VSP it’s because they haven’t thought seriously enough. I know that’s not very specific in terms of politics or policy, but VSP’s are seriously pragmatic sometimes. No need to over complicate the definition.

47 Alan July 22, 2015 at 4:43 am

#3’s “respect for authority, repayment of debts, savings, and hard work” are not common-sense values in all cultures.

48 Bruce Cleaver July 22, 2015 at 6:31 am

Correct!

49 A Definite Beta Guy July 22, 2015 at 9:23 am

Right, so consider the implications of your policies, which can easily erode these values.

50 Winton July 22, 2015 at 6:15 am

Paul Krugman looks like a serious person, but sometimes it is hard to take him seriously.

51 Art Deco July 22, 2015 at 8:21 am

Last I checked, he hadn’t published any academic work since 2007 and people who fancy he actually writes the column are suckers.

52 Thor Odinson July 22, 2015 at 12:04 pm

Do you have any proof he doesn’t?

53 Art Deco July 22, 2015 at 12:07 pm

Try comparing columns he wrote ca. 1995 with columns written six or seven years later.

54 Thor Odinson July 22, 2015 at 12:47 pm

…it’s not at all possible he became a more proficient writer/changed his writing style over the years? Because similar ‘proof’ is used to support the idea that McCartney died, and the Beatles replaced him with Billy Shears. Or do you buy into that, to?

55 Art Deco July 22, 2015 at 1:40 pm

…it’s not at all possible he became a more proficient writer/changed his writing style over the years?

No, that didn’t happen

56 Thiago Ribeiro July 22, 2015 at 3:30 pm

“Because similar ‘proof’ is used to support the idea that McCartney died, and the Beatles replaced him with Billy Shears.”
Isn’t it one of those wacky mix-ups? They share the first name. Maybe The Beatles replaced Paul McCartney with Paul Krugman and the NYT is publishing Paul McCartney articles. It happens. The old Sovietologists may recall that, due to a mix-up regarding their tickets to ride in Germany, Vladimir Lenin toured with The Beatles while John Lennon embarked on a sealed train (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sealed_train) to the Finland Station, to overthrow the Provisional Government with a help of his friends. In fact, some people (citation needed) speculate that Lennon was the one who was shot in 1918 and died in 1924, his body preserved according to Stalin’s orders. If it is true, the man shot by Mark David Chapman was the real Lenin.

57 Brian Donohue July 22, 2015 at 5:36 pm

Lennon read a book on Marx.

58 Thiago Ribeiro July 22, 2015 at 6:34 pm

So did Lenin, and no one ever saw them together in the same room. I rest my case.

59 E. Harding July 23, 2015 at 12:01 am

Yeah, they’re totally different. That doesn’t mean Krugman doesn’t write them. It’s Bush Derangement Syndrome.

60 reader July 22, 2015 at 4:02 pm

When did you last publish an academic paper, “Art Deco”?

61 Bloix July 23, 2015 at 11:55 am

Well, you haven’t checked in the last six years then. But hey, why bother with the truth when telling lies is so much more supportive of your bullshit opinions?

Krugman, P., ‘Debt, Deleveraging, and the Liquidity Trap: A Fisher-Minsky-Koo Approach’ The Quarterly Journal of Economics 127 (3), pp. 1469–1513 (2012).
Krugman, P, ‘The Increasing Returns Revolution in Trade and Geography’ The American Economic Review 99(3), pp. 561–571 (2009).

62 Thiago Ribeiro July 22, 2015 at 6:21 am

Why so Very Seripus?

63 Thiago Ribeiro July 22, 2015 at 10:36 am

I mean, Why so very serious?

64 JWatts July 22, 2015 at 10:43 am
65 Thiago Ribeiro July 22, 2015 at 1:13 pm

Makes sense, I guess.

66 dearieme July 22, 2015 at 6:42 am

“based on what people and institutions deserve”: madness; only God knows what we deserve. And God doesn’t exist.

67 prior_approval July 22, 2015 at 9:14 am

Dharma does not depend on a god. Though the definition does apparently depend on particular believers.

68 Art Deco July 22, 2015 at 9:50 am

And God doesn’t exist.

Oh, you’ve always struck me as possessed of a brilliance that surpassed Aquinas.

69 John L. July 22, 2015 at 11:08 am

“Aquinas said, ‘Let be God’: and there was God, and Aquinas saw it was good.” What can I say other than, if Aquinas hadn’t existed, he would have to be invented?
And evidently Alchemy and Astrology are sciences because Newton and Kepler, respectively, thought so. And mice and flies come from corpses as many brilliant philosophers and naturalists, some of them Christians inspired by Aristotle, another smart cookie, said. Or, maybe, brilliant people can be wrong, too.

70 Art Deco July 22, 2015 at 12:05 pm

Well, a decidedly non-brilliant British wench is remarkably self-confident. And you’re lame.

71 Thiago Ribeiro July 22, 2015 at 12:42 pm

“And you’re lame.”
Ha ha ha. Not to mention “bobo, feio e chato” (silly, ugly and a bore), the most powerful arguments back in the kindergarten.

72 Art Deco July 22, 2015 at 10:37 pm
73 Mondfledermaus July 22, 2015 at 5:01 pm

Do you possess any evidence that prove that Aquinas was right and prior_approval is wrong?

74 Rich Berger July 22, 2015 at 6:45 am

I thought these references to Very Serious People were just a generalized sarcasm. I had no idea that they were part of a tedious conceptual framework.

75 John July 22, 2015 at 9:35 am

Yes, the product of VSP once the term was coined.

76 Thor Odinson July 22, 2015 at 12:17 pm

Come on, man, what blog are you reading? If you haven’t created a ‘tedious conceptual framework’, you clearly aren’t thinking through your position here.

77 Bruce Cleaver July 22, 2015 at 6:45 am

Respect for authority, repayment of debts, savings, and hard work – these may each have exceptions, but as a general approach to life they are successful and (importantly) concise. What are you going to do, release a 10 page document loaded with subclauses that state the conditions upon which refutations may obtain?

78 JWatts July 22, 2015 at 10:45 am

“Respect for authority, repayment of debts, savings, and hard work …. but as a general approach to life they are successful”

Sure, but there’s a large amount of votes available to pandering to the portion of the electorate that eschews those values.

79 Errorr July 22, 2015 at 3:06 pm

its a fallacy of composition… What is good for the individual is not necessarily good for the collective. Savers must have matched borrowers for everything to work out. This is at the heart of the objection of the household metaphor when used in a national context…

80 T. Shaw July 22, 2015 at 7:08 am

It seems as if your “very serious people”, i.e., the smartest people ever (thousands of PhD’s, etc. from fantastic universities and mythical think-tanks all of whom are infinitely smarter than Albert Einstein, Adam Smith, Isaac Newton, et al) have accomplished garbage.

And, they (very serious central planners feverishly imposing theories/how he/she thinks “things” should be) are daily proving Einstein’s definition of “insanity.” Economies and societies are composed up of tens or hundreds of millions of rational and not-so-rational actors assumed to be acting in their own self-interest. Did Adam Smith call it the “magic hand?”

Things don’t work in the real world the away the geniuses think they ought to work.

81 rayward July 22, 2015 at 7:25 am

“The mistake is to think that the partial wrongness of the Very Serious People is necessarily a reason to take matters out of their hands.” That’s true. The VSPs get some big things right, but they also get some very big things wrong. My view is that the VSPs get interest rates right, that prolonged low to zero interest rates result in an economy dependent on asset values, encouraging investment in speculative assets rather than productive capital. What the VSPs get wrong is the obsession with inflation: it isn’t the risk of inflation that’s troubling but the neglect of productive capital, which has the effect of lowering labor productivity, wages, and economic growth. What’s needed are policies that simultaneously discourage speculation and encourage investment in productive capital. All the VSPs offer is higher interest rates. My view is that the VSPs get entitlements right, that they must be put on a sustainable footing. What the VSPs get wrong is how to do it. In the 1980s the VSPs offered much higher, regressive payroll taxes and much lower, progressive income taxes. Whether that’s the best policy is debatable, but what’s not debatable is that the higher payroll taxes have been used to offset the cuts in income taxes, as the higher payroll taxes haven’t been set aside to fund future social security benefits but spent on everything from foreign wars to agricultural subsidies – almost $3 trillion in payroll taxes have been so spent. Senator McConnell has stated many times that if it were up to him the amounts “borrowed” from the social security “trust fund” would never be repaid. Of course, what he means is that he wouldn’t use income taxes to repay the payroll taxes “borrowed”. The VSPs learned a valuable lesson form the social security reform of the 1980s: you can fool most of the people most of the time, so the VSPs offered the same “reform” again a few years ago. In sum, the VSPs have no right to lecture the rest of us on morality.

82 Art Deco July 22, 2015 at 8:19 am

encouraging investment in speculative assets rather than productive capital

What’s a ‘speculative asset’ and why would it’s rate of return exceed that of ‘productive capital’ in a state-of-the-world where government bonds hardly improve on holding cash?

83 Art Deco July 22, 2015 at 10:37 pm
84 Bob from Ohio July 22, 2015 at 7:49 am

Krugman meets his own definition of course. More spending!!!!

It is just an insult term, it is obvious it means only people Krugman does not like.

85 Jan July 22, 2015 at 8:22 am

Yeah probably, but we are exploring why Krugman doesn’t like them (and why Tyler kind of does).

86 JWatts July 22, 2015 at 10:48 am

“but we are exploring why Krugman doesn’t like them ”

Errr, Krugman doesn’t like them, because he uses the term as snide insult towards people he doesn’t like. There’s no exploration, it’s a tautology.

87 Jan July 22, 2015 at 11:23 am

I don’t see how that responds to my statement. We’re not debating whether Krugman likes them (I’ll grant you he doesn’t), so we are looking at what it is about them he doesn’t like.

88 Bob from Ohio July 22, 2015 at 1:27 pm

They don’t favor More Spending! yet people listen to them.

89 louis July 22, 2015 at 8:00 am

This analysis is fine but I think it is describing a group distinct from the VSPs.
A VSP, in my view:
1) Is a strong believer in abstract concepts like “reform”, “balanced budgets”, “sound money”, “lower labor costs” but gets hazy when asked exactly what those concepts entail in a specific situation.
2) Loves the idea of “rising above politics” and is suspicious of democracy
3) Fetishizes the concepts of “painful adjustments”, “hard choices”, “unpopular decisions”, particularly when the pain falls on other people. Supporting these concepts make the VSP feel courageous and sober-minded.
4) Is suspicious of monetary stimulus because it is an “artificial” boost to the economy.
5) Can get behind the idea of infrastructure spending, because building things is a serious thing to do.
6) Says common-sensical, but economically ignorant, things like “you can’t get out of a debt problem with more debt” to decry government borrowing in a private-sector deleveraging recession

90 JWatts July 22, 2015 at 10:50 am

It reads like you are defining VSP in a narrow ideological fashion.

91 louis July 22, 2015 at 3:56 pm

As opposed to Krugman, who coined the term?
There are loads of people who fit this profile. Often they are generally smart people, up on the news, but have no training in economics.

92 E. Harding July 23, 2015 at 12:04 am

“Says common-sensical, but economically ignorant, things like “you can’t get out of a debt problem with more debt” to decry government borrowing in a private-sector deleveraging recession”

-There’s nothing ignorant about that. But you have a very good definition of VSPism.

93 louis July 23, 2015 at 9:29 am

It’s a fallacy to treat all debt as the same, both private and public.
In a closed system, net borrowing = zero. So if the private sector as a whole is deleveraging, the gov’t sector must be net borrowing. If both sectors try to save at the same time, demand plummets and the result is unemployment.

94 BenK July 22, 2015 at 8:10 am

To my understanding the ‘serious people’ were the establishment; that is, anyone within some window of ‘relevance’ – something like ‘electability.’ The Washington insiders, in many cases.
The idea is manipulated various ways; because various parties are always trying to reframe the issues to put their opponents outside the window. Meanwhile the ‘not serious’ people
were the disrupting people who want to play the ‘time for a radical change’ card. Calling them unserious is another piece of political theater; effectively trying to make sure the window doesn’t
shift in a way that eliminates all the current players and thus triggers revolutionary change.

As for ‘common sense morality’ – once again, framing and fighting words. Haidt has shown that there are at least two different common sense moral systems in America at this point;
and each is completely convinced that the other is at best wildly deficient, at worst, duplicitous, and probably self-deceptively rationalizing but fundamentally evil. So that’s a problem.
Meanwhile, it seems pretty obvious that when theory and rationalizations violate both systems of common sense morality, it is the theory that needs a reexamination…

95 Art Deco July 22, 2015 at 8:15 am

Now here’s the thing: common sense morality very often is wrong, or when it is right that is often with qualifications.

Gross manifestations of economic nationalism may be imprudent. Otherwise, very little of what’s alluded to in those bullet points is objectionable and economists are never in a position to instruct anyone else on normative questions. Also, the economics guild is a component of a professional-managerial bourgeoisie which is quite dismissive of everyone else’s interests and contemptuous in an off-hand way of the wage-earning majority. The aspirations and prejudices of this class are bad and need to be defeated in the interests of justice.

96 Art Deco July 22, 2015 at 9:49 am

I do not care for benefits to be distributed by tax preferences or regulatory sluicing. You have to have some reciprocity in trade and that usually means counteracting the effects of foreigner’s subsidies to price sensitive sectors like agriculture. Otherwise I don’t care. In most circumstances, gains from trade (and losses from restricted trade) are pretty modest.

97 Art Deco July 22, 2015 at 10:36 pm

Really? That’s very interesting. Would that go well with an upper decker?

http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=upper+decker

98 reader July 22, 2015 at 5:15 pm

Keep fighting the good fight. I’m sure your hours a day commenting in the econ blogosphere will eventually bring down them down.

99 Blag the Ripper July 22, 2015 at 10:30 pm

Art Deco is the intellectual equivalent of a Dirty Sanchez.

http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Dirty+Sanchez

100 Nick Zaiac July 22, 2015 at 8:21 am

This post really is wonderful, and I think it meshes well with a pair of disparate parts of political economy. First is Matt Grossman’s evidence of elite opinion as the thought leader for public policy, the other is Peter Van Doren’s theory of political intractability of rivalrous political goods (out of his Letting Environementalists’ Preferences Count piece in Regulation magazine).

My thinking is that Very Serious People are a non-trivial minority of Grossman’s elite opinion leaders in national capitals (of course), but more importantly, the frictions they see come from Van Doren-ite intractability of all-or-nothing issues. Because past policy makers effectively forfeited certain, specific policy tools in the past, their hands are partially tied not by current common sense morality, but by the common sense morality that governed the decisions of past lawmakers. Some portion of the marginal changes that would be valuable now will necessarily be off the table.

At the micro level, think of a suburban town governed by a traditional city council which had in the past sought common sense good houekeeping zoning. The town then grows, and with growth sees the rise of Fischelite-homevoter-pushed excessive land use controls. A Very Serious Person seeking to rationalize these laws and marginally increase density, but runs headlong into the institutional endowment that rational past elites pushed through (suburban conservation easements, especially because they last in perpetuity). Even if the Very Serious People know the right answer, and they manage to generate popular support, some of the options aren’t available, and my feeling is that the pressure comes on from the point 5 pressure-easing condition, weakening the support for the reforms that are actually viable.

101 Mike July 22, 2015 at 10:07 am

“1. Political decisions should be based on what people and institutions deserve, based on their prior conduct and also on their contributions to the general good.”

What does this even mean?

102 A Definite Beta Guy July 22, 2015 at 11:35 am

It means Greece has been belligerent and hasn’t contributed anything to the world besides political theater, so they should be treated accordingly.

103 ChrisA July 22, 2015 at 10:28 am

Is this another parody PA account?

Well for a start Germany is not a mercantile managed country, it operates under pretty much the same market access rules as the UK (thanks to the EU). But let’s assume that they are more mercantile than the UK or the US. On the latest World Bank figures consumption per head for Germans is just $22k per year but for UK $25.5k and US $31K. So the more free market countries do better at providing what people want – a better standard of living. Mercantilism is really just another way of saying that mass of working people should suffer for the benefit of the rulers. You can have a “powerful” country if you enslave everyone and make then work for very little pay and then use the surplus to buy lots of powerful weapons. But I don’t agree that is a good policy.

104 prior_approval July 22, 2015 at 10:54 am

Sorry – as a direct response, anyone who believes Germany isn’t mercantilist is extremely innocent when it comes to tha world’s premier exporting economy. But then, that pretty much describes the entire DC inside the beltway crowd.

105 collin July 22, 2015 at 10:44 am

How about adding to VSP are the ones saying we must do X with the military to solve our problems? The Sunday morning shows endlessly parade neocons and liberal hawks acting very serioiusly. They go on that whole way of life is threatened by ISIS and Iran has the bomb and…… Then they go on about Putin running over Europe (even though he hasn’t moved beyond East Ukraine) and China! China is a huge threat without ever stating China outside of hacking has not done anything militarily against the US and had silly saber rattling on some Allies.

I say VSP are the ones that are more careful of military usage, say James Fallow or Daniel Larison. ISIS is a threat but they go all Lindsay Graham and RUNFERYOURLIVES.

106 A Definite Beta Guy July 22, 2015 at 11:25 am

Why can’t we look more than one election cycle into the future?

107 Bob from Ohio July 22, 2015 at 1:31 pm

“outside of hacking”

Stealing sensitive info on millions of government employees and former employees is nothing to worry about.

“has not done anything militarily against the US”

Except for Korea of course.

108 Blag the Ripper July 22, 2015 at 10:33 pm

Korea? Really?

109 Dude Man July 22, 2015 at 10:58 am

How does 4 follow from 1 and 3?

110 Zach Groff July 22, 2015 at 11:40 am

Wait, so you’re admitting that the best case for VSPs is economic populism now? That’s rather damning for VSPs and doesn’t seem to square with earlier blog posts.

111 Yancey Ward July 22, 2015 at 12:07 pm

I was thinking much the same thing, and that maybe I owe Tyler an apology for being hard on him.

112 Barry July 22, 2015 at 12:10 pm

There’s something which somebody called ‘fractal error’, that is when the overall thesis is wrong, and the pieces are wrong, and so on, as far down as one cares to look.

This article is an example of that. The definition mocks those praised (by each other, or the ‘liberal’ media) as being serious, even when they are consistently, repeatedly wrong. So Tyler is wrong there, in attempting to push his own retroactive definition.

Now, let’s rip some of the pieces to shreds:

“1. Political decisions should be based on what people and institutions deserve, based on their prior conduct and also on their contributions to the general good.”

No, the VSP’s have no problems rewarding each other, no matter how much they don’t deserve it, or how damaging to the general good their actions have been.

“2. Economic nationalism.”

An even bigger lie – the VSP’s are really into economic ‘pan-nationalism’, happily destroying local laws and interests, whenever they get in the way of the VSP’s, making money.

“3. Traditional morality, based on respect for authority, repayment of debts, savings, and hard work.”

VSP’s thrive on ripping others off, being bailed out, never repaying debts unless their creditors have power, etc.

“4. Inflation is bad, in part because it violates #1 and #3, and in the case of the eurozone it often violates #2 as well.”

They tend not to like inflation (so Tyler gets 1/2 pt correct), but since they don’t care about #1, #2 or #3, Tyler is wrong here, as well.

“5. “I don’t care what you all say, the government should be able to find some way of arranging things so that I don’t have to suffer too badly from this.””

Partially true, in that the VSP’s use government power and money shamefully to make sure that *they* don’t have to suffer, but partially wrong, in the sense that they love to use government power and money shamefully to make sure that *other* do have to suffer, even if unnecessarily.

End score – standard Koch work.

113 JWatts July 22, 2015 at 2:33 pm

I don’t see that you addressed the piece at all. You just created your own definitions of VSP, failed to give any specific examples, attributed a lot of malign motives to them and end up with a phrase that almost made me think your post most be parody.

Indeed, your entire post is a straw man fallacy followed up with a classic ad hominem parting shot.

114 idiot July 24, 2015 at 10:27 am

Which means that Barry has successfully gained a promotion to VSP status. Good job Barry!

115 R Richard Schweitzer July 22, 2015 at 12:15 pm

@ 1.0

As recorded in one of Clint Eastwood’s less memorable character’s dialogue: “Deserve ain’t got nothin’ to do with it.”

116 _NL July 22, 2015 at 12:27 pm

I always thought it meant something like “people who prefer to be seen as serious by adopting conventional wisdom rather than actually forming careful opinions through reasoned consideration of an issue.” Typically, this would be an issue where the conventional wisdom of the chattering class differs from political winds of one or both major parties.

The way Krugman used it, I thougt he meant somebody who supported Social Security reform because they wanted to seem sensible and centrist, but who did not have a strong sense of the countervailing arguments. Where “Social Security reform” means something like “cut benefits and hike taxes.”

This might also apply to things like spending cuts (must be arbitrarily linked to an equal amount of tax hikes), free trade (it’s good, but must be approached through multilateral agreements that contain “protections”), immigration reform (border reform and path to citizenship in equal measures), and other issues. It especially applies where journalists and pundits can find a way to split the baby and make both sides unhappy. Compromise is itself a sign of maturity, according the very serious people.

In other words, people for whom the Golden Mean Fallacy is a code of ethics. If half of people hate A and love B, and the other half hate B and love A, then the solution must be a mixture of both A and B. Which is clearly going to bother somebody like Krugman, who often stakes relatively partisan positions on issues. The Golden Mean strongly implies that anybody on one extreme of the issue or the other is NOT a serious person.

But maybe I’m interpreting Krugman incorrectly.

117 Bernard Yomtov July 23, 2015 at 7:28 pm

_NL,

I think this is a pretty good description. The thing to remember about VSP’s, at least the beltway insider types, is that they really don’t know very much. All the yappers talking about “entitlement reform,” for example, couldn’t put together a simple reform plan and back it up with data and arithmetic. So they go with the conventional wisdom.

118 Peter Akuleyev July 22, 2015 at 12:29 pm

I tend to think that Very Serious People are distinguished by their affiliation with the global cosmopolitan elite – speak fluent English, graduate degrees from the best Anglo-Saxon institutions, probably married to a spouse born in a different country, etc. The hallmark of a VSP is their insistence that whatever economic orthodoxy is spouted by The Economist, Davos attendees, or HBS professors is simply non-partisan common sense. I have no idea why Tyler thinks VSPs favor “Economic Nationalism” unless Tyler is attempting to distance himself from the group. As everyone knows, every Serious Person is pro-free trade, pro-immigration and considers political and economic nationalism to be tasteless at best, the hallmark of a crank at worst.

119 dbg July 22, 2015 at 1:40 pm

this is one of the most “Very Serious Person” posts Tyler has ever posted. Its truly hard to see beyond your own ideological boundaries, isn’t it.

120 Art Deco July 22, 2015 at 1:41 pm

The problem with America is that its overrun by sexual deviants. I’m terrified honestly, that they’ll come for me at night. Very Serious People need to intervene and protect me from the deviants.

121 Art Deco July 22, 2015 at 3:28 pm

msgkings, stick to your own bloody handle.

Mr. Moderator. Would be much obliged if you would delete this.

122 Blag the Ripper July 22, 2015 at 10:32 pm

Eat it, loser!

123 msgkings July 23, 2015 at 11:56 am

What the hell, Art? I don’t do that impersonation stuff. Your estimation of my obsession with you is creepily exaggerated.

124 Koz July 22, 2015 at 1:45 pm

As a first order approximation, the VSPs are people who pay at least a modicum of respect to the institutional authority of the powers that be and the conventional wisdom that goes along with that.

But for me at least, the interesting point about the VSPs isn’t their establishmentarian conformity but just the opposite. They have freedom to maneuver where others might not. This is especially topical for situations like the current circumstances in Greece (which is the problem with the non-VSPs that Krugman doesn’t understand or refuses to acknowledge). It could be that the fundamentals there have deteriorated so much that it doesn’t make any difference one way or the other. But if the Greek political leadership carried the persona of Calvin Coolidge, Eisenhower, or Helmut Kohl, things could be a lot different. Whatever they do could at least be taken on its own terms and evaluated for good or ill. But with Tspiras, Varoufakis and Syriza, whatever they do is assumed to be the expression of radicalism for its own sake. Therefore, if there were a plausible solution to the problems associated with Greece, it couldn’t be implemented because of a lack of credibility from its political leadership.

125 CC July 22, 2015 at 1:47 pm

Tyler is the very definition of a VSP. Karl Smith went off on Tyler and Rajan for supporting “nonsense on stilts” aka VSP policies.

http://modeledbehavior.com/2012/05/03/rajan-on-lessons-from-recession/

126 collin July 22, 2015 at 1:59 pm

Actually reading wiki Rationality, I absolutely believe the Grandfather of all Krugman’s or Atrios’s VSP is the Iraq War although he has focused it on the modern reaction to The Great Recession.

Almost all the true VSP heavily cheerleaded the Iraq War effort with the Bush “We will be treated as liberators” to start Shock & Awe. Since I ignore Brooks has he ever stated regret for the Iraq War?

127 MOFO. July 22, 2015 at 4:26 pm

So then VSP == People that Krugman disagrees with? Had we really been treated as liberators would that make Krugman a VSP?

128 Pat July 26, 2015 at 2:39 am

No, and come on, act like an adult. Whatever nightmare or caricature of Paul Krugman you have in your mind, the grownup part of your brain should probably warn you that it’s very likely not an accurate depiction.

As to “Very Serious People,” I think it is related in some small way to Noah Smith’s concept of “derp.” Collin is precisely right; the moniker of “V.S.P.” first appeared in the context of the Iraq War. As you probably remember if you lived through that time, particularly if you were on the losing anti-war side of the debate, the Beltway consensus was entirely dominated by faux sombre media personalities who were busy congratulating themselves on being the only sober, serious commenters capable of grappling with the truly enormous consequences… &c. &c. Frustratingly, there was no amount of logical rebuttal to the pro-war argument that would change their minds; more than that, they wouldn’t even alter the statement of that case. (“9/11 changed everything!” A: “It’s asinine to think Saddam Hussein had anything to do with 9/11.” “But 9/11 changed everything! Don’t you understand that? Nevermind, you just aren’t being serious.” To say nothing of the case for Iraqi WMDs before and after the Blix Report….)

129 DotCom July 22, 2015 at 3:58 pm

Krugman defines these terms, “VSP”, “DERP”, to bludgeon opponents with sarcasm, and so he and his acolytes and wannbes (DeLong, Noah Smith, etc.) can toss them around together like the cool kids they’re not.

It’s too obvious, and been said, but, of course, the proper response to him is sadly just “you are.” His hard core Keynesianism despite the evidence is an extreme example of what he derides. I guess the best defense is a good offense.

Or, put simpler, whoever derped it, dealt it.

130 MOFO. July 22, 2015 at 4:28 pm

This exactly. We shouldnt be lowering ourselves to the level of trying to define Krugman’s snark.

131 Floccina July 22, 2015 at 4:49 pm

There is a common sense morality that says: I did not borrow the money corrupt politicians borrowed the money go get it from them.
I can see both sides of this issue. I think that the best solution is changing the ECB inflation target to 5% and keeping it there for 5 years.

132 Art Deco July 22, 2015 at 10:35 pm
133 Ricardo July 23, 2015 at 1:08 am

The characteristics VSPs have in common with each other are, as in number 3, “Traditional morality, based on respect for authority, repayment of debts, savings, and hard work” and a tendency to adhere to what they imagine is elite consensus. The real kicker, though, is that VSPs tend to demand policies that involve “sacrifice” or “hard choices” but the costs of these policies fall predominantly on people outside the social circle or social class of VSPs.

134 krugginator July 23, 2015 at 6:03 am

“…someone distinguished by his faith in received orthodoxy no matter the evidence.”

Yep, sounds like Krugman to me.

135 Mark July 23, 2015 at 10:32 am

I don’t know why you fall into the trap of letting Krugman et al set the terms of debate. If anything, Krugman is the one who runs out the same one-trick-pony prescription over and over in the face of ample contradictory evidence.

136 DotCom July 23, 2015 at 11:36 am

Ironically, phrases like VSP are devices used by Krugman and other leftists specifically to shut down the debate they claim to desire.

137 Bloix July 23, 2015 at 12:05 pm

“Paul Krugman, who I believe originated the concept,”

You believe it? Why do you believe it? Did you check? Do you care?
In actuality, Duncan Black originated the concept. Krugman uses it but “Atrios” made up the phrase.

Anyone with a Google machine could find this out in 10 seconds. But you don’t bother. Why? Because, as a Very Serious Person, the truth doesn’t matter to you. What matters is the argument you want to make. And since the argument here is an attack on Krugman, it’s better for you if Krugman originated the phrase. Who cares if it’s true or not?

There are a lot of ways to describe the way you work. Duncan Black’s VSPs. Stephen Colbert’s truthiness. Norman Mailer’s factoids. However you say it, as Harry Frankfurt explained a decade ago, it’s bullshit.

138 elkern July 24, 2015 at 12:38 pm

Piffle, TC.

“Very Serious Persons” originally described a large cadre of pundits in American media supporting the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Those who wrote/spoke in favor of the invasion were consistently rewarded with positions of greater access, remuneration, and power, despite the fact that they were wrong about pretty much everything involved with the invasion. OTOH, people who opposed the invasion were consistently marginalized in American media organizations.

In recent years, Paul Krugman has latched onto the phrase to describe the power of Austerian Economics in political & media (as opposed to accademic) circles, which persists in spite of clear failure of 8 years of predictions. The same social process applies: in 2002, “Everybody knew…” that Saddam Hussein was a Bad Man who had to be stopped; now “Everybody knows…” that Federal deficits will lead to Weimar-style hyper-inflation.

In both cases, evidence of failure got/gets brushed aside, with the assertion that the predictions of the VSP will become true, probably within another Friedman Unit.

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