Very Serious People

"...Being a Very Serious Person is about occupying a structural position that tends to reinforce, rather than counter, one’s innate biases and prejudices."
"...As we know, despite the agreement of the Very Serious People that the Iraq war was a grave and urgent necessity, it turned out to be a colossal clusterfuck. As we also know, many of the People who were Very Serious about Iraq still continue to be Very Serious about a multitude of other topics on our television screens and in our op-ed pages."
"... a lot of our problems come from the unwillingness of honest people to call out the liars, cranks, wh*res and hacks."
"...I was always under the impression that Very Serious People advocated policies that always involved some amount of pain or loss (usually for moral reasons — deserving pain or upholding some moral standard), but never to the VSPs themselves."
"...Another important facet of the VSP is that they propose noble sacrifice, although all the actual sacrificing will be borne by others. I think that is the Serious part."

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A Brief Theory of Very Serious People - Crooked Timber

"...Being a Very Serious Person is about occupying a structural position that tends to reinforce, rather than counter, one's innate biases and prejudices."
"...As we know, despite the agreement of the Very Serious People that the Iraq war was a grave and urgent necessity, it turned out to be a colossal clusterfuck. As we also know, many of the People who were Very Serious about Iraq still continue to be Very Serious about a multitude of other topics on our television screens and in our op-ed pages."
"... a lot of our problems come from the unwillingness of honest people to call out the liars, cranks, wh*res and hacks."
"...I was always under the impression that Very Serious People advocated policies that always involved some amount of pain or loss (usually for moral reasons - deserving pain or upholding some moral standard), but never to the VSPs themselves."
"...Another important facet of the VSP is that they propose noble sacrifice, although all the actual sacrificing will be borne by others. I think that is the Serious part."

Tyler Cowen argues that the concept of "Very Serious People" refers to people who "realize that common sense morality must, to a considerable extent, rule politics." I'm not either the originator nor the popularizer of the term, but I think that's wrong. As I understand it, the theory underlying the concept of Very Serious People is as follows.

1. Everyone has a mix of beliefs, some of which are right, and some wrong.
2. Everyone co-exists in a social system that tends to value, heavily reinforce and widely disseminate some people's beliefs while disparaging, heavily discounting, and tending to limit the circulation of certain other people's beliefs. This bias is not random, but instead reflects and reinforces existing power structures and asymmetries.
3. People whose beliefs are reinforced and widely circulated so that they are socially and politically influential, even when they are manifestly wrong, are Very Serious People. The system provides them with no incentives to admit error or perhaps to understand that they have erred, even when their mistakes have devastating consequences.

Or: Shorter Theory of Very Serious People.

1. Being Tom Friedman Means Never Having To Say You're Sorry.

Unless my memory is badly mistaken (it might be), Duncan Black arrived at the concept of Very Serious People during the intra-US Iraq War debates. Duncan, Paul and others (including many of us at CT) were very, very unhappy with how debate on the Iraq War was conducted. Those who advocated the pro-invasion case were treated as serious thinkers, of enormous gravitas, who were taking the tough decisions necessary to protect America's national security. Those who disagreed were treated as flakes, fifth columnists, Commies and sneaking regarders. As we know, despite the agreement of the Very Serious People that the Iraq war was a grave and urgent necessity, it turned out to be a colossal clusterfuck. As we also know, many of the People who were Very Serious about Iraq still continue to be Very Serious about a multitude of other topics on our television screens and in our op-ed pages.

Being a Very Serious Person is about occupying a structural position that tends to reinforce, rather than counter, one's innate biases and prejudices. Put slightly differently, the Very Serious Person theory is one that is at least as much about collective structures of opinion as it is about individuals. We all err, sometimes very badly. The theory says that VSPs face less incentive either to second guess their errors as they are making them, or to think through their errors after they have made them, because collective structures reinforce their tendency to think that they are right in the first instance, and their tendency to think that they ought to have been right (if it weren't for those inconvenient facts/specific and contingent circumstances that meant that things didn't go quite as predicted just this once) in the second.

My version of the VSP problem would hence lead one to focus more on the weaknesses of collective structures of error correction than on trying to correct individual biases. We all have biases which lead us to understand the world in particular ways.

These biases, however, can be valuable as well as problematic. I've been looking for years for a Joseph Schumpeter quote that I think I saw once, but may have inadvertently reconstructed for my own convenience, to the effect that our vision is blinkered because of our ideological biases, but that without these ideologies we would not be able to see at all. As Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber have argued, individual biases, together with a certain degree of pigheadedness can have advantages for group problem solving, as long as people have a minimal capacity to come around to recognizing the advantages of a better perspective, however grudgingly, and (my addition) as long as collective structures of decision making do not systematically entrench certain kinds of bias.

This is the advantage of democracy when it works; it harnesses mulishness and rancorous dispute, to reveal the information that is latent in the disagreements between our various perspectives on the world (which are inextricably intertwined with our value judgments). However, when certain people's perspectives are privileged, the value of democracy is weakened. Their perspectives will continue to prevail, even when they are wrong. Weak arguments that they make will be treated as strong ones, while strong arguments made by their opponents will be treated as weak ones.

One implication of this argument is that centrist opinionators – those whose opinions are closest to the social core and hence most likely to be reinforced by the social system they live in – are especially likely to be prone to VSP syndrome. So too, perhaps, are people (on left, right or center) who believe that their reasoning capacity makes them more likely to be free from bias than those around them – Mercier and Sperber convincingly argue that reasoning evolved less as a way to figure out the world than to defend one's one biased view of it and hence to win arguments. The problem with VSPs is not that they are biased (we all are) – it's that the systems around them magnify that bias, reinforce it, and reflect it, creating the risk of vicious feedback loops of self-satisfied yet consequential ignorance (as in the Iraq war).

Anderson 07.22.15 at 4:07 pm

Tyler Cowen is a hack. You might as well ponder Megan McArdle.

Barry 07.22.15 at 4:11 pm

First, Tyler is at this point merely a Koch wh*re with an actual earned degree, and should always be regarded as such.

Second, my comment there:

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.

3

Phil 07.22.15 at 4:12 pm

I thought this was going to be about Tony Blair, who has recently been having very serious thoughts about the Labour leadership election and the future of the party. We can win when we base policy on principle, only not in a left-wing way, because that would be wrong. We need to let our values be a guide but not a distraction, and we should make the future our comfort zone. IANMTU.
4

Barry 07.22.15 at 4:17 pm

Anderson 07.22.15 at 4:07 pm
"Tyler Cowen is a hack. You might as well ponder Megan McArdle."

Seconded. To paraphrase Danial Davies, a lot of our problems come from the unwillingness of honest people to call out the liars, cranks, wh*res and hacks.

5

Jason Smith 07.22.15 at 4:21 pm

I was always under the impression that Very Serious People advocated policies that always involved some amount of pain or loss (usually for moral reasons - deserving pain or upholding some moral standard), but never to the VSPs themselves. It also seems to apply when the reason for the required pain changes, but the required pain stays the same.

e.g.

Iraq: Loss of life, necessary to protect freedom/keep America safe (VSP doesn't fight)
Austerity: Economic hardship, necessary because of previous excess (VSP doesn't need welfare)

6

BenK 07.22.15 at 4:22 pm

To paraphrase Barry: 'My ideological allies don't fight as hard and dirty for me as I'd like…'
7

Cheryl Rofer 07.22.15 at 4:23 pm

My recollection of the origin of the term "Very Serious People" is slightly different from yours in detail, but it is from the same time period and has similar characteristics. Part of the structure that was (and still is) being reinforced was the distinction of those VSPs from, say, bloggers (ugh), who were to be ignored.
8

Kindred Winecoff 07.22.15 at 4:24 pm

The Schumpeter bit you're thinking of is probably in his lecture "Science and Ideology", which concludes:

"And so-though we proceed slowly because of our ideologies, we might not proceed at all without them."

9

Paul Gottlieb 07.22.15 at 4:25 pm

Don't kid yourself, Tyler Cowan is, in fact, a bit of an asshole. Anyone who advances the idea that the inspiration for invading Iraq was because Cheney and company " "realize[d] that common sense morality must, to a considerable extent, rule politics." Is either a complete imbecile, a professional-grade liar, or an incredibly subtle performance artist.
10

Barry 07.22.15 at 4:34 pm

BenK 07.22.15 at 4:22 pm

"To paraphrase Barry: 'My ideological allies don't fight as hard and dirty for me as I'd like…'"

Wrong, but thanks for playing!

For an analogy, creationists don't get respectful debate from biologists.

11

Henry 07.22.15 at 4:38 pm

Barry – I don't want this discussion section to be about you again. Please limit your comments on my posts in future to a maximum of one per day.

Kindred – thanks – I was poring through Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, having forgotten I had ever read that essay.

13

msc 07.22.15 at 4:40 pm

I think this post does not quite respond to the key point Cowen is making, namely that the seriousness of VSPs reflects their recognition of the moral biases of the electoral public. The reminder that the term was originally used in reference to the run-up to the Iraq War is helpful, though, because the "seriousness" of the Iraq war promoters wasn't about understanding the commonsense morality of the electoral public or whatever but instead the mechanism maintaining the pro-war conformity of the major newspapers and TV news. In other cases, the VSP phenomenon appears even when the "serious" position is manifestly a political loser, the paradigmatic case in the U.S. being Social Security and Medicare alarmism, which despite the best efforts of the many-tentacled Peterson operation remains something every politician pays lip-service to but would never risk trying to put into action. (Knock on wood.)
14

Omega Centauri 07.22.15 at 4:41 pm

I think Henry is making it too much about the institutional aspects and not quite enough about the character flaws exhibited by the VSPs. There needs to be a character -as well as institutional aspect, if for no other reason than to incentivise better thought processes. Those who have been given the task to be public opinion makers need to shoulder the responsibility to make double sure that they aren't being and down the garden path. Sure, no one no matter how serious they are about their intellectual responsibility/integrity is going to get it right always, but they really should see trying really hard to be a very important part of the job. Shaming, of those who don't take this responsibility seriously should be part of the process.
15

geo 07.22.15 at 4:48 pm

OP: despite the agreement of the Very Serious People that the Iraq war was a grave and urgent necessity, it turned out to be a colossal clusterfuck

A semantic quibble, Henry: the fact that the wars in Iraq and Vietnam) were clusterfucks doesn't prove that they weren't necessary. Those wars were wrong not because they were failures - that's the VSP position - but because they were crimes. Talleyrand and Kissinger to the contrary, crimes are worse than mistakes.

17

theCoach 07.22.15 at 4:50 pm

Another important facet of the VSP is that they propose noble sacrifice, although all the actual sacrificing will be borne by others. I think that is the Serious part.
18

robert green 07.22.15 at 4:51 pm

Henry, you are taking on the VSPs too late in the process of their "becoming."

there are institutional and racial and societal drivers, and to someone else's excellent point upthread about the fractal (or holographic) nature of all of this, Seriousness is learned, taught, and organized for maximum effect by our elite schools, our elite social clubs, and of course those great cesspools to Conformity of thought and Setting of the narrowest of Overton Windows–the think tank complex. by the time you have an op-ed or a seat at the Sunday Gasbag table, you've already been so deeply inculcated with your narrow point-of-possible-views that there's no chance you can even PERCEIVE those outside the window. they are just "they", and their ideas and lives are of no specific regard or consequence beyond the making of whatever point needs to be made.

19

geo 07.22.15 at 5:05 pm

@14: "Talleyrand and Kissinger to the contrary" should have been "… to the contrary notwithstanding. Sorry.
20

Patrick Nielsen Hayden 07.22.15 at 5:08 pm

In my experience, what people who cite "common sense morality" a lot actually mean by it is "Daddy's always right." With the unstated corollary that Daddy had better be treated as right even when he's wrong, because otherwise catastrophic breakdown of society, crack babies, wilding, cannibalism, etc.

I'm coming to believe that a propensity for this kind of thinking is built into some people at birth just as firmly as hair color and sexual orientation. Next, 200,000 words of evo-psych about how necessary this is to the survival of the species (because otherwise crack babies, etc). No, wait, actually I have to go have my fingernails pulled out by a grue.

21

Sandwichman 07.22.15 at 5:10 pm

"1. Being Tom Friedman Means Never Having To Say You're Sorry."

In six months Friedman will apologize.

22

lemmycaution 07.22.15 at 5:13 pm

"though we proceed slowly because of our ideologies, we might not proceed at all without them."

https://www.google.com/search?q=although+we+proceed+slowly+ideology++blind+shumpter&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8#q=though+we+proceed+slowly+because+of+our+ideologies%2C+we+might+not+proceed+at+all+withou

23

geo 07.22.15 at 5:14 pm

Omega@13: A noble sentiment, but I can't agree. The integrity and intelligence of "those who have been given the task to be public opinion makers" is neither here nor there. They were given that task because they had the right opinions, and given it by publishers and producers who were given their task because they had the right opinions. If any of them had integrity and intelligence enough to change his or her opinions, someone else would be given his or her task.
25

ogmb 07.22.15 at 5:20 pm

A VSP is someone who engages in political mimicry: instead of pouring resources into acquiring the domain knowledge necessary to analyze a certain complex problem, the VSP specializes in creating the appearance of a knowledgeable person.

Normally mimicry is an evolutionary survival strategy that works best when the model population is large in comparison to the mimicry population. With VSPs it's the opposite: the more truly knowledgeable people there are in the population, the more at risk of exposure the VSP is…

26

Peter K. 07.22.15 at 5:25 pm

@ 21 does six months = a Friedman unit?

Very serious ideas are those where the poor and powerless pay the costs or suffer the "externalities." So in the minds of the VSPs, "we" come out ahead in the cost/benefit analysis.

25 percent unemployment? We'll that's just the price Greeks have to pay for everyone's mistakes and for Syriza not wearing ties or being polite according to hacks like Dsquared.

27

dada 07.22.15 at 5:31 pm

You can consult one of the classic definitions at The Balloon-Juice lexicon:

http://www.balloon-juice.com/balloon-juice-lexicon-q-z/#S

28

Susan of Texas 07.22.15 at 5:35 pm

Bob Altemeyer explains how the right is authoritarian and Alice Miller explains why they are authoritarian. Daddy is always right because their parents traded attention and approval for obedience. (And the Stanford Prison Experiment explains why the right uses the tactics it uses and why we react the way we do).

Tyler Cowen is comfortable lying about public issues because he can get away with lying about public issues. The idea that the wars were moral is irrational, as Paul Gottlieb said. It is a lie and we will never stop the lying until we call people out by name and drive them out.

Yet as geo says these VSP got their jobs because they told their bosses what the boss wanted to hear. Our power to expose lies and punish the liar is small in comparison to the power of the people who own the media.

Speaking of Megan McArdle: A couple of years ago in a Washington Post chat I asked McArdle where she got her health care statistics, which she said proved that the ACA would destroy medical and drug innovation. She admitted that she made them up.

Yesterday she said this:

"Like a lot of journalists, I get hung up on that pesky issue of "truth." Truth is our job. All we have is the public trust, and every time someone fails to do the work of vetting stories, the whole profession suffers. "

We will never be rid of the VSP because the only thing serious about them is the serious money backing them. It doesn't matter if they fail or lie or kill or destroy. Others must die and suffer so they can collect their fat paycheck and serve their masters.

And then they will lecture us about our lack of seriousness.

29

Sandwichman 07.22.15 at 5:36 pm

@ 26 " does six months = a Friedman unit?"

If I recall correctly. Didn't want to bother looking it up.

30

Sam Penrose 07.22.15 at 5:39 pm

Great stuff, thanks. I would love to see you follow up on Tyler's "mood affiliation" meme. This comment of yours seems like a good starting point:

people (on left, right or center) who believe that their reasoning capacity makes them more likely to be free from bias than those around them

31

dsquared 07.22.15 at 5:46 pm

Tbh, if I thought that common sense bourgeois morality was like that, I'd take all my clothes off and run screaming back into the bush. Why does he bother? He's so constantly wrong, and always in the same higher-moral-justification-for-horribleness way, that it makes me suspect that his much vaunted ethnic restaurant recommendations are probably horrible too (I seem to remember he once claimed that there was nothing in the whole of European cuisine to rival barbecue).
32

Salem 07.22.15 at 5:59 pm

Allow me to counter with a more Cowenite position.

Some people really do have more expertise in an issue, and really have given it more serious thought, than others. The example that Cowen is referring to (Greece) makes this particularly clear – a lot of people have acquired very strong views about the issue, while obviously knowing next to nothing about Greece, the Eurozone, or the institutional arrangements of the EU. And without that detailed framework of knowledge, they are forced to fall back on other considerations; often ones of morality, tribal solidarity, etc, that can be more easily applied without detailed knowledge. Blaming "greedy bankers" or "lazy Greeks" is easy. Trying to understand the actual political, institutional, and economic constraints is hard. Yes, I treat the first group as Unserious and the second as Serious, and I don't apologise for it. And let's be clear; your object-level views on the situation are going to be influenced by your level of seriousness.

Hopefully we can all agree that when Syriza took power in Greece, it was a disaster, precisely because they were Unserious in these terms.

And indeed, without proper knowledge of the constraints, giving power to the Unserious will almost always be a disaster – but it doesn't follow that the Very Serious People are right. After all, there are some events that are better understood in terms of morality, and the very fact that some people have detailed expertise and knowledge of an issue is not a neutral fact, but evidence about the kind of approach they like to take to such a situation. Suppose we're discussing whether or not to commit torture, and A has conducted extensive experiments detailing the effects and efficacy of torture on a wide range of people, while B only has lay ethical arguments that torture is wrong. A's expertise may well make him sound more impressive than B, but B is still right; there is a reason B doesn't have that expertise. Your level of seriousness is going to be influenced by your object-level views, and the process of acquiring that serious knowledge is going to change your views. You don't become an FCO mandarin unless you started out viewing diplomacy as an effective tool, and your years acquiring that knowledge are likely to reinforce that belief.

Which is why people here who don't like the VSPs, including the OP, would much rather talk about Iraq, which is an example in their favour.

Yet I can't agree that the problem in the run-up to the Iraq war was that "[t]hose who advocated the pro-invasion case were treated as serious thinkers… [t]hose who disagreed were treated as flakes, fifth columnists, Commies and sneaking regarders." It's hard to deny that the anti-war crowd really was largely like that. Rather, the problem was that the serious thinkers were all pro-war, and wrong, because of reinforced bias. But note that the Unserious People would have been just as bad or worse. The VSPs' disaster in Iraq doesn't make me want to hand over foreign policy to the "No Blood For Oil" crowd, any more than the disasters of the EU make me want to turn it over to the Bruges Group. We need better information and less bias in our experts, not to replace Seriousness with Unseriousness.

I also wonder what world you are living in when you think that the VSPs don't get massive feedback and consequences when they are wrong, whether on Iraq or on any other issue. They do (probably too strongly). But the reason that they still get treated as Serious is because, right or wrong, they did approach the matter in a serious way. I struggle to even comprehend the alternative. Colin Powell knows far more about military strategy in Iraq than I ever will – of course he will be paid for interviews, columns, etc, for his expertise, and neither I nor some random Chomskyian will be. That remains true if he blundered in Iraq.

33

Bloix 07.22.15 at 6:05 pm

For a definition and examples, see http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Very_Serious_People
34

Susan of Texas 07.22.15 at 6:06 pm

So what you are saying, Salem, is that IF the people in power really are serious and IF the people in power really are right, then Cowen is correct. It's too bad that one must create an imaginary scenario to get to that place but VSPs are much more comfortable with hypothetical scenarios in which they could be right than in reality, in which they have proven themselves over and over to be wrong.
35

William Timberman 07.22.15 at 6:13 pm

I've got a grand hippy idea: why don't we just manufacture our own public opinion? Think capital-labor substitution turned on its head. Think thousands of Chinese with sledgehammers and straw baskets making gravel runways for B-29s. Low productivity and no wages at all, true, but then there's that reserve army of the unemployed just standing around doing nothing. I bet the Greeks would be happy to help out as well….
36

Salem 07.22.15 at 6:16 pm

No Susan, what I am saying is, to quote Cowen:

The one thing worse than the Very Serious People is the Not Very Serious People.

37

MPAVictoria 07.22.15 at 6:17 pm

"It's hard to deny that the anti-war crowd really was largely like that"

Oh? I am a "flakes, fifth columnists, Commies and sneaking regarder" am I? Thank you Salem.

38

Russell L. Carter 07.22.15 at 6:18 pm

Well stated, Henry. I think it's fine to riff off even the criminally misguided.

As for Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok's hackery: though card carrying "Libertarians" they were very very quiet about the concept of War is the Health of The State during the run up and ahem execution of the sequentially recurring Middle Eastern Wars. One might conclude they're actually closet Keynesians, as long as the[1] fiscal stimulus is channelled through the Pentagon's myriad and metastasizing top-down directed[2] programs for the construction and deployment of weapons of widespread foreign capital destruction, rather than productive but not lethal domestic capital investment. I'm abusing capital here to broadly include humans as well. Consequently, they are firmly socially embedded VSPs indeed, the dirty and oily Koch industrial funds sluicing through the Mercator Center without end.

I wasn't going to post, and just enjoy a flashback to genesis Crooked Timber, but the bullshit spewed by Salem put me over the top. Salem, Tyler has been continuously, without exception, absolutely wrong on every particular about health care. Should we write 50,0000 words about that, too, before you get the concept?

[1] On effectively eternal time horizons, which sorta violates theoretical Keynesian principles…

[2] I.e. what they would lamentingly call "Statist" and "lacking accountability" in any otherwise positive domestic situation.

39

MPAVictoria 07.22.15 at 6:18 pm

"No Susan, what I am saying is, to quote Cowen:

The one thing worse than the Very Serious People is the Not Very Serious People."

Yet the unserious people wood have avoided invading Iraq. Funny that….

40

Susan of Texas 07.22.15 at 6:19 pm

Since the VSP decide who is serious and who is not, merely saying that unserious is worse says nothing at all.
41

Bloix 07.22.15 at 6:24 pm

There is no such thing as the Not Very Serious People.
The opposite of a VSP is a DFH.
42

Salem 07.22.15 at 6:26 pm

You're right, they would have avoided invading Iraq, which would have been good. They'd probably have made more than enough other blunders to make up for it though. Not being part of the military-industrial establishment means you won't have the biases and blinders that led them to go to war in Iraq. But it will also mean you won't have the detailed domain knowledge necessary to actually make decisions. You are damned either way.

Similarly, the VSPs did a bad job in Greece, but compared to Syriza they did brilliantly. Syriza are right in much of their moral analysis of the insupportability of the Greek situation, but that doesn't make them a competent government. Moral outrage, however justified, is not a substitute for serious understanding.

43

Tom Hurka 07.22.15 at 6:27 pm

Henry's definition allows more local instantiations, for example in CT itself.

After all, CT is "a social system that tends to value, heavily reinforce and widely disseminate some people's beliefs while disparaging, heavily discounting, and tending to limit the circulation of certain other people's beliefs." Note how Salem's perfectly reasonable comment got trashed within seven minutes of being posted. Also, CT posters like Henry are people "whose beliefs are reinforced and widely circulated so that they are socially and politically influential" in the CT system, and that system "provides them with no incentives to admit error or perhaps to understand that they have erred." So being Henry Farrell also means, in this local context, never having to say you're sorry.

I concede, though, that mistakes on CT don't have devastating consequences.

44

Susan of Texas 07.22.15 at 6:28 pm

And the only good DFH is a punched DFH.

When someone punches a dirty hippy they expect the DFH to cry and give up. The DFH needs to punch back twice as hard. Civility is a tool for control.

45

Harold 07.22.15 at 6:32 pm

Not having expertise of any kind is a feature not a defect of VSP.
46

Harold 07.22.15 at 6:33 pm

In fact, VSP use their lack of expertise, their figures pulled out of the air, as signaling devices.
47

Susan of Texas 07.22.15 at 6:33 pm

Salem is still dwelling in the Land of Make Believe, where the DFHs would have been wrong if everything were different.
48

MPAVictoria 07.22.15 at 6:35 pm

Tom Salem as good as called me a fifth columnist. Is that a "reasonable" post?
49

geo 07.22.15 at 6:38 pm

Tom Hurka, are you comparing the CT readership to Friedman's TED talk audiences? Those are fighting words.
50

Susan of Texas 07.22.15 at 6:39 pm

I don't like being called flaky because I could figure out that my governor would be a terrible president or that the invasion of Iraq would be a disaster. I was right. The VSPs were wrong. Reasoning through the problem wasn't difficult. It was easy. The only reason the VSP pretended it was a difficult decision is because they were being paid to say it was a difficult decision.
51

MPAVictoria 07.22.15 at 6:45 pm

"But it will also mean you won't have the detailed domain knowledge necessary to actually make decisions. "

Exactly how much expertise DOES it take not to get involved in a senseless, bloody war?

Also blaming Syriza for the debacle in Greece instead of the VSP in Germany and the ECB is the height of insanity. The Syriza has the economics right, the VSP had them wrong. So the problem wasn't that they lacked the expertise to govern. The problem was that earlier VSP tied them to the euro and that sadistic bastards were sitting across the negotiating table.

52

David Coombs 07.22.15 at 6:51 pm

Salem, the example of Iraq actually shows how wrong this argument is. The architects of the war were not the best and brightest–not even close. They were "the f-ing stupidest guy[s] on the face of the earth," in Tommy Franks' memorable phrase. Similarly, the reason you're getting pushback about your characterization of the critics is that, far from being exclusively made up of frivolous hippies, they included most of the actual experts in political science and Middle Eastern studies. The whole point of the idea of VSPs is that seriousness is not a measure of the depth of one's knowledge but rather just a gauge of one's willingness to be a useful idiot.
53

AcademicLurker 07.22.15 at 6:51 pm

@50: I was right. The VSPs were wrong.

You're missing the point. Sure, the VSP are always wrong, but they're wrong for the right reasons. That's what really matters…right?

54

Sean Matthews 07.22.15 at 6:56 pm

History here is long, and not constant with Cowen's analysis. Axel Oxenstierna observed to his son as long ago as 1648:

An nescis, mi fili, quantilla prudentia mundus regatur?

Which is a clean summary of the VSP problem. There are probably similar comments in original classical Greek sources.

55

bianca steele 07.22.15 at 7:03 pm

Tom Hurka makes a good point that shouldn't be lost under the reaction that the description covers other people too. A VSP isn't just someone whose position makes them impervious to criticism (not to mention that I expect any minute the argument to be made that it's good to have people being impervious to criticism). And it isn't just someone who meets the description but we think is on the wrong side. It's someone who takes a specific wrong position for a specific wrong reason. As such, it's perfectly legitimate to criticize.
56

dsquared 07.22.15 at 7:04 pm

I don't think Salem's analysis of the problem with Syriza is quite right – and obviously I come add this from the point of view of having been a harsh critic of some of their tactics. Quite apart from anything else, Tsipras did actually get the deal done, and is currently managing a very tricky process indeed implementing it in the Parliament.

Syriza proceeded rationally, from a factually false premis – that the Eurogroup was scared of Greek Euro exit. Although some of Varoufakis' documents were a bit amateurish, they had very good advice and were surprisingly orthodox on most policy matters. Their disasters weren't caused by being out of the mainstream or hippy Marxists or anything – they were simply a result of thinking their negotiating position was a lot stronger than it actually was. Once they (finally) realised this, things changed a lot.

57

Susan of Texas 07.22.15 at 7:06 pm

AcademicLurker, your wisdom is the wisdom of many men/women. That is exactly what Megan McArdle said. The DFH were right about Iraq but only because they are knee-jerk anti-war hippies. The VSP were wrong but they went back and figured out where they went wrong and now have gained in wisdom and experience compared to the DFH. Therefore one should listen to the VSP and not the DFH.
58

Dave 07.22.15 at 7:08 pm

Never having to say you're sorry is also in a sense the definition of hegemony. I submit Very Serious People are hegemonic mouthpieces. Their main concern is US hegemony and everything they advocate ladders back to maintaining it, through whatever tactic (invading Iraq, say) is popular during a given news cycle.
59

Salem 07.22.15 at 7:14 pm

The whole point of the idea of VSPs is that seriousness is not a measure of the depth of one's knowledge but rather just a gauge of one's willingness to be a useful idiot.

I am aware that this is what people who don't like technocrats say. But what correspondence does it have to reality?

Let's consider the local. Why does dsquared get so much abuse around here? Is it really the case that he has a platform here because of his willingness to be a "useful idiot"? Does he have more or less relevant domain knowledge than the people abusing him? The people who abuse him round off his detailed analysis to "Syriza would have been successful if they'd worn ties" – is this a fair summary of his position? Or are the abusers showing themselves allergic to that kind of analysis, because they lack the knowledge and so have to fall back on broad moral judgements? Is it a coincidence that all the people who know about the situation thought Syriza would be a disaster, and all the people yelling about "evil bankers" got it wrong? Could we not conclude that the label VSP is in fact a slur on people with relevant expertise who refuse to ignore the practical constraints of a situation, given by those who wish to engage in a far shallower mode of reasoning?

The funny thing is, this isn't a left-right thing. On plenty of issues, it's the Tea Party or UKIP as the Unserious people, and in those cases, everyone round here is quick to rally round the technocrats.

60

MPAVictoria 07.22.15 at 7:18 pm

"Could we not conclude that the label VSP is in fact a slur on people with relevant expertise who refuse to ignore the practical constraints of a situation, given by those who wish to engage in a far shallower mode of reasoning?"

So tell me how was my mode of reasoning about the Iraq War was "shallower" than Tom Friedmans?

61

None 07.22.15 at 7:23 pm

Cowen does not seem to be saying anything much more than that decision makers have to live within the constraints of public opinion or they are toast. And I am taking Cowen at his word in assuming nothing tendentious in his post. Henry just made me waste 5 minutes on Cowen's blog.
Krugman, on the other hand, seems to be using VSP very differently – he's explicitly calling out decision makers for their pretensions to knowledge of economic theory or other "prestige" skills they don't actually have. Such as when they use, in Krugman's opinion, faulty economics to grant prestige and seriousness to populist decisions that take account of Cowen's points 1 thru 5. Case in point would be the today's post on the finance minister of Finland who thinks he's an economist.
62

Omega Centauri 07.22.15 at 7:24 pm

Harold, VSPs do in fact have expertise. Their expertise is in how to make a comfortable career out of hackitude. It requires not just low integrity, but also a bit of talent.

I still think public shaming, of both individuals and institutions may be one of the few weapons we have.

63

Susan of Texas 07.22.15 at 7:26 pm

In the Land of Make Believe, VSPs are knowledgeable but DFHs are emotional and shallow.

I don't know about anyone else but this stream of abuse is becoming tiresome. Cloaking it in hypotheticals and Very Reasonable Questions doesn't hide the ugly words.

64

The Raven 07.22.15 at 7:35 pm

Patrick Nielsen Hayden@20: "In my experience, what people who cite 'common sense morality' a lot actually mean by it is 'Daddy's always right.'"

And the people who claim to be the adults in the room are usually teenage boys on stilts.

65

Bloix 07.22.15 at 7:37 pm

#32 –
Blaming "greedy bankers" or "lazy Greeks" is easy. Trying to understand the actual political, institutional, and economic constraints is hard. Yes, I treat the first group as Unserious and the second as Serious, and I don't apologise for it. And let's be clear; your object-level views on the situation are going to be influenced by your level of seriousness."

This is a classic example of false equivalence, one of the favorite rhetorical turns of the VSP. There are not two sides of VUPs, one blaming "greedy bankers" and one blaming "lazy Greeks." The VSPs blame lazy Greeks, and anyone who says "but maybe the greedy bankers are part of the problem" is a DFH.

66

Matt 07.22.15 at 7:37 pm

Even if both pro-war and anti-war commentators are basically stopped clocks, voicing support/opposition before acquiring expertise on the particulars of a situation, the reflexively anti-war position is overwhelmingly better as a starting position. How many foreign invasions/bombings not-engaged-in would it take it to do more cumulative harm than the Iraq invasion? There might be circumstances where setting someone else's house on fire is the right thing to do, but they are exceptional; the pro-arson brigade shouldn't have the presumption of equal weight for their policies as a starting position. Much less should they be considered as more serious because they are willing to go to greater extremes.
67

None 07.22.15 at 7:37 pm

"Could we not conclude that the label VSP is in fact a slur on people with relevant expertise who refuse to ignore the practical constraints of a situation, given by those who wish to engage in a far shallower mode of reasoning?"

Perhaps the people with "relevant expertise" should talk about "the practical constraints of a situation" rather than about "yellow cake". Or shadow inflation. Or "lazy greeks". Or perhaps they actually lack the the relevant expertise to do so.

68

T 07.22.15 at 7:49 pm

VSPs earn their title by service to capital, plain and simple. Their expertise or lack thereof is irrelevant.

As an example, consider the Euro. US neoclassical economists from Friedman and Mankiw on the right to Krugman on the left gave an extensive economic analysis of why it would fail economically. They turned out to be exactly right. They also gave a current analysis of how to fix it. Nonetheless, the European VSPs - the Troika and hack German economists - have considered them unserious. Why? Because they call, in part, for the creditors to take a haircut.

In contrast, a marginal economist from a marginal school of economics teaching at a marginal university gets a column in the NYTs and is widely cited. Why? Because he is Koch's lickspittle. (And a very good one I might add. Worth every penny.) And what policies does he propose? All to serve capital and screw labor. My goodness, he spent a month linking to every column and article he could find attacking Piketty.

Finally, consider the VSP pundits like Friedman, Brooks, and Will. What expertise do they provide other than analingus to the powerful?

69

Layman 07.22.15 at 7:58 pm

"Why does dsquared get so much abuse around here?"

Because he writes posts which are full-throated defenses of banksterism, in which he has a personal stake; and then bullies commenters who disagree with him.

"Could we not conclude that the label VSP is in fact a slur on people with relevant expertise who refuse to ignore the practical constraints of a situation, given by those who wish to engage in a far shallower mode of reasoning?"

No. Why do you ask?

70

L2P 07.22.15 at 7:59 pm

" Could we not conclude that the label VSP is in fact a slur on people with relevant expertise who refuse to ignore the practical constraints of a situation, given by those who wish to engage in a far shallower mode of reasoning?"

Sure! So what "expertise" does Friedman have about anything? Or McCardle? Or David Brooks? Or any blowhard on cable news? And what the hell does Cowan, for example, know about who's right or wrong about environmental policy? Or going to war?

The point of mocking Very Serious People is that they DO NOT HAVE ANY RELEVANT EXPERTISE, but their opinions have immense weight and are PRESUMED to have expertise because their opinions line up with center-right thoughts. So Friedman is VERY SERIOUS and must be listened to about economics, but Krugman is a dirty hippy who wants to give steaks to the Greeks.

71

Roger Gathmann 07.22.15 at 8:00 pm

Actually, the non serious people in the run up to the Iraq war called for – or at least some of them did, I did – rethinking the double sanction policy, tilting towards Iran, flooding freed Northern Iraq with money, and using the traditional tools of pressure that would sooner or later have caused Hussein to fall from internal forces.
In fact, that policy would have pretty much have preempted all the problems we have today – we Americans, that is, in as much as we count at all, which I am non serious enough to think is a bad thing – in this region of the world.
Speaking of the VSP credo, Friedman's op ed today about the pact with Iran is hilarious, involving a congressional bill that would pledge an american president to use overwhelming military force against Iran if there is ever any evidence they are up to building an atom bomb. It is a classic VSP maneuver – it coats with rhetorical grandeur a content of pure bull shit, it seeks no justification whatsoever in international law or precedent, and it makes Friedman sound tough without any cost. In fact, the lack of sacrifice thing is not just snark – it is about the heart of the American establishment's foreign policy, which is hemmed in by the unspoken rule that we can go anywhere and apply any "overwhelming force" as long as we don't start a draft, and get people on the street seriously hot and bothered about what the establishment thinks it is doing. Iraq was fucked, as a military matter, from the beginning by the refusal to recognize that America did not have enough soldiers unless it, um, drafted people. This was obvious to any even mildly interested observer. Mostly, though, this wasn't even debated. Rather, a war that was woven out of fantasies in the heads of people like Pollack and Hitchens was debated.
The corollary of which is: very serious people are deeply silly.
72

engels 07.22.15 at 8:05 pm

"Black, Paul and others (including very many of us at CT) were very, very happy with the way the debate on the Iraq war was conducted"

I was reading CT as lurker around the time of Iraq war and my memory is it was mostly pro-war or at least "anti-hippie" (could be wrong and can't check now)

73

engels 07.22.15 at 8:08 pm

Sorry, fucked up the quotation s/b "unhappy" etc
74

ogmb 07.22.15 at 8:09 pm

Salem @ 32:

Blaming "greedy bankers" or "lazy Greeks" is easy. Trying to understand the actual political, institutional, and economic constraints is hard. Yes, I treat the first group as Unserious and the second as Serious, and I don't apologise for it.

Uh no. Very Seriousness is the simulacrum of this deeper understanding. "Serious" describes a demeanor, and it is the salient characteristic of these people that they use this demeanor to avoid having to put in the effort of acquiring the necessary understanding. That's why they're called Very Serious People and not Very Knowledgeable People. You basically got suckered by those people and the rest of your argument falls apart after that.

75

Susan of Texas 07.22.15 at 8:12 pm

No, let us call a lie a lie. I doubt Salem was suckered; (s)he does not write like a fool. (S)he writes as one who is accustomed to using rhetoric to deceive.
76

geo 07.22.15 at 8:27 pm

Layman @69: I think you may be conflating the defense of banksterism with a sharply voiced disdain for reflexive and undiscriminating leftism. As a reflexive and undiscriminating leftist myself, I deprecate his occasional lack of forbearance. But I can't bring myself to condemn it quite as strongly as you. Banksters are pretty awful people, and will all be strung up from lampposts after the revolution. You're not suggesting we do that to dsquared, are you?
77

ogmb 07.22.15 at 8:34 pm

Susan @ 75

So the deciding question is whether Salem cannot contemplate the possibility of someone being able, given a certain audience, to opportunistically create the false impression of deeper understanding (option "fool") or whether Salem can contemplate it but decides that it's a better rhetorical strategy to frame the argument as if that possibility does not exist (option "liar"). In that latter case it would require a rather audacious expectation that such a line of reasoning would not be exposed by the CT commentariat. That's why I'm sticking with option "fool". Indeed I think it's a very widespread misconception that deeper understanding cannot be faked, and this is very much the misconception VSPs surf on. Sucker it is.

78

Susan of Texas 07.22.15 at 8:43 pm

Of course it would be exposed. But presenting an alternate explanation is all that such a poster desires. (This is a method of authoritarian control according to Altemeyer.) The appearance of reasonable discussion is the goal; s(he) wants to move the discussion from reality to theory. Add on some civility policing and the poster is now able to control the direction of the discussion.
79

bjssp 07.22.15 at 8:50 pm

I think Jason @5 hits the nail on the head, at least if we aren't being philosophical about it. I might phrase things slightly differently, depending on the context, but he's got it.

I'd just like to add something about (a) acting completely confused or at least responding as if this is the case when it comes to data; (b) claiming that Person X isn't credible or serious because of some weak appeal to an alleged reasoning failure, while repeatedly doing what you claim is bad; and (c) pretending as if there are only two potential outcomes, each of which is polar opposite of the other.

On (a), I might be slightly unfair here, as I am not an economist, and it is very possible that people are just talking past one another even more than usual, but it seems like lots of people on the right routinely criticize Krugman, et al for their claims on Keynesianism without seeming to get what it is about, what supposedly proves it, or what data is used to prove it. Again, I am not economist, so perhaps my own ignorance and lack of training is getting in my way, but it seems like there's a lot of effort devoted to filtering through data to disprove this or what, and a big part of it is acting confused over what should be basic stuff. I don't like to appeal to authority so nakedly, but this stuff doesn't seem all that niche, so the fact that a lot big-name people who have a lot to lose professionally are okay with getting behind it makes me think they are wanting to remain confused. I get he has a life, so this will probably not happen, but I'd love to see Krugman, for one, respond to some of the claims made against the stimulus (and related stuff), just to get a better idea of what's what. I won't name names, but I had one economist/public policy type tell me a certain prominent economist was talking out of his ass with some of the complaints.

On (b), I am comfortably naming names. Cowen seems to be rather fond of using the "mood affiliation" slam against many on the left while engaging in similar if not exactly the same behavior, especially in regard to Greece. I say this not to pick on him, but because it represents what I think reinforces the VSP mentality.

On (c), I mean doing stuff like supporting austerity, then claiming any sort of positive growth as a vindication of it. Again, I am not an economist, but I feel confident enough in my knowledge to say that the fact that an economy is growing again isn't really something to crow about. They will almost certainly grow again, regardless of what is happening, and notice how no supporters note that getting back on trend, for instance, would only happen many years in the future. That's success?

And well, this message is long enough so…

80

cs 07.22.15 at 8:51 pm

I haven't read all the comments so sorry if I repeat, but my understanding of the term was that it was never really about the VSPs themselves. The term is more a critique of how certain people are regarded / deferred to in the mainstream discourse.
81

Lordwhorfin 07.22.15 at 8:53 pm

"It's hard to deny that the anti-war crowd really was largely like that."

Thanks, Andrew Sullivan. Or are you an avatar of the Marble Douchebag? You certainly have their talking points down. Thanks for illustrating perfectly what a Very Serious Person looks like. No doubt you see one in the mirror every five minutes.

82

cs 07.22.15 at 8:53 pm

On further thought I take back my last comment, there is an element of critiquing the VSPs for thinking that advocating suffering for others makes them more realistic than everyone else.
83

bjssp 07.22.15 at 9:11 pm

Hey Susan of Texas, while I don't feel the rage that others have towards McArdle, I can't say I am a fan. She might not be nasty like Coulter and does in fact appear to have some intelligence, but I think her rise is largely undeserved. Why? The link below sums it up nicely. Even if she does go back and try to deal with evidence or revise her beliefs, as you can see in the first link in my link, she handles data in a sloppy way all too frequently. I'd like to have more sympathy for her, but seeing as how she has worked for several major publications and how many actual experts are eager to offer help, I don't.

http://bit.ly/1KkRSDB

84

Layman 07.22.15 at 9:14 pm

Geo @ 76

The disdain is certainly there, but it isn't only triggered by actual 'reflexive and undiscriminating leftism'. It just seems to be the case that any disagreement is perceived as 'reflexive and undiscriminating leftism', and results in insults and authoritarian bullying, to the extent that such can take place in a comment forum.

As for 'bankster', I think he fed at the trough of finance, facilitating banksterism, until he'd made his bundle, and sailed away to lands exotic, surfacing from time to time to pen cheery articles advising banksters how to pocket their bonuses with more feigned humility. I don't say we should lynch him, but I'm not a lyncher.

85

TM 07.22.15 at 9:15 pm

50 comments to respond to a piece of ridiculous troll bait, posted in response to a slightly less ridiculous but still troll baiting OP. People don't you agree the universe could be a better place if we could all for once just NOT FEED THE TROLLS?
86

bjssp 07.22.15 at 9:20 pm

"Similarly, the VSPs did a bad job in Greece, but compared to Syriza they did brilliantly."

How so?

87

geo 07.22.15 at 9:29 pm

TM@84: "What'll we do with ourselves this afternoon? And the day after that, and the next thirty years?" (Daisy in The Great Gatsby, after being admonished not to feed the trolls.)
88

Phil Koop 07.22.15 at 9:37 pm

I think that just about everyone except Tyler Cowen (and possibly Salem) knows what a VSP is. You might have done greater service had you examined Cowen's own coinage, "mood affiliation".

It seems to me that there can be no better example of mood affiliation than Cowen's own blog; it would really be a more apposite name than Marginal Revolution. Almost every post is either special pleading in the service of a special interest or else self-aggrandizement in the form of the pretense of hyper-rationality. Only the ruthless, diamond-hard intellect of the great Tyler Cowen can perceive the excellence of a greasy samosa served out of a food truck! Says Tyler Cowen.

So what's your take? Is "mood affiliation" a preemptive strike?

89

Susan of Texas 07.22.15 at 10:26 pm

bjssp:

McArdle obtained an MBA and expected to work on Wall Street. That fell through.
She then trained to be a journalist at the Koches' Institute for Humane Studies, who also help their students find employment.
McArdle worked at the Economist next, then The Atlantic.
During this time she was employed at the IHS as guest lecturer and instructor, and was MC at the Institute's 50th Anniversary Dinner.
Her husband is employed by Reason magazine, created by the Koches.
She has repeatedly defended criticism of the Koches and their interests.

Her rise was neither deserved nor undeserved; it was created, nurtured, abetted, and richly rewarded. She is a cog in a machine.

She is not sloppy with data. She cherry-picks it, omits it, massages it, tortures it and lies about it.

But she is a Serious Person and thus given access to the media and regular employment.

There probably are people who hate McArdle but most people hate what she represents and the harm she attempts to commit.

90

Sebastian H 07.22.15 at 10:38 pm

"He's so constantly wrong, and always in the same higher-moral-justification-for-horribleness way, that it makes me suspect that his much vaunted ethnic restaurant recommendations are probably horrible too"

But he agrees with you almost completely on Greece, so there is that. Wait….

VSP on the economic crisis would be an interesting topic. Proposed VSP statements:

Saving Banks from their bad loaning decisions isn't moral hazard, and in fact represents a necessity.
Helping debtors with their bad borrowing decisions is moral hazard.
Austerity economics works.

The last one is clearly VSP, because the troika knows it doesn't work and forces it anyway.

91

ogmb 07.22.15 at 10:53 pm

Phil @ 87: I think that just about everyone except Tyler Cowen (and possibly Salem) knows what a VSP is.

I don't think we're even close. Not even the Krugman definition that Cowen cites holds much water (although I'm pretty sure that Krugman has offered better definitions before, I'm just too lazy to look them up). There is the understandable temptation to define the term in a way that (Le VSP, c'est les autres) VSPs happen to cluster around ideological positions that are diametrially opposed to one's own. That's of course bullshit. No matter where you are on the political spectrum and no matter how hard you worked to validate your opinions, there are always much weaker arguments and much dumber people making the same point. It's an all too human propensity to challenge a line of reasoning less if its findings concur with one's own ideological leanings. That propensity is what VSPs feed on. They provide educated-sounding arguments that amplify their audience's leanings. But that doesn't happen on a particular point on the policy spectrum. With the right audience, it can happen anywhere.

Case in point: In the Greece quagmire we have the odd situation that both Krugman, a liberal Nobelist with a prickly demeanor and Schäuble, an arch-conservative lawyer and career politician who floated around the various Merkel cabinets until he happened to end up heading the finance ministry in the latest reshuffle, both espoused a Grexit, albeit for very different reasons. Tsipras, Merkel, and a whole slew of Eurocrats pushed against it. So what exactly is the orthodoxy position in this situation? And who are the VSPs espousing it?

92

Lee A. Arnold 07.22.15 at 11:01 pm

Henry, Please help me! I'm not sure that I understand either one of the concluding implications of your structural argument.

1. Won't "those whose opinions are closest to the social core and hence most likely to be reinforced by the social system they live in" be VSP's by definition, if they publicize those opinions?

2. As for the other one, I don't understand how "people (on left, right or center) who believe that their reasoning capacity makes them more likely to be free from bias than those around them" are especially likely to become VSP's, based upon Mercier and Sperber.

I must be missing something here, but I don't know what it is!

93

john c. halasz 07.22.15 at 11:02 pm

S.H.@89:

But I'm pretty sure T.C. meant Korean BBQ.

94

Scott Supak 07.22.15 at 11:13 pm

Group think would be a preferable method to the VSPs.
95

The Temporary Name 07.22.15 at 11:27 pm

OT comedy: http://www.christianpost.com/news/evangelical-left-slammed-for-supporting-iran-nuclear-deal-serious-christians-cant-just-cry-peace-peace-ird-president-tooley-says-141714/
Tooley says, "Serious Christians can't just cry peace, peace, peace. We have a sacred duty to think through unintended consequences and advocate policies that seek approximate justice and security, which requires diplomacy and capacity for effective force."

96

John Quiggin 07.22.15 at 11:27 pm

Just to restate a point made above. The VSPs are not the experts, on anything. In principle, they should have better access to expert advice than the rest of us, but in practice they have insulation mechanisms that ensure they only hear advice that confirms their prejudices.

The Iraq war was a case in point. All the expert evidence from the intelligence on weapons, to the weapons inspections, to the IR experts to the estimates of the cost of the war showed that the war was both wrong and stupid. But the intelligence was censored and massaged, Blix was derided, the IR experts were dismissed ( disregarding real expertise in favor of 'savvy' is a core trait of VSPs) and Lindsey and Shinseki were sacked for giving cost estimates that were at least plausible, though still massively understated.

97

MPAVictoria 07.22.15 at 11:32 pm

@94 obviously Jesus would bomb Iran
98

Henry Farrell 07.22.15 at 11:38 pm

If you think I'm trolling, you're very badly wrong (hint: when one of the links laying out the argument goes to a paper I've co-authored, it suggests either that I'm being sincere, or that I'm the most committed troll of all time). The Very Serious Person theory is a somewhat popularized version of an argument that I think is more or less right, and very important.

Not that I have any particular objection to trolling if it is done well. Two of the obvious implications of the Mercier-Sperber research are that (a) the distinction between trolling and reasoned argument is at best murky, and (b) there is considerable heuristic value to really well executed and appropriately targeted trolling (which, it is to work properly, requires an ability to get inside the head of the trolling's target and to understand how he or she reasons). As I have noted on this blog, Socrates was an obvious troll. Max Weber's advice to professors in Wissenschaft als Beruf can plausibly be interpreted as 'don't try to convince your students of your inward beliefs; just troll the hell out of their own to unsettle them in useful ways.'

I don't think the arguments laid out by Salem are particularly convincing. When he/she says:

Yet I can't agree that the problem in the run-up to the Iraq war was that "[t]hose who advocated the pro-invasion case were treated as serious thinkers… [t]hose who disagreed were treated as flakes, fifth columnists, Commies and sneaking regarders." It's hard to deny that the anti-war crowd really was largely like that. Rather, the problem was that the serious thinkers were all pro-war, and wrong, because of reinforced bias. But note that the Unserious People would have been just as bad or worse. The VSPs' disaster in Iraq doesn't make me want to hand over foreign policy to the "No Blood For Oil" crowd, any more than the disasters of the EU make me want to turn it over to the Bruges Group. We need better information and less bias in our experts, not to replace Seriousness with Unseriousness.

he/she rather ostentatiously disregards the fact that rather a lot of actual serious thinkers were strongly opposed to the war (he/she may not recognize the names of these people, still less of the many hundreds of other eventual signatories, but if he/she doesn't, that suggests that his/her mental map of 'serious thinkers' in the non-pejorative sense could do with some remaking). The 'well if it hadn't been Donald Rumsfeld in charge, it would have been them dirty hippies' argument seems to me to actively misrepresent the many people who opposed the war, in ways that are somewhere between loaded and actively misleading. Even within DC, a lot of people in conventional foreign policy jobs knew it was going to be a disaster, but had strong incentives not to say so in public (Republicans for obvious reasons; Democrats because the word had reportedly gone out from Richard Holbrooke that anyone not with the program could expect that they wouldn't get a job). I can remember a number of depressing conversations with people in the lower echelons of the foreign policy world in those years. Finally, the 'We need better information and less bias in our experts, not to replace Seriousness with Unseriousness' is completely irrelevant to my actual claim – which is that the problem is not with individuals, whether "Serious" or smelling of patchouli, so much as with the systemic factors that mean that some people's idiocies are less likely to be corrected than others. So too for that matter are the exercises in this comment section arguing over who is, or is not a Very Serious Person given their personal predilections. I suspect that even Tom Friedman would have intelligent things to say under different structural circumstances (he is not naturally a stupid person).

Tom Hurka may be engaged in his own exercise in trolling, in which case fair play, but the annoyance that someone may feel if they think they are being Oppressed in CT Comment Threads seems to me to be categorically different than the anger and despair that many of us felt during the Iraq War. If you feel grumpy about me or your fellow commenters (and god knows, I sometimes feel grumpy about me, and very often feel grumpy about your fellow commenters), then you can either go and do something useful with your time or easily find more congenial ways to waste it. When you're in a country that is going to war, or fear that Social Security is going to be slashed Just Because, you're rather differently fixed.

engels – you misremember. This site was vigorously pro-hippy and anti-war from its very early days. I think that John Holbo may have vaguely supported the war and then swiftly reconsidered but that his Damascene conversion happened before he came on board – that's it. I know Chris, Kieran, Maria, dsquared, John, Ted Barlow (of glorious memory) Harry and I were strongly and vocally opposed. This, among many other examples.

Sebastian – here I imagine that PK and many others would disagree with me, but I don't think that e.g. Wolfgang Schaueble is a Very Serious Person in the common sense of the word. I think he's highly intelligent, has a big vision of how the EU ought to be that departs from the German conventional wisdom in some crucial respects, and is horribly wrong in his belief that the means he is using will help create the end that he's after. My sense from Varoufakis' public remarks is that he thinks the same.

99

The Temporary Name 07.22.15 at 11:53 pm

The VSPs are not the experts, on anything.

Michael Ignatieff was in fact an expert on interventions, military and otherwise, who was ridiculously wrong, his mea non-culpa the blackest of black comedies trivializing a mammoth tragedy.

I tend of think of Ignatieff as a VSP. As does Michael Ignatieff.

100

bianca steele 07.22.15 at 11:54 pm

Henry–

Tom Hurka can speak for himself, but I read him as being less about what commenters feel and more about how commenters are perceived. Not least by other commenters. No one wants to go on about Very Serious People and discover they're assumed to be taking a swipe at one of the front page posters. I personally am not interested in a discussion defending VSPs that's based on the assumption to do otherwise is to attack you guys; you can call that grump if you like.

101

Layman 07.23.15 at 12:05 am

"Case in point: In the Greece quagmire we have the odd situation that both Krugman, a liberal Nobelist with a prickly demeanor and Schäuble, an arch-conservative lawyer and career politician who floated around the various Merkel cabinets until he happened to end up heading the finance ministry in the latest reshuffle, both espoused a Grexit, albeit for very different reasons. Tsipras, Merkel, and a whole slew of Eurocrats pushed against it. So what exactly is the orthodoxy position in this situation? And who are the VSPs espousing it?"

I think you've missed the disagreement. The split between VSP and orthodoxy was whether austerity measures would lift Greece out of depression and allow them to grow into making good on their debt. The VSP position has been very much 'yes' (including Schauble and the Eurocrats) and the orthodox position has been 'no' (including Krgthulu, Tsipras, Varoufakis, etc). Krgthulu argued for Grexit as the alternative to crippling austerity, when it became clear that the Austerians would not relent; and Schauble argued for Grexit as the alternative to debt forgiveness within the Euro. But that was very much a consequence of the matter at issue – austerity – and not the matter at issue itself.

In the end, the VSPs were very wrong, and hippies and lazy Greeks were right. But the whole point of VSPism is that being wrong has no personal, political, or reputational cost, so the VSPs remain in charge, and they demand the same austerity as before, and the Greeks can just suck on the machine gun barrel.

102

Harold 07.23.15 at 12:09 am

Henry Farrell (@98) is correct, of course. I don't think either Schäuble or Krugman qualify as VSP, since they are experts (in the case of Krugman) and policy makers, in the case of Schäuble (however wrongheaded), whereas, the VSP tend to be pundits, mediators, gatekeepers, whose job it is to keep the discussion within the limits desired by powerful people. Who was it that said that they are very serious about their careers and totally crazy about their policies - or maybe that was very realistic about their careers and crazy in their policies? Or perhaps that was the US foreign policy establishment. It applies to their enablers and hangers on, as well, in any case.
103

politicalfootball 07.23.15 at 12:12 am

Contra Salem, criticism of Syriza's strategy was never a Very Serious position. I don't think anybody except Salem in this thread ever suggested that Daniel was Very Serious about Syriza, and if someone did, he or she would join Salem in being wrong.

Among prominent commentators, Krugman was one of the most vocal in support of Syriza taking a hard line. And as we know, Krugman is given to labeling people VSPs. However, he never labeled the opposing view Very Serious, because it obviously wasn't. His critique of the anti-Syriza position was entirely distinct from his criticism of VSPs.

Now as it happens, some chronic purveyors of Very Serious arguments in the Euro were also anti-Syriza. But that's irrelevant. Just because one promotes a Very Serious line in some contexts doesn't mean that one does so always.

104

Kurt Schuler 07.23.15 at 12:22 am

So (#1, 2, 4, 9, 28, 38, 88), a Harvard Ph.D. who holds a named chair at a big university and has written more than a dozen books is a hack, while no-name posters of comments on a fringe blog have the world all figured out. I'm glad to have had this lesson on the intellectual standards of Crooked Timber's readers. Its writers deserve a better audience.
105

Cian 07.23.15 at 12:35 am

Surely the key characteristic of VSP is their pomposity. Charles Pooter would have made an excellent VSP.
106

Jason Smith 07.23.15 at 12:35 am

@ Kurt Schuler #104

This Phd agrees that Cowen is a hack regardless of his credentials. His blog should be called Disingenuous Economics Reasoning Revolution.

There are two cases in the past week on the blog where the assumption is made of sufficient market power by labor to negotiate one's full marginal product as a wage when that assumption is well known to be false in most cases. He's supposed to be an economics professor and he's making a disingenuous argument.

http://informationtransfereconomics.blogspot.com/2015/07/implicit-models-minimum-wage-and.html

107

ogmb 07.23.15 at 12:40 am

Henry @ 98

I think Schäuble might not be a VSP because he yields actual power rather than just a bully pulpit and his demeanor is just as prickly as Krugman's. Other than that… If VSPism is the perception that some people have more influence on the public debate than their intellectual investment should allow them to I don't think the objections that a. Schäuble is a smart guy and b. He's driving an overarching agenda let him off the hook. He's a lawyer by training, he has no qualification or professional track record as a macroeconomist or even a banker, yet apparently he is given to (much dreaded) lengthy financial pronouncements during cabinet meetings. Now Germany is in this paradoxical situation that it is an economic powerhouse but an economics third world country, so you have this guy at the helm who has negligible domain knowledge, but rides on the twin false authorities of his formal position and the economic performance of the country he represents to implement policies which demonstrably fail to achieve the stated goals, and moreover is completely immune to empirical counterevidence. For me that's the textbook version of a VSP.

108

politicalfootball 07.23.15 at 12:43 am

Sebastian – here I imagine that PK and many others would disagree with me, but I don't think that e.g. Wolfgang Schaueble is a Very Serious Person in the common sense of the word. I think he's highly intelligent, has a big vision of how the EU ought to be that departs from the German conventional wisdom in some crucial respects, and is horribly wrong in his belief that the means he is using will help create the end that he's after.

I think this is a variant of the error by Salem that I previously identified. I think the problem is built right into the nomenclature: Very Serious Person is really meant to apply not to a person, but to Very Serious Arguments.

Schauble, like every other Very Serious Person, takes positions that are not Very Serious, even if we decide that they are obviously wrong. So when Schauble advocates expansionary austerity during a Depression, he's a Very Serious Person. But if he thinks forcing Greece out of the Euro will be good for the Euro in the long run, he's just wrong (or he's right, if you prefer) but not Very Serious.

To offer even more nuance, I'd propose that everybody thought Colin Powell was a Very Serious Person in the runup to the Iraq War. Turns out he was just a liar, which is a different thing.

It's inevitable that guys like Schauble are going to get stuck with the Very Serious Person label, though. It's like the old joke that ends, "But you fuck one pig …"

109

john c. halasz 07.23.15 at 12:45 am

@104:

Great! An argument from authority, based on Hahvard no less. And ignoring the prime funding sources of the "big university", where he gets his salary and the leisure to author his books.

110

Cian 07.23.15 at 12:46 am

#104 @Kurt Schuler

I think the Harvard PhD is being judged for his glib blog, rather than his position at a Koch industries supported economics department.

111

MPAVictoria 07.23.15 at 12:48 am

@Jason: His recent statements in support of Jeb Bush's claim that he can achieve 4% GDP growth by slashing taxes and getting rid of unneeded (and unnamed, always unnamed!) regulations are also spectacularly hackish.
112

Lee A. Arnold 07.23.15 at 12:48 am

Regardless of whether Schäuble is a VSP, he should be ashamed of himself. He should apologize and resign from his job. He has two flaws: he does not know much about economics, and he cannot be trusted to do the right thing.
113

John Quiggin 07.23.15 at 12:52 am

The discussion of Iraq prompted me to take a look back at my own blog from early 2003. I'd forgotten this, but a key argument advanced by the VSPs for going to war in March 2003, rather than waiting until the UN weapons inspections were completed, was that would be too hot for US forces to wait out the summer in Kuwait.

Now that's Serious!

114

Jason Smith 07.23.15 at 1:10 am

@MPAVictoria #111

Ha! That's another one that brought out the hacktastic

http://informationtransfereconomics.blogspot.com/2015/06/mathiness-is-next-to-growthiness-4.html

@Kurt #104 … BTW, that's another PhD that brings the hack when needed, albeit from lowly public ivy Berkeley

115

P O'Neill 07.23.15 at 1:14 am

One problem with the Cowen post is that he's taken the VSP concept, which is broad, and tried to shoehorn in a loose definition of ordoliberalism, or at least a Lutheran Macro Ethic, into it. So the way he lays it out, it doesn't fit Iraq at all.

Anyway, as Henry says, the VSP phenomenon is as much about a support base as it it about individuals. The VSP has a close relative in Davos Man, and that highlights a crucial aspect of being a VSP - it's lucrative. The public relations side of the VSP complex has a nice gig in globe-trotting media (it's no coincidence that one of the Moustache's other nicknames is Air Miles) and there's a constellation of rolling news and business channels which will give regular airtime to these people (think about the regulars on CNN International … "in association with"). Another dimension is the academics. I think David Brooks (yes, I know) got this part right with his status-income disequilibrium concept - the high finance types and the professors have a symbiotic relationship, even if makes it both of them uncomfortable in certain ways.

Finally, let's say the DFHs were right about Iraq but would have been wrong about other stuff. The 2003 invasion is such a monumental disaster that the DFHs would have had to be really, really wrong about something else to balance the ledger. As it happens, I think that the DFHs are wrong about Syria (i.e. in their opposition to US intervention) but the risks to intervention are so large and the legacy of previous mistakes so costly that it's not obvious how to make the case against the DFH instinct on this one.

116

T 07.23.15 at 1:51 am

Kurt Schuler @104

A ranking of top academic economists commonly used in the profession, based on citations, can be found here: https://ideas.repec.org/top/top.person.all.html

While Tyler Cowen isn't in the top 10% of the profession, John Quiggin of CT fame is rated in the top 1% (355), slightly ahead of Piketty for a name non-economists would be familiar with.

Tyler is a profound hack pretty much always working backward from the conclusion. But it's worth checking the site on occasion to see what Tyler/Koch is worried about. The relentless posts on Piketty made it pretty clear that Tyler/Koch thought this inequality thing might be a problem. Same with the new literature linking inequality to lower growth. These guys are playing the long game and it's Tyler's job to keep pushing the Overton window to the right. And besides, there is good money to be had as a toady to Koch.

117

MPAVictoria 07.23.15 at 1:57 am

I don't think Kurt is coming back guys. He dropped his turd and left.
118

dsquared 07.23.15 at 2:24 am

Could people not, even in jest, discuss murdering me please? I suppose it's slightly wimpy of me to object to it, but I find it does rather unsettle me. I hope it's not too much of a request to make.
119

Layman 07.23.15 at 2:45 am

"Could people not, even in jest, discuss murdering me please?"

Certainly. It was not my suggestion, and not one I'd ever consider making, and I should have made that more clear in my response.

120

geo 07.23.15 at 2:48 am

Very sorry, dsquared.
121

ZM 07.23.15 at 2:57 am

"Could people not, even in jest, discuss murdering me please? I suppose it's slightly wimpy of me to object to it, but I find it does rather unsettle me. I hope it's not too much of a request to make."

At least no one has written songs sucking out the blood of your life like vampires and then referencing your interests in your internet comments in their film clips too, exacerbating your affective disorder that they are responsible for. Angel Olsen's record company doesn't respond to complaints either, although I bought some of their earliest releases, she did come in late in the piece though, even later than Joanna Newsom and I have happily have managed to escape ever seeing her in real life so she can't hurt me like Joanna Newsim and the woman from The Tenniscoats, this is easy since I just stopped going to concerts after 2006. I saw Joanna Newsom and The Tenniscoats in late 2005.

122

Dr. Hilarius 07.23.15 at 3:23 am

Being a VSP greatly hinges on being accepted into that guild by other VSPs. Once admitted, you are almost immune from awkward questions about having been wrong about nearly everything.

Henry Kissinger is still sought out as an authority on foreign policy. Questions about war crimes or violations of the Logan Act never seem to come up. Dick Cheney is asked for his opinions on ISIS. Nobody has thrown cream pies into the faces of Paul Wolfowitz or Douglas Feith. And on it goes.

The rise of VSP goes along with the decline of independent journalism. I recall reading a piece by Gay Talese, saying that the best reporters came from blue-collar backgrounds with a deep skepticism of authority. Post-Watergate came a crop of reporters who wanted to be part of the milieu they covered; embedded journalists who can't bring themselves to be rude to people they dine with.

123

Harold 07.23.15 at 3:36 am

Didn't Friedman get pied? Doesn't seem to have discouraged him.
124

Omega Centauri 07.23.15 at 4:13 am

John @113. That was one of the tricksy things from the war's supporters, (that it could force inspections short of war). The reality was that once a significant investment was made moving war materials to theater, it became unthinkable to not follow through. Unthinkable, because imagine how bad the administration would have looked if they'd had to say "oops, no cause to invade, so sorry to have spend so many taxpayer dollars for nuthin".
125

Norwegian Guy 07.23.15 at 4:17 am

To quote J.M. Keynes, "Worldly wisdom teaches that it is better for reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally.".
126

None 07.23.15 at 4:19 am

#104 – "a Harvard Ph.D. who holds a named chair at a big university and has written more than a dozen books"

Oh, the irony … Cowen's blog is overfull of comments calling Krugman all kinds of names. Last I checked Krugman is a Nobel prize winning Ph.d with a chair at an even bigger univ -- Cowen's audience is exactly the one he deserves.

127

Joe M 07.23.15 at 4:19 am

Friedman's support of the Iraq invasion was a remarkable study of … something. VSP doesn't quite get it.

I think he actually wrote something to the effect of, "The Bush Administration's reasons for the war are nonsense, but it's still a good idea because X." OK, silly so far, but not remarkable.

Where it got remarkable was later, when the war was turning into the CF that it became, and Friedman lamented that the Bush Administration was doing A when it should be doing B (sorry for the algebra), apparently forgetting Clausewitz's maxim that war is policy by other means: the Bush Administration's reasons for the war were not Friedman's; they said so; HE said so.

What basis for outrage did he have over the war not being conducted as he thought it should be conducted, when no one ever pretended that it was being fought for the reasons he thought it should be fought?

128

Sebastian H 07.23.15 at 5:08 am

Politicalfootball makes a good point that we should probably be talking about Very Serious Arguments–and that VSPs are people who make the VSAs in a public and career-enhancing way. This allows for some interesting refinements in the discussion, because then it becomes clear that VSAs have a big element of in-group or tribal identification. So for example, The Bell Curve operates under the same principles as other VSAs but is targeted to proto-racists. I'll admit that I was a full fledged proponent of the VSAs regarding the Iraq war, much to my shame. Which leads to:

"To offer even more nuance, I'd propose that everybody thought Colin Powell was a Very Serious Person in the runup to the Iraq War. Turns out he was just a liar, which is a different thing." Very Serious Arguments are not only highly resistant to the truth, they are also so 'important' that sometimes you think you can get away with small seeming lies to further them.

I'm not actually in Powell's head of course, but I suspect the lie was along the lines of "it is important to go forward with this war, and we probably find evidence of WMD, so why not just say we already have such evidence?".

I largely believe that understanding because if he knew he was faking evidence and didn't believe it would be found, they should have faked the actual evidence on the ground just after the invasion.

Coming back to Greece, the VSA is that Greece can't leave because leaving will be so bad for it. The "you must be a hack" position is that Greece will be crushed down for years and still forced to leave anyway, so why should it take all the additional bad years and still get fucked in the end?

This isn't a new argument, d-squared and various parties, including myself, ran through it years ago here in 2012. There he suggested that they couldn't risk it because they might lose 25% of their GDP if they left the euro. Behold, they lost that anyway, and they didn't trade that pain to be more likely to stay in the euro, they are now less likely.

Similarly he wrote in 271 on that thread in defense of the German/French bank bailouts: "What I meant was that the troika and ECB (and maybe the Greek banking system to an extent) would be the only creditors, and so a writedown on Greek debt would be much easier to negotiate on much easier terms. I'm not interested in what might be necessary for long term debt service in Greece because I don't think anyone is planning that."

But look how that actually played out. When we were talking about the bank bailout, it was clear that the Eurocrats were scared of banking disaster. Now according to d-squared "Syriza proceeded rationally, from a factually false premis – that the Eurogroup was scared of Greek Euro exit. Although some of Varoufakis' documents were a bit amateurish, they had very good advice and were surprisingly orthodox on most policy matters. Their disasters weren't caused by being out of the mainstream or hippy Marxists or anything – they were simply a result of thinking their negotiating position was a lot stronger than it actually was. Once they (finally) realised this, things changed a lot."

All of those arguments seem 1-to-1 mirrors with the Eurocrat arguments all along.

But that doesn't seem to have caused any re-evaluation. The Greeks followed the VSAs. They got hit with the very outcomes that VSPs warned against if the anti-VSA course was taken (25% GDP loss PLUS a worse situation in negotiations). Yet the VSA-Eurocrats continue on as if they were right all along.

The interesting problem is that reality can't be mocked forever. I don't think the Eurocrats have any idea how much damage they just did to the European Union in the last month.

129

dsquared 07.23.15 at 5:53 am

Sebastian:

1) Greece hasn't lost 25% of its GDP since 2012. It's lost slightly less than 8%. (Source:http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/tgm/refreshTableAction.do?tab=table&plugin=1&pcode=tec00001&language=en).

2) when you say "But look how that actually played out", then the answer is " How it actually played out is that in 2013 Greece got a long extension of its maturities, a reduction in its interest rate and a rebate agreement for all profits made by the ESCB on their holdings of Greek bonds under the SMP". This has somewhat more than halved Greece's debt service cost, and in net present value terms is roughly equivalent to a fifty percent face value reduction.

I'm sure I'm wrong on all sorts of things, all the time, but not those two. One might note that we were both very wrong about Italy in that same thread, as we had a big debate premised on the view that the long bond yield there couldn't go all that far below 4.5%!

130

Barkley Rosser 07.23.15 at 6:20 am

Salem,

The only sense in which Syriza was "incompetent" was that it was insufficiently strong to overcome the opposition of the Very Serious and dominant Germans and their allies in northern Europe. Indeed, Cowen has been weirdly way off on all this, completely embarrassing himself with his absurd attempt to somehow justify the VSPs by claiming morality and common sense for them, when what is most important about them is that they are dead wrong and total assholes, as is the case with the execrable German Minister of Finance, Wolfgang Schauble. Sneering at the Syriza leadership for failing to overcome this short-sighted creep is shameful.

It is also the case that in Washington, after the Iraq war the VSPs were most notable for pushing hysteria stories about the US social safety net, particularly its Social Security system. These people, who include many writing on the editorial page of the Washington Post, continue to push this line, even as it becomes sillier and sillier. This is almost a pure signal of VSPishness in Washington, obsessing over that.

I fear that poor Tyler may identify himself too much with the VSPs, and so spends all this effort trying to justify their existence and make them look better than they are.

131

Sebastian H 07.23.15 at 6:21 am

RE: 1) I thought you were talking about the beginning of the forced austerity plans which would be 2010. So you were positing an ADDITIONAL 25% loss if they left the euro? At the time you were positing zero or near zero loss (see quote below) for the VSA plan.

The Italy thing is fascinating to me. Their growth hasn't recovered to what you thought would be necessary (you predicted two percent growth and it currently sits at -1.5%), AND also the yield dropped to levels I would have thought impossible. Which is interesting. Why can Italy roll over its debt so cheaply when the economy is contracting?

But if Germany succeeds in kicking Greece out, isn't there a risk that it becomes a game of the weakest link? Of course I guess Italy isn't next. That would be Spain or Portugal.

You at least willing to back down from "For Greece, there is all the difference in the world between a default agreed, on the basis of sensible negotiations with Euroland government creditors (ie, basically, a pure fiscal transfer) and a disorderly take-it-or-leave-it default right now on private sector debt. My default scenario is actually pretty costless. "?

132

dsquared 07.23.15 at 6:31 am

No come on Barkley:

the opposition of the Very Serious and dominant Germans and their allies in northern Europe.

By the end of the process, Germany had allies in northern, southern, western and eastern Europe. That's the point. It should have been very easy to build a coalition with Spain (still might end up in same place), Italy (desperately needs nominal growth), France (always wants to join a coalition that scores points off Germany, Ireland (had own recent near death experience). It was quite an achievement on the part of Varoufakis to get even the Slovenians to hate him.

This is actually the equivalent of VerySeriousness, by the way. Unlike Tsipras, Varoufakis never needs to change his mind or say sorry – he will be able to go on finding audiences of people to hang on his every word, with their universities paying his speaker-bureau rates, more or less forever. Within a few hours of being fired after the humiliating collapse of his big referendum idea, the PR firm for his book were emailing offering interviews with the "Minister of AWESOME". This really damaged his reputation in Greece, but apparently not in the market that counts.

133

Sebastian H 07.23.15 at 6:49 am

The dynamics with Greece vis-a-vis Spain and Italy are interesting but probably not best analyzed through the VSP lens.

Spain and Italy's national interests clearly lie in having a mechanism where Germany loosens up the monetary policy and allows debt laxity at some point. But it isn't at all clear that it is in the current national interest of the governments of either of those countries to do so. Italy's current government is the beneficiary of the Eurocrat's previous exercise in toppling member governments. The current Spanish government can't let Podemos draw heart from Syriza. So while to outsiders, it would seem that Greece could find natural allies in both of those places, they can't find allies in either of those GOVERNMENTS.

134

Sebastian H 07.23.15 at 6:59 am

Actually I had not stayed up to date on Renzi. Unless I'm misreading things, Syriza should have been able to find some common cause with him. Unless the current mood is more of literal scapegoat–i.e. so long as we can focus on Greece, the focus isn't on us.
135

john c. halasz 07.23.15 at 7:10 am

Not to intrude too much on this illustrious conversation, IIRC most Italian public debt is held by Italians and Italians have a high household savings rate. Just why that is, I haven't a clue, but it must influence the Italian position vis-a-vis the EZ.
136

derrida derider 07.23.15 at 7:24 am

Shorter dsquared on Syriza: what they wanted was morally and economically reasonable but politically impossible. Their not realising that will hurt a lot of Greeks.

That doesn't seem trollish to me. Unlike Salem, who really should be ignored as an obvious troll.

I think we've long lost the point of the OP – that the creation of VSPs is a STRUCTURAL phenomenon. Abuse of individual VSPs (however well merited and personally satisfying) is kinda beside the point.

137

david 07.23.15 at 8:23 am

it is structural, yes, but I don't think it's because of the class affiliations of journalists

rather, it's an intra-party coordination problem, where one coalition has better message discipline than the other. Serious People are more Serious because they can bait out crazy people amongst their opponents to be their apparent representative interlocutor. There are of course non-crazy disagreers, but the non-crazy people cannot gain disciplinary control over the broadly oppositional tent; the crazy people dominate the podium.

e.g., the people who could successfully Seriously oppose the Iraq War had to be people who supported the (broadly endorsed) Afghanistan and Bosnian wars but rejected the idea that Iraq had or would imminently have WMDs, but these people were drowned out by people who opposed all of these wars or had other unacceptable reasons for opposing a war (e.g., support for Iraqi WMDs, unproved wild claims of Cheneylliburton/theocon/etc conspiracies). In the meanwhile, the public lives in the confused impression that Iraq had something to do with Afghanistan, or some other even more preposterous confabulation.

We cannot hope for salvation through democratic mulishness here, I think; the failure of democratic deliberation does not stem from too few views but too many views – the Loyal Opposition is deprived of a workable stance to rally around. To obtain sensible criticism of a war during the inspection crisis, all a politically-engaged citizen had to do was to open a web browser; this was hardly samizdat. It is organization around a focal point that was lacking.

Krugman moving from Slate to NYT is a triumph as such ideological wars go; these podiums matter.

138

Roger Gathman 07.23.15 at 9:58 am

104 makes a good albeit unconscious point. The sv pis very much related to "professionalization" – the imposition of disciplinary norms that took place approximately after WWII and that reconfigured the human sciences and the media. Where once the interested amateur could roam, the new norms inverted the relationship between content and credentials. In some ways, this did create a more democratic environment, with the massive increase in college students. At the same it led to a sort of credential-protection that was extremely bad. The bright young systems men who led us into the catastrophe in Vietnam are a case in point – they were fighting amateurs. Giap would never have made it at rand. that rank mouthbreathing blog commentors would be more correct than Harvard trained foreign policy analyst ( who happened to have no knowledge o Arabic or Iraqi society in any sense, much less any tacit knowledge) makes those with positions depending on the credentialing system breathess with rage, in the same way journalists couldn't believe they could be plunked by bloggers.
139

Lee A. Arnold 07.23.15 at 10:11 am

David #137: "It is organization around a focal point that was lacking."

There was also lots of money, seeking to frighten and confuse the harried and nescient.

In the US at this very moment there is a huge ad-buy on daytime cable TV urging viewers to call Congress to defeat the Iran deal. I just watched it on the tube in a hospital waiting room.

140

david 07.23.15 at 10:16 am

Giap would probably have made it at RAND; he certainly succeeded at the French colonial academic system

RAND provided both analysts who predicted imminent Viet Cong collapse (Leon Goure) and analysts who recommended withdrawal (Konrad Kellen). Kellen even wrote a letter (along with five other RAND analysts, including Daniel Ellsberg) to the NYT. As this BBC Magazine article acidly observes

So Kellen stood up and said that Goure was wrong, that the Vietcong were not giving up and were not demoralised. It was not, he said, a battle the US could win – not today, not tomorrow and not the day after tomorrow.

Nothing happened. Goure had cocktail parties and entertained visiting dignitaries and helicopters whisked him off to aircraft carriers, and Kellen wrote long, detailed reports that were ignored and then forgotten. The war went on and things got worse and worse.

This seems apropos to the discussion of what, structurally speaking, promotes viewpoints to the VSP.

141

Roger Gathmann 07.23.15 at 10:46 am

140 – I am not saying Rand produced only hawks. You have a good point. But what got through to the public was surely the technocratic can-do side, which, in the public arena, was pitched against the amateurs, the anti-war crowd that didn't "understand" the issues and were romantics. Or in fact hippies. Those whose only expertise, in fact, depended on certain imaginative truths – like the truth that other people imagine and believe other things. And those other people in other collectivities often imagine and believe things that seem either repellent, childish, or not serious to the American or Western technocrat or journalist.
I'll use my favorite example here: one of the remarkable aspects of reporting on the Iraq war was the extraordinary place given to Chalabi. As people who spoke arabic and talked to amateur, everyday Iranians were very aware, Chalabi was popularly thought of as a thief. For Americans, it was a mere debating point whether the bank Chalabi ran in Jordan was undone by Chalabi's corruption or something else. For the Iraqis, many of whom lost money in the collapse of that bank, it was something else. But the popular feeling about Chalabi was so ignored by the journalists that, in the election of 2006, the NYT regularly reported that Chalabi was certainly one of the frontrunners, and a candidate for the presidency. Of course, the end result was that Chalabi's party garnered a solid 1 percent or so. Did this cause any rethinking? No. Dexter Filkins, in his memoir, did, in passing, mention that maybe journalists relied too much on Iraqis who could speak English. Well, duh. VSP behavior and groupthink are, of course, part of the same thing. The amateur is often deviant, wrong, a wanker, a balding celibate who can't hold a job, etc. Both liberals and conservatives love that image. Yet the amateur is often the one who sees the enormous hole in the discourse – a hole that there is a tacit agreement not to look at. For instance, the enormous hole in the discourse at the beginning of the Iraq war that it was going to be a tight little thing, ending with the fall of Saddam Hussein, instead of a big baggy thing, beginning a new and more amorphous phase after the fall of Saddam Hussein. It is amazing, looking back, how the war discussion was bookended.
Or, to dial up to the Greek crisis – the notion that the EU and IMF were "solving" the crisis in 2010 by substituting public money, taxpayer money, for the private debts owed by the Greek government should have led to fundamental political questions – because at this point the EU began to stoke nationalism, rather than temper it. For fucking obvious reasons. Yet I can remember no extended discussion of this. Similarly, though I am sympathetic to Krugman et al, one of the blindspots in their discourse is why, with all the pernicious things the EU currency does, it is so popular even among those who it is objectively hurting, in Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, etc. It isn't as if the people are brainwashed – or at least I find that suggestion rather stupid. But there is little discussion of the reasons for the level of support at all. I would think here one would want data – more than mere surveys, something ethnographically richer. But where is that data, or the call for it?
142

Peter Dorman 07.23.15 at 10:49 am

I realize I'm entering this discussion rather late, which means I shouldn't say anything fundamental, but what the hell. I disagree with all the definitions of VSP, in the OP, on this thread, and Tyler Cowen's.

What we need is a definition that makes sense of sanctimonious hawkishness in foreign policy (e.g. Iraq), hostility to Keynesianism in economics (austerity) and hostility to the welfare state in social policy (Social Security, including its disability component). VSP's give at least two cheers for sweatshops and think cultural and personality flaws harm minorities more than discrimination. What could tie all of this together?

I propose the following: all systems of hierarchy and power derive stability from some combination of force and legitimacy. Legitimacy in the modern world comes from the benefits the non-rich and non-powerful majority derive from the existing order. Broadly speaking, the peace-and-prosperity stuff and the welfare state are the basis for legitimacy claims.

The VSP faction is the one which says that the carrots are corrupting and don't get the job done; we need the stick. The international order requires war. Economic indiscipline will be cured by austerity and less buffering from welfare state programs. The poor and vulnerable are the victims of their own shortcomings and should not be given handouts or special protections. Debtors must pay the price for their foolish ways. The soft-hearted who think that order and progress can be based on generosity and trust are deluded and unserious. There is a time for discipline, and this time is now.

There is nothing intrinsic to VSP-ness that requires it to be wrong in an objective sense, although it happens to be wrong a lot more often than right in the world we are actually in. What makes it contemptible is (a) its unquestioning affiliation with wealth and power and (b) its moralization of the hard-soft dichotomy such that humanitarianism (concern for the unemployed or victims of war) is viewed as weakness, while a willingness, even eagerness, to exercise force and prevent the sharing of economic resources is seen as the sign that one deserves to be taken seriously.

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RJL 07.23.15 at 11:20 am

Some thoughts on the structural features of the VSP.

The VSP is intended first of all to appear as a neutral arbiter, which is why politicians like Colin Powell do not count. We know the pundit might lean a certain way, but their facade of neutrality is maintained by plucking the low-hanging fruit of easy friendly-fire criticisms.

The purpose of the VSP is to be a locus of trust. This is important for news organisations.

Trust requires two competing qualities: a) the appearance of knowledge, b) recognisibility.

For the VSP to enjoy trust, they must be widely recognised and regularly visible. This demands they speak often about widely different topics, which conflicts with the demand for actual knowledge-the more disparate the topics they speak on, the less expertise they can have. But the more expertise one has, the less regularly one can appear (if one is limited to one's area of expertise).

To give the appearance of knowledge, news organisations could have 20, 30, 40 experts on various topics, but they would not enjoy recognisability, and so not enjoy immediate trust.

The VSP is a cipher onto which the viewer projects themselves. They are trustworthy because, the viewer thinks, they are like me, and come to the judgements I would come to if I had time to research the issues myself. Since I do not, I am happy to agree with the VSP.

News organisations know they do not, and are happy to supply the viewer with a pre-approved opinion.

The VSP cannot therefore be too smart-they must be 'normal' eough to be plausibly aspirational for the middle-class viewer who thinks they represent slightly-better-than-average commensense morality.

Experts can afford to be ambivalent in delivering judgements, because their ambivalence seems to come from a nuanced and intimate understanding of the issue. Ambivalent generalists just seem…uninformed.

The VSP is a generalist and so cannot afford to appear ambivalent.

Since the VSP has no actual expertise they must seem to be knowledgeable, but must also supplement their meagre knowledge with the air of certainty and conviction.

Conviction convinces.

Thus, the VSP cannot admit to having made a mistake.

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Lee A. Arnold 07.23.15 at 12:07 pm

Peter Dorman #142: "What we need is a definition that makes sense of sanctimonious hawkishness… and hostility… I propose… some combination of force and legitimacy."

Political science has been pointing to a good definition, using hard polling data, for some time now. I attempted a brief collation from the literature under a John Quiggin post almost exactly one year ago, here:
http://crookedtimber.org/2014/07/17/condemned-by-history-crosspost/#comment-543475

Thus it is KNOWN what the definition is, from solid research: The basics are in individual management of "risk perception", which is considered to be an objective psychological existent. This includes the existential fear of death. Force and legitimacy are merely the results, not the cause (although often, they are severe results).

This is intimately involved in the current psychology of money, which was formulated in about 600 B.C. when the ancient Greeks (ironically, given the modern Euro's problems) combined their previous tribal function of ritual status objects with the function of accounting markers borrowed from the Mesopotamian grain-storage accounts (via the Phoenician traders).

This symbiosis also emerged independently in other areas; in Asia for example.

The combination of two functions turned out to be explosive, for the individual management of risk perception.

Among other fallouts, there immediately came about the widespread notion that a person should repay his or her debts across all forms of transaction in order to maintain the status of being a trustworthy member of the new commercial society - something which Tyler Cowen includes in his list of the propositions of "common sense morality", under number 3.

We should step back and moment and note that the general form of this social cognitive bias happens on the Right and on the Left: people refer to the opinions of their in-group, have kneejerk reactions to scientific discoveries, etc.

But the outbursts are very salient on the Right in this era. The next question (to some of these political scientists) is, why? The answer appears to be that, for the Right (and for the current VSP's) the individual management of risk is intimately combined with "System justification", BY DEFINITION. Whereas the Left is usually against the System.

And the System itself is now cracking by its own logic. That is putting the Right under special pressure. After about 2500 years, and after the last 100 years of war and other distractions, the System itself is falling under serious questions: How is this going to work? Can these debts actually BE repaid? If we make a non-austerity jubilee, how does the expectation of debt-responsibility continue, after that? How can private investors keep the economy going if a surfeit of capital drives rates below profitable ROI, and if the resulting lower-productivity jobs for most people will prevent them from paying the required return to keep the wheels turning further? Etc. etc.

In regard to this profound sea-change in human social thought, I think that David Graeber (in Debt: the First 5000 Years) was headed in the right direction, although he barely treated the central issue of the new challenge to the ancient social psychology of debt.

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Minnow 07.23.15 at 1:01 pm

"Shorter dsquared on Syriza: what they wanted was morally and economically reasonable but politically impossible. Their not realising that will hurt a lot of Greeks."

If that is a fair summary, it makes dsquared a Very Serious Person in Cowen's definition.

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Alex 07.23.15 at 1:14 pm

a rebate agreement for all profits made by the ESCB on their holdings of Greek bonds under the SMP

Not one cent of which has been paid.

147

Alex 07.23.15 at 1:15 pm

Also, does anyone know if Cowen has stopped claiming that Fairtrade bans tractors?
148

MPAVictoria 07.23.15 at 1:35 pm

D2 I am curious whether at this point you think it would have been better for Greece to leave the Euro back at the start of this mess?
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politicalfootball 07.23.15 at 1:37 pm

145: I don't think that's right.

As best as I can reckon, Cowen is talking about trusting elites even when we know they are deliberately lying. This is because Cowen himself identifies with the Very Serious, and wants to explain his own conduct. (Yes, the Very Serious promote ridiculous beliefs, Cowen tells us, but they really know better and they only do this because they are responding to political necessity.)

Cowen isn't trying to define Very Serious behavior. He's trying to justify it.

So let's take this statement again:

[O]n Syriza: what they wanted was morally and economically reasonable but politically impossible. Their not realising that will hurt a lot of Greeks."

I think Cowen would agree with Krugman that this is not a VSP position. The actual VSP position would be: Leaving aside politics, Syriza's desire to end austerity is economically counterproductive.

The reason the Very Serious make this argument (per Cowen) is that Syriza's desires are politically impossible, and therefore the correctness of Syriza's argument must not be acknowledged. In other words, the Very Serious are right, even when they make factually incorrect statements.

Krugman would argue that Very Serious epistemology doesn't involve making a serious investigation into the facts at all, but rather is a function of parroting the elite consensus.

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Donald Johnson 07.23.15 at 2:03 pm

"But presenting an alternate explanation is all that such a poster desires. (This is a method of authoritarian control according to Altemeyer.) The appearance of reasonable discussion is the goal; s(he) wants to move the discussion from reality to theory. Add on some civility policing and the poster is now able to control the direction of the discussion."

Thanks. I may have to memorize this and quote it in future threads. (Seems easier than reading Altemeyer, but maybe I should do that too.) I've seen this behavior when playing my usual role of random Chomskyian ranting about some Western atrocity, but couldn't have described it so succinctly. That part about moving the discussion from reality to theory hadn't occurred to me in those terms, but it's dead right. As for control, another aspect is that the poster will usually take advantage of any intellectual honesty on the DFH side-for instance, the willingness to admit that that yes, both sides in a given conflict have committed atrocities as a matter of policy. This becomes universal agreement that the Enemy is guilty, but it's an open question whether we are.

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Donald Johnson 07.23.15 at 2:10 pm

Oh, Altemeyer. I have read him a little bit, just didn't remember the name.
152

Minnow 07.23.15 at 2:40 pm

@149: "As best as I can reckon, Cowen is talking about trusting elites even when we know they are deliberately lying."

Cowen defines Very Serious People as:

[Those who] realize that common sense morality must, to a considerable extent, rule politics [even though common sense morality will very often be wrong].

That seems to be dsquared's position: despite it being quite wrong , the 'common sense morality' of the German electorate is just a fact of life that Syriza should have understood and accepted as a fact of life. Cowen says such morality demands (among other things) 'repayment of debts, savings, and hard work'.

It seems to me that dsquared is a Very Serious Person to the hilt by that definition at least.

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bianca steele 07.23.15 at 2:43 pm

pf@149: Very Serious epistemology doesn't involve making a serious investigation into the facts at all, but rather is a function of parroting the elite consensus.

This assumes the elite consensus can be distinguished from "Truth". (Foucault might have something to say about this.) The problem with the structuralist description of the OP is that it explains why elite consensus is, and has to be, indistinguishable from Truth, without offering an alternative. It explains how the VSPs and their defenders had to become VSPs or, effectively, perish.

Well, okay, to be fair, it offers "democracy". But it doesn't explain how democracy is outside those structural problems, and given point (1), it doesn't seem it is.

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bianca steele 07.23.15 at 2:46 pm

That should be point (2).
155

Donald A. Coffin 07.23.15 at 2:54 pm

Thank you for articulating so clearly what I felt, but had trouble making clear even to myself, about Cowen's really weird post.
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Bruce Baugh 07.23.15 at 2:55 pm

Inevitably, when I think of Very Serious People and their favored language, I come back to this vintage Doonesbury cartoon. "I said, 'Look, Martha, here come the bombs.'"
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kidneystones 07.23.15 at 3:58 pm

Hooray Henry! Koch Konspiracy Tales within the first two comments! Sweet Jebuz that brings tears to my eyes. Yo, Barry, what's the difference between a Very Serious Person, like Brooks, and a axe-grinder who wants everyone to take accept her or his pet theories as absolute fact? Not, too much, except that Brooks has a real audience and gets a real paycheck for spouting his hooey and a much bigger audience than "I mean it! God damn it!"

Thanks for the wonderful set-up. There are certainly some very vocal people on the intranets who want/need to be taken seriously. Mercifully, most of the people I meet in real life are modest, in that they're quite open about their weak points. They take parts of their lives very seriously, and other parts not so much.

They absolutely do not believe that anyone or anything is taking over any part of our society. Guess that makes them pretty bad and pretty dumb, huh?

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dsquared 07.23.15 at 4:00 pm

#146 no I don't think that is right either – eg €1.5bn was transferred on 31 July 2013. (Source: http://www.efsf.europa.eu/mediacentre/news/2013/efsf-disburses-2.5-billion-to-greece.htm)

You're right that the SMP rebate has been subject to the same conditions as the rest of the program and that this has led to a lot of uncertainty and heel dragging, but it is real money.

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dsquared 07.23.15 at 4:18 pm

I'd tentatively advance a suggestion that often, what makes Very Serious people serious is a perception of vigour, courage and/or aggression (surely, for example, if it wasn't for his war record, people would have noticed that John McCain is an actual halfwit much earlier). So it's not coincidental that it's "pro-war" that is the very serious side. The absolute tell of Very Seriousness is some form of "We can't just go on like this". (One of my uncles identified the sentence "The status quo is no longer an option" as "the leper's bell of the modern managerial idiot).

This was one of the things that bugged me about Varoufakis – it's considered unserious and petty to object to all the leather jacket and motorbike stuff, but actually in my experience, when someone's keen to be seen as a macho, it's worth keeping an eye on them because they're probably going to make a load of other awful decisions. From America to Israel to your local pub, people who want to project an image of manly vigour and dynamism are bloody trouble and should not get anything like the respect they demand for themselves.

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William Timberman 07.23.15 at 4:29 pm

Roger Gathman @ 141

Well said, all of it. It's nice to see a proper defense of finance-ministers-who-ride-motorcycles which doesn't involve (metaphorically?) calling for dsquared's head. Bless you also for ignoring the interminable technical analysis of VSP-ism for a bit, and for locating the place where new things under the sun emerge in the imagination, without making the usual cringing apologies for doing so.

I do wonder, though…. Must we really ask why the Euro is popular among Europeans, or why they're only now discovering the horrors that can result from having your debts denominated in what is effectively a foreign currency? The only reason for asking the weak why they aren't strong, it seems to me, is to grant us license to insult them. If we've already beaten them up and taken all their stuff, why do we still feel the need?

161

engels 07.23.15 at 4:36 pm

Henry, thanks for the correction. I didn't know anything about Harry's, Maria's or your positions. At the risk of violating the First Rule of Holes, I think what I must have had in mind was
1 John (and Belle?) pro-invasion
2 Daniel iirc anti-this-war-now (ie. anti- actual invasion, pro- hypothetical Kerry-led invasion)
3 Chris iirc wrote articles advocating 'just' war in Afghanistan though not Iraq
4. I have an impression of general disappproval at the time directed towards anti-war bloggers like like Louis Proyect, writers like Chomsky, Cockburn, Perry Anderson, and organisations like Stop the War and commenters like abb1 (could be wrong again about this and obviouslythere might have been other reasons for it)
5. Posts after the war started along the lines of 'I didn't agree with this beforehand but now it's started we support the troops, hope for a swift American victory' (not saying there's anything wrong with this, just that it's an 'anti-hippie' position)

But I was certainly dead wrong to have got the impression that the site was 'mostly pro-war' – apologies, and thanks for correcting me.

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Layman 07.23.15 at 4:40 pm

Following on dsquared @ 159, any VSP wannabe must propose policies which cause other people pain. It is this sober, serious, regretful willingness to sacrifice the well-being of others, in the name of adult problem-solving, which is to me the hallmark of VSPism. We must cut social security and Medicare now so we don't have to cut them later. We must bomb Syria in order to save Syrians. We must let people loose their homes because moral hazard. We're the adults, so we must look forward, not backward.

Oddly enough, Varoufakis doesn't fit into that mold at all, so I don't know what that bit is about.

163

politicalfootball 07.23.15 at 4:43 pm

152: I think you misunderstand Cowen here. In this sentence, he's not defining VSP behavior; he's explaining it:

[Those who] realize that common sense morality must, to a considerable extent, rule politics [even though common sense morality will very often be wrong].

Per Cowen, someone could have this realization but not engage in VSP behavior at all.

VSP behavior – Krugman and Cowen agree – is defined by its obvious inaccuracy. The VSP formulation was designed to address a paradox: Why do informed people say they believe things that no informed person could believe?

Cowen says they don't really believe these things. They are just engaging in necessary dishonesty.

Now let's apply that to this statement:

despite it being quite wrong , the 'common sense morality' of the German electorate is just a fact of life that Syriza should have understood and accepted as a fact of life.

This isn't a VSP statement by Cowen's definition because it's not obviously wrong.

Krugman, for example, has been clear for a long time that the German electorate's position wasn't likely to change and Syriza should plan accordingly. Neither Cowen nor Krugman would label Krugman a VSP for holding that belief.

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politicalfootball 07.23.15 at 4:48 pm

Oddly enough, Varoufakis doesn't fit into that mold at all, so I don't know what that bit is about.

Right or wrong, Varoufakis was calling for a considerable amount of pain for the Greek people.

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engels 07.23.15 at 4:55 pm

It is this sober, serious, regretful willingness to sacrifice the well-being of others, in the name of adult problem-solving, which is to me the hallmark of VSPism.

Some economists, and The Economist's, favourite cliche always used to be 'belt-tightening'. Yep, driving children into poverty, unemployed people out on the street and disabled people to suicide is analogised to a fat middle-aged man going on a diet.

166

Layman 07.23.15 at 5:00 pm

"Right or wrong, Varoufakis was calling for a considerable amount of pain for the Greek people."

As opposed to the considerable amount of pain for the Greek people he was explicitly rejecting?

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dsquared 07.23.15 at 5:38 pm

Oddly enough, Varoufakis doesn't fit into that mold at al

Euro exit would certainly fit that; Varoufakis has much more opportunities to earn hard currency than your average Greek person. The promise of "this may be a disaster in the short term, and it certainly might look like it's creating an opportunity for oligarchs to buy up valuable assets for cheap, but once all the pain is over we will be in the sunlit uplands" was the whole selling point.

Even the "my super negotiating strategy might look like it's destroying the economy and threatening a currency crisis, but we are about to get major concessions from the troika. Real soon. Any minute now. They're about to crumble. Just need to show a bit more will and force. Whoops, now I'm off to my island to give a few interviews about how we didn't go in hard enough" was of a piece.

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MPAVictoria 07.23.15 at 5:38 pm

"Some economists, and The Economist's, favourite cliche always used to be 'belt-tightening'. Yep, driving children into poverty, unemployed people out on the street and disabled people to suicide is analogised to a fat middle-aged man going on a diet."

This +1000

169

dsquared 07.23.15 at 5:40 pm

As opposed to the considerable amount of pain for the Greek people he was explicitly rejecting?

I remember very vividly from the early stages of the Iraq War that its supporters not only made a big deal about how only they were planning to liberate the Iraqi people from the intolerable tortures of Saddam Hussein, but often tried to claim that you didn't care about them or even supported Saddam if you ever tried to raise the possibility that the cure was going to be worse than the disease.

170

Layman 07.23.15 at 5:48 pm

'Even the "my super negotiating strategy might look like it's destroying the economy and threatening a currency crisis, but we are about to get major concessions from the troika. '

I think you need to distinguish between being a VSP and simply being wrong about something. Didn't you earlier say that Varoufakis' proposals were sound, but that he misjudged his leverage in the negotiation?

I get that you don't like his style. So what? His proposals were sound, but his motorbike and lack of tie irritated the bankers. Who's the VSP in that circumstance?

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dsquared 07.23.15 at 5:56 pm

Didn't you earlier say that Varoufakis' proposals were sound, but that he misjudged his leverage in the negotiation?

That was the strategic failing. It was excerbated by the tactical failing of putting someone who is probably the least appropriate man in Greece for a sensitive diplomatic role. I think the overall Syriza strategy was sound but mistaken, but Varoufakis himself deserves a lot of criticism for not taking things seriously, not listening to people who were telling him things were going wrong.

Also it's not just a matter of "his motorbike and lack of tie irritated the bankers". He told the Italians they were insolvent, made Nazi jokes to the Germans, got in shouting matches with Dijsselbloem, kept leaking documents and calling other people liars … it was just the worst job/person fit available.

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politicalfootball 07.23.15 at 6:12 pm

As opposed to the considerable amount of pain for the Greek people he was explicitly rejecting?

On this specific question, I'm not too far from dsquared, but I'm considerably more sympathetic to Varoufakis, and so at the risk of a little redundancy, I'll venture an answer.

Varoufakis was proposing a considerable amount of guaranteed, immediate pain in exchange for an uncertain result in a complex situation. (Sound familiar?)

I'm not Greek, but it was my opinion in the long run that the majority of Greeks are likely to be better off when they heed Varoufakis and walk away from the Euro. The majority of Greeks, however, plainly don't want to take that path, and under Layman's rule of VSPs (which I endorse), I think it's a particularly egregious violation for me (or Varoufakis) to advocate a position whose adoption would cost me nothing and cause considerable pain to the people who actually have something on the line.

It has certainly shaken my confidence in Varoufakis that he doesn't appear to have mapped out any serious plan for Grexit. (I wonder if he withdrew all of his own money from the Greek banks.) The idea that you can embark on a radical strategy without significant planning and just have everything turn out okay, well, that sort of thinking ought to be very familiar to you if you're an American.

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Tom V 07.23.15 at 6:18 pm

Shorter Peter Dornan @ 142

John Kenneth Galbraith: "The modern conservative is engaged in one of man's oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness."

The essence of VSPism!

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Sebastian H 07.23.15 at 6:50 pm

The interesting thing about the banker's off the hook, debtors not, Greek problem is that it has VSP tendencies from multiple directions at multiple times in the crisis.

1. 2010: VSP lefties and some more libertarian rightys want to say "No bailout" because the risks of no bailout mostly don't fall on them, and they can take the tough on banks look.

1a. VSP can also say "Greece should have exited then", which would have been an enormous gamble and which might have paid off but then again the down side would be on Greece. They are dismissed as idiots, because it is too much of a risk and the EU will fix things eventually.

Actual outcome, banks got bailed out, private investors learned that they don't need to be careful about loaning to euro countries (see currently low Italian and Spanish yields) sowing the seeds for the next eurozone sovereign lending crisis. But on the other hand, we didn't have a world crushing banking crisis in 2010, so that is good.

Outcome for Greece: crushing austerity measures and enormous GDP loss.

2. 2012, Greek GDP has cratered under the watchful eye of the troika. VSP who don't have to worry about actual Greek suffering suggest that more belt tightening is needed because austerity leads to growth. (Yes I know that VSP have mostly abandoned that frame now, but now is three years later. This absolutely was the frame then). This is a VSA which was already known to be wrong, but not yet abandoned by the political decision makers.

2a. Other VSP argue that by God Greece should have left in 2010, and look what happened when they didn't. They suggest that leaving now would be a good gamble. They are dismissed as idiots, because it is too much of a risk and the EU will fix things eventually.

Outcome, crushing austerity and further enormous GDP loss.

3. 2015 VSP argue that Greece didn't try hard enough, and that they also elected a not-fully-committed-to-austerity government. VSP confused about why the Greek people would elect such a government after the obvious successes of the austerity regime (only -25% GDP growth!). They are especially confused since the GDP briefly flirted with going above zero growth and certainly the common people noticed that with all of the aid going back and forth between banks! I won't characterize their demands at this point. But I will note that the idea of Greece exiting the euro (with all the pain that would entail) is now floated very publicly by the German Finance minister who is in charge of the negotiations.

3a. Other VSP argue that by God Greece should have left in 2010, and look what happened when they didn't. They suggest that leaving now would be a good gamble. They are dismissed as idiots, because it is too much of a risk and the EU will fix things eventually.

Here's the thing. If Schäuble gets to force Greece from the Euro and they get to be hit with all the pain that will entail, is that enough to make you reconsider 2010? Will the 7 years of austerity PLUS the whole euro exit problem really have been better than euro exit in 2010? Or are you still convinced that isn't a likely outcome?

Further, what counts as failure? The ECB policy making clearly isn't working, and it isn't just for Greece. But all current indications are that all the analysts understand that fact, AND IT DOESN'T MATTER because the VSP keep it from mattering.

Is there an amount of GDP loss in Greece that would make you think "Hmmmm, maybe they shouldn't have submitted to the troika?" If so, what is that amount? We are already well worse than the most horrible outcome projected by the troika. How did that happen? Is that changing minds somewhere useful? Italy and Spain can't continue on like they are either. But so far as I can tell the Eurocrats don't give a fuck.

The only people who were definitely saved were the private creditors, and they seem to be repeating the mistakes that led to Greece.

D-squared, you'll probably take all this as an attack, but I'm just looking for a shred of hope. Am I wrong? Are private creditors worried that they might not get bailed out in Spain? Is there something that signals German change on transfers to Spain and Italy? This looks to me like a train wreck than the VSP think will all be fine.

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dsquared 07.23.15 at 6:58 pm

banker's off the hook, debtors not

Just to keep right on top of this – the bankers took a 75% loss on their debt holdings in 2012. The much maligned German and French ones even agreed (after some arm-twisting by the regulators) to not sell down or reduce their GGB holdings in the interim period and to make a fair share of a contribution.

Sebastian – indeed, if everything goes to hell in the way I don't think it will, I will be wrong and will admit it. At present, I don't think this is the most likely outcome though.

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William Timberman 07.23.15 at 7:07 pm

Reading dsquared and Anatole Kaletsky today, I'm reminded of a series of conversations I had many years ago with selected VSPs, long before anyone thought to call them that. These conversations always seemed to go something like this:

Are there flaws in our current implementation? Of course there are. Has it really never occurred to you that we're already aware of these flaws? Do you really not understand what is meant by the phrase with all deliberate speed? Taking that tone in our discussions, I can assure you, is unlikely to advance your cause. Do you actually suppose that you represent the will of the so-called people? Could you not at least get someone to iron your shirt and find you a tie before coming here to speak to us?

Such conversations are never really negotiations - they're demonstrations of who's calling the shots, and more importantly, who isn't calling them. Dsquared's complaint about Varoufakis seems to be that Varoufakis didn't understand the ancient principle involved, and for purely egotistical reasons, refused to submit gracefully to the signals being displayed for him, and so tossed away any mercy his early submission might have gained for the people he represents. I would say on the contrary that a) dsquared is rather conveniently blaming the victim, and b) that relying on the whims of a power which has just succeeded in humiliating you is not just hard on the ego, it actually encourages the bastards to twist what they've already stuck in.

If this sort of posturing is a game, it's a long one, and it ain't over yet. Kaletsky offers us the consolation that what he likes to think of as the creative hypocrisy built into the complex mechanisms of the Eurozone, once the bent knee of the Greeks is there for all to marvel at, will permit Eurocrats to grant more mercy to the Greeks in private than they have hitherto been able to acknowledge publicly, and despite a bit of misery here and there, which is to be expected, we will all move more rapidly than anyone now supposes into the sunny uplands of prosperity, even, God love 'em, the miscreant Greeks.

This may not be bullshit, but it sure smells like it, and I think it remains to be seen just who and how many are prepared to eat it.

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Sebastian H 07.23.15 at 7:11 pm

So does only leaving the euro count as a failure, or would another 5-10% loss of GDP also count as bad enough?
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dsquared 07.23.15 at 7:14 pm

that relying on the whims of a power which has just succeeded in humiliating you is not just hard on the ego, it actually encourages the bastards to twist what they've already stuck in.

William, there's also a discussion on this thread about impreviousness to evidence. Since Varoufakis left, not only have the troika agreed a new financing package, Angela Merkel herself has started indicating openness to debt reduction.

179

Sebastian H 07.23.15 at 7:20 pm

Ugh, this line from Kaletsky is frightening:

"Finally, Germany, Spain, Italy, and several northern European countries required, for domestic political reasons, a ritual humiliation of radical Greek politicians and voters who openly defied EU institutions and austerity demands. Having achieved this, EU leaders have no further reason to impose austerity on Greece or strictly enforce the terms of the latest bailout. Instead, they have every incentive to demonstrate the success of their "tough love" policies by easing austerity to accelerate economic growth, not only in Greece but throughout the eurozone."

We shall see I suppose.

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Layman 07.23.15 at 7:23 pm

"William, there's also a discussion on this thread about impreviousness to evidence. Since Varoufakis left, not only have the troika agreed a new financing package, Angela Merkel herself has started indicating openness to debt reduction."

Good grief! The Troika were always ready to agree to a new financing package – the negatiation was about how much austerity had to accompany it. And Merkel's softening is because of, not despite the fight Tsipras and Varoufakis put up, including the referendum – because it led to demands for debt reduction from Italy & France, the IMF, and the U.S.

"Just to keep right on top of this – the bankers took a 75% loss on their debt holdings in 2012. The much maligned German and French ones even agreed (after some arm-twisting by the regulators) to not sell down or reduce their GGB holdings in the interim period and to make a fair share of a contribution."

Now we're covering old ground. The German & French banks were largely bailed out in 2010 – when their debts were bought out by the public – and any haircut they agreed to in 2012 would have been drastically smaller than their pre-2010 exposure.

This series of posts is practically a demonstration of VSPism in practice.

181

MPAVictoria 07.23.15 at 7:24 pm

"troika agreed a new financing package"

That will be a disaster. Tell me Daniel how is the economy suppose to grow with a 10% hike in the VAT dragging it down? Who exactly is benefiting from the fire sale of valuable Greek State assets?

182

dsquared 07.23.15 at 7:35 pm

The German & French banks were largely bailed out in 2010 – when their debts were bought out by the public

No they weren't. Nothing was "bought out by the public" in 2010. Financing was provided to allow the repayment of debts maturing in 2010 and 2011, before PSI was concluded early in 2012. And the German and French banks didn't even benefit from that because, as I mentioned above, they had been strong-armed by their regulators into rolling over those of their Greek bond holdings which matured, precisely because those regulators realised it would look really bad if the Eurogroup was providing an exit for Deutsche Bank. A lot of private sector investors did manage to get out by being repaid on 2010 and 2011 maturities, but these ones specifically didn't.

183

William Timberman 07.23.15 at 7:42 pm

dsquared @ 178

Yes, evidence…the interpretation of which is at this point not quite as clear-cut as Kaletsky would have us believe. This early on, I think we have a duty to ask ourselves who constitutes the intended audience for this belated display of shiny objects, and who, several years down the road, will own the bulk of Greek assets, who will be making Greece's laws, and most importantly of all, who will be enforcing them.

It may surprise you, but I actually hope that you turn out to be right, that the dirigistes of the European Union will have learned something since 2010, that the Swabian housewives of the Bundesrepublik will have been put out to pasture, and that pesky leftists like myself will - for European purposes at least - have been rendered as obsolete as Bismarck once believed them to be.

184

Layman 07.23.15 at 8:32 pm

"Nothing was "bought out by the public" in 2010. Financing was provided to allow the repayment of debts maturing in 2010 and 2011, before PSI was concluded early in 2012. "

The 2010 plan involved EZ sovereigns loaning money to Greece which was, in turn, used by Greece to reduce the exposure of German and French banks. This really isn't in dispute.

http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/former-central-bank-head-karl-otto-poehl-bailout-plan-is-all-about-rescuing-banks-and-rich-greeks-a-695245.html

185

Collin Street 07.23.15 at 8:41 pm

No they weren't. Nothing was "bought out by the public" in 2010. Financing was provided to allow the repayment of debts maturing in 2010 and 2011, before PSI was concluded early in 2012.

This is not a distinction of sufficient importance as to require you to make a post articulating it.

In terms of flow-of-money, the plan and the effect was that greece reduced its indebtedness to private parties and increased debt to other states; this was the intent and the result. Formally this happened not through transferring of debt contracts but by rolling up the old ones and writing new ones: can you, Daniel, explain to me what impact this difference of approach made?

Because if you can't then it's just a quibble, a true-but-irrelevant statement.

[really, this is a claim about the semantic properties of "bailout", that the word only justly covers situations where you're given money directly rather than where your bad investments are taken up; as a semantic argument it is of course pointless, being about labels rather than things, but in any case it doesn't seem to agree with everyday usage anyway…]

186

Ronan(rf) 07.23.15 at 8:48 pm

"A lot of private sector investors did manage to get out by being repaid on 2010 and 2011 maturities, but these ones specifically didn't."

Is there anything general that can said about these two classes of investors, ie those who got out between 2010-12, and those who took the haircuts in 2012? As in, is there a useful (political) distinction here that meant the earlier ones got out but the later ones not ? Or was it just the nature of the loans (long term vs short)?

187

bjssp 07.23.15 at 8:56 pm

ddavies @129:

He was just mistaken by the year. It seems like he was mixing up 2010 and 2012.

188

bjssp 07.23.15 at 9:19 pm

Susan of Texas @89:

This is where I come in looking like more of a defender of McArdle. Maybe it's because I just don't read her all that much, but on most days, I don't think she's as bad as many on our side do. Her rise is undeserved, but I don't think she's as unscrupulous as, say, Stephen Moore. I guess it's more about incompetence or poor work ethic than anything else.

And really, her rise makes a lot of sense, if you think about it. She's not a complete idiot, nor is she a raging lunatic/bigot like Coulter or others on her side. She seems pleasant enough from what I can tell of the few times I've seen her speak, so people would want to have her on their shows and so on as a result. Who else like her is there? Virginia Postrel is similar, but older, and she does her own unique thing. Coulter is out, as is Malkin. Star Parker? KellyAnn Conway? One of the Fox people? I guess Megyn Kelly qualifies, but she's broadcast. Basically, as undeserved as I might think her rise is, if you are looking to make your outlet something other than an old crusty (usually white) men's party AND you are looking for someone who isn't a liberal, who else is there?

189

dsquared 07.23.15 at 9:51 pm

The 2010 plan involved EZ sovereigns loaning money to Greece which was, in turn, used by Greece to reduce the exposure of German and French banks. This really isn't in dispute.

It is in dispute; specifically I'm disputing it because it's not true. I don't know why you think that link to a Spiegel interview with Karl Otto Pohl contradicts me because he doesn't actually make that claim, but if he has done so elsewhere, he's wrong too.

190

Susan of Texas 07.23.15 at 10:33 pm

bjssp:

If you want an incompetent, dishonest female conservative/libertarian with a poor work ethic who blogs about the economy but doesn't deserve her position then yes, McArdle might be your only choice.

191

Lee A. Arnold 07.23.15 at 10:58 pm

Daniel, Do you think the eventual write-down by the creditors will be equal to the total amount which the IMF reports that Greece can really never repay?
192

dsquared 07.23.15 at 11:09 pm

I really have to stop discussing Greece here; it's off topic for Henry's thread. It's now quite easy to write responses on my Medium posts.
193

Layman 07.23.15 at 11:30 pm

"In reality, it's not hard to figure out how much money foreign banks pulled out, and how much they lost, in the course of the two bailouts. According to data from the Bank of International Settlements, at the end of 2009, total international claims on Greece stood at $177.9 billion, $96.6 billion of it on the public sector (those were investments in Greece's already swollen government debt). By the end of 2011, before the second bailout and Greece's big debt restructuring, international claims were down to $73.3 billion, $40.8 billion of it on the public sector.

This means that the first bailout, agreed in May 2010 - 110 billion euros ($120 billion) from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund - did indeed help foreign banks reduce their exposure to Greek public-sector debt, by $55.8 billion."

http://www.bloombergview.com/articles/2015-07-07/how-greece-s-bank-bailout-benefited-greeks

194

Lee A. Arnold 07.23.15 at 11:43 pm

Dsquared #192: "…it's off topic for Henry's thread."

I am not so sure, because the point is how the VSP's are by Tyler's definition concerned with the common morality of debt repayment, and your answer to my question might shed light on Henry's definition that they will never admit error.

195

js. 07.24.15 at 1:34 am

I think this is just a fantastic post. But since I only know how to make a point by disagreeing with someone or something, I'll take this by Omega Centauri @14:

I think Henry is making it too much about the institutional aspects and not quite enough about the character flaws exhibited by the VSPs.

This isn't wrong entirely, so much as very misplaced. Because look at the rest of the thread and what you see is that it's all character and no institutions. Everyone just wants to talk about who is or isn't an VSP, and then about "tribal affiliations" and other irrelevancies. Institutional structures and their effects on individual actions are basically just not a thing in American discourse. So even an overcorrection in that direction, which I don't think this post is, can only be extremely welcome.

So this is I think (almost) exactly right:

So too for that matter are the exercises in this comment section arguing over who is, or is not a Very Serious Person given their personal predilections. I suspect that even Tom Friedman would have intelligent things to say under different structural circumstances (he is not naturally a stupid person).

"Almost" because I frankly have a hard time getting my head around Tom fuckin' Friedman saying intelligent things under any circumstances (would he also not have mustache?), but substitute any other other "Beltway insider" type, and it's totally true. (These people aren't simply dumber than Duncan Black or whoever.) And I do wish that people would, or could, pay more attention to this point.

196

js. 07.24.15 at 1:38 am

Actually, I am suddenly very intrigued by the idea of structural circumstances under which Tom Friedman would shave his mustache.
197

dax 07.24.15 at 7:57 am

Just to state the obvious, the Very Serious People in the case of Iraq and Greece are not the same. (Perhaps they are coincident in the US, but the US is not the entire world.)

Germany was against the Iraq War. As was Old Europe. Please remember that before you begin to moralize against the Very Serious People by using Iraq as your example.

198

dax 07.24.15 at 8:14 am

@Layman. As I understand it (I did look at it at the time and this is what memory tells me) the BIS figures were badly calculated. For foreign banks which owned Greek banks, the BIS included as a foreign liability the entire exposure of the Greek bank, when it should have been limited to the foreign bank's equity exposure to the Greek bank (an order of magnitude less).
199

dax 07.24.15 at 9:04 am

To add to 197, I wasn't aware that for instance Thomas Friedman or David Brooks has written the least op-ed against Greece. So even in the US the Very Serious People for both Iraq and Greece are not the same.

A theory which doesn't take this into account seems to me pretty nigh useless.

200

Roger Gathmann 07.24.15 at 9:56 am

As a sort of test of the kind of things that VSP journals get away with- for VSPs would be nowhere without the media collaboration that provides them with perches to pontificate – take a gander at the big bad New York Review of Books article about ISIS, a solemnity concocted by "anonymous" – who we know is a great expert, because, the magazine assures us, he's been posted to the Middle East by the US government.
In fact, so serious that the editors seem to have blithely given him carte blanche to say things and give references that have the same relation to fact as, say, the figures of monsters on medieval maps have to zoology. At least the medieval cartographers were cute.

But where to begin? Reading the hopeless mess of the article, I was struck by one passage.

"The movement's behavior, however, has not become less reckless or tactically bizarre since Zarqawi's death. One US estimate by Larry Schweikart suggested that 40,000 insurgents had been killed, about 200,000 wounded, and 20,000 captured before the US even launched the surge in 2006."

I asked myself why such a toll hadn't attracted much more world wide attention. Then I looked up the "u.s." analyst, Larry Schweikart. There's no reference in the article for Schweikart's article, but going to Schweikart's author page, I learned all about his expertise in Iraqi history, which is, it appears, non-existent – although, admittedly, he does have some knowledge of the electric guitar, which he once played in a minor rock bank. His cv is impressively dotted with books with titles like a Patriot's History of the US and a bestseller entitled 48 Liberal Lies About American History.

So, basically, under the highminded pretence that we are reading about anonymous' very informed views about the Middle East, we are served up retreads from Fox and Friends, which often interviews Mr. Schweikart. NYRB, meet Daily Caller. At least the rightwing site makes no pretences. And of course a factoid is launched – a casualty count that will surely pop up in GOP accusations that Obama lost Iraq. The dishonesty is comically blatant. It comes at the same time we are being prepped for author tours with the disgusting Emma Sky, the aide to General Odierno, whose death squad practices in Iraq, we have been assured by Ms. Sky, are totally exaggerated.
.
It is interesting that in the period of time since 2002, when the media hysteria about Iraq was at its height, to now, when the media hysteria about ISIS is at its height, the major journals have learned absolutely nothing about reporting. The NYR should profusely apologize to its readers for thrusting anonymous on their attention. I doubt they will.

201

Roger Gathmann 07.24.15 at 9:57 am

Here is the link: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2015/aug/13/mystery-isis/
202

JimV 07.24.15 at 11:08 am

The Greek situation is bewildering to an American who is not well-versed in economics or finance and who has lost his trust in news media, such as myself. Reading Dr. Krugman and others have convinced me that most of the specific austerity measures forced onto Greece (in return for international financing) have been cruelly counter-productive; but I think I have learned the most about the mechanics of what has been going on from Daniel Davies on this thread, for which I thank him.

(Despite this thread not being about Greece, the back-and-forth between dsquared and various interlocators seemed more educational to me than other posts about Greece -perhaps because those other posts laid a foundation to which some final bricks of knowledge were added here.)

203

JimV 07.24.15 at 11:12 am

"… have convinced me …" should be "has convinced me" (added Reading at the beginning of the sentence in editing without changing the verb, sorry).
204

Ronan(rf) 07.24.15 at 2:14 pm

The "French and German banks got bailed out" distinction *might* not be a useful one, but a significant portion of creditors *did get* repaid during 2010-11 before the haircuts in 2012. Is there a coherent class of creditor that got repaid?
205

Layman 07.24.15 at 2:31 pm

Dax @ 189: "As I understand it (I did look at it at the time and this is what memory tells me) the BIS figures were badly calculated."

I guess that's possible, but it seems to be consistently reported, even at the time, that the lion's share of the first bailout was destined for foreign banks. There is even a contemporaneous dialog about why that was necessary, in order to forestall a chain reaction across the banking sector in Europe. I can't find anything that refutes the idea. Maybe you can help with that?

206

Roger Gathmann 07.24.15 at 2:43 pm

205 – I have to agree. The revisionist idea that the EU would involve hundreds of billions of euros to save Greek banks – which is the alternative theory – is implausible in the extreme. We are meant to believe, in this scenario, that European banks and technocrats simply acted out of their innate nobility.
This factoid is always launched on the basis of "something I remembered" or "being part of the process at the time." Nothing so vulgar as what is put down on paper or reported in the newspapers.
When you are supposed to swallow an idea that goes against everything that you know about the motives and behaviors of the elite financial technocrats, you usually should spit it out and look at it. These factoids are reminiscent of the way the cigarette industry defended itself for years, or the way climate change denial works. Same mechanism.
207

Ronan(rf) 07.24.15 at 2:47 pm

The argument is they acted for fear of a systemic crisis.
208

Maria 07.24.15 at 2:57 pm

engels @161, no worries at all. I don't remember how much I wrote about the Iraq war at the time – it was quite possibly only or even entirely in comments on others' posts, so you are far from remiss in not remembering that as part of the general flavour of CT at the time. (then there was the whole 'decent left' thing, remember? Sigh. Some of Chris's least favourite times on CT, I am sure.)

In any case, as Henry says, yes, I was extremely anti the war (though a lot more people are anti in retrospect than were at the time, funny that), went to marches etc. Sod all use, of course. Both Henry and I had spent time there as children and had since taken a great interest in the country. But I don't think I wrote much about it.

engels @165, +1000, as MPA says. I'm stealing that one.

209

Layman 07.24.15 at 3:07 pm

dsquared @ 175 wrote this:

"Just to keep right on top of this – the bankers took a 75% loss on their debt holdings in 2012. The much maligned German and French ones even agreed (after some arm-twisting by the regulators) to not sell down or reduce their GGB holdings in the interim period and to make a fair share of a contribution."

I think this is a deeply disingenuous post, because it ignores the bailout of 2010/11 and how that bailout changed bank holdings, and therefore emphasizes the haircuts. I say deeply disingenuous because he's made this claim and been corrected before; yet here he is making it again.

The idea that foreign banks were helped by the first bailout is hardly controversial.

What was the exposure of foreign (European) banks to Greek debt before the first bailout? Dsquared doesn't say. How much of that bailout was ultimately transferred to those banks? He doesn't say. What was their resulting position in 2012? He doesn't say. What was the actual cost of the haircut, and how does it compare to the earlier bailout gain? He doesn't say. He just asserts they got a haircut in 2012, ignores 2010, and then skedaddles.

210

Ronan(rf) 07.24.15 at 3:13 pm

(non snarkily) have you seen

https://medium.com/bull-market/2010-and-all-that-relitigating-the-greek-bailout-part-1-a889d468e8ae

and

https://medium.com/bull-market/2010-and-all-that-relitigating-the-greek-bailout-part-2-7c839e32c286

(i think it gets into his position in greater detail)

211

Layman 07.24.15 at 3:27 pm

I have. The first link attacks a strawman – that people claim the 2010 bailout only helped foreign banks and was therefore not aid to Greece. I don't say that.

In the first post, dsquared actually agrees that the primary motivation for the bailout was financial stability for the international banking system, and agrees that foreign banks got substantial benefit from the bailout (though he does try to play down that benefit by expressing it as a percentage of their entire holdings, something he doesn't bother to do when he makes his claims about their 2012 haircuts).

This makes his posts here even worse, IMO.

212

dax 07.24.15 at 3:33 pm

OK people, I spent 10 minutes googling for your benefit.

Layman links to this article:

http://www.bloombergview.com/articles/2015-07-07/how-greece-s-bank-bailout-benefited-greeks

This article links to this BIS report

http://www.bis.org/publ/qtrpdf/r_qa1006.pdf

The 177.9 figure is from table

"Table 9A: Consolidated claims of reporting banks – immediate borrower basis"

Do you know what consolidated means? Good.

213

dax 07.24.15 at 4:03 pm

"The revisionist idea that the EU would involve hundreds of billions of euros to save Greek banks – which is the alternative theory – is implausible in the extreme. We are meant to believe, in this scenario, that European banks and technocrats simply acted out of their innate nobility."

So, you will criticize the EU for being selfish bastards because the alternative theory relies on their not being selfish bastards, which you know not to be true.

214

TM 07.24.15 at 4:22 pm

RG 200: I have read the NYRB article on ISIS with caution after reading your criticism. The gist of the article is that we don't understand the phenomenon, which seems fair enough to me. Other than Schweikart's dubious numbers, which are marginal to the main thesis, what is your beef?
215

Roger Gathmann 07.24.15 at 4:27 pm

dax, no, because I find the motive as implausible as any ever offered as an economics explanation. Perhaps you want to re write economic theory and assure us that no merchant or bank ever works for a profit, but solely to satisfy the customer. That's rich. It's stupid. It's like saying Americans were trying to liberate Iraq. It's an explanation only a gull would accept. The other explanation is fully supported by the rich history of self-interest that has long marked the EU and the banks, and in fact all institutions except, perhaps, the Red cross and the March of Dimes, down through history. Incidentally, it is interesting that your version posits an historically amazing amount of debt taken on by Greek banks. I'd love to see that written out. By any defender of the laughable theory, proposed by the defenders of EU policy, that the 2010 actions were taken not to help various non-Greek banks, and in fact severely penalized those banks.
216

Roger Gathmann 07.24.15 at 4:36 pm

Other than the dubious numbers? Hmm, what would you think of an article in the NYRB quoting Rush Limbaugh as an expert on the Ukraine? The numbers quote makes me doubt very seriously the notion, a, that the Iranians were protecting al quaeda in Iraq (along with the hilarious idea that Osama bin Laden had a soft touch for the Shias, when throughout the late nineties and the 00s, al qaeda was vigorously either attacking Shias in Pakistan or providing support for those attacks), which is neo-con nonsense that tries to align Iran with al qaeda, a well known neo-con meme from the 00s, and b., the idea that, via those numbers, the American surge was succeeding on all fronts – when in fact this is a very debatable proposition, and other figures would say that the surge, by encouraging the ethnic segregation of neighborhoods by means of guarded communication ways and berms, was doing precisely the opposite. Here's a bit of the other view: https://www.bostonglobe.com/opinion/2014/11/17/why-surge-iraq-actually-failed-and-what-that-means-today/0NaI9JrbtSs1pAZvgzGtaL/story.html
217

Roger Gathmann 07.24.15 at 4:44 pm

215 – Dax, I shouldn't have said "stupid" . That was stupid of me. I only mean that the argument is like a conjuring trick, one that tries to prevent you from seeing the object under discussion. The idea that the EU was operating "selfishly" is, I think, a red herring, a way of casting the discussion into a gaslight melodrama with villains and heroines. It was about money. Money tends to bring out the self interest in people. Period.
218

TM 07.24.15 at 4:52 pm

RG 216, I caught the bit about Iran allegedly helping those who then went on to blow up Shia shrines. I am skeptical of that although then, the US also helped those who later blew up the twin towers. Nevertheless, I didn't pick up the strong propagandist scent you seem to identify. Maybe I'm naive but mostly it seems the author is arguing for more humility since we really understand so little of what's going on.
219

Bruce Wilder 07.24.15 at 5:25 pm

dax @ 199: wasn't aware . . . Thomas Friedman . . . has written the least op-ed against Greece

There is this obscure thing called Google. You could find out what Thomas Friedman has written on Greece. If you actually wanted to.

To go back in history a bit, there are these:

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/20/opinion/20friedman.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/17/opinion/sunday/17friedman.html

220

Layman 07.24.15 at 5:36 pm

Those Friedman pieces are classic, right down to the 'lazy Greeks' canard. Greeks work more hours per year than do Germans, and Germans retire at earlier ages than do Greeks.
221

john c. halasz 07.24.15 at 6:08 pm

A consistently sharp commentator:

http://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/fintan-o-toole-europe-divided-by-a-sense-of-crisis-and-a-sea-of-amnesia-1.2291224

222

Bruce Wilder 07.24.15 at 6:55 pm

I thought it was an interesting post and quite a good comment thread (though some of the dsquared-and-Greece discursion left me flat).

Oddly, perhaps, I thought among the more interesting comments were Salem's (especially the first, Salem @ 32), where he used the label, "Very Serious" to apply to people, who really are serious, and not just the subject of ironic disdain for attempting to appear "serious". It was the OP stripped of the capacity to appreciate irony, and in doing so, laid bare some serious problems in the approach of the OP.

I don't think the pundits to whom the label, Very Serious People, applies, within the terms of the OP, are, in fact, "serious" in a non-ironic sense. That's kind of the point: that these are hacks, who play serious people on teevee and in op-eds. There's a deception involved in their self-presentation.

Salem's analysis did highlight a real problem, though, which is that the critics of the "Very Serious People" admit some pretty "non-serious" arguments into the core debates.

Those who advocated the pro-invasion case were treated as serious thinkers, of enormous gravitas, who were taking the tough decisions necessary to protect America's national security. Those who disagreed were treated as flakes, fifth columnists, Commies and sneaking regarders. As we know, despite the agreement of the Very Serious People that the Iraq war was a grave and urgent necessity, it turned out to be a colossal clusterfuck. As we also know, many of the People who were Very Serious about Iraq still continue to be Very Serious about a multitude of other topics on our television screens and in our op-ed pages.

Being a Very Serious Person is about occupying a structural position . . .

One of the problems I had with the OP was the passive agency embedded in this phenomenon that defines who is a "Very Serious Person": "were regarded".

Tyler Cowen had a view on how "Very Serious People" are selected, that these pundits are particularly good at interpreting issues in terms of "common-sense morality". But, I don't see that the OP has a stance. Nor do I see an explanation for how the Very Serious come to be treated as very serious by . . . whom?

Clearly, the label, "Very Serious People" is meant to call into question the bona fides of people, like Tom Friedman. The irony is that these people are NOT very good at applying common-sense morality: you know stuff, like, don't lie your country into war.

Paul Krugman has a column up about his fellow MIT economists and apparently they are all serious dudes, like Ben Bernanke and Mario Draghi and Olivier Blanchard. I suppose these are the sorts of people Salem had in mind, in the way he used "Very Serious People", rather then Tom Friedman. Krugman assures us that they are reality-based. So, I'm not sure how Krugman expects us to respond when they solemnly tell us that there is no alternative - something all three have participated in.

It is right to slip from Tom Friedman to Ben Bernanke or Olivier Blanchard?

I guess it turns on this question of who is doing the all-important "regarding" in "were regarded" and by what process of selection.

I tried to think of someone, who plays the role of gatekeeper of "Seriousness". One examplesI came up with was Charley Rose, who does a talk show for public television in the U.S., where he interviews geniuses and billionaires and corporate chieftains about the state of the world, aspiring to be a little taste of Davos for the masses, I guess. Charley just excludes points-of-view he finds distasteful. He has Tom Friedman on a lot and it was on Rose's program, where Friedman spoke the infamous "suck on this" theory of the Second Iraq War.

Another example I came up with is Politico(.com), which is a political news service that, as part of its market positioning strategy, supplies journalist-reporter-pundits to news talkshows and roundtables. Politico was founded on the journalism side by two reporters who came to prominence at the New York Times and Washington Post, where they took the lead in keeping the Clinton Whitewater scandals alive for years on end. It may not be obvious that they are gatekeepers, because they're not exactly, not in the way Rose is. Rather, they are place-keepers. By occupying one of a very limited number of seats on an unlimited number of shows, they effectively block competing points of view, while enhancing their own prestige (look! we're are on all these shows! People take us seriously.)

Anyway, some admittedly disjointed thoughts on the OP.

223

Kurt Schuler 07.24.15 at 7:18 pm

#106, 109, 110, 114, 116, 117 - thank you for proving the point I was implying in #104. You engage in name-calling, attribution of base motives without proof, coarse language (#117), and, in some cases, hiding behind pseudonyms. Roger Gathman at #138, you are of course correct that experts are often wrong. When amateurs engage in the behavior I have just referred to, though, they deserve all the neglect they get from the Very Serious People.
224

MPAVictoria 07.24.15 at 7:40 pm

Hi Kurt! You came back and proved me wrong. Good!

You clutched pearls over the word "turd". Bad!

You whined about personal attacks when really people were just attacking your arguments such as they were. Bad!

You failed to respond in any substantive way to the criticism levied on your arguments. Bad!

Net Score: -2

Care to try again?

225

hix 07.24.15 at 7:46 pm

"Those Friedman pieces are classic, right down to the 'lazy Greeks' canard. Greeks work more hours per year than do Germans, and Germans retire at earlier ages than do Greeks."

The US blog meme about Greek vs German working hours is not only irrelvant because there is no conflict about working hours but also based on shady data. You cant just compare average hours worked including part time jobs of a stay at home wive economy with one that has among the highest employment to population ratios including many part time jobs.

Retirment age: The point is at which age one gets the full pension, not at which age pppl actually retire.

226

kidneystones 07.24.15 at 8:14 pm

@216 Good comment. Isn't there a basic contradiction in your thinking, if I understand your position. You're effectively arguing that we can't really judge the wisdom of an individual action until we see the impact of the action in the longer term – for example: arming and training ubl to eventually attack America. The impact of the surge can't be measured at all, because it was followed by something quite different from the surge. The short-term of the drop in violence is balanced by the segregation etc. But what if trust and limited co-existence grows out of the practice of not killing each other? The fundamental problem with the Iraq invasion was that getting was going to be a cakewalk, and it was. Getting our heads out of the beehive whilst being stung by an extremely motivated swarm with a newly acquired confidence in their own abilities to take on a more powerful adversary (we see the propaganda impact of that daily) was/is always the risk. That's one of the big reasons a half-ass invasion was/is such a seriously bad idea. We're looking for closure on this. I'm not at all sure the "other side" has any desire to lay down arms for a good while yet.
227

TM 07.24.15 at 9:03 pm

hix 225: As a matter of fact, the claim that "Greeks retire at 50″ is one I consistently here from German relatives. It is really widely believed and influences how Germans interpret the crisis so whether or not it is true indeed has some relevance.

Your "argument" btw seems pretty spurious. Granted that unemployed Greeks don't work many hours but that doesn't support the conclusion that the Greek economy suffers from laziness, nor does it explain why Germans believe (or at least their finance minister seems to believe) that making it easier to fire employees and forcing early retirees to look for work in an economy with >50% youth unemployment should help the Greek economy and improve the state budget.

228

Layman 07.24.15 at 9:16 pm

"The US blog meme about Greek vs German working hours is not only irrelvant because there is no conflict about working hours but also based on shady data. You cant just compare average hours worked including part time jobs of a stay at home wive economy with one that has among the highest employment to population ratios including many part time jobs."

As it turns out, Germany has about 15% higher labor force participation (78% vs 68%); but those Greeks who work put in 50% more hours per year (2100 vs 1400). I think that means on balance Greeks are more productive. The same holds true, more or less, with other Mediterranean Euro members. You can pretend there's no Northern Europe perception of the south as lazy slackers, and further pretend this view doesn't color the debate, but don't expect me to take that seriously.

229

Layman 07.24.15 at 9:24 pm

"The point is at which age one gets the full pension, not at which age pppl actually retire."

I don't agree. German jobs pay well enough that Germans can retire before they receive any public pension. Greek jobs do not, and Greeks can't retire until they get a public pension. Germans say this means Greeks must work longer, into later years, than do Greeks. Why should that be so?

Further, if the problem is high unemployment, would it not be better to encourage early retirement so as to free up jobs for unemployed young people? Isn't raising the retirement age actually counterproductive, not to mention cruel?

230

TM 07.24.15 at 9:29 pm

Employment Rate: Aged 15-64: All Persons for Greece
https://research.stlouisfed.org/fred2/series/LREM64TTGRQ156S

Trigger warning – horror.

231

TM 07.24.15 at 9:41 pm

Employment rate 15-64

For males:
Greece https://research.stlouisfed.org/fred2/series/LREM64MAGRA156N
Germany https://research.stlouisfed.org/fred2/series/LREM64MADEA156N.

Females:
Greece https://research.stlouisfed.org/fred2/series/LREM64FEGRA156S
Germany https://research.stlouisfed.org/fred2/series/LREM64FEDEA156N

All persons:
Greece https://research.stlouisfed.org/fred2/series/LREM64TTGRQ156S
Germany https://research.stlouisfed.org/fred2/series/LREM64TTDEA156N

Before the crisis, Greek males were about as likely to work as German males (females were less likely, presumably Greece is more traditionalist wrt gender roles). So the claim – widely believed in Germany – that Greeks went into early retirement en masse is just false.

232

TM 07.24.15 at 9:42 pm

Moderation due to links to Fred statistics showing that:

Before the crisis, Greek males were about as likely to work as German males, about 75% (females were less likely, presumably Greece is more traditionalist wrt gender roles). So the claim – widely believed in Germany – that Greeks went into early retirement en masse is just false.

233

TM 07.24.15 at 9:48 pm

Employment rate 15-64
Fred data series markers:
For males:
Greece LREM64MAGRA156N
Germany LREM64MADEA156N.

Females:
Greece LREM64FEGRA156N
Germany LREM64FEDEA156N

All persons:
Greece LREM64TTGRA156N
Germany LREM64TTDEA156N

Before the crisis (2008), Greek males were about as likely (ca. 75%) to work as German males (females were less likely, presumably Greece is more traditionalist wrt gender roles). So the claim – widely believed in Germany – that Greeks went into early retirement en masse is just false.

234

hix 07.24.15 at 10:38 pm

Uh, you dont actually know why Germans or Greeks retire at which age. Maybe many Germans retire before the regular age based date because they cant keep up with the required work speed or behavioural expectations without getting clinically depressive, ive certainly meat my fair share of such people -_-. While it would seem plausible that Greeks work harder at first view, since thats what you expect in a poorer country unless you`ve eaten too much protestant working brings you closer to god attitude, thats unfortunately not even obvious at all to be the case in reality.
235

Layman 07.24.15 at 11:15 pm

"Maybe many Germans retire before the regular age based date because they cant keep up with the required work speed or behavioural expectations without getting clinically depressive, ive certainly meat my fair share of such people"

Of course, but without pensions, how do they live? I assume they live on savings, which means wages were adequate to fund early retirement.

"While it would seem plausible that Greeks work harder at first view, since thats what you expect in a poorer country unless you`ve eaten too much protestant working brings you closer to god attitude, thats unfortunately not even obvious at all to be the case in reality."

In other words, you reject the logic which indicates Greeks work harder, and you reject the data which indicates Greeks work harder. Because of course it can't be the case that those lazy Greeks work harder!

236

Collin Street 07.25.15 at 12:35 am

> Uh, you dont actually know why Germans or Greeks retire at which age.

Nor do you.

We've got a structural problem here: you're treating all ambiguity and uncertainty as resolving in your favour. Which is fine as far as you're concerned, but you're demanding that we do the same, which isn't: we're exactly as entitled as you are to select how we treat unknown data.

237

Bruce Wilder 07.25.15 at 12:42 am

There is also a glaring problem with the chain of causality: a Greek retired, got a small pension and the banking system collapsed. It reminds me of those who were sure that the GFC 2008 could be traced directly to some no account black man getting a mortgage (due to some gov't regulation or program).

There is a kind of madness at work behind all the seriousness.

238

js. 07.25.15 at 2:47 am

@@RP and TM:

I don't actually disagree it's about social domination-I just understand "social domination" rather differently than you do, it seems. I'll say half of what I had in mind to say, and I'll say that very obscurely (because, as ever, I am lazy and not up to writing multiple paragraphs).

I think of modes of social recognition-the kind of thing Du Bois is talking about in the bit RP quoted-as irreducibly normative relations. (This to me is related to the "positional goods" stuff and how they're also irreducibly social, etc.) When I hear "psychic rewards" or whatever, I think of affective states. A model of how certain kinds of normative social relations can be self-perpetuating and systematically oppressive makes total sense to me. The idea that this is supposed to be explained by a bunch private affective states is totally bizarre to me.

(The other half was about certain misunderstandings re "real" and "material" and their relation to, well, what I think of social types of things, but I can just grant you your sense of "material"-the "psychic" stuff is really what's super weird.)

239

Guano 07.25.15 at 8:49 am

There is a recent interesting book called "Enlightenment 2.0″ by Joseph Heath about the irrationality in much political discourse and what can be done about it. It's worth a read, though there are no easy answers to the "what can be done about it" bit.

"The Very Serious Person theory is one that is at least as much about collective structures of opinion as it is about individuals."

Yes, quite. Our political systems are set up to reinforce existing biases rather than to question them. On issues such as Iraq, we can see how far it will go, and how much gibberish it will talk to maintain existing biases and prejudices. Questioning existing biases will take centrist politicians well outside their comfort zones and that, apparently, has to be avoided at all costs.

240

Roger Gathmann 07.25.15 at 12:53 pm

226 – I dont think I'm making quite the consequentialist argument that you suppose here: "Isn't there a basic contradiction in your thinking, if I understand your position. You're effectively arguing that we can't really judge the wisdom of an individual action until we see the impact of the action in the longer term – for example: arming and training ubl to eventually attack America." My argument is, rather, that our ability to produce a theoretical shorthand that will enumerate individual actions should be thought of as a convention, and not a reflection of the reality of events, which are always saturated in context. It is the context where the real struggle in image management occurs.
Iraq offers such irresistable examples. Take the whole WMD thing. The pro-war people emphasized that Hussein was building up such capacity that, in the words of Tony Blair's government, he could send a missile to London. The anti-war people emphasized the work of the inspectors. What was obscured here, perpetually and maddeningly, was why a man in possession of WMD's would want to attack London or New York and yet never, in ten years, whisk the merest hint of a missile into the capital of Kurdistan – since for a decade, the coalition had pretty much wrenched a good fourth or fifth of Iraq away from him, and it was totally outside his control. The one thing we knew from Kuwait was that SH had a very jealous disposition with regard to what he thought of as his territory; but suddenly, we just forget all that. I mean so completely forgot that never once, in my memory at least, did I hear anyone puzzle over the fact that a potential nuclear powered tyrant, with nerve gas aplenty, allowed his nose to be thumbed and his territory to be taken by a bunch of amateur Kurdish militias. Militias that had even invited him in, in 1996, when the Kurds were staging a brief gang war between their leading factions! Instead, for no good reason, he was supposed to be contemplating eviscerating NYC. I guess the assumption was that the US was a piece of cake, but those Kurds were fierce, man!
Which gets to the negative function of the VSP as I see it, which is to set up a lure. A lure is a way of obscuring a context that is unpleasantly inconsistent with a news or policy narrative pushed by established power. It is hard to avoid a lure. But the best response is being patient, and patiently taking apart melodramatic scenarios to return us to, at least, the narratives which we are unconsciously discarding or distorting from the recent past. As well as bringing up new aspects of the context that are being undervalued, or that are being shut out with grossly improbable stories.

http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Very_Serious_People



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