Very Serious People Do What They Are Paid For

Hanry FarrellHenry Farrell wrote a great article at Crooked Timber on Wednesday, A Brief Theory of Very Serious People. He argued that what’s really going on with Very Serious People (VSP) is a kind of group think. And this is made pernicious because the VSP exist in a media framework that takes what they say as always being right and so magnifies their biases. But I think there is a touch of question begging here. Why is it that a media framework exists that allows this? And I think the answer to that is that the VSP are the basis of the liberal class: the apologists for the power elite — the great bulwark against revolution.

All you have to see is that the VSP just so happen to always be pushing the interests of the power elite. This is how we get the likes of William Saletan, who considers himself to be a “centrist.” But this supposed centrism consists of economic conservatism and social liberalism — the very opposite of populism. And his opinions are not moderate; they are instead rather extreme in both areas. He is neither a centrist on economic nor social issues. It’s like saying a hardwood box is soft because the inside in empty; in point of fact, if you banged your head on the box, you would see that it is not soft.

Now I can’t say if the VSP hold these opinions explicitly to curry favor with the power elite. Because the truth is that the interests of the VSP and the power elite are the same. In many — perhaps even most — cases, the VSP are the power elite. But the way this works is very clear. The VSP are in favor of cutting Social Security, because they plan to work at their cushy jobs well into their 70s. They are in favor of keeping taxes low, because they “make” a lot of money. They are in favor of education “reform,” because they send their kids to private schools. What’s more, they have friends who work in the “reform” movement. They aren’t too keen on the minimum wage, because they don’t know anyone who makes that little. But they do have friends in the LGBT community, so they are in favor of equal rights for them. People of their class know how an unplanned pregnancy can ruin a life, so they support reproductive rights.

Usually, the VSP make the most tired of arguments. They are some of the biggest supporters of conventional wisdom. But not always. The VSP love to push counter-intuitive ideas — but only when those ideas help the power elite. Raising the minimum wage might seem like it would help the poor, but they argue that it won’t. They argue this because of a collection of ideas from free market dogma, which might apply if we actually had a free market. But the VSP never get to the end of that reasoning chain, because the moment they get to a conclusion that helps the rich and tells the poor to shut up, the VPS know they are done.

But most of all, the VSP love “tough decisions.” They love to push the ideas that cause a lot of pain in society because they think it makes them seem strong. Of course, making a tough decision is one that ought to be applied to oneself. But the supposed tough decisions of the VSP only result in pain for people well removed from them. It is not tough for me to decide that Khalid Bin Mohsen Shaari ought to lose some weight. It is a tough decision for me to go out and run each night rather than sit at home and watch reruns of Arrested Development.

And this, I think, is what really matters about the VSP: they actually think that they are serious. They are so unplugged from the real world, that they think that reducing inflation by throwing 10 million people they don’t know out of work is a sign of how seriously they take policy. But the actual work that VSP are expected to do is things like arguing to keep inflation down, because that’s what the rich want. So when they make such “tough” decisions, they are not pushing against expectations. They are instead doing what is expected and therefore easy. And that is why they transcend being simply wrong and move on to being some of the most offensive (Very Serious) people on the planet.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

9 thoughts on “Very Serious People Do What They Are Paid For

  1. VSPs are the so-slightly-nicer version of “I built that.” They aren’t opposed to welfare on moralistic reasons; they just don’t need it. And since other VSPs say cutting social transfer payments will benefit us all in the long term, and doing so certainly benefits VSPs in the short term, then, hey, why not? Wow, being an information-age social media consulting guru is just so cool, I want all those sad people on welfare to wake up and smell how awesome their lives can be when they become like me!

    As Jarvis Cocker’s song says, “the cream cannot help but always rise up to the top. Well, I say, shit floats.”

    • Actually, I prefer the “I built that” crowd. They at least aren’t pretending to be something that they aren’t. I remember a number of years ago seeing some pundit on a Sunday morning political show and she very proudly brought up some nonsense about how there were all these employers out there who just couldn’t find qualified help. And I thought, “Very Serious Person!” She was so certain that she had found some kind of Gnostic Truth. It can’t be the obvious: people are unemployed because there are too few jobs. No, it was this “new” idea about structural unemployment. And that is an idea that the power elite have been pushing since at least the Great Depression. When something is obvious to the masses, the VSP don’t care. But when something is obvious to the power elite, the VSP think it is super keen and insightful. It almost makes me hope for an apocalypse so that these fools have to get a real job.

      • I read your comment and this popped up on my Facebook feed almost right after:

        Companies are lazy. VSP are also lazy (in my very rude opinion) because it is laziness that lets them just go with whatever the business executives want (which is the cheapest best talent they can get regardless of where.) They also don’t want to give up their cushy jobs that let them do fun things like hobnob with the elite. Not sure why though, the elite are pretty boring based on my experience with them.

        • “Networking,” I suppose. If you know elite people they might help you get an even cushier (read: more lucrative) job.

          One flipside of something being discussed around here lately (what’s the income one needs to be relatively free of worry in America? $60K, $70, $80?) is that once people get past a certain point they start worrying that they aren’t making enough. Because others have more, you see. I suspect there’s a line beyond which everyone basically knows they aren’t getting what they’re worth, but what they can convince others to give them. So if you and someone making twice as much are equally undeserving, why aren’t you making what they’re making? Are you too timid? Do you know the wrong friends? That sort of nonsense.

          I’m sure you’ve met people like this. I’m not sure where the line into pure greed gets crossed, maybe around the six-figure mark. Naturally not everyone who’s rich thinks that way. Just the vast majority of them!

          • $70,000

            When I was making very good income, I only wanted more because I like to travel and I have no idea how anyone else makes it so cheap since I always found it to be expensive even when staying at hostels.

            • $70K plus a travel budget and per diem, then.

              God, one of my brothers quit his tech-support job because it made him travel. He wasn’t married, didn’t have kids, he just hated going to new places. When the job forced him to spend a week in Paris, that was the last straw.

              So he joined the Army instead!

              • That makes me think of the Picard and Riker double facepalm meme.

                When I travel for work I sleep a great deal more than I usually do. Probably because I relax a bit when I go away from home. I don’t have the same intense pressure on myself to be perfect at all times like I do when I am at work.

        • Oh yeah. I’ve written a number of articles on the H1-B visa. It’s a scam. And the guys who work here on them are screwed over. They are more or less slaves. The hiring companies don’t save much money, because the companies who provide them charge a fortune. But the local companies know the workers have no choice; they will work like dogs and not complain.

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