Monday, August 12, 2013

Krugman's "Very Serious Person" (VSP)

Paul Krugman's term "VSP" is simply wonderful: so concise and apt, capturing a personage previously vaguely sensed but never fully grasped. And of course it's funny too. Hence it's even better than classics from decades past, like WASP (coined, by the way, by the late great Penn sociologist, E. Digby Baltzell), which was concise and apt but not funny. I give Krugman a sociological gold star just for coining the term.

[Some use VSP to describe pundits and politicos with misguided beliefs, but who are somehow still viewed as respectable. For me the term resonates more broadly, describing generic inside-the-beltway types, especially economist types, as in Krugman's usage referring to Larry Summers, "He’s been carefully cultivating an image as a Very Serious Person" (31 July 2013).]

Sadly, the Washington VSPdom sucks away some of the finest scientific talent in economics. The reason is misguided professorial benefit-cost comparisons that naively inflate the benefits of "helping the world" and deflate the costs of abandoning research. A top researcher doing path-breaking research is helping the world! And who's helping the world more -- a top researcher doing path-breaking research, or that same researcher transformed into a dark-suited VSP roaming the halls of the Old Executive Office Building, jockeying for Very Serious opportunities to attend Very Serious meetings to discuss Very Serious things?

I'm grateful to Krugman for doing his benefit-cost calculations correctly, refusing to let VSPdom suck him away. His punditry -- like it or hate it -- is immensely more socially valuable than whatever he might contribute as Big Kahuna at the Department of Whatever. Here's to more top academics joining the resistance.