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Thorstein Veblen (1857–1929)

Author of The Theory of the Leisure Class

35+ Works 3,236 Members 32 Reviews 6 Favorited

About the Author

Thorstein Bunde Veblen was an American economist and social scientist best known for challenging the economic theories of his time. He rejected the neat logic and natural laws of his contemporaries, asserting instead that economic order was evolutionary and that this evolution was strongly show more influenced by institutions such as labor unions, business organizations, schools, and even churches. In so doing, Veblen laid the basis for what is now known as the institutional school of economics. Veblen was often described as being an aloof and isolated, albeit gifted, misfit. His sense of isolation was established early; he was born on a farm in rural Wisconsin to immigrant Norwegian parents. English was spoken only as a second language in the tight-knit Norwegian community and Veblen did not perfect his use of the language until he entered college. A voracious reader with a distinct aversion to farm work, he was sent to nearby Carleton College to study for the Lutheran ministry. While at Carleton, Veblen alienated some of the faculty with inflammatory and agnostic writings, and, although he graduated in 1880, it was without the divinity degree that would have enabled him to teach at one of the many small religious colleges of the time. After graduate work at Johns Hopkins University and Yale University, he returned to his parents' home, where he spent the next seven years relaxing, reading, and doing odd jobs. In 1888 he married Ellen Rolfe, much to the dismay of her uncle who happened to be the president of Carleton College. During this period, Veblen had little luck finding a job, even with the benefit of his wife's and her uncle's connections. Finally, at the age of 34, Veblen went to Cornell University to seek a teaching position. Despite his frontier appearance---corduroy trousers and coonskin cap---he was given a one-year teaching assignment. The next year he joined the faculty at the University of Chicago, where he taught until 1906. While at the University of Chicago, he wrote two of his most important works, The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899) and The Theory of Business Enterprise (1904). The Theory of the Leisure Class was an insightful, if not contemptuous, analysis of the excess consumption and wasteful behavior of the wealthy. Veblen contended that the modern quest for the accumulation of money, and its lavish display, was derived from the predatory barbarian practice of seizing goods and wealth without work. In The Theory of Business Enterprise, he described the heads of corporate enterprises as saboteurs of the economic system---people interested only in the financing of production rather than the process of production. This was a radical view, but Veblen was writing during the period when the "robber barons" seemed obsessed by the profits that could be made from stock flotations, bond issues, and other complex financial deals. Veblen's notorious womanizing cost him his position with the University of Chicago in 1906. He moved on to Stanford University, then the University of Missouri, and finally to the New School for Social Research in New York, where he taught briefly before retiring to a small rustic cabin in California. Divorced from his wife in 1911, he remarried in 1914, but his second wife was institutionalized shortly after for psychological problems. Veblen was one of the most provocative economists of his time, but his ideas were such that he attracted few disciples. Even so, economists have come to recognize the importance of institutions and their impact on economic behavior. Additional testament to the influence of his work is the fact that many of the terms he coined are in wide use today, among them conspicuous consumption conspicuous consumption, the leisure class, and cultural lag. (Bowker Author Biography) show less
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Works by Thorstein Veblen

The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899) 2,239 copies
Conspicuous Consumption (1899) 378 copies
The Portable Veblen (1948) 104 copies
Tra utopia e disincanto (2002) 2 copies
The Nature of Peace (1997) 2 copies
The Vested Interests (2001) 1 copy

Associated Works

Laxdaela Saga (1245) — Introduction, some editions — 921 copies
The Awakening [Norton Critical Edition, 1st ed.] (1976) — Contributor, some editions — 786 copies
Theories of the Labor Movement (1987) — Contributor — 7 copies

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saltr | 23 other reviews | Feb 15, 2023 |
In this book Veblen coined the concepts of conspicuous consumption and conspicuous leisure. Historians of economics regard Veblen as the founding father of the institutional economics school. Contemporary economists still theorize Veblen's distinction between "institutions" and "technology", known as the Veblenian dichotomy.
 
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jwhenderson | 1 other review | Jul 4, 2022 |
Professor Veblen’s book, first published in 1899 is a sharp critique of the wealth elite of the Gilded Age. In abstract academic prose, which drips with sarcastic venom, he describes the wealthy as a holdover from humanity’s barbaric past. He uses few examples to back up his theory, relying on the common knowledge of his contemporary readers, but when he does it’s truly enlightening.

For example, in his chapter on “Modern Survivals of Prowess” he uses the example of an upper-class gentleman who carries a walking stick for show, and not as an aid to waking.

The walking-stick serves the purpose of an advertisement that the bearer’s hands are employed otherwise than in useful effort, and it therefore has utility as an evidence of leisure. But it is also a weapon, and it meets a felt need of barbarian man on that ground. The handling of so tangible and primitive a means of offense is very comforting to any one who is gifted with even a moderate share of ferocity. –pages 172-173 (in this edition)

He goes on to explain why this mindset, although it may be economically useful to the individual, is detrimental to the general population as a whole.

The two barbarian traits, ferocity and astuteness, go to make up the predaceous temper or spiritual attitude. They are the expressions of a narrowly self-regarding habit of mind. Both are highly serviceable for individual expediency in a life looking for invidious success. Both also have a high aesthetic value. Both are fostered by the pecuniary culture. But both alike are of no use for the purpose of the collective life. Page 179

In addition to the wealthy, he also eviscerates “conspicuous consumption,” athletics, religion, luck, and forms of higher education which have no practical application. As a result, his dry, droll prose, even if the reader does not agree with him, is hilarious to read, or to others infuriating. I loved it.
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MaowangVater | 23 other reviews | Jul 13, 2021 |
From 1899, a prescient classic in economics and sociology and an easy and enjoyable read. Skip Chapter 8. Veblen's work is cited by feminist economists and major American authors. His core argument is that conspicuous consumption and conspicuous leisure are used by rich and poor alike as ways to improve their social status. Expensive clothes and weddings show that we have money; neckties show that we don't deign to perform manual labor; they would get caught in the gears.
 
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KENNERLYDAN | 23 other reviews | Jul 11, 2021 |

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