Thorstein Bunde Veblen: Leisure Class Author/Critic May Have Been On The Money

(Solomon, 1999)

Solomon, C. (1999, November 22). 'Leisure class' author/critic may have been on the money. The Seattle Times. Retrieved September 11, 2002 from

Entertainment & the Arts: Monday, November 22, 1999

'Leisure Class' author/critic may have been on the money

by Chris Solomon
Seattle Times Eastside bureau

One hundred years ago this year, one of the most provocative and damning books in the history of American ideas appeared, jarring the nation's upper class and electrifying its intelligentsia.

The book was "The Theory of the Leisure Class," written by an eccentric and then-unknown economics instructor named Thorstein Veblen. In a droll, withering critique, Veblen deconstructed the galloping consumer culture of the Gilded Age and came to an unpopular conclusion. America's money lust, its "if you got it, flaunt it" mentality, all could be explained by one simple rule of human behavior: Man has an unslackable thirst for status.

Few people today have read Veblen's magnum opus, though most would recognize its most famous coinage: "conspicuous consumption." At its centennial, however, "The Theory of the Leisure Class" is enjoying something of a renaissance, thanks to a consumerism that's more alive - and more corrosive - than ever, argue some scholars.

After all, what else but man's driving desire to best the Joneses explains the $6,000 Sub-Zero refrigerators appearing in Eastside homes today? Or why Ford recently built its 19-foot-long Excursion SUV, the largest mass-production vehicle on the road, almost a foot longer than its most bloated competitor?

"I think there's more status emulation and consumptive waste now than there was in 1899 - just go to some of the shopping malls, some of the more expensive ones in Seattle," said Rick Tilman, a Veblen scholar and the author, most recently, of "The Intellectual Legacy of Thorstein Veblen."

American society today is driven more than ever by "the shop-till-you-drop mentality . . . and the idea that the good life is the 'goods' life," agreed Doug Brown, a Veblen scholar at the University of Northern Arizona.

Veblen's merciless exploration into what makes us forever grasping and unsatisfied with our current lot, these scholars and others say, has as much to teach millennial America as it did its turn-of-the-century counterpart.


Pioneer origins


Thorstein Veblen was a man nearly as unconventional as his work. Born to Norwegian immigrant farmers in 1857, he grew up in a spare pioneer household in rural Minnesota. He was so insulated from mainstream American life that he only perfected English after going to Carleton College Academy.

There, Veblen displayed the odd sense of humor and relish for ruffling the dovecoats of the establishment that remained lifelong traits of his work. When required at Carleton to present an oratory, or a speech usually with a Christian theme, Veblen stood and gave "A Plea for Cannibalism," noted Robert Heilbroner in his book "The Worldly Philosophers." Later in life, the waste-despising Veblen was said to deal with dish-washing by simply carting the overflowing contents of his sink outside at once, then taking a hose to the mess.

When a Ph.D in philosophy from Yale didn't produce a job, Veblen returned to the family farm. For seven long years he did little but loaf and read, his chagrined family recalled. Finally in 1891, at age 34, the lank man with lank dark hair covered by a coonskin cap showed up at the doors of Cornell University.

Despite his appearance, Veblen managed to get a fellowship. One year later he took his first job at the University of Chicago, the institution just founded by millionaire John D. Rockefeller. It was an ironic home for a man who, eight years later, would publish a book excoriating the wealthy, their institutions and the yearnings they infected every strata of society with.

His theory went like this:

The day's marauding captains of industry - the Morgans, Rockefellers and Vanderbilts - had their roots in prehistory. In the earliest societies man worked in groups to survive. Class distinction didn't exist. Work was shared and not frowned upon. Men strove to outdo each other in activities such as hunting. Those who (literally) brought home the bacon were held in high esteem by others. Their prowess granted them privileges, women and other rewards.

Eventually, Veblen argued, cultures developed so that those with prowess simply took from others, either by tribute or by vanquishing the enemy. Physical labor became declasse, a sign of inferiority.

"Labor acquires a character of irksomeness by virtue of the indignity imputed to it," Veblen wrote. (Today think of the term "blue collar," and its often negative associations.) Thus a leisure class was born.

Wealth soon became shorthand for social superiority, Veblen said. And more wealth meant even more regard. People respected the banker more than the garbage man, even though the latter might work harder.

But since status is relative, one person's gain is another's loss. A spiraling contest develops, Veblen said. Being bank-rich quickly becomes a poor way to broadcast one's superiority. Money is only worth anything if it's flaunted - that is, spent on things beyond basic needs.

"No merit would accrue from consumption of the bare necessities of life," Veblen wrote. "In order to be reputable it must be wasteful."

In a nutshell, more expensive became another way of saying "better"; a cultured person presented with a silver spoon and one made from common metal will always find the silver one superior, Veblen pointed out.

To Veblen, this runaway conspicuous consumption that ensued was the irrational driver of his time. What's worse, he thought, the disease didn't just confine itself to the rich. In Karl Marx's theory of communism, workers would eventually rebel against the rich owners of capital.

But that rarely happened, Veblen pointed out. The poor don't want to fight those above them, they want to be like them. Given this unquenchable desire to be top dog, people of all classes will forever try to live beyond their means: "No class of society, not even the abjectly poor, foregoes all customary conspicuous consumption."

America was Veblen's evidence. Fashions, church rituals, college sports, philanthropy, even pet dogs - to Veblen, almost every aspect of fin de siecle American society could be explained by man's drive for status. A gentleman holding a walking stick not only clutched a weapon, but a symbol that his hands weren't gainfully employed.

The allure of hand-made furniture is that it is far more wasteful in its creation than mass-produced chairs that look and function the same. (No one takes the fun out of a trip to the mall quite like Veblen.)

It was - and remains - a devastating portrait. Modern man was still little more than a barbarian, albeit one who had traded in his loincloth for Prada.

"I don't think he believed people should go around with holes in their clothes," said Tilman. "He just believed that much of the consumption that goes on does not enhance what he called `fullness of life.' "

The book soon became the vade mecum of the day's intelligentsia - a work as revolutionary and repugnant to accepted sensibilities as the writings of Marx or Freud had been. Economists raised on the idea that people make rational decisions didn't know what to make of Veblen and his profoundly wasteful humans, Tilman said.

They and others have tried to shunt away the messy questions Veblen raised and paint him as a leftist crank.

Praise or obloquy for Veblen and his ideas still divides along partisan lines, with liberals a more receptive audience than conservatives, Brown said.

"I think probably the basic attitude for rejecting Veblen is, 'So what?,' " said Brown, editor of the recently published "Thorstein Veblen in the 21st Century."

"If people want to play the game that 'I'm better than you' and use the economy to play that game, then that's their choice. Capitalism seems to be what people want," Brown said, quoting Veblen critics.

But his ideas endure. A century later, "The Theory of the Leisure Class" has never been out of print, and seems to be generating as much interest as ever as the millennium approaches.

That's because Veblen's theories have aged well, and because the America of 1999 resembles the nation in 1899 - and then some, some argue. Many people share an increasing sense at the end of this millennium that something unhealthy lurks beneath America's prosperity and consumerism.

"We are today in the midst of another luxury fever," wrote Robert Frank, a Cornell economist, in his recent book "Luxury Fever: Why Money Fails to Satisfy in an Era of Excess."

Environmentalists see in Veblen's writing an early understanding of the train wreck that awaits when insatiable desires meet finite natural resources - particularly as growing nations begin to mimic America's consumer culture.

"Veblen helps us to explain this insatiable growth that may lead us to destroy the planet," said Brown, who is writing a book on the topic. "We've got to have another measure of self-esteem."

Unfortunately, Veblen may have been better at diagnosing the illness than concocting an antidote.

"His solution basically is to reel in and harness our technology and make it serve the needs of our society - (needs) that need to be met sustainably. He was into limiting our needs to make life better for us," said Tilman, who added that despite his sardonic sense of humor and aloof perch, Veblen was very much a moralist.

In retrospect, however, Veblen's hope for a turn to common sense seems remarkably idealistic and even naive, given his grasp of man's bottomless capacity for rapacity. What Veblen failed to realize, said Frank, was that "it's not irrational to care about where you rank." In a society where conspicuous consumption gets a person ahead, it's almost self-defeating not to play the game. The rub, Frank said, is getting everyone to see that they can be just as happy with something less than a 4,000-square-foot house, or five Hugo Boss suits, or a $110 pair of sneakers.

Building on Veblen's premise, Frank sees a solution with a simple move by the government: imposing a steeply progressive tax on luxury goods to make such purchases less attractive. Congress has even considered similar changes in the past, he said. Less consumption can mean fewer hours chasing a paycheck, which can lead to better mental health, better relationships and more time for enjoyment of life, Frank argues in "Luxury Fever."

"If the evidence we have seen is correct, we will almost certainly adopt the progressive consumption tax sooner or later," he concludes.

Veblen died in 1929, a few months before the great stock crash, in an unadorned California cabin. Nearby was a penciled note, instructing that his body be disposed of "as expeditiously and inexpensively as may be," and that no memorials be written, Heilbroner wrote.

Much to his annoyance (one can suppose), Veblen's ashes were scattered over the Pacific, and the homages began forthwith.