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The Lessons from the Veblen Farm:

by techno Sat Mar 17th, 2007 at 05:39:03 AM EST

the Origins of Thorstein Veblen's Social Thought

Yes, I know I just did a diary on Veblen, but I am going to keep working at it until I get right.  The last one raised the sort of scholarly questions that need answers.  And I especially felt I should do something to thank DeAnander for actually typing the Dos Passos essay on Veblen.

We live in a very conservative age.  This is not so much a triumph of the great conservative philosophers as the collapse of a meaningful alternative.  From 1917 until 1989, the main opposition to global capitalism was organized by the most militant followers of Karl Marx.  The fact that these people were murderous thugs, industrial bunglers, and environmental rapists meant that most people of good will cheered their demise.

The triumph of the Marxists was unfortunate in a host of ways for many of those who would criticize unfettered capitalism.  Before 1917, there were dozens of theories of how to construct a meaningful alternative.  But after the Bolsheviks shot their way into power, none of the others was treated seriously.  Why should they have been?  The Bolsheviks had succeeded where the others had failed so the natural tendency was to rally around the champion.

From the diaries ~ whataboutbob

Big fat books have and will be written about why Marxism proved to be such a dismal failure.  Essentially the failures of Marxism stem from two related and mutually reinforcing problems.  1) The nature of Marx's scholarship which was an almost pure example of what could be discovered by spending long hours in a library, and 2) The violent nature of many of Marx's followers.  Any philosophy derived from secondary sources lacks the self-correcting discipline of experimentation so eventually becomes almost indistinguishable from theology.  

Many of Marx's ideas were valuable and insightful, but some were just plain goofy.  When such a theological philosophy eventually gets tested, the threat of violence from the true believers makes pointing out error a life-threatening exercise.  So the Marxist attempts at governing were often tales of well-intentioned experiments that not only failed, but got people shot as counter-revolutionaries for having the temerity to point out the failures.  

Flash forward to today.  Capitalism--especially the finance-variety--has become again as ugly and exploitive as any of the 19th century examples.  New critiques of this ugliness are vitally needed.  It has become so bad that some folks are willing to dust off Marx's pet theories in spite of their murderous pasts.  The thinking seems to be that Marx got enough right so that in the hands of more enlightened people, it just might work this time.

This proposition is highly doubtful.  Insanity is best defined as "trying the same thing over and over with expectations of a different and better outcome."  So since trying another variation on Marxism seems a losing game plan, the better approach would be looking into the alternate critiques of capitalism that were swept away in the euphoria surrounding the Bolshevik Revolution.

In the USA, the most significant non-Marxist critique of late 19th century capitalism was penned by Thorstein Veblen.  Veblen's reputation over the years has been besmirched by defenders of the status quo from the FBI to the hacks of academe.  He was called "the man from Mars" by his most famous biographer.  In spite of the fact that there is not a scintilla of evidence from his writings, Veblen has even been called a "Marxist" by the clueless who assume that everyone who lived after Marx and found something wrong with capitalism MUST have been influenced by him.

But organized character assassination will not make the writings of Veblen disappear.  There is just too much of it that can be easily validated by looking out the window.  Veblen describes something like "conspicuous consumption" and sure enough, there are dozens of examples on proud display on a two-block stroll to the corner market.

construction siding 1993

Even better, an historic preservation project to repair the boyhood home of Veblen in Minnesota, which was undertaken in the early 1990s, has uncovered enough new evidence to thoroughly demolish the lies of the character assassins.  More importantly, the restoration partly explains why Veblen's ideas are still relevant even though more than 100 years old.

Veblen may have been a unique genius like no other, but he was also astonishing lucky to grow up where he did.  While Marx was fashioning his worldview in the dusty corners of the British museum, Veblen had a front row seat to one of the most amazing human adventures of history.  His childhood was spent watching folks attempt to survive and build a life out rocks, trees, water, and black dirt using the tools they could haul in a wagon.  Most people who talk about "nation building" never actually get to see it happen.  Veblen did.  And because it happened in a place with an unusually harsh climate, ideas that did not work were quickly eliminated.  

So Veblen's ideas have an authority that can only be achieved by witnessing such economic experiments.  His writings are a collection of what he learned from observation.  He read voluminously yet almost never quoted anyone because he instinctively understood the scientific value of experimentation.  So while his books and essays contain a few ideas we might find slightly silly with 100 years more information, the methods he used are still valid and an astonishing fraction of his work read as if written just yesterday.

Because Veblen's writings were a product of good scientific observation they have one other HUGE advantage over those of Marx's.  No Veblenian zealot has ever been known to murder or imprison anyone.  Better science and a spotless history--what's not to like about Veblen as the progressive model when a new critique of 21st century capitalism is organized?

Bah! footnotes

No matter why Thorstein Veblen wrote without footnotes, it has certainly been a reason for scholars to exercise their idle curiosity as they speculate on the possible sources for his seemingly unique ideas. Writing without footnotes is an academic sin (at some level) so Veblen's defenders often see a need to fill in the gaps. Besides, hypothesizing along these lines is great intellectual fun.

Quite naturally, an academic will look for an academic source for Veblen's ideas. And why not? Ideas are the currency of academic life and Veblen trafficked in ideas. He was one of them--a Ph.D. who spent his life teaching at the university level. It would be difficult to argue that someone could write a doctoral thesis on any subject and not have it affect the writer's thinking at SOME level.

The most obvious problem with this approach lies in the fact that if Veblen had been a more conventional academic, he would have written with formal footnotes. Veblen may have been a university professor, but in most ways he was the direct opposite of what he was trained to be.

The evidence is overwhelming. He learns Classical economics from John Bates Clark and then spends his academic and writing career devoted to a systematic destruction of that form of thought. He studies Social Darwinism under Graham Sumner at Yale, yet pens arguably the finest refutations of Social Darwinism ever written. He was employed at some of USA's most prestigious universities, yet writes The Higher Learning--hardly a bouquet to advanced education.

About the only conclusion that can be meaningfully drawn from such a list is that the main effect of higher education on Veblen was to stimulate a lifetime of opposition to virtually everything it stood for. So if Thorstein Veblen showed up at the school door with a mind that was anything BUT a blank slate, the question logically becomes, where DID those ideas of his come from?

We actually know quite a lot about Veblen's formative years--largely from accounts written by his siblings. It was childhood filled with more than its share of hazards including a brutal climate that sees the temperature range from -40°C to +40°C, complete isolation from established medical care, and dense woods where even adults could easily get lost. All this was in addition to the large and barely-domesticated animals, the dangerous tools, and the other hazards of pre-industrial rural life. Yet in spite of the hazards and unrelenting hard work, the Veblen house was by reliable accounts very happy and incredibly intellectually stimulating.

We know that his sister Emily wrote [PDF] about her childhood as an endlessly fascinating adventure--interesting playmates, caring schoolteachers, a poetry-loving mother who was considered a skilled health-care provider, and an extraordinarily hardworking father who not only built three farms from virgin land, but involved himself in community decisions and assisted others in getting started. He was one of those "progressive" parents who was known in the community for never striking his children, and in the face of disapproval by many of the neighbors, sent Emily to Carleton where she became the first woman in the Norwegian-American settlement to graduate from a 4-year liberal arts college.

We learn from brother Andrew [PDF] that settling uncharted territory required a dizzying array of skills and that Thomas excelled at many. He was highly skilled at construction and at one point figured out how to move a barn using just men and horses. He was a skilled ax man--to the point where he was able to dramatically increase his cash position by selling his own specially designed ax handles that he and Haldor carved on those long winter nights. Thomas was inventive enough to create a horse-driven mill that was perfectly scaled to the operational size of his--and his neighbor's--farms. He was a skilled breeder who managed to cross Spanish Merinos so that Kari could weave with high quality Merino wool grown on sheep sufficiently hardy to survive a northern winter. And while he didn't have the precision capability necessary to fabricate a spinning wheel for Kari, he did build an efficient, collapsible loom which, given his tools at the edge of civilization, was an amazing accomplishment.

In some unknown Marxian universe, rural life may have been "idiotic," but that description certainly did not apply to a farm run by Thomas and Kari Veblen.

The effects of this childhood are all over Thorstein Veblen's writings. One can easily imagine TBV at Yale. By the standards of Nerstrand Minnesota and even Norway, Thomas Veblen was a rich man and TBV was a rich kid. By the standards of Yale, he was a peasant. So TBV looks around at what the fathers of these super-rich kids actually do--manage real estate holdings, play the markets and other forms of financial maneuver, or nothing at all--and comes to the conclusion that compared to his father, these guys are bums. They clearly do not work as hard nor do they have as many skills. (Of course, compared to TBV's father, most of the human males who have ever walked planet earth are bums.)

Yet some were undeniably richer. Obviously, the skills necessary to become rich at the edge of a prairie under conditions so inhospitable, no one had tried agriculture there before in history, and the skills necessary to get rich on Wall Street or in banking were two VERY different kinds of skills. From this realization would have come Veblen's famous distinction between business and industry.

Of course, Veblen could have come to the conclusion that most Americans eventually reach--i.e. that the richer a person was, the smarter. But this simplistic idea was obviously FAR too primitive for a mind like TBV's. Besides, how does one meaningfully compare the skills necessary to pull off a stock swindle with those necessary to make a wheel spin smoothly at high rotational speeds using only hand tools?

The answer is to look at the characteristic all humans have to some degree--the ability to use tools. In rural Minnesota (America) tool-handling skills are critically valuable (imagine the worth of a person who can repair a harvesting machine in the face of an oncoming storm.) Where TBV came from, skills with tools defined a man's value to himself, his family and his community. Thomas was rich because he was valuable. These other guys were rich in spite of the fact that they were useless and spent great efforts to put their uselessness on display. For TBV, this must have seemed like a journey to another planet. It may have taken some years before Veblen would refine his realization of the distinction between business and industry into a written theory, but the facts had to be painfully obvious from the sociology of the Yale student body.

Veblen would keep his rural Minnesota skills-with-tools perspective throughout his whole career. Tellingly, he considered Instinct of Workmanship and the State of the Industrial Arts his masterpiece. It is logical that this is so because all around him in the American Midwest, those farmers with the greatest technological skills, or their sons, were leaving agriculture to create the American industrial revolution. Henry Ford was the most famous example of a farm-kid tool genius but the Midwest had so many of these people that as late as 1962, reliable estimates showed this region had more industry than the rest of the planet combined.

It is fitting that Veblen's most misunderstood work was The Engineers and the Price System. The tool elites had their spokesman--a philosopher who taught that it was wrong to underestimate the value of sophisticated tool handling. Just remember, only engineers ever considered Veblen a revolutionary.

But if Veblen is to be considered a philosopher for the tool elites, it is important to evaluate his technological literacy.

This table was built by TBV out of redwood and was found in the house pictured below. This house could be found at the edge of the Stanford golf course in northern California--and is the house where TBV died. The table is straight and true and NAILED together.

The chart that follows is an attempt to illustrate the stratification inherent in a highly differentiated scheme of merit. This chart is a great way to start a debate amongst the technologically literate, as I have discovered, but the arguments usually revolve around how to position various technologically literate occupations, not whether it requires more technological literacy to manufacture something than to use it.

As I would place them in the world of the tool elites, it is clear that while Thomas was very gifted technologically, he was a few clicks down from a Henry Ford. TBV was quite a few clicks down from Thomas but clearly he was on the charts and certainly understood enough about the technological literates to generalize about the industrial classes--which he did throughout his writings.

We also know that the Norwegians who settled Rice County brought with them distinctly Norwegian cultural, social and religious traits. The Veblen family is especially interesting in this regard. By the standards of the settlement, they were unusually assimilating to the Yankee culture around them. They stopped giving their children Norwegian names after Thorstein and more tellingly, sent the children to Carleton. While there were sound economic reasons for this choice--Carleton had a prep school so the Veblens could take care of all their educational needs in one place (sending everyone to the same place made building a house for them in town economically efficient) it is clear that even when the VERY Norwegian St. Olaf was formed in the same town, the Veblen children would still go to Carleton because it was a more reputable school.

It is also reported that when Andrew taught at Luther College in Decorah Iowa, he disapproved of those colleagues who used their Norwegianess to explain a nonstandard set of manners that deviated sufficiently from the dominant Yankee model as to draw attention. He didn't wish to be thought of as one of those embarrassing "hillbillies."

It should be recalled here that when all these cultural choices were being made, Norway was not a country. Romantic nationalists were agitating for a Norwegian nation-state--but they had not yet succeeded. Here in USA, Thomas had managed to build a farm larger than all but 11 farms in Norway (according to JK Galbraith who may have been just guessing--but is certainly close to whatever the real number may have been) and was making nothing but money. Until 1873. Then times got hard for even the very best farmers like Veblen as commodity prices would eventually fall to 1/3 of the 1873 levels by 1894. As the assumptions of the Yankee paradise fell apart and working harder than slaves to barely survive became the lot of many in the area, the descriptions of the Norwegian romantic nationalists must have become very appealing.

Thorstein was easily the family member most influenced by romantic Norwegian nationalism. He learned Norsk poetry from his mother as a boy, translated a saga as his first literary effort, involved himself in Scandinavian identity politics while living in Madison, traveled to Norway when he had achieved some fame enjoying perks like the king's railroad pass, and finally, self-published his translated Lexdaela Saga as his final literary act in life. The fact that Andrew organized the Valdres Samband, a far less passionate but undeniable manifestation of Nordic pride, shows that even the most respectable of the brothers also fell prey to the appeals of Norwegian nationalism.

The reaction of the various Veblen offspring to that other major manifestation of Norwegian culture, the Lutheran Church, was more varied. Emily would marry a clergyman, Orson became trustee of St. Olaf college--a school that still holds daily chapel BTW, while Andrew would cite the memorization-intensive confirmation ritual and the requirement of literacy as proof of Lutheran devotion as two of the reasons for the high achievements of Nordic culture. Thorstein, of course, was least interested in the devout observances of the Lutheran church on earth.

In important ways, Thorstein was most like contemporary Scandinavians. The Lutheran church in Sweden is no longer even the state church--after nearly 500 years of official status. No reasonable person attends devout observances anymore. This is true in the other Nordic countries as well. Yet all are culturally VERY Lutheran.

Lutheranism in the Nordic lands can best be described as Christianity made acceptable to Vikings. Christianity came late to the North--Norway converted to Christianity about 1000 AD and as TBV points out in his introduction to the Lexdaela Saga, the Vikings had mostly decided that accepting Christianity was a mistake by 1250 AD. The two major gripes were 1) corruption in high places, and 2) a monopoly on literacy by the professional religious classes. So when Martin Luther came along preaching against corruption and making literacy a requirement of the faith, the Viking Christians became enthusiastic Lutherans to the point where they defended the new faith on the battlefield in the 30 Years War.

Tellingly, the Nordic cultures are still virtually without corruption in high places, and yes, they have achieved universal literacy. Yet while "cultural Lutheranism" describes an obvious phenomenon, it explains little. Lutheranism probably reinforced an existing cultural set of beliefs. Of course, since Lutheranism came early to the North and encountered little opposition, it has had time to express itself in many ways. For example, medicine and care for the elderly are seen as human rights and while social stratification is accepted as inevitable to the human condition, brazen displays of wealth are still widely frowned on.

Much of the success of The Theory of the Leisure Class stemmed from the fact that the forms of Protestantism that trace back to Lutheranism all have followings that condemn displays of conspicuous waste. And if The Theory of the Leisure Class can be understood as a manifestation of cultural Lutheranism, The Instinct of Workmanship can truly be described as high theology for a belief set that welcomed the Protestant Reformation with open arms and in many ways, defined how Lutherans would believe and act for nearly five centuries. If the people of the North could absorb and define the Protestant Reformation, they could just as easily absorb the scientific revolution.

Calling Thorstein Veblen a "cultural Lutheran" is a mild form of intellectual laziness, but what we do know is that TBV was highly skilled in the nuances of a culture so powerful it was able to define a form of Protestantism. So skilled, he was able to describe the way that culture absorbed the lessons of the scientific and industrial revolutions.

Anyone who is interested in a fuller development if this theme can watch an MP4 video of a speech I gave to a preservation society gathering devoted to saving the 1862 church where TBV was confirmed a Lutheran.  (12:33 minutes 31.3 megs--be patient)

One other thing

There are those who fault Veblen for not being a political activist, for not trying to propose a new and better society, for not having an agenda.

Veblen's attitude about this was: " I'll do the science--YOU do the programme."  The closest he ever came to creating an agenda was in "Engineers and the Price System." [PDF]  If you actually understand that book, you may be the first.  I have seen distinguished Veblen scholars immediately clam up when asked.  Of course, the fact that Veblen mostly did not create programmes is probably reason No. 1 why he is still relevant.

But if you want to see how I converted Veblen's science into a programme, try a book at my website called Elegant Technology:

I think it is brilliant, but I am NOT the least bit objective ;-)  I am pretty sure old TBV would have approved of my plan to use his methods with 100 years of new information.  So even if you don't agree with the agenda I outline in the last five chapters called The Industrial-Environmental Solution, I hope it is well-done enough to impress you with the methodology used.

Riveting.  I thought I'd would just scan it and run, but I read every word.  Thank you!

Our knowledge has surpassed our wisdom. -Charu Saxena.
by metavision on Fri Mar 16th, 2007 at 07:13:31 AM EST
I'm going to take time to do do this justice. I'm in and out of Norway, so this is fascinating stuff.

Also are you are familiar with the work of Hans Nielsen Hauge in Norway?

"The future is already here -- it's just not very evenly distributed" William Gibson

by ChrisCook (cojockathotmaildotcom) on Fri Mar 16th, 2007 at 07:17:42 AM EST
Hans Nielsen Hauge

Oh my!  Yes indeed, there were many Hauge Lutherans who settled around here.  In fact, my parents are buried in an old Hauge churchyard.  

These were interesting folks--at a distance.  They were so theologically conservative that they believed, for example, that the music of J.S. Bach was too flamboyant for church!!  On the other hand, they were almost Social Democrats when it came to economics--public ownership of railways, utilities, etc.

The Veblens were not Hauges.  The church they attended was served by a preacher sent with official blessings of the Lutheran church in Norway (Denmark).  The folks at Valley Grove (Veblen's church) were not actually anti-Hauge like some in the neighborhood, however.  Some of the other rural churches refused burial to Hauge folks and only allowed them burial outside the churchyard fence.

For more information on the church Thorstein Veblen tried to escape as quickly as possible, go to:
Confession.  I am so impressed by the story of TBV's parents that I now serve on the Valley Grove Preservation Society because that is where they were buried.

"Remember the I35W bridge--who needs terrorists when there are Republicans"

by techno (reply@elegant-technology.com) on Fri Mar 16th, 2007 at 10:00:12 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The people I am working with have set up the Hauge Institute in Norway, and entertained a group from St Olaf college last year in Norway.

I am seriously interested in the remarkable (but little-known) work Hauge did in Norway in promoting enterprise in Norway, and some argue that he single-handedly started the process of Norway's development from an agrarian to modern society.

His approach would be recognisable as a "Social Enterprise" approach in terms of its in-built cooperativism and mutualism. I am bringing to the Institute a partnership-based enterprise model which, I believe, is intuitively Haugean in its values.

The Lutheran/religious aspects of Hauge are a side issue to me: it is the values that underpin his practical work that interest me.

Your Diary re Veblen, and his alternative critique of Capitalism is extremely consistent with my own, except that I am looking at different assumptions in terms of property rights and so on.

"The future is already here -- it's just not very evenly distributed" William Gibson

by ChrisCook (cojockathotmaildotcom) on Fri Mar 16th, 2007 at 11:58:15 AM EST
[ Parent ]

Some years ago when I was doing research on Midwest progressive movements, someone loaned me a very obscure book written here in Minnesota by a Hauge preacher's wife in the late 1880s.  She was quite the economic radical--especially for USA.  And most surprisingly for someone associated with a religious group that is SO pietistic.

St. Olaf college is four blocks from the house so I know it well.  And since at least 1/3 of the Norwegian immigrants who settled around here were Hauges, I am not surprised at their interest.  But it is a pretty conservative place so I imagine they will be shocked when they discover Hauge economics.

Ah yes, the Norskies--much more complex than they first appear!

"Remember the I35W bridge--who needs terrorists when there are Republicans"

by techno (reply@elegant-technology.com) on Fri Mar 16th, 2007 at 01:49:31 PM EST
[ Parent ]
what a jewel of a diary!

intriguingly written, with a lovely balance of historical and personal.

i have so much respect for the (largely forgotten) skills our forefathers accrued to build pre-industrial societies.

the industrial paradigm has driven a wedge between our inheritance through apprenticeship, and our 'knew knowledge' of how to find parking spaces, unwrap stubborn plastic confectionary (which cost the planet more than what's inside), navigate insecure internet connections, regurgitate factoids for academic badges, collate trivia, etc.

i don't think there will be a new 'ism' to supplant capitalism, nor need there be, if capitalism were applied accountably, with the common weal as over-riding arch-concern.

trade is as old as god, and will always be with us.

the chief moral portals into which sidle corruption are two, imo.

firstly the concept of hoarding has to be well thought through, pros and cons.

secondly the one of defence...

theoretically both need not be so automatically corruptible, but history has shown us irrefutably the folly of remaining naive in these matters.

wherever secrecy is around as quid pro quo, there will be fertile ground for the rankest of weeds.

so international diplomacy and attacking the terrible poverty that creates so many displaced and desperate brothers and sisters have to be prioritised, or we are avoiding the root, and lopping at branches.

do we need an 'ism' to see and act on that?

i think it's fine for someone to invent a solar pump and sell it to the poor for a decent markup.

that's not corrupt.

what just happened with blair and the saudis was!

yet both are capitalism.

anyways, there's an infinite amount to write about this stuff, i'll stop while i'm ahead...

thanks for some sterling work, you have given me some good perspective, and a new curiosity about this most unusual man.

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Fri Mar 16th, 2007 at 08:55:55 AM EST
Very good diary.

Smallish quibble: During the swedish-norwegian union 1814-1905, Norway was a state in a personal union with Sweden. The swedish king was also king of Norway. However, both countries were constitutional monarchies, so even though the executive power formally was in the hands of the king, parliaments in both countries wielded considerable influence. The two countries had their own constitutions, parliaments, laws, customs (there was no customs union), flags (with the other countrys flag partly included). The only things Norway did not have was army, prisons and foreign policy.

So they had their own country. It was just not independent.

Sweden's finest (and perhaps only) collaborative, leftist e-newspaper Synapze.se

by A swedish kind of death on Fri Mar 16th, 2007 at 01:01:07 PM EST
Good point.  And accurate.  But please don't tell the Norwegians around here who were celebrating the 100th anniversary of Norwegian independence two summers ago.  (shhhh ;-)

"Remember the I35W bridge--who needs terrorists when there are Republicans"
by techno (reply@elegant-technology.com) on Fri Mar 16th, 2007 at 01:32:51 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Great diary!

The examples of Russia or Eastern Europe show that failed (Marxist) models make a slash back to "guilded" capitalism only worse. People were like waiting for the system to come out, at least sufficiently many of them.

Does this mean that capitalism is the natural order? Or do people need to "believe" in some system anyway? Or they just tend to ape whatever "the best" they can see?

Scandinavia may have been a reasonable alternative, as well as probably many other local social systems before collonialism and globalization. But aggression is important as well.

Opposition to wild capitalism, just as opposition to greed or violence, may not have a simple "no-brainer" solution. Numerous half-measures (like wilfull, ignorant or forced cooperation; niche construction) may work very fine together, as we see in the nature, even if they look inadequate in the battle of short-term interests.

by das monde on Sat Mar 17th, 2007 at 02:22:11 AM EST
As Rumsfeld once said,
It is a fascinating approach. It's where you take something and turn it upside down and look at it...

I am sure he enjoyed that approach often enough.

 There must be this approach employed somewhere in this example. They surely talk about other leisure class theory than Veblen.

The Theory of the Leisure Class

An economic mystery: Why do the poor seem to have more free time than the rich?


In 1965, leisure was pretty much equally distributed across classes. People of the same age, sex, and family size tended to have about the same amount of leisure, regardless of their socioeconomic status. But since then, two things have happened. First, leisure (like income) has increased dramatically across the board. Second, though everyone's a winner, the biggest winners are at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder.

by das monde on Sat Mar 17th, 2007 at 04:48:09 AM EST
Please understand, Veblen had nothing against time off from work.  His Leisure Class was a group of people who got their social status from putting their uselessness on display.

For a further explanation:

"Remember the I35W bridge--who needs terrorists when there are Republicans"

by techno (reply@elegant-technology.com) on Mon Mar 19th, 2007 at 02:34:05 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I try to be a "compassionate liberal" and see appeal in that argument
[A] certain class of pundits and politicians are quick to see any increase in income inequality as a problem that needs fixing -- usually through some form of redistributive taxation. Applying the same philosophy to leisure, you could conclude that something must be done to reverse the trends of the past 40 years -- say, by rounding up all those folks with extra time on their hands and putting them to (unpaid) work in the kitchens of their "less fortunate" neighbors. If you think it's OK to redistribute income but repellent to redistribute leisure, you might want to ask yourself what -- if anything -- is the fundamental difference.

The suggestion by analogy is clearly faulty: they would take away leisure hours from the "lucky" poor people, but they would not add any leisure hours to the "poor" Leisure Class. Do they really envy leisure hours?

I have to imagine that they consider working, or rather, making money, as the essential requirement for living on this Earth. If you do not devote more time for making money, you have less rights to breath, or something.

But taken literally, can people get a high status "by putting their uselessness on display"? What is usefullness/uselessness? A lawer defending a serial killer may be worse than useless to the public, but he is extremely useful to one person (or a few). In a sense, Leisure Class members are pretty useful to each other, exchanging financial, legal, recrational and other services intensively. They do screw a pool of others to do that, but you could almost envy their level of "communal partnership".

by das monde on Mon Mar 19th, 2007 at 03:45:17 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Will score points here:


Before sailing to England, they launched a defense in the society pages:

The soiree was actually about putting money in circulation and helping the poor, said they.

I prefer to see them as misunderstood capitalist visionaries.

"When the abyss stares at me, it wets its pants." Brian Hopkins

by EricC on Mon Mar 19th, 2007 at 02:21:09 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Great Diary.

What is the most readable and accurate biography on Veblen out there, in your opinion?

I'd like to read more.


"When the abyss stares at me, it wets its pants." Brian Hopkins

by EricC on Sat Mar 17th, 2007 at 06:52:06 AM EST
Veblen himself was horrified at the prospect of biographies and left a final note specifically asking that none be written.  Naturally, the biographers who disregarded this request have done a wretched job.  The one by a guy named Dorfman was so bad, the remaining family members protested  vociferously.

There have been some very good commentaries on Veblen.  The best were written by Clarence Ayers and Rick Tilman.

And of course, there is all the stuff uncovered during the restoration the restoration.  You can find out most of it at:

Read all the stuff here and you will a damn fine start on what passes for a biography these days.

"Remember the I35W bridge--who needs terrorists when there are Republicans"

by techno (reply@elegant-technology.com) on Sat Mar 17th, 2007 at 11:40:21 AM EST
[ Parent ]

Always wondered why I couldn't find a good biography of V.

The Gilded Age is my favorite period of American history, and V rocked the boat a bit.

That farmhouse was a jewel for the Minnestoa of its time, I'd think.

Will read the site and your first diary on him too.

"When the abyss stares at me, it wets its pants." Brian Hopkins

by EricC on Sat Mar 17th, 2007 at 05:02:15 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Oh yes indeed, the Minnesota farmhouse is a jewel.  It featured a formal dining room with a clever pass-through to the kitchen, a walk-in closet off the master bedroom, and the first hardwood floors in the county, etc.

Thomas Veblen was a master carpenter and this was the third house he had built in North America.  By the standards of his neighbors, this was really nothing less than a mansion built with hand tools.

"Remember the I35W bridge--who needs terrorists when there are Republicans"

by techno (reply@elegant-technology.com) on Sun Mar 18th, 2007 at 10:04:45 AM EST
[ Parent ]

Hehe - my mother is distantly related to Veblen, which is made even more interesting because Veblen was one of my father's favorite authors.

As to the substantive issues, let me grab another cup of coffee and read the whole diary....

by ericy on Sat Mar 17th, 2007 at 10:06:28 AM EST

A very good diary.  My dad was an economics major at Carleton, which is almost certainly where he picked up his interest in Veblen.   I went there myself, but studied something entirely different :-).

As I become more and more interested in issues like Peak Oil, sustainability and the environment, I start to see the problems caused by the insatiable need for growth that capitalism seems to require.  

I think I am going to dig out some of Veblen's books that my dad gave me, and actually read them to see what he has to say.

by ericy on Sat Mar 17th, 2007 at 10:33:50 AM EST
[ Parent ]
If your dad picked up an interest in Veblen at Carleton, it was an accident.  Or perhaps he went to school there a long time ago.  The school once named its big mainframe computer Veblen and there is a group of faculty members who have a string quartet they call Veblen, but there are NO Institutionalists in the economics faculty these days.

If you are going to read Veblen, be sure to include "The Instinct of Workmanship"  It was his favorite--and it is most certainly mine.

"Remember the I35W bridge--who needs terrorists when there are Republicans"

by techno (reply@elegant-technology.com) on Sat Mar 17th, 2007 at 12:03:34 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I grew up in Minnesota and I didn't hear about this guy until your previous diary. Great writeup by the way.

you are the media you consume.

by MillMan (millguy at gmail) on Sat Mar 17th, 2007 at 01:24:15 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I was almost 30 before I started to read Vblen and probably 26 before I had heard of him myself.  See also my answer to Jerome.

"Remember the I35W bridge--who needs terrorists when there are Republicans"
by techno (reply@elegant-technology.com) on Sun Mar 18th, 2007 at 10:14:03 AM EST
[ Parent ]
This reminds me some other comments and diaries which suggest that the biggest problem with getting a new narrative into play today is that people lack direct experience of the results of their actions.

You can only work in the environment you're in. Veblen's ideas fit well into frontier culture. In post-industrial neo-capitalist Web 2.0 culture, they look like nostalgia.

This doesn't mean they're wrong. It's just that any new narrative has to intersect with the day to day reality of most people's lives.

While stock brokers may be less intelligent than someone who can repair a tractor, they're better suited to the world they operate in. That's why they're richer, and it's also why they promote rules and narratives which make them richer still.

The only way to change that is to change the rules and the narratives. And that's only going to happen if there are different feedback loops in place which promote different outcomes for given actions.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Sat Mar 17th, 2007 at 11:23:34 AM EST

I think not!

The BIG advantage the Veblen has over the other political economists is that he was technologically literate.  The ability to invent and manufacture is a fixed set of skills and these do not change whether someone is inventing the automobile or an iPod.

I myself am a patented inventor so know quite a bit about the process.  I had already completed my first patent application before I discovered Veblen.  What attracted me to him is that it was clear that he "got it."

What makes this so important is that the ONLY way to avoid a collapse of civilization is to invent our way out of the traps created by peak oil, etc.

Far from being nostalgia, Veblen's ideas are the most relevant out there.  Read him and see!!

"Remember the I35W bridge--who needs terrorists when there are Republicans"

by techno (reply@elegant-technology.com) on Sat Mar 17th, 2007 at 11:51:55 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I'm not disagreeing with you in practice.

The problem is that we (collectively) don't have a narrative framework that someone like Veblen can fit into.

If you have half a brain, solutions to the world's problems boil down to:

  1. Resource husbandry
  2. Human inventiveness

Which is all fine. But you're missing my point, which is that given the narrative systems that everyone works in today, neither of these is given a very high value.

What is given a high value is a stupid game called 'free market capitalism' which can be easily swayed to make some people very rich, and which is currently trying to turn everything it touches into a market.

No matter how clever Veblen was, I doubt anything in his philosophy explains how to tackle the political issue of persuading people to stop acting like idiots and start dealing with physical instead of the symbolic reality of capitalism.

And one reasons for that is that - as I said - many people are completely isolated from the effects of their lifestyle.

Veblen wasn't. But his reality isn't the reality that most people live in today.

So how are you going to persuade people to start paying attention to those kinds of issues when there's absolutely nothing in their immediate environment telling them they have to?

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Sat Mar 17th, 2007 at 03:05:48 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Really interesting, thanks.
May I ask what's your relationship to him, if you haven't mentioned it already?

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes
by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Sat Mar 17th, 2007 at 12:41:41 PM EST
My relationship to Veblen?  Oh my! What a question!!

The recession of 1981-82 directly hurt me and many of my friends.  In fact, it could be argued that many have never recovered.  What was so scary about this recession was not merely its seriousness, but the fact that no one I knew had any mechanism for explaining it.  So I started to read seriously.  Eventually I would read most of the name political economists.  The one I knew best--Keynes--was the guy whose theories had been discarded by Volker and the Reaganauts.  The one I had never heard of--Veblen--came highly recommended by JK Galbraith.

For page after page, book after book, Veblen's writings read like an instruction manual for how the American industrial system worked or did not work.  It was literally breath-taking.  My research branched out into other writers who had seen America built.  It wasn't long until I had read over 1000 serious books and felt the need to construct an anti-Reaganaut "manifesto."  By 1987, it was mostly done so I sent copies to folks I thought had a chance to understand it.  One went to a local professor I trusted named Paul Wellstone.  Another went to a really smart Finnish guy I met in high school.  I expected both would write a few comments and return the manuscript.  Wellstone did just that.  The fellow from Finland "misunderstood" the assignment and instead found it a publisher.  It was published in 1989 under the title "Tuottajat ja Saalistajat: Johdatus ekoteolliseen ratkaisuun."

By 1991, I found myself living 15 miles (25 km) from the Veblen house in Minnesota.  It was in disastrous shape so I began to agitate for its restoration.  An "angel" appeared by the name of William C. Melton who not only had the cash for such a project but understood Veblen's importance because he was the son of a noted Veblen scholar from the University of Texas.  Relieved, I returned to taking regular pictures of the restoration and trying to find an American publisher for my neo-Veblenian manifesto.

The one I found was also the president of the Association For Evolutionary Economists (AFEE)--an organization dedicated to promoting heterodox economic thinking like Veblen's.  His name was John Adams and had also graduated from that "notorious" school in Texas that had given us C. Wright Mills, Bill Melton, and Rick Tilman--Veblen's most diligent scholar.  By now my book was called "Elegant Technology" and was introduced to the world at the 1993 convention of the American Economics Association in Anaheim.  My speech to them can be found here.

These days I try to keep an arms-length distance from the academics who debate the minutia of Veblen's life but otherwise am willing to give tours of the restored farm to nearly anyone who asks.  Because of my role in the restoration of the farmhouse, I have much better relationship with the Veblen family.  I did a .PDF of the restoration for the 1995 family reunion which is still the most popular download from my website.

"Remember the I35W bridge--who needs terrorists when there are Republicans"

by techno (reply@elegant-technology.com) on Sun Mar 18th, 2007 at 09:54:48 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Sadly enought, Veblen's hopes for the class of engineers were not to be realized.
by citizen k (sansracine yahoo.fr) on Sat Mar 17th, 2007 at 12:56:16 PM EST
You got that right!!!!!!

Couple of reasons why I haven't given up hope on Engineers, however.

  1. My book Elegant Technology was first published, in Finnish, (NOW do you understand why I think the Finns are the brightest people on earth??) by a publishing house owned by the pension funds of a trade union of engineers.  (If you live in USA, I understand why this might be hard to believe.)

  2. My brother-in-law, a Boeing engineer, was involved in the SPEA strike in Seattle (5 years ago?).  I was involved with the P-9 strike against Hormel.  To have a aerospace engineer at probably the most famous manufacturer on earth sound EXACTLY like an angry meatpacker was a real revelation.

"Remember the I35W bridge--who needs terrorists when there are Republicans"
by techno (reply@elegant-technology.com) on Sat Mar 17th, 2007 at 01:10:43 PM EST
[ Parent ]
There is yet hope for financial engineering based upon the mutual creation of value  - rather than the EXTRACTION of value by creating IOU's / claims over value and using credit derivatives to foist the risk elsewhere....

"The future is already here -- it's just not very evenly distributed" William Gibson
by ChrisCook (cojockathotmaildotcom) on Sat Mar 17th, 2007 at 03:39:10 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I THINK were are on the same page here.  Chapter Six of my book "Elegant Technology" delves into the arcane subject of a people's monetary theory.  Find it at:

"Remember the I35W bridge--who needs terrorists when there are Republicans"
by techno (reply@elegant-technology.com) on Sun Mar 18th, 2007 at 09:58:32 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Veblen's contemporary Fred Taylor had more influence on the engineers.
by citizen k (sansracine yahoo.fr) on Sun Mar 18th, 2007 at 11:25:17 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Thanks for another great diary, techno!

One small quibble:

Veblen could have come to the conclusion that most Americans eventually reach--i.e. that the richer a person was, the smarter.

I keep reading and hearing people say that most Americans believe this or think this, but are we sure?  I know it's repeated often in the media, and I've heard people use it as a put-down, but I've never met anyone who actually believes it or thinks that.

You might be interested in seeing this -- the barn moving made me think of it:


Maybe we can eventually make language a complete impediment to understanding. -Hobbes

by Izzy (izzy at eurotrib dot com) on Sat Mar 17th, 2007 at 09:37:07 PM EST
Why am I reminded of Technocracy ?  (He said with a grin.)

She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre
by ATinNM on Sun Mar 18th, 2007 at 03:22:57 PM EST
Perhaps because you find the very idea of the technologically literate becoming involved in politics and other group decisions to be essentially absurd?

Keep on grinning.  The Technocrats may have been naive, but personally, I would MUCH rather be associated with them than with Republicans, Marxists, Libertarians, Communists, Moonies, or any of the other crackpot Leisure Class movements.  People like me are routinely called "geeks" and "nerds."  By that standard, being called a Technocrat is a high compliment.

(He said with a BIGGER grin!)

"Remember the I35W bridge--who needs terrorists when there are Republicans"

by techno (reply@elegant-technology.com) on Sun Mar 18th, 2007 at 07:28:07 PM EST
[ Parent ]
As someone who is technologically literate and been involved in left wing politics for 30+ years ... I don't think I'm absurd.  

She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre
by ATinNM on Sun Mar 18th, 2007 at 07:37:19 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Sorry if I was excessively defensive about the Technocrats.

The first Veblen conference I attended, I went essentially to ask if anyone understood "Engineers and the Price System."

For anyone who tries to wade through that book the basic message is: Modern societies have become so complex that only those who understand the technological umbilical cord that supports us are really qualified to make the big decisions of government and other group behavior.  The group with the best mechanisms for learning and teaching these facts is the engineers.

I understand THAT.  It's the rest of the book that baffles me.

Anyway, back to the conference.  I ask about Engineers and get some bad vibes.  Worse, I got a rant about the awfulness of Technocracy.

When I was doing research for Elegant Technology I had read a fistful of literature from some old Technocrats.  It wasn't very sophisticated in either conception or execution but it wasn't as hopelessly embarrassing as this cranky Veblenite would have us believe.  Veblen's reputation will not be destroyed because the Technocrats liked him.  

And if indeed you are a technologically literate lefty, congratulations on being part of a VERY small group in USA.  For example, I have met fewer than 10 fellow Americans who understand why Scandinavian engineers have a FAR higher social status in their home countries than engineers in USA while STILL finding it necessary to belong to a trade union.

I also want to be clear about my own technological literacy.  If you assign the above chart a scale from 1-100, I score about 200 points--NOT because I excel in any category, but because I score decent points in all four of them.  I am a bit like Veblen here--good enough to get into the club of technological literates but not so good I can make a living in any single category.

"Remember the I35W bridge--who needs terrorists when there are Republicans"

by techno (reply@elegant-technology.com) on Mon Mar 19th, 2007 at 02:17:53 AM EST
[ Parent ]
For anyone who tries to wade through that book the basic message is: Modern societies have become so complex that only those who understand the technological umbilical cord that supports us are really qualified to make the big decisions of government and other group behavior.  The group with the best mechanisms for learning and teaching these facts is the engineers.

It has been pointed out the highest tier of the Chinese government is (almost?) entirely made up of engineers.

"It's the statue, man, The Statue."

by Carrie (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Mon Mar 19th, 2007 at 03:28:12 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Modern societies have become so complex that only those who understand the technological umbilical cord that supports us are really qualified to make the big decisions of government and other group behavior.

Giving the power to the scientists or the engineers is an old fantasy. However, even if technology is a very important element, society is not a technical system and engineers have seldom a good understanding of the complexity of human and social issues. Unless they have supplemented their education with social sciences like psychology or sociology, they tend to have a reductionist approach of social issues.

The group with the best mechanisms for learning and teaching these facts is the engineers.
What allows you to make this assertion? My own experience (as an engineer, as a teacher and as a management consultant) confirms what I said above: I have been appalled by the poor management skills of many engineers, even at the highest level...

There is also a theoretical issue: as I said in this comment:

What I referred to in our discussion was one of the fundamental laws of Systems Theory, namely the law of requisite variety, which says: "The variety of a control subsystem must be equal or superior to the variety of the controlled system". Variety is a measure of the number of distinct states a system can be in.

Applied to a complex system like a human society, which is fractal (i.e. the level of complexity remains the same at any level of the system), the law of requisite variety means that a small number of persons (for example a government), even highly skilled and informed, cannot master the variety/complexity of the system it has to govern, hence will not be able to tackle a number of situations.

BTW, France has given a lot of power to the engineers (from the "Grandes Ecoles"), with mixed results: ask Jérôme... ;-)

"Dieu se rit des hommes qui se plaignent des conséquences alors qu'ils en chérissent les causes" Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet

by Melanchthon on Mon Mar 19th, 2007 at 05:03:14 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Personally I blame France's problems on (partly) substituting the political dominance of engineers by that of énarques...

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes
by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Mon Mar 19th, 2007 at 08:09:17 AM EST
[ Parent ]
It's all De Gaulle's fault.

On with the 6th republic!

"It's the statue, man, The Statue."

by Carrie (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Mon Mar 19th, 2007 at 08:13:23 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Sorry if I was excessively defensive about the Technocrats.

No problem.  I should have provided a context for my comment so that something like ...

Anyway, back to the conference.  I ask about Engineers and get some bad vibes.  Worse, I got a rant about the awfulness of Technocracy.

wouldn't have happened.  I've been there & have bought that particular t-shirt as well.

She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre

by ATinNM on Mon Mar 19th, 2007 at 09:03:57 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I have been thinking of the relevance of the Pirate party and Veblens farm, so now that this has gone slightly off-topic anyway I will introduce it with my latest Pirate-diary. If you prefer to read in proper order, the links to earlier Pirate-diarys are at the bottom of this diary.

I do not know if you were around when I wrote them, but anyway we are a political party with a core constituency of computer geeks. And we are more or less treating the politics as a system we are trying to hack.

Sweden's finest (and perhaps only) collaborative, leftist e-newspaper Synapze.se

by A swedish kind of death on Sun Mar 18th, 2007 at 07:56:18 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I have a cousin who was studying physics at Tulsa--a BIG school for scientists needed to find oil, so physics is taught as a serious job-related skill.  As I explained a little of the producer / predator dichotomy as manifest in the differentiation between the Technology and Liberal Arts schools, he tells me of the night his buddies organized a cross-campus raid on the liberal arts school.  "It was a simple matter of wanting to apply standard tests for the presence of intelligent life," he explained.

So I think I understand your Pirate party.  I have often wished some hackers would cancel third-world debt or some other computer "crime" that would benefit humanity.

"Remember the I35W bridge--who needs terrorists when there are Republicans"

by techno (reply@elegant-technology.com) on Mon Mar 19th, 2007 at 02:28:59 AM EST
[ Parent ]
So since trying another variation on Marxism seems a losing game plan, the better approach would be looking into the alternate critiques of capitalism that were swept away in the euphoria surrounding the Bolshevik Revolution.

There was a whole lot of intellectual and practical experimentation on alternative social and economic organisation in the 19th century and. as you say, it would be important to revisit their successes and failures in order to tru to devise a better alternative.

"It's the statue, man, The Statue."

by Carrie (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Mon Mar 19th, 2007 at 04:04:17 PM EST
This is an amazing diary. So long, and yet it's obvious it's just screatching the surface. I'm going to have to read Engineers and the Price System.

"It's the statue, man, The Statue."
by Carrie (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Mon Mar 19th, 2007 at 04:15:32 PM EST

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