Friday was the birthday of the sociologist and economist, Thorstein Veblen.
Besides his technical work he was a popular and witty critic of capitalism, as shown by his best known book The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899).
He combined sociology with economics in his masterpiece, The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), arguing there was a basic distinction between the productiveness of “industry,” run by engineers, which manufactures goods, and the parasitism of “business,” which exists only to make profits for a leisure class. The chief activity of the leisure class was “conspicuous consumption“, and their economic contribution is “waste,” activity that contributes nothing to productivity. The American economy was therefore made inefficient and corrupt by the businessmen, though he never made that claim explicit. Veblen believed that technological advances were the driving force behind cultural change, but, unlike many contemporaries, he refused to connect change with progress.
In spite of difficulties of sometimes archaic language, caused in large part by Veblen’s struggles with the terminology of unilinear evolution and of biological determination of social variation that still dominated social thought when he began to write, Veblen’s work remains relevant, and not simply for the phrase “conspicuous consumption.” His evolutionary approach to the study of economic systems is once again in vogue and his model of recurring conflict between the existing order and new ways can be of great value in understanding the new global economy.