The Theory of the Leisure Class By Thorstein Veblen

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    Almost a century after its original publication, Thorstein Veblen's work is as fresh and relevant as ever. Veblen's The Theory of the Leisure Class is in the tradition of Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations and Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan, yet it provides a surprisingly contemporary look at American economics and society.

    Establishing such terms as conspicuous consumption and pecuniary emulation, Veblen's most famous work has become an archetype not only of economic theory, but of historical and sociological thought as well. As sociologist Alan Wolfe writes in his Introduction, Veblen skillfully . . . wrote a book that will be read so long as the rich are different from the rest of us; which, if the future is anything like the past, they always will be. The Theory of the Leisure Class

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    --The Theory of the Leisure Class

    Explanatory Notes 320 A dry and difficult read as one must hack one's way through the arcane language and outmoded concepts, but once one does, one discovers a truly interesting approach to economics.

    It must have seemed odd to an economist of the early 20th century, at least one capable of transcending the views of his times, that while economics and human prosperity values certain activities (i.e. labor, investment, trade and construction), human society seems to value other activities, most of which are downright inimical to these values (i.e. conquest, command and leisure). Thinking purely from a goal of human prosperity, the people whom should be the most admired in human society are those who build the most, work the hardest and prosper through active trade and investment. Instead, the people who command the highest echelons of respect in society are those who destroy the most (military leaders and war heroes), work the least (the genteel nobility) and rule by fiat and command (royalty, emperors and dictators).

    From this disparity, Veblen concluded that great wealth is not the goal of human activity, but rather what people aspire to, both in their economic activities and in life, is to be a part of The Leisure Class. It's important to note that the term Leisure Class does not necessarily apply to the very rich, nor necessarily the very idle, but rather to those whose livelihood is as far removed from mundane labor as possible. By Veblen's standard, a British foreign officer who makes next to nothing but is in command of a small chunk of India is a member of the Leisure Class, whereas a millionaire who spends all day answering phone calls and checking in on his chain of carpet stores is not. The best the working rich can hope to do is to emulate the Leisure Class by spending their wealth on unnecessary, but highly visual, emblems of success in hopes of being mistaken for members of the Leisure Class. Perhaps the most widely known and resilient of his concepts, this is what Veblen coined as conspicuous consumption.

    The key, as Veblen points out, is that for people of the Leisure Class, the essence of their livelihood is tied not to work, but to exploit. A general gets invited to the ball, whereas a rich merchant does not. Why? Because he does not work, but rather merely goes to war from time to time. According to Veblen, this tendency to regard exploit as socially superior to work goes back to our early history as hunter-gatherers and is probably descended from the original division of labor that occurred between men and women. The men went out and hunted while the women stayed home and worked. Despite the fact that the work done by women actually provided far more material support to the community than the occasional caribou or mastodon brought home by the men, it was the hunt that was celebrated in cave paintings and which was valued in the formation of society's oldest political hierarchies. The best hunter usually became the leader of his tribe. As such, men were the world's first Leisure Class.

    Perhaps this disparity in regard arose because exploits such as the hunt and war required courage and strength, whereas labor and production merely required effort and the occasional act of ingenuity, but as the distinction between the respect one gets for exploit versus work became more palpable, this division of duty became more rigidly defined to the point where the male hunters refused to even gut or clean their own prey, reserving that less dignified task for the female labor class and thereby preserving the quality of their own status.

    As humanity abandoned the Primitive stage of the tribe for the Predatory Stage of the kingdom, and civilization arose with the advent of agriculture and cities, the Leisure Class merely followed along. It was no longer the best hunter, but the best warrior, or the strongest landholder who became the local warlord or king. But the essential fact remained: it was the dangerous exploit that ultimately determined who would claim the top rungs of society for themselves and their descendants. The lower rungs would be reserved, as they always were, for those whom life had selected for mere work.

    I'm not sure how relevant Veblen's theories on the Leisure Class are in a society where there is no royalty, hardly anybody can name a war hero, and practically nobody frets about whether they're good enough to warrant an invitation to the cotillion. But his theory is perhaps prescient in that, when you look at the most revered people in American society, they're not our hordes of hard-working suckers like Joe the Plumber, or even our eye-poppingly rich masters of industry like Bill Gates or Donald Trump. They're our celebrities and sports heroes. We don't wait out in the cold for three hours in order to merely catch a glimpse of the Queen. We wait out there to see Oprah Winfrey, Tom Cruise or the Jonas Brothers.

    What separates these celebrities from the everyone else whose corpses we'd gladly step over to see them? In the end, it's exploit. Maybe in our modern information age, it's no longer the best hunter, or the strongest warrior whom we look up to as our natural masters, but the guy with the best three-point shot. The girl who can sing and act and plays Hannah Montana on TV. They're people whom we've recognized as having some ability that, for some reason, removes them from the tedium of work which has claimed the rest of us. 320 I recently read Mills’ ‘White Collar’ and couldn’t get over how often he referred to this book. All the same, I hesitated before reading it, not least since my concern that Mills’ book was ‘a bit old’ was obviously multiplied by the age of this one. But this is brilliant. Now, you know when people tell you that you should read a book because it is ‘a classic’ you are likely to think – yeah, that just means you’ve read it and so either want to just show off or you think that ‘if I’ve put myself through it, you might as well too’ – well, no, you should read this one, not just because it is good for you, but because it is seriously interesting.

    The most obvious point people will bring up about this book is the idea of conspicuous consumption – and why not, it really is such a useful idea. But I think to understand that you need to first get that the major point of this book is the idea that society develops in ways that are similar to Darwinian evolution – not least, that it, that society isn’t in a fixed state, but rather that it develops and changes as it goes on through adaptations given the environment society finds itself in. So, rather than society ‘progressing’, it is in fact evolving. I mean, rather than moving towards increasing perfection, it is instead passing through stages of equilibrium until those equilibriums are disturbed and forced into a new equilibrium.

    And so to understand how the leisured class manifests today, it helps to understand the history that has produced that class. To explain this Veblen starts his analysis by considering communal, hunter/gatherer societies and discusses divisions of labour and the impact these had on social standing. The most important early division of labour being that between men and women, leading to the higher social standing of men and ‘men’s work’. But also through higher prowess in achieving one’s ends.

    Veblen makes it clear that it requires a certain level of development of the productivity of labour before mere prowess stops being enough to ensure social esteem. As society becomes more productive and certain people are able to keep a larger and larger shares of what society produces, the major way that the ruling classes have of showing their position in society is by conspicuous leisure. But this is a complex thing – it is actually hard work to do nothing at all. Veblen uses the idea of the division of labour to show that it is not that the leisure classes do nothing at all, but that what they do can’t be considered ‘productive’. So, he talks of a French king who basically cooks to death beside a fire, rather than move his royal person away from the heat, as this is the job of a footman – or I think a Polynesian king who starved to death rather than lift the food sitting beside him to his royal mouth. The point being that the leisured classes avoiding anything that could be considered productive work – and after a while avoiding such work does not remain an affectation, but rather becomes a dire necessity of self-definition.

    The notion of conspicuous leisure is really interesting – in classes below the ruling ones, a person’s status is often not defined by one’s own leisure, since they are likely to not be high enough up the social ladder to be able to afford to avoid work entirely, but rather in your ability to allow the vicarious leisure of your wife. Again, not that ‘running the house’ is pure leisure, but since it brings nothing into the house per se it can be seen as a kind of leisure as conspicuous expense. And again, women are likely to be lavished with trinkets and ‘nice’ things and that their consumption of these are the last things families give up, as it is a vicarious way to show the social standing of the whole family.

    This then transfers to goods – he discusses spoons, as an instance, that might be either hand or machine made and although both kinds might look exactly the same, more or less, the more expensive hand-made ones are considered more beautiful. Here it is conspicuous consumption proper that we are observing, but it is unlikely that those engaged in the purchase perceive it as such. That is, you are likely to see your purchase of the equally serviceable, but much more expensive spoon as simply an aesthetic choice, rather than one allowing you to show off your wealth. This part reminded me very much of Sennett’s Craftsmen, the idea of a craftsperson incorporating little flaws in the material being worked because these show the individuality of the piece is also discussed here too.

    I’m going to quote a couple of paragraphs from the excellent introduction to this book to show some of the scope of what Veblen discusses here:

    “Do not think that the ideas Veblen introduced in his first two chapters complete the shocks The Theory of the Leisure Class has to offer. Twelve more tightly packed chapters lie ahead, each with insights (both subtle and biting) into matters that affect (and infect) our own times. Among his conclusions are the following: (1) to be seen doing work is to be lowered in social esteem; (2) ceremonial labour is executed only for show, in concert with the busy idleness of conspicuous leisure; (3) the superficial display of good manners and good forms is a waste of time, yet clung to as an enhancement of one’s social prestige; (4) although modern-day gentlemen may not wolf down their caviar, their gluttony is merely more discreet than that of feudal lords who gnawed on beef-bones; (5) the host who displays expensive forms of hospitality expects this to demonstrate that he owns so much he cannot consume it all himself; (6) the obsessive decoration of homes is too often the sad result of desperate house-wives whose lives are defined by the wasteful expenditure of time and money; (7) the poor cling to cheap gewgaws in an attempt to emulate upper-class habits accepted as the sign of social respectability; (8) when educated to believe that to save their earnings is not a good, people buy useless products that only bring profit to their manufacturers; (9) the age-old craving for gold and diamonds (breeders of wars and misery, lacking all social use) is supplemented by the modern hunger for brand-names that give objects a value they do not actually possess.

    “By Chapter VI—‘Pecuniary Canons of Taste’ where the intensity of Veblen’s critiques continues to be quietly raised to new levels of outrage—the trajectory of his thesis is well underway. Church worship encouraged by religious institutions is yet another form of ‘honorific waste’. The worship of God is based on the public’s attempt to emulate His high status in the hope of winning His esteem, despite the fact that He is but another genteel gentleman of leisure. Team sports and gambling follow the same impulse that leads to belief in God, since all are based on ‘animistic beliefs and anthropomorphic creeds’. Veblen likens the ornate robes worn by churchmen to the clothes that restrict women’s mobility (those corsets!) to suggest that neither group has any useful work to pursue. He names the mutual devotion by priests and women to ‘doing good’ through ineffectual reforms and philanthropies as further proof of their social inadequacies. As for the ritualistic pursuit of academic honours by university professors, their efforts—like those of fraternities and college athletics— have little use in the modern world.”

    As you can see, there is lots of interesting stuff here – with even God and His representatives coming under the sway of their power so as to display their own conspicuous consumption and leisure.

    The bits of this I found most remarkable where the bits that most reminded me of Bourdieu’s sociology. Basically, Bourdieu argues that different social classes find ways to display their status by the things they prefer. He talks about how the working class think people that would spend as much as they earn in a year on a watch seem utterly incomprehensible to them, while those buying the watch see a beauty in the watch that is mostly hidden from the working class by the ‘opportunity costs’ that amount of money could buy of things other than the watch. For Bourdieu taste is formed out of habit and out of the need to display one’s position – however unconsciously. And Veblen says much the same thing. Here habits and class rituals become second-nature and common sense. The preference for one thing over another is rarely understood in terms of outright conspicuous consumption, but rather as a kind of necessity. This provides a dark vision of society, since capitalism constantly creates new needs, making old ones simultaneously repulsive. This is more than mere fashion – but the active definition of one’s identity within society.

    He twice discusses how English spelling – and the very difficult to learn rules that govern it’s ‘beauty’ – are part of the busy work involved in being able to display social distinction – all matters of taste, such as the archaistic rules of English spelling – allow those allowed the leisure to learn such rules the ability to judge those as manifestly inferior given their clear inability to master these rules. Hard to imagine something more like Bourdieu’s ideas of cultural capital, habitus, symbolic violence and distinction.

    This book is surprisingly modern in its outlook. And really worth the read. 320

    … it is only necessary that the scholar should be able to put in evidence some learning which is conventionally recognized as evidence of wasted time; and the classics lend themselves with great facility to this use.

    This is a difficult book to evaluate, since Veblen simultaneously gets so much right and so much wrong.

    Everyone is already familiar with the book’s central concept, conspicuous consumption: the spending of money on useless goods and services in order to enhance one’s social standing. Veblen gave this concept a name and perhaps its most classic exposition, yet the idea had already been around for a long time. We can see a perfect expression of this phenomenon, for example, in Moliere’s Le Bourgeois gentilhomme, which features a vulgar businessman attempting to attain the cultural trappings of the hereditary leisure class—dancing, fencing, music, philosophy—and failing, of course, since he had spent most of his life working.

    Veblen was writing in the Gilded Age, the era of Vanderbilts and Morgans and Goulds, so he had plenty of examples of ostentatious display to choose from. The best parts of this book read as a straightforward satire on the degraded taste of the superrich. Veblen restricts himself to certain facets of the life of leisure, such as the pursuit of sport—hunting, horse-racing, football—noting that these expensive and time-consuming activities are often justified as instilling positive moral qualities, even though they arguably only promote craftiness and cruelty (two features Veblen finds characteristic of the leisure class).

    Fashion gets an extended treatment, of course, being the most obvious example of conspicuous consumption: expensive and delicate clothes, of dubious aesthetic merit, designed to make any sort of labor manifestly impossible. Veblen also focuses on vicarious leisure: how wealth is displayed, not only by allowing the wealthy man to avoid work, but also to allow his wife and even his servants to be inactive (thus the elaborate, impractical costumes of the lackeys). Veblen extends his analysis to the church, seeing priests in their vestments as the liveried servants of God, who must remain conspicuously inactive in order to properly convey God’s magnificence.

    Yet it does not require a first-rate mind in order to see examples of conspicuous consumption nearly everywhere. Grass lawns are popular precisely because they are expensive and difficult to maintain. High-class restaurants use exotic ingredients and rococo preparations; but does the food taste any better? Romantic love is communicated with costly jewelry, and the ritual of matrimony must likewise be robed in expense. The human body itself conforms to this tendency to display. Whereas in the past it was desirable to be plump, since this showed an ability to afford food, nowadays we like to be thin, since junk food is cheap and time to exercise is a luxury.

    Indeed, you might say that today conspicuous leisure has become conspicuous anti-leisure. Silicon Valley entrepreneurs pride themselves on working long hours, wearing minimalist clothes, and eating artificial super foods that provide nutrients without pleasure. Now that most of the things Veblen satirized are widely available the only option is to scorn them.

    Anyone must admit that Veblen’s account does have a great deal of truth. At the same time, as a general theory of the economy and society, it is extremely limited. For one, the theory is not always borne out in practice. John D. Rockefeller, possibly the richest man in history, had a puritan disdain for fashion, art, and flashy mansions. More generally, Veblen’s account is laden with a moral evaluation which is difficult to accept. Though Veblen professes to be a neutral observer of economic life, it is clear that he finds the lifestyle of the upper classes to be frivolous and wasteful.

    At first glance this may seem justifiable, until one realizes that Veblen considers virtually everything beyond industrial work to be wasteful. As the opening quote shows, Veblen even considers the reading of classics to be a mere trapping of the upper class—a flagrantly useless exercise—which is especially ironic, since Veblen’s own work is nowadays considered to be classic and is read for that reason. To my mind, virtually everything enjoyable in life, even Veblen’s work itself, falls within Veblen’s economic definition of “waste” and would thus classify as conspicuous consumption.

    Considering this, the challenge would be to somehow separate “legitimate” taste from those degraded by the influence of conspicuous wealth. This is easy enough in extreme cases (such as the Vanderbilt family mansions or anything touched by Trump’s brand) but it becomes far trickier in others. To pick just one example, Shakespeare certainly considered financial gain as much as pure literary art when he composed his plays; and this may well have improved them.

    Veblen’s hard line between the economically useful or wasteful is mirrored in his hard line between the industrious class and the pecuniary class. The former are the productive workers, the latter are the gaudy managers, businessmen, traders, and captains of industry who exploit these laborers to support a life of luxury. But this dichotomy is likewise difficult to justify. While a great deal of the “work” performed by this upper class can legitimately be called useless and exploitative, it seems difficult to accept that all management and financial activity is socially useless. Further, as often noted, Veblen’s analysis presupposes that there is a finite amount of resources to be divided. He does not take into account the growth of the economy (which is spurred by consumption, “wasteful” or not).

    Putting all this aside, it must be said that many aspects of Veblen’s analysis have aged poorly. Veblen was concerned with making his analysis “scientific,” which for him meant using the evolutionary language of Darwin or Herbert Spencer. While his intellectual versatility is admirable, Veblen’s talk of “archaic” or “barbaric” traits or human “types” sounds both unconvincing and even alarming to modern ears.

    I should also mention that I found the book to be surprisingly turgid. Though C. Wright Mills, in his excellent introduction, singles out Veblen’s prose for its quality, I generally found Veblen’s writing to be dense and unmusical. Here is a typical passage:
    As between the various habits, or habitual modes and directions of expression, which go to make up an individual’s standard of living, there is an appreciable difference in point of persistence under counteracting circumstances and in point of the degree of imperativeness with which the discharge seeks a given direction.

    In the last analysis, then, this book stands as the classic exposition of a useful concept. At the same time, the theory is overly simple, and ensconced in too many outdated ideas, to be fully accepted. Read this book if you find the leisure to do so. 320 Everybody knows conspicuous consumption, but that is not the idea from this book that should have survived. Sign me up for pecuniary decency any day -- or rather don't, since it is far more insidious and its explanatory value far better.

    Our old friend conspicuous consumption appeals to us, taken out of its context, of course, because it looks so much like an individual decision that we can avoid. You add the complete lack of context to the fact that talking about structural issues rather than individual decisions to americans is the equivalent of blowing a great big dog whistle, and you get a comforting, easy moral imperative that virtually any one can follow by simply carefully describing their motivations. We don't do THAT, we only buy what we really need, plus some occasional treats, but it's all okay. Pecuniary decency, by contrast, would have us interrogating that word need instead, a far more troubling proposition. Pecuniary decency explains why you can't wear that sweater with the hole in it, even if it still functions fine as a sweater. It tells you why you think you need a smart phone even if you don't, why everyone thinks they need one even if they don't, until everything is finally set up so that you actually DO need a smartphone but it's only because people thought they needed them when they didn't. Pecuniary decency makes a mess of the world where the primary goal is to buy different stuff instead of less stuff, because maybe you find you don't really need those things after all. Maybe your needs were actually keeping up with the Joneses and you didn't even realize.

    I also very much like the tone of this; Veblen is able to say unbelievably devastating things without the slightest hint of upset or perspiration. The things he is able to say about religion, about sports, about a university education, about the status of women in society, about tradition; somehow if he were riled up he simply couldn't have done it, but the tone he uses makes anything possible. I aspire to that tone. One day, perhaps, if I am very smart and very diligent, I will arrive where Veblen left us a century ago: a forgotten paradise where people express their ideas without fear or ad hominem attack. Send me a key to this place, Thorstein, and I will sit with you of an evening, and we will talk. 320

    There is a lot of ignorance in this book dressed up in highfalutin proclamations.

    The author creates a make-believe certainty that the savage, barbarian, and primitive peoples determined and evolved into our habits, ethics and virtues distinguishing the leisure class ethos from the working class and that the ‘blonds’ and ‘brunettes’ have a different outlook towards life caused by those beginnings. The delinquents of the lower classes have more in common with the leisure class then you might expect, and Veblen will make sure to tell you why.

    This book acts as a nexus for the absurdities of Jordan Peterson and Stephen Pinker, the former a conservative and the latter a liberal. They both meet together in the substance free wanderings within Veblen’s book. They all love to tell their ‘just so stories’ which defends their worldview of privileging the already privileged as the norm and they’ll make their identity the identity without any identity thus giving themselves the superior status by default and anyone who is not in their binary worldview gets excluded.

    Just one example of many that linger in this book that would tie the three together, Veblen would consider it laughable that women would consider themselves any way shape or form equal or better or the same as men. For him, all he has to do is look at the functional reality of women being dependent on men and how they stay home and so on. Pinker would say that evolution made it so through necessity and Peterson would even babble something about lobsters to prove his point. Pinker is certainly clear about biological differences between the sexes defining who we are and Peterson uses lobsters to say the same thing. Gender is not a binary it is on a spectrum; I can forgive Veblen for not knowing that but for modern people it is just willful ignorance that explains it.

    The connections are even deeper between the three. They love their identity without an identity and don’t think privileging the already privileged is wrong since their class they are in is the only class without a distinction according to their worldview. They rationalize and justify everything through their own privilege and make everything else abhorrent that does not fit their class’s self-evident truths.

    Veblen has interesting things to say that are made up out of whole cloth about sports, honor, dueling, the South, the American negro, churches, superstition, gambling and even Japanese Tea Ceremony which had no relation to reality whatsoever, and other ways we think about the world. Pinker in his book Better Angels had a large overlap with most of what was contained in this book and made the same kind of absurd conclusions. I actually like Better Angels for its main theme about violence going down, but he was just as absurd as Veblen was overall elsewhere. The nicest thing one can say about Veblen is that he was right from a 40000-foot altitude in the Gilded Age time period about the leisure class conspicuously consuming to impress others and so on but only with a really narrow focus point. Life is complex and there is a lot of moving pieces between all segments of society, and really, are the delinquents of society just as ready to fight the wars as the conservative vanguards of the leisure class? Does that kind of substance free declaration really have any meaning at all? And what does it even mean ‘delinquents of society’? And what’s this about ‘blonds’ and ‘brunettes’ behaving differently? Seriously?

    Pinker, Peterson and Veblen all would always blame the individual for their situation and seem to forget that ‘but for the grace of God go I’ or not everyone is born in their privileged class (either financial, social, or opportunity availability, one of my all-time favorite un-self-aware books is Sandburg’s Lean In since I still wrestle with should I have had Larry Summers or Mark Zuckerberg to have been my mentor). Pinker, Peterson and Veblen each have a quasi-mystical belief in evolutionary psychology which clearly is a sort of pseudo-science since there is no data for which I could provide which would refute their hypothesis that our ethos comes from primitive, barbaric or savage past heritage. Veblen definitely endorses that mumbo-jumbo directly and Pinker and Peterson seem to do the same but garble it with further non-sense.

    I would say that this book is not void of some great statements and it is certainly well written with beautiful prose. Though, it is so easy to take this book and pervert its logic and come up with fascist dogma by pretending that all of life can be explained through privileging the already privileged and making that identity with-out an identity the only true identity. Hitler does that in his Mein Kampf. I don’t like Pinker or Peterson and I think they both come dangerously close to enabling racist or empowering fascist. Donald Trump would love this book or Pinker’s if he knew how to read. 320 This is the only book I have ever read in which every single solitary sentence absolutely baffled the hell out of me. I made myself finish it, but I was on autopilot most of the time, just looking at the words rather than reading them. And I've now seen the word invidious enough times to last a lifetime. 320 Polysyllabic.

    Veblen was the stand out interesting figure for me from reading The Worldly Philosophers having read that I was led to read Theory of the Leisure Class. After that I read The Spirit Level and you can see ideas like the invidious comparison borne out in some of the findings discussed in that book. 320 Woody Guthrie observed, Some will rob you with a six-gun, and some with a fountain pen. Bob Dylan quoted these lyrics and added, Didn't take too long to find out, just what he was talking about. Thorstein Veblen, who found this situation to be bemusing if absurd, undertook to explain the social conventions and values that lead people to tolerate it. He presented a picture of society in which routine, casual, legally sanctioned predation is the object of honor and adulation.

    His explanation is applicable to all sorts of social phenomena, wherever the status system makes distinctions. For instance, it is no accident -- going on Veblen's logic -- that golf is the sporting activity par excellence of the jet set. Golf requires the wasteful setting aside of huge tracts of valuably situated land, the artificial maintenance of grassy fields, water traps, and patches of sand, it requires mastery of a sport-specific vocabulary, the possession of a (leather) bag of valuable golf clubs, carried about by a paid laborer, and an entire (ludicrous) wardrobe to be worn only on the links. It will be objected that people play golf because it's a fun game -- well, perhaps so, but why do they choose this game rather than basketball, or bocce ball, or Parcheesi? (Nothing is more fun than bocce ball.) Golf demonstrates status and prestige because it is wasteful and useless on such a grand scale.

    Similarly, we have the great importance attached to the wearing of lightly colored, collared shirts. The modern-day collar doesn't even have a practical function. And yet, it has the social function of advertising the wearer's wealth, since collars quickly become yellow with sweat, if not carefully maintained and/or frequently replaced.

    The beauty of this presentation is that it transcends cultural and temporal differences. It explains the behavior on display in the old TV show Cribs just as it explains the faux European castles that robber barons of the late 19th century had built for themselves. It explains why Japanese businessmen go for Scotch as their drink of choice just as why fur clothing was once so fashionable. It explains the mania for the latest cell phone technology (the cell phone being a possession displayed publicly). It explains the excessive cocaine use and whoring of Wall Street bigwigs during the housing bubble, as relayed in the movie Inside Job.

    The strength of Veblen's story relative to the story told by other thinkers in his vein is that it does not predict class solidarity. Quite the opposite. If the poor buy into the notion of status, then their object becomes the attainment of some status for themselves relative to their fellows -- and this precludes challenging the power structure in any meaningful, open way. In emulating the mores of the leisure class, the lower classes actually bolster their power and legitimacy. This argument seems more persuasive to me than Gramsci's idea of hegemony. In like fashion, the problems Veblen describes can be addressed by adapting institutions to function differently. They do not necessarily require a revolution, violent or otherwise.

    Veblen relies on a conjectural history -- informed as much as it could be by the history and anthropology available in his day -- that puts him in a long tradition of thinkers such as Aristotle, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Thomas Hobbes, Charles de Montesquieu, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Adam Smith (and it is probable that Aristotle was relying on older works that have not come down to us). This tradition sought to show how society first came to produce a surplus above its subsistence needs, and how the present arrangement for distributing the surplus was working out (whether examined in terms of abstract justice, utility, or putatively objective virtue ethics). Although subsequent research in anthropology and history would allow much more fleshing out of such an approach, it seems largely defunct among modern-day intellectuals (especially economists, among whom the maxim prevails that bygones are bygones). Alas.

    Some favorite quotations:

    Freedom from scruple, from sympathy, honesty and regard for life, may, within fairly wide limits, be said to further the success of the individual in the pecuniary culture. The highly successful men of all times have commonly been of this type; except those whose success has not been scored in terms of either wealth or power. It is only within narrow limits, and then only in the Pickwickian sense, that honesty is the best policy. (p. 137)

    The profession of law does not imply large ownership; but since no taint of usefulness, for other than the competitive purpose, attaches to the lawyer's trade, it grades high in the conventional scheme. The lawyer is exclusively occupied with the details of predatory fraud, either in achieving or in checkmating chicane, and success in the profession is therefore accepted as marking a large endowment of that barbarian astuteness which has always commanded men's respect and fear. (p. 142)

    In order to satisfy the requirements of the leisure-class scheme of life, the servant should show not only an attitude of subservience, but also the effects of special training and practice in subservience. The servant or wife should not only perform certain offices and show a servile disposition, but it is quite as imperative that they should show an acquired facility in the tactics of subservience -- a trained conformity to the canons of effectual and conspicuous subservience. Even to-day it is this aptitude and acquired skill in the manifestation of the servile relation that constitutes the chief element of utility in our highly paid servants, as well as one of the chief ornaments of the well-bred housewife. (p. 38)

    It is scarcely necessary to go into a discussion here of the particular points at which, or the particular manner in which, the canon of honorific expenditure habitually traverses the canons of moral conduct. The matter is one which has received large attention and illustration at the hands of those whose office it is to watch and admonish with respect to any departures from the accepted code of morals. In modern communities, where the dominant economic and legal feature of the community's life is the institution of private property, one of the salient features of the code of morals is the sacredness of property. There needs no insistence or illustration to gain assent to the proposition that the habit of holding private property inviolate is traversed by the other habit of seeking wealth for the sake of good repute to be gained through its conspicuous consumption. Most offences against property, especially offences of an appreciable magnitude, come under this head. It is also a matter of common notoriety and by-word that in offences which result in a large accession of property to the offender he does not ordinarily incur the extreme penalty or the extreme obloquy with which his offence would be visited on the ground of the naive moral code alone. The thief or swindler who has gained great wealth by his delinquency has a better chance of escaping the rigorous penalty of the law; and some good repute accrues to him from his increased wealth and from his spending the irregularly acquired possessions in a seemly manner. (p. 72)

    But the function of dress as an evidence of the ability to pay does not end with simply showing that the wearer consumes valuable goods in excess of what is required for physical comfort. Simple conspicuous waste of goods is effective and gratifying as far as it goes; it is good prima facie evidence of pecuniary success, and consequently prima facie evidence of social worth. But dress has subtler and more far-reaching possibilities that this crude, first-hand evidence of wasteful consumption only. If, in addition to showing that the wearer can afford to consume freely and uneconomically, it can also be shown in the same stroke that he or she is not under the necessity of earning a livelihood, the evidence of social worth is enhanced in a very considerable degree. Our dress, therefore, in order to serve its purpose effectually, should not only be expensive, but it should also make plain that the wearer is not engaged in any kind of productive labour... Much of the charm that invests the patent-leather shoe, the stainless linen, the lustrous cylindrical hat, and the walking-stick, which so greatly enhance the dignity of a gentleman, comes of their pointedly suggesting that the wearer cannot when so attired bear a hand in any employment that is directly and immediately of any human use. (pp. 104-105)

    Besides servants, currently recognized as such, there is at least one other class of persons whose garb assimilates them to the class of servants and shows many features that go to make up the womanliness of woman's dress. This is the priestly class. Priestly vestments show, in accentuated form, all the features that have been shown to be evidence of a servile status and a vicarious life. Even more strikingly than the everyday habit of the priest, the vestments, properly so called, are ornate, grotesque, inconvenient, and, at least ostensibly, comfortless to the point of distress. The priest is at the same time expected to refrain from useful effort and, when before the public eye, to present an impassively disconsolate countenance, very much after the manner of a well-trained domestic servant. The shaven face of the priest is a further item to the same effect. This assimilation of the priestly class to the class of body servants, in demeanour and apparel, is due to the similarity of the two classes as regards economic function. In economic theory, the priest is the body servant, constructively in attendance of the person of the divinity whose livery he wears. His livery is of a very expensive character, as it should be in order to set forth in a beseeching manner the dignity of the exalted master; but it is contrived to show that the wearing of it contributes little or nothing to the physical comfort of the wearer, for it is an item of vicarious consumption, and the repute which accrues from its consumption is to be imputed to the absent master, not to the servant. (p. 112)

    The process of readjustment of the accepted theory of life involves a degree of mental effort -- a more or less protracted and laborious effort to find and keep one's bearings under the altered circumstances. This process requires a certain expenditure of energy, and so presumes, for its successful accomplishment, some surplus of energy beyond that absorbed in the daily struggle for subsistence. Consequently it follows that progress is hindered by underfeeding and excessive physical hardship, no less effectually than by such a luxurious life as will shut out discontent by cutting off the occasions for it. The abjectly poor, and all those persons whose energies are entirely absorbed by the struggle for daily sustenance, are conservative because they cannot afford the effort of taking thought for the day after to-morrow; just as the highly prosperous are conservative because they have small occasion to be discontented with the situation as it stands to-day. (p. 126)

    These manifestations of the predatory temperament are all to be classed under the head of exploit. They are partly simple and unreflected expressions of an attitude of emulative ferocity, partly activities deliberately entered upon with a view to gaining repute for prowess. Sports of all kins are of the same general character, including prize-fights, bull-fights, athletics, shooting, angling, yachting, and games of skill, even where the element of destructive physical efficiency is not an obtrusive feature. Sports shade off from the basis of hostile combat, through skill, to cunning and chicanery, without its being possible to draw a line at any point. The ground of an addiction to sports is an archaic spiritual constitution -- the possession of the predatory emulative propensity in a relatively high potency. A strong proclivity to adventuresome exploit and to the infliction of damage is especially pronounce in those employments which are in colloquial usage specifically called sportsmanship. (p. 156)

    Sacred holidays, and holidays generally, are of the nature of a tribute levied on the body of the people. The tribute is paid in vicarious leisure, and the honorific effect which emerges is imputed to the person or the fact for whose good repute the holiday has been instituted. (p. 188)

    The priestly servitor of the inscrutable powers that move in the external world came to stand in the position of a mediator between these powers and the common run of uninstructed humanity; for he was possessed of a knowledge of the supernatural etiquette which would admit him into the presence. And as commonly happens with mediators between the vulgar and their masters, whether the the masters be natural or preternatural, he found it expedient to have the means at hand tangibly to impress upon the vulgar the fact that these inscrutable powers would do what he might ask of them. Hence, presently, a knowledge of certain natural processes which could be turned to account for spectacular effect, together with some sleight of hand, came to be an integral part of priestly lore. Knowledge of this kind passes for knowledge of the unknowable, and it owes its serviceability for the sacerdotal purpose to its recondite character. It appears to have been from this source that learning, as an institution, arose, and its differentiation from this its parent stock of magical ritual and shamanistic fraud has been slow and tedious, and is scarcely yet complete even in the most advanced of the higher seminars of learning. (p. 224)

    As has already been indicated, the distinction between exploit and drudgery is an invidious distinction between employments. Those employments which are to be classed as exploit are worthy, honourable, noble; other employments, which do no contain this element of exploit, and especially those that imply subservience or submission, are unworthy, debasing, ignoble. The concept of dignity, worth, or honour, as applied either to persons or conduct, is of first-rate consequence in the development of classes and of class distinctions, and it is therefore necessary to say something of its derivation and meaning. Its psychological ground may be indicated in outline as follows.

    As a matter of selective necessity, man is an agent. He is, in his own apprehension, a centre of unfolding impulsive activity -- teleological activity. He is an agent seeking in every act the accomplishment of some concrete, objective, or impersonal end. By force of his being such an agent he is possessed of a taste for effective work, and a distaste for futile effort. He has a sense of the merit and serviceability or efficiency and the demerit of futility, waste, or incapacity. This aptitude or propensity may be called the instinct of workmanship. Wherever the circumstance or traditions of life lead to an habitual comparison of one person with another in point of efficiencty, the instinct of workmanship works out in emulative or invidious comparison of persons. The extent to which this result follows depends in some considerable degree on the temperament of the population. In any community where such an invidious comparison of persons is habitually made, visible success becomes an end sought for its own utility as a basis of esteem. Esteem is gained and dispraise is avoided by putting one's efficiency in evidence. The result is that the instinct of workmanship works out in an emulative demonstration of force.

    During that primitive phase of social development, when the community is still habitually peaceable, perhaps sedantary, and without a developed system of individual ownership, the efficiency of the individual can be shown chiefly and most consistently in some employment that goes to further the life of the group. What emulation of an economic kind there is between the members of such a group will be chiefly emulation in industrial serviceability. At the same time the incentive to emulation is not strong, nor is the scope for emulation large.

    When the community passes from peaceable savagery to a predatory phase of life, the conditions of emulation change. The opportunity and the incentive to emulation increase greatly in scope and urgency. The activity of the men more and more takes on the character of exploit; and an invidious comparison of one hunter or warrior with another grows continually easier and more habitual. Tangible evidence of prowess -- trophies -- find a place in men's habits of thought as an essential feature to the paraphernalia of life. Booty, trophies of the chase or of the raid, come to be prized as evidence of preeminent force. Aggression becomes the accredited form of action, and booty serves as prima facie evidence of successful aggression. As accepted at this cultural stage, the accredited, worthy form of self-assertion is contest; and useful articles or services obtained by seizure or compulsion, serve as a conventional evidence of successful contest. Therefore, by contrast, the obtaining of goods by other methods than seizure comes to be accounted unworthy of man in his best estate. The performance of productive work, or employment in personal service, falls under the same odium for the same reason. An invidious distinction in this way arises between exploit and acquisition by seizure on the one hand and industrial employment on the other. Labour acquires the character of irksomeness by virtue of the indignity imputed to it.

    With the primitive barbarian, before the simple content of the notion has been obscured by its own ramifications and by a secondary growth of cognate ideas, honorable seems to connote nothing else than an assertion of superior force. Honourable is formidable: worthy is prepotent. A honorific act is in the last analysis little if anything but a successful act of aggression; and where aggression means conflict with men and with beasts, the activity which comes to be especially and primarily honourable is the assertion of the strong hand. The naive, archaic habit of construing all manifestations of force in terms of personality or will power greatly fortifies this conventional exaltation of the strong hand. Honorific epithets, in vogue among barbarian tribes as well as among peoples of a more advanced culture, commonly bear the stamp of this unsophisticated sense of honour. Epithets and titles used in addressing chieftains, and in the propitiation of kings and gods, very commonly impute a propensity for overbearing violence and an irresistible devastating force to the person who is to be propitiated. This holds true to an extent also in the more civilised communities of the present day. The predilection shown in heraldic devices for the more rapacious beasts and birds of prey goes to enforce the same view.

    Under this common-sense barbarian appreciation of worth or honour, the taking of life -- the killing of formidable competitors, whether brute or human -- is honourable to the highest degree. And this high office of slaughter, as an expression of the slayer's prepotence, casts a glamour of worth over every act of slaughter and over all the tools and accessories of the act. Arms are honourable, and the use of them, even in seeking the life of the meanest creatures of the field, becomes an honorific employment. At the same time, employment in industry become correspondingly odious, and, in the common-sense apprehension, the handling of tools and implements of industry falls beneath the dignity of able-bodied men. Labour becomes irksome. (pp. 9-11) 320 This is a great read if you have a dictionary handy. Microeconomics is the study of why people purchase stuff. This is the best micro-economic book ever written. I studied micro-economics in college, both on the undergraduate and graduate levels. The theories I studied were stupid, generic marginal utility theories. Those theories told you nothing of why people do things. Veblen's classic was published 111 years ago and it's still light years ahead of the valueless micro-economics being produced at elite universities such as Harvard, Yale and the University of Chicago.

    Essentially, it's all about keeping up with the Joneses, something that academic economists have never figured out. 320