Veblen at Missouri

20 April 2011 at 9:17 am 4 comments

| Peter Klein |

Thorstein Veblen was a professor at the University of Missouri from 1911 to 1918, following stints at Chicago and Stanford and before moving to New York to co-found the New School for Social Research with Charles Beard and John Dewey. Little has been written about Veblen’s time at Missouri, or his relationship with Herbert J. Davenport, who recruited Veblen to Missouri and provided his lodgings. (Veblen is mostly forgotten, locally, but Davenport, who founded the College of Business, is fondly remembered.)

The most detailed account of Veblen’s Missouri years (to my knowledge) appears in Russell H. Hartley and Sylvia Erickson Hartley, “In the Company of T. B. Veblen: A Narrative of Biographical Recovery” (International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society 13, no. 2: 273-331 — the entire issue is devoted to Veblen). One snippet:

The notion that Veblen’s years in Missouri were a kind of Siberian exile which he spent as an embittered recluse seems more the fancy of academic urbanites than a reflection of actual fact. Dorfman’s puzzling assertion that Columbia “was the first country town where Veblen had stayed for any length of time” contradicts both the facts of Veblen’s life and Dorfman’s own account of those facts. By the time he settled into the Davenports’ at the end of 1910, Thors had lived thirty of his fifty-three years in rural and small-town settings. Columbia was a veritable metropolis compared with Nerstrand or Stacyville and was more than twice the size of Northfield, where he had spent six years attending Carleton.

Veblen’s reported description of Columbia as “a woodpecker hole of a town in a rotten stump called Missouri,” cited by Dorfman as evidence of his “abhorrence” of the place, reflects his wit and mordant sense of humor rather than emotional distress over his physical location. It was an offhand commentary on the local Chamber of Commerce’s campaign to elicit a promotional slogan for the Boone County seat — a remark perfectly in tune with Veblen’s views of business and the commonweal, comprehensible only in light of his analysis of American country towns generally.

Entry filed under: - Klein -, History of Economic and Management Thought, Myths and Realities, People. Tags: .

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. William Sjostrom  |  20 April 2011 at 9:46 am

    I remain baffled why it matters, probably because I have never found an explanation of any substantive contribution Veblen made to economics. He was a founder of the institutionalist school, but that was, as Coase said, just a pile of papers waiting for a theory or a bonfire. The only thing I can think of that he is memorable for is his remark, upon leaving Stanford after being fired by Mrs. Stanford, something like “When the girl moves in, what am I supposed to do?”

  • 2. Randy  |  20 April 2011 at 11:01 am

    @ Sjostrom: Much of Veblen’s thought has been marginalized by time and the temperament of economists. Veblen was an astute commentator on the human interface with technology (or what was technology 100 years ago) and of the role consumption plays in market structure. His involuted writing style is not favored by economists and his historical/institutionalist reliance upon zeitgeist in analyses of market development is even less well appreciated. Nonetheless, he insisted upon an evolutionary approach to economics, which IS respected now (but not necessarily in the original Veblen writings) and his pieces on workplace, work, and management may eventually be recognized in the management field. The one Veblen term that I use often is “trained incapacity”, which describes a phenomenon where a developed expertise in a particular field (say, Keynesian economics) will prevent one from seeing some problems at all and prevent proper analyses of others, given the limitations inherent in experttise.

  • 3. Joe Mahoney  |  21 April 2011 at 4:48 am

    Veblen quote for today:

    “The hedonistic conception of man is that of a lightning calculator of pleasures and pains, who oscillates like a homogeneous globule of desire … under the impulse of stimuli that shift him about the area but leave him intact … He is an isolated, definitive human datum, in stable equilibrium except for the buffets of the impinging forces that displace him in one direction or another … When the force of the impact is spent, he comes to rest, a self-contained globule of desire as before.”

  • 4. Peter Klein  |  21 April 2011 at 9:02 am

    That’s one of my favorite Veblen quotations — I use it in class when discussing different flavors of methodological individualism.

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