Economist or satirist? Academician or iconoclast? The author of The Theory of the Leisure Class, and coiner of the term “conspicuous consumption,” fitted no standard mold. He bounced around American universities, from Chicago to Stanford, from Missouri to the New School for Social Research, deprived of advancement by a romantic scandal here, indifferent teaching there. The one constant was writing.
Veblen’s signature work, published in 1899, was, according to John Kenneth Galbraith, one of the two books by 19th-century U.S. economists that are still read. Galbraith called Leisure Class “a wide-ranging and timeless comment on the behavior of people who possess or are in the pursuit of wealth and who, looking beyond their wealth, want the eminence that, or so they believe, wealth was meant to buy.”
Economists have adopted Veblen’s view of consumption as a symbolic psychological, as well as material, drive. Though the work set out to study “the place and value of the leisure class as an economic factor in modern life,” Veblen admits in the opening sentence that he has gone well beyond the discipline of economics. In fact his social commentaryoften expressed through Swiftian humorprovides most of the book’s enduring appeal.
The son of Norwegian immigrants in Wisconsin, Veblen attended Carleton College before obtaining his doctorate in philosophy from Yale. He helped edit the new Journal of Political Economy in Chicago and publicly debated the scientific status of economics. His several published books addressed wide-ranging topics concerning modern society.