Thorstein Veblen - Academic Career

Academic Career

Upon graduation from Yale, Veblen was unable to obtain an academic job, partly due to prejudice against Norwegians, and partly because most universities considered him insufficiently educated in Christianity; most academics at the time held divinity degrees. Veblen returned to his family farm — ostensibly to recover from malaria — and spent six years there reading voraciously. In 1891 he left the farm, to study economics as a graduate student at Cornell University under James Laurence Laughlin.

He obtained his first academic appointment at the new University of Chicago, which overnight had become a world class university in many fields. He was promoted to assistant professor in 1900 and edited the prestigious Journal of Political Economy, while conversing with such intellectuals as John Dewey, Jane Addams and Franz Boas. He published two of his best known books, The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), and The Theory of Business Enterprise (1904). The books made him famous overnight for their ridicule of businessmen. In 1906, he moved to Stanford University. He soon left, perhaps because of adultery, or because the faculty and administration distrusted a man they saw as a poor teacher, a nasty colleague and a political radical.

Veblen reflected many of his views in his personal habits. Veblen's house was often a mess, with unmade beds and dirty dishes; his clothes were often in disarray; he was an agnostic; and he tended to be blunt and rude while dealing with other people.

In 1911, Veblen joined the faculty of the University of Missouri, where he had support from Herbert Davenport, the head of the economics department. Veblen disliked the local town but remained until in 1918 he moved to New York to begin work as an editor of The Dial. In 1919, along with Charles A. Beard, James Harvey Robinson and John Dewey, he helped found the New School for Social Research (known today as The New School). From 1919 through 1926 Veblen continued to write and be involved in activities at The New School. The Engineers and the Price System was written during this period.

Veblen proposed a soviet of engineers in one chapter in The Engineers and the Price System. According to Yngve Ramstad, this work's view that engineers, not workers, would overthrow capitalism was a "novel view". Veblen invited Guido Marx to the New School to teach and to help organize a movement of engineers, by such as Morris Cooke; Henry Laurence Gantt, who had died shortly before; and Howard Scott. Cooke and Gantt were followers of Taylor's Scientific Management. Scott, who listed Veblen as on the temporary organizing committee of the Technical Alliance, perhaps without consulting Veblen or other listed members, later helped found the Technocracy movement. Veblen had a penchant for socialism and believed that technological developments would eventually lead toward a socialistic organization of economic affairs. However, his views on socialism and the nature of the evolutionary process of economics differed sharply from that of Karl Marx; while Marx saw socialism as the ultimate goal for civilization and saw the working class as the group that would establish it, Veblen saw socialism as one intermediate phase in an ongoing evolutionary process in society that would be brought about by the natural decay of the business enterprise system and by the inventiveness of engineers. Daniel Bell sees an affinity between Veblen and the Technocracy movement. Janet Knoedler and Anne Mayhew demonstrate the significance of Veblen's association with these engineers, while arguing that his book was more a continuation of his previous ideas than the advocacy others see in it.

In 1927 Veblen returned to the property that he still owned in Palo Alto and died there in 1929. His death came less than three months before the momentous crash of the U.S. stock market, which heralded the Great Depression.

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