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Sunday, February 08, 2009

Veblen in Plain English

A Complete Introduction to Thorstein Veblen's Economics

by Daniel A Underwood

Journal of Economic Issues (March 2007)

Veblen in Plain English: A Complete Introduction to Thorstein Veblen's Economics, by Ken McCormick. Youngstown, New York: Cambria Press. 2006. Paper: ISBN 0 977 3567 6 0, $24.95. 144 pages.

Once in a great while one is asked to review a book that is actually a pleasure to read, and Ken McCormick's Veblen in Plain English is such a book! Direct, lucid and succinct, the 144 pages succeed marvelously in presenting a coherent presentation of Veblen's system of thought. In so doing McCormick has accomplished what I heretofore thought impossible: present the complexity of Veblen's thinking in a form accessible to introductory students. He does this without compromising the totality of Veblen's vision. As a result, the reader will finish with a thorough understanding of how to apply Veblen's analysis to interpret their world. "How" you might ask? Allow me to explain.

The secret to McCormick's approach is two fold. First is the compartmentalization of Veblen's writing around four modes of analytical inquiry: Instincts and Institutions, Technology and Social Evolution, Capital and Business Enterprise, and Consumer Behavior. Second, he logically organizes, presents and builds Veblen's evolutionary analysis keeping in mind his audience. Crucial to his approach is the disregard of the historicity of appearance in favor of the logical sequence of ideas. Thus, we work toward the Theory of the Leisure Class rather than from it, and the student is able to quickly savvy the institutional forces shaping consumptive behavior after a thorough introduction to the role instincts play in shaping social evolution.

Another reason for McCormick's elucidative success is the orderly development of ideas. He begins each unit with clear succinct definitions that logically and orderly present Veblen's essential modes of intellectual inquiry. For instance, we see "instincts as the innate and persistent propensities of human nature", and "institutions are habitual methods of carrying on the life process of the community". Equipped with clear definitions, he goes on to present the dichotomies of Veblen's analysis and their application to interpret not only the inhibitory forces of habitual behavior, but the role of technology - "matter-of-fact, cause-and-effect thinking" - in perturbing outmoded avenues of thought. On the way, the reader receives an inviting sample of "Veblenian" passages, not only to provide evidence for interpretation, but also to illuminate Veblen's thought process. And all the while McCormick brings these ideas to the reader by creating relevance with their world, be it religion as a habit of thought in legitimating the use of technology, or how absentee ownership has made possible executive compensation over 400 times greater than the average worker. Even better perhaps, is his treatment of the parasitic nature of modern marketing, a theme, process and outcome every undergraduate is all too familiar with! These are themes that resonate with todays undergraduate and, in so doing, make the appropriateness of Veblen's analysis timeless.

Of course, Veblen in Plain English is not beyond critique. While these are few, I share them in hope the next edition is even better. To begin, the first message the reader receives is an apologetic: "scholars disagree about the significance of [Veblen's] work". While yes, scholars do disagree, this is a book for students and laypeople, an audience who cares little for the diatribes of scholars. Better to begin "Thorstein Veblen is one of America's most original thinkers, whose analysis penetrates the essence of our cultural existence". Second, the Introduction contrasts an evolutionary approach with one of general equilibrium. This scholastic nuance will be unintelligible to an introductory student and certainly to the layperson. Indeed, there is a danger the book will be closed at this point and the intellectual excitement that soon follows missed. This material could easily be relegated to the final chapter where Veblen's analysis is contrasted with mainstream views. A book like this should begin with excitement, not scholasticism. An introduction that illustrates how Veblen's thinking will help the student better understand their world is more likely to stimulate further interest.

But that's it, my only criticisms - and minor at that - of this marvelous book. Had time permitted, I would have invited a number of students to participate in this review process, for; ultimately, they will be the ultimate test of Veblen in Plain English. So alas, that review won't be forthcoming until next quarter. And that it will is my strongest recommendation for this book!

Copyright 2007 Association for Evolutionary Economics

Copyright 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning

Bill Totten


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