Rachel Donaldson writes:
In class we have been reading Robert Heilbroner’s The Worldly Philosophers and this week we read the chapter on Thorstein Veblen. We began by discussing how Veblen’s economic views intersected with earlier economic theorists like Smith, Ricardo, Malthus, and Marx.
Specifically, we examined how Veblen’s view that taking pride in work is a part of human nature shared similarities with Marx’s understanding of labor as the essence of humans’ species being. We then situated Veblen in his historical context, discussing how his views also reflected ideas embedded in the American Populist movement of the late 19th century, particularly the idea of producerism.
Much of the rest of class was spent discussing the idea of conspicuous consumption as it existed in Veblen’s era and how it is manifested today. Heilbroner referenced Robert and Helen Lynd’s Middletown in this chapter and I brought in a copy of this study, which we incorporated into our larger discussion. I also passed around a copy of Alan Trachtenberg’s The Incorporation of America to provide a historical perspective on Veblen’s era and a copy of Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt as an example of a cultural commentary on consumption. The student-scholars’ interest in these books has led me to consider the possibility of creating a rotating library of books relevant to the class for my summer course—but I will have to see if this is possible.