Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929)

Notable Norwegians

With M. Michael Brady

Thorstein Veblen

Photo: Yale University Art Gallery
“Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929), Ph. D. 1884” portrait by Edwin Burrage Child.

In June 2007, the International Conference on Institutional Economics was held in the Valdres district of Norway, marking the 150th anniversary of the birth of economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen. The venue honored Veblen’s heritage, as it was from there that his parents emigrated to Wisconsin in 1847, 10 years before he was born. The conference resulted in a book that begins by saying, “Thorstein Bunde Veblen (1857-1929) may no longer feature on the curricula of most economics students, but in terms of editions of his books published and doctoral work dedicated to his work and legacy, he remains America’s most famous economist.”

Veblen was raised in Nerstrand, Minn. At that time, Norwegian was spoken in the town, in the church, and in most homes, while English was the language of the county and the schools. So the nine Veblen children grew up bilingual. Three of them—Andrew, Thorstein, and Emily—graduated from Carleton College. Emily is believed to be the first girl of Norwegian heritage to graduate from college in the United States, while Andrew and Thorstein were the first students to finish the Carleton curriculum in three years instead of four.

In 1881, he, Emily, and Andrew studied for a semester at Johns Hopkins University. He then transferred to Yale University, where he earned a Ph.D in 1884. About then he fell ill with what apparently was malaria, and spent several years recovering at the Veblen farmstead, doing light jobs and reading by the window in the attic.

In 1891, he resumed academic pursuits at Cornell University. In 1892 he joined the editorial staff of the Journal of Political Economy, published by the University of Chicago Press, and later taught classes at the university. In 1899, he published his first and most known book, The Theory of the Leisure Class, followed in 1904 by The Theory of Business Enterprise. In 1906-1909 he taught at Stanford University, and in 1911-1918 he was a professor at the University of Missouri. During World War I, he served as an economist for the U.S. Food Administration. From 1919-1922 was a professor at the New School for Social Research that had been founded in 1919 by progressive New York educators. In 1926, he moved back to California and lived in Menlo Park with his stepdaughter Becky Bradley until his death in August 1929, just months before the Great Depression, an economic crisis that he had anticipated.

Thorstein Veblen

Photo: Jonathunder photo
The Veblen Farmhouse with its Valdres-style porch.

In retrospect, Veblen is regarded as a leading intellectual of his time, famed for his criticism of capitalism. His concepts of “conspicuous consumption” and “conspicuous leisure,” have entered mainstream lingo. He helped pioneer institutional economics, which reflects the dichotomy he saw between technology and the “ceremonial” domain of society. In the landscape of schools of economic thought, he classifies as a practitioner of heterodox economics, another economic canon, or alternative to orthodox, mainstream economics.

Veblen’s personal life was chaotic. He married twice and had a penchant for extramarital affairs. His first marriage, to Ellen Rolfe, ended in divorce in 1911 after 34 unhappy years. In 1914 he married Ann Bradley Bevans, a former student and divorcée with two daughters. In 1920, after Ann’s premature death, he became devoted to caring for his stepdaughters.

Veblen had earned high salaries and invested well, but after returning to California in 1926, he lost his entire investment and lived in a town shack.

This article originally appeared in the November 2, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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