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Monday, June 15, 2009

THE CLASH BETWEEN THORSTEIN VEBLEM AND H.L. MENCKEN

Today's Buggy Topic Was . . .

. . . inspired by a lengthy article on evolutionary economics, the author Thorstein Veblen --- a great pioneer in the late 19th and early 20th century of an institutional approach to economic life that merged sociology and economics, with a strong interest in comparative economic systems and how they interact with larger societal beliefs, norms, and practices. 

Veblen's Work

His most famous book is still read today, The Theory of the Leisure Class --- a satiric demolition job on the WASP upper class that emerged in the US in the late 19th and early 20th century.  A strenuous group that mixed old money and new financial and industrial wealth, the WASP upper class dominated the Ivy League schools; had a near monopoly over the major American industries and financial institutions of the era --- plus the most prestigious law firms in the country; lived in luxury, including huge mansions; and sought --- with limited success --- to fight off all challenges as they strove to imitate the far more historic and rooted upper class in Britain. 

The main challengers they sought to repel? 

New talented immigrants, mostly poor but bright, hard-working, ambitious, and determined to succeed in American life whatever the obstacles in mainstream economic and financial institutions.  The greatest challenge came from Jews, and so many flocked into the Ivy League thanks to their talent that in the mid-1920s all the schools instituted geographical-quotas to reduce their number.  The upper-class WASPS also sought to protect their ranks from the outside challengers by creating exclusive social and country clubs that systematically discriminated against Jews and all non-whites.   Those in Southern California also excluded systematically the management and owners of the new flourishing movie business in Hollywood, along with any famous Jewish actors, directors, and what have you.

Veblen-Background

For Veblen's life and a brief overview of his impressive work, click here.   For an updated analysis of the WASP Establishment --- its origins, its evolution, its downfall in American life after WWII --- no one is more knowledgeable than a one-time member of it, E. Digsby Baltzell, a gifted sociologist who documented its strengths and weaknesses (particularly its closure to outside talent) in numerous books.  His most famous book, The Protestant Establishment, came out in the 1970s, and in 2000 a systematic study of  the book's themes and changes in American life  was published in 2000 that collected several essays by Baltzell and other prominent sociologists.  Click here for the paperback version.

Enter Center-Stage H.L. Mencken

One of the two or three most famous American journalists of the last century, Mencken --- called by a prominent British journalist as the only genius full-time journalist in the history of the English language --- was a tireless satirist of American life in all its forms.  Not a deep thinker, he created a writing style without rival.  Today, if you look at Webster's Unabridged Dictionary, you'll find an entry under the title of Menckian and Menckenese to describe it racy rollicking form.  His three volume autobiography is one of the most entertaining and charming of that genre ever written; and to top it off, his pioneer study of the American language in all its varieties --- impeccably researched for years --- appeared in three volumes in the 1920s and are still in print.

The two giants in their fields --- Mencken and Veblen --- crossed when Mencken wrote an hilarious if unfair review of Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class.   No need to say more.  The Buggy prof post on Mencken and Veblen, with lengthy quotes from the lengthy Mencken review, can be accessed if you click for the relevant thread at Economist's View here.

Mencken Background

Click here ffor a good readable account, including a list of his enduring works.