The Trash Blog

Thorstein Veblen and Trash

I’m partial to voices crying out in the wilderness, those people who raise their eyebrows at the emperor’s new clothes. Among such sandwich-board-prophets, I have come to admire Thorstein Veblen.

“As fast as a person makes new acquisitions, and becomes accustomed to the resulting new standard of wealth, the new standard forthwith ceases to afford appreciably greater satisfaction than the earlier standard did.” –Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class.

Veblen was economist-philosopher who’s thought became quite fashionable in the early 1900s, although the admiration did not carry over to Veblen himself. In person, Veblen had a reputation as being a little untidy, very odd, soft-spoken, and a womanizer. In thought, he was wide-eyed and bold, demolishing the tidy, reasonable stories people like to tell about humanity.

"Ownership began and grew into a human institution on grounds unrelated to the subsistence minimum." --Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class.

“Ownership began and grew into a human institution on grounds unrelated to the subsistence minimum.” –Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class.

One of Veblen’s great contributions was to bring insights from the developing fields of psychology and anthropology to economics. He noted that humans are rarely as perfect self-benefit-seeking actors as capitalism wants them to be. Veblen believed that a large force in economics is the human urge to emulate. He also credited idle curiosity with most substantial scientific developments.

Veblen’s thought sheds light on many issues, and I would encourage your investigation of his Theory of the Leisure Class, Absentee Ownership, and The Instinct of Workmanship, but most pertinent to the Trash Blog is what he says about why people create waste.

“The end sought by accumulation is to rank high in comparison with the rest of the community in point of pecuniary strength. So long as the comparison is distinctly unfavourable to himself, the normal, average individual will live in chronic dissatisfaction with his present lot; and when he has reached what may be called the normal pecuniary standard of the community, or of his class in the community, this chronic dissatisfaction will give place to a restless straining to place a wider and ever-widening pecuniary interval between himself and this average standard.” –Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class.

For Veblen, waste has become an integral aspect of society. A term he minted, that you will still hear today, is ‘conspicuous consumption.’ Veblen used this term to refer to human consumption intended to serve social status, not basic needs or general pleasure. Veblen thought a large portion of economic activity occurred as conspicuous consumption.  He also posited that consumption of this kind was perceived as better the more wasteful it was.

The result is that humans develop elaborate and wasteful institutions (in Veblen’s terminology, not necessarily actual buildings or organizations, but something closer to social mores) that demand our membership.

"Property is still of the nature of trophy, but, with the cultural advance, it becomes more and more a trophy of successes scored in the game of ownership." --Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class.

“Property is still of the nature of trophy, but, with the cultural advance, it becomes more and more a trophy of successes scored in the game of ownership.” –Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class.

The interesting point here, I think, is that waste isn’t always caused by inefficiency, but rather that humanity in its silliness, manages to create very strong patterns that encourage waste. Veblen is essential for people who think about waste reduction because so often the waste reduction conversation only discusses the inefficient waste, not conspicuous consumption waste.

Note about the artwork: Most of the art in this post is done by the wonderful Tamara de Lempicka.

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This entry was written by Philip and published on March 21, 2014 at 1:20 pm. It’s filed under Economics, History, Theory and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

3 thoughts on “Thorstein Veblen and Trash

  1. Uncle Chris on said:

    Good post. . . .. However, I wasn’t thinking about waste when I read it. For some reason, I was thinking of a recent Salon article that suggested Americans should each be guaranteed a minimum income by the government, whether they worked or not.

    http://www.salon.com/2014/03/19/5_reasons_to_consider_a_no_strings_attached_basic_income_for_all_americans_partner/

  2. Pingback: Cigarette Waste Recycling | The Trash Blog

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