The Eccentric Economist

Everyone knows serious academics can be odd.  You probably even struggled through a few of their classes back during your days in academia -- as nearly everyone has a story to tell about some odd professor that couldn't be bothered to comb his hair or take the ornate wicker basket off the front of his single speed bicycle from 1980 that he still rides around campus.

In reality, maybe we should all have a soft spot in our hearts for the eccentric.

Maybe it's because we find their acts amusing, maybe it's due to the good stories that result, or maybe it's because we have all been accused of a few eccentricities ourselves.

The question I ask is:  What can we learn from them?

If you are looking for eccentricities in the world of economics, look no further than Thorstein Veblen.

Born on the frontier of Wisconsin in the mid 1800's to Norwegian parents, Veblen was an enigma, to be sure.

Famous for his work,
The Theory of the Leisure Class, published in 1899, Veblen approached economics in an erratic way.  The book became a bestseller for its satirical portrayal of the upper class.

A telling excerpt exhibits his quirkiness and writing style:

A certain king of said to have lost his life through an excess of moral stamina in the observance of good form.  In the absence of the functionary whose office it was to shift his master's seat, the king sat uncomplaining before the fire and suffered his royal person to be toasted beyond recovery.  But in doing, he saved his Most Christian majesty from menial contamination.

Stories of Saudi royalty reaching over steaming teapots for the telephone to call the tea-boy -- to come and pour more tea, come quickly to mind.

However, the success of the book made Veblen more notorious than popular -- and, unfortunately, found him more acclaim as a satirist than a serious economist.

In his writings, Veblen held both contempt for the uselessness of the businessman and a dislike of Marxism, and wrote critically on the economics of the "leisure class" while, after taking a Ph.D. from Princeton in 1884, lived at home for the next seven years, "unable to find work."

In every way, he approached the world as an outsider, looking at odd things everyone else took for granted.  Opposed to the traditions of normalcy, it is even said that he frequently gave all of his students the same grade, regardless of their work.

Robert Heilbroner, in his 1953 book,
The Worldly Philosophers, describes Thorstein Veblen in this way:

As might be expected, he was a mass of eccentricities.  He refused to have a telephone, kept his books stacked along the wall in their original packing cases, and saw no sense in daily making up the beds; they were thrown back in the morning and pulled up again at night.  Lazy, he allowed his dishes to accumulate until the cupboard was bare and then washed the whole messy heap by turning the hose on them....  Curiously sadistic, he was capable of such meaningless practical jokes as borrowing a sack from a passing farmer and returning it to him with a hornet's nest inside.

Veblen began his academic career at the University of Chicago but after spending 14 years there, left in 1906 for Stanford.   His wife left him in 1911, reportedly due to not only his unbearable nature, but his proclivity for extramarital affairs, as well.  Unapologetically, he once even traveled abroad with another woman.  At the time of the divorce, Veblen moved to the University of Missouri.  He married again in 1914 but his new wife was sent away for having "delusions."

While at Missouri he worked on his new book
The Higher Learning in America and later Imperial Germany and the Industrial Revolution.  

When World War I came, Veblen, in service to his country, was put into an insignificant post at the Food Administration.  While there, his ideas had their usual stamp of style.  When searching for a wartime use of "butlers and footmen," Veblen said:

[they] are typically an eminently an able bodied sort, who will readily qualify as stevedores and freight-handlers as soon as the day's work has somewhat hardened their muscles and reduced their bulk.

1918 brought Thorstein Veblen to New York where he wrote for Dial Magazine and tried to teach again.  Eventually, he went back to California alone and withdrew into himself even further, passing away just before the Great Depression began.

In final retrospect, Robert Heilbroner notes of Veblen:

It was neither a happy or successful life on which to look back.

How sad.  It sounds like an odd and petty old man simply aged out of a broken life and died alone.  What a waste, some people might say.  But maybe not.  What can we learn from Veblen?

Don't take yourself so seriously.  Do what you love.  Love what you do.  Have fun with life!

And never -- never -- cheat on your wife!

Sterling T. Terrell is an economist and writer living in Texas.  Email him at
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