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Institutionalism at work: the restoration of Veblen-style thinking

Modern Institutional Analysis
essays by Jonathan Larson (except where noted)

Political Essays


The Greatest Generation--Economics Division

Keynesianism was a collection of ideas that grew up as a response to the fundamental dilemma of the industrial age. Simply put, if you want to build something very difficult (like the automobile) you can only justify the expense of the tools if you have a LOT of customers. Industrialization could produce virtually unlimited and very sophisticated goods if the economists could arrange for unlimited customers. So the Keynesians spent most of their time working on ways to increase the purchasing power of the greatest possible number of consumers.

Did ANYONE really believe there were Weapons of Mass Destruction? (In Iraq)

In spite of the fact that almost everyone has to take a few science courses in the process of getting an education, and virtually all Americans live in an ocean of technology, technological illiteracy is nearly universal.

The only regular exceptions to the rule of technological illiteracy these days seem to be farm kids, construction workers and builders, the folks in technical maintenance such as auto repair, engineers, advanced computer geeks, and folks with technological hobbies such as drag racing.

Notice that none of these groups are ove-represented in forums where foreign policy, education, law, monetary direction, or media decisions are made.

Industrial Environmentalism


The Philosophy of Design for Disassembly

Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. Most everyone sees this slogan every day--some of you may even have it on your business stationary. There is a genius in this environmental slogan--for the scientist, it is often represented as a triangle, the strongest and most elemental geometric shape. For the religiously inclined, it calls to mind the authority of the Trinity. It is simple, direct, and because of alliteration, easy to teach to children.

Real Men are Environmentalists Too

When environmentalists preach about the evils of technology, men tend to mutter dark phrases and generally feel put upon. The reason is simple. Attacks on technology are perceived as an assault on male creativity itself.

Pragmatic Futurism--Henry Ford Goes Solar

"Pragmatic futurism" is essential Americana. It is summed up in the old Midwestern saying "The best way to predict the future is to go ahead and invent it." Dreams with working blueprints transformed this country. No sooner had we built the railroads than we perfected the automobile and installed a parallel infrastructure of paved roads. A food distribution system was built that allows a person to eat fresh or frozen food of astonishing variety year round. A communication system was fabricated that allows anyone anywhere to listen to the greatest music ever written at the touch of a button. Transcontinental journeys have been transformed from a harrowing ordeal to a slightly boring, slightly annoying, six-hour flight. Pragmatic futurism has an astonishing track record.

Military Conversion


Arms Reduction and Global Reconstruction:
A Blueprint for the Year 2010

The end of the Cold War has exposed the extreme difficulty of conversion in the late twentieth century. For almost fifty years, the best industrial brains on earth with unlimited budgets, designed and constructed a highly-specialized industrial infrastructure devoted solely to perfecting the instruments of mass murder. As a result, beating swords into plowshares is not going to be the sideshow to the big celebration of the outbreak of peace any longer. Rather, military conversion will be the main event.

Why We Are Still Paying For The Cold War

It was the kind of Washington party to which everyone hopes they will be invited. The host and most of the guests were the upper level bureaucrats who actually get Washington's work done. There was a development specialist for the World Bank, a man who had labored in the vinyards of the Office of Management and Budget--surviving budget directors such as Bert Lance and David Stockman, a woman who administered federal aid to cities, and a patent attorney, among others. The host worked for the State Department doing something unspecified and had worked for the C.I.A. doing, he assured me, nothing but interpret satellite photos.

Scientific Institutionalism


In Fuzzy Logic: the discovery of a revolutionary computer technology and how it is changing our world by Daniel McNeill and Paul Freiberger, Simon and Schuster 1993 p29. The authors describe Mr. Charles Sanders Peirce as one of the two intellectual progenitors of Zedeh's fuzzy logic. (The other was Jan Lukasiewicz.)

According to McNeill and Freiberger, "Pierce laughed at the `sheep & goat separators' who split the world into true and false. (From Many-valued Logic, Nicholas Rescher, McGraw Hill, New York, 1969, p 5) Rather he held that all that exists is continuous, and such continuums govern knowledge. For instance, size is a continuum, as sorites shows. Time is a continuum, so though an acorn eventually becomes an oak tree, no one can say exactly when. Speed and weight form spectrums, as do effort, distance, and intensities of all sorts. Politeness, anger, joy, and other feelings and behaviors come in continuums. Consciousness itself is a continuum, varying not only in a single person, from high alertness through coma, but also across species, from humans to protozoans."

Included at this site is the paper presented at the 1996 International Thorstein Veblen Association (ITVA)--as a .pdf file--trying to link Veblen's great intellectual distinction between the leisure and industrial classes with Fuzzy Logic.


Educational Critiques
(trained incapacity)


Veblen's Concept of Leisure

It is difficult to understand why folks would have any problem understanding Veblen's concept of leisure once they have read his books. If leisure is defined as the process of relaxation and recovery from the exertions of work, it is clear Veblen had no trouble with such activity. This is a man who had a summer home on Washington Island for precisely that purpose, after all. To be against this form of leisure would be akin to being against sleep and Veblen was not that irrational.

Veblen's Leisure Class is another matter entirely. For him, a person was a member of the leisure class if he or she elevated the practices of being totally useless to the ultimate end in life, and further, viewed with disdain any activity that materially benefited the community.

What must have Thorstein Veblen thought about Human Intelligence

Thorstein Veblen considered his father the brightest man he ever met--partly because he never met Keynes, Wittgenstein, or Russell. That put the question in my mind, "Would meeting those guys have made any difference?"

Let us assume that Veblen was not being merely sentimental. If that is true, we must question what exactly Veblen meant by intelligence. Since clearly Veblen was a bright guy, I think we can assume he had asked detailed and sometimes introspective questions concerning the nature of intelligence.

E. D. Hirsch and the Notion of "Cultural Literacy"

"Cultural Literacy" is a book I have read and often recommend because the idea behind it is sound, (the same is true about the Dictionary of Cultural Literacy .) The notion that everyone in a culture should start on the same page is almost beyond debate--yet the sad fact is that a person could know everything in both books and still be utterly ignorant.

Dumber Than a Box of Rocks

A story about Chicago politics designed to be read in the richly-paneled gentlemen's clubrooms of London was by its nature an amusing contradiction. It was about as far from Mike Royko's descriptions of the Windy City as is possible employing the same language. "Mr. Edward Vrdolyak" was characterized as a "long-time political operative" rather than a ward-heeler while "the late Mr. Richard M. Daley" was transformed into "an effective administrator" and "unparalleled political power broker."

Halfway through this very correct and formally-worded story was a sentence that brought a shock of recognition to my Midwestern American cultural perspective on the world. Mr. Richard M. Daley Jr., the son of Hizzoner himself, who was trying at that moment to rebuild the political operation that had served his father for so long in an attempt to win his first mayor's race, was described by a disgruntled old-time machine politician in a formal quotation as "dumber than a box of rocks" Now THIS was a story about Chicago.

The Rot at the Top

If rot at the bottom is the province of educational professionals, the possibility of rot at the top presents a systemic problem that can only be addressed by outside forces. This does not mean that academic professionals cannot or do not raise valid questions about the operation of the best schools in the land. Faculty politics has a well-earned reputation for being tenacious, tedious, and often acrimonious as bright and caring people struggle to define and justify their scholarly disciplines. Yet these narrowly focused debates cannot, by their very nature, ask fundamental questions. And the most fundamental question of all is, "Are the schools with the greatest reputations for excellence any good?"

The Result of
Neo-Liberal Economic Hegenomy


The History of "Free Trade"

The battle lines over NAFTA are not drawn between Democrats and Republicans but between economic and academic elites and the populist revolt. The motivations for population in revolt are basicfolks are tired of seeing their living standards decline. An explanation for elite support of NAFTA is far more complex. The question must be asked, "Why, in the face of so much economic distress that a populist revolt has been triggered over trade issues, does elite opinion still believe that NAFTA is a good idea?"

What Really Happened to the USA Savings and Loan Industry

The death of the Savings and Loan industry caused the typical assortment of finger-pointing, official hearings, investigations, and other irrelevant motion usually seen in Washington whenever genuine political anger is felt from beyond the beltway.

The Torch is Passed:
A play in one act on monetary theory

The 1990s saw a dramatic rise in structural unemployment of the formerly properous middle classes in the Industrial Democracies. The response is mostly bewilderment--especially among the young with fresh college credentials and no relevant job prospects.

Marc R. Tool

Professor Emeritus of Economics
California State University, Sacramento
5708 McAdoo Avenue
Sacramento CA 95819-2516


A neoinstitutional theory of social change in
Veblen's The Theory of the Leisure Class

What pertinence does Thorstein Veblen's widely read but insufficiently understood volume, The Theory of the Leisure Class (1934), have for those guiding social and economic change in contemporary economies? What does it offer beyond provocative captions and social satire? It is the purpose of this essay to demonstrate something of the continuing relevance of Veblen's contribution by identifying and exploring various aspects of his theory of social change, first introduced in his The Theory of the Leisure Class.

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