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Writings by Jonathan Larson

Elegant Technology


Thorstein Bunde Veblen (TBV) is the genius who inspired, and gave substance to, most of the ideas contained in Elegant Technology--the book.

It was both inappropriate (in the sense that ET is not a work of scholarship on the life of TBV) and impossible (in the sense that all books must end) to give Veblen the appropriate credit he was due.

This is especially unfortunate because TBV, and his ideas, have become the subject renewed international interest. Since 1992, The International Thorstein Veblen Association (ITVA) has been formed and has held two conferences, and more interestingly, Veblen's Minnesota childhood home has been lovingly restored at great cost, effort, and expense.

Both events have combined to utterly shatter the previous 'scholarship' surrounding Veblen's life and ideas. More has been learned about TBV in the last five years than from everything written about him since his death in 1929.

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The important elements of Populism

All five in a .pdf file

Descriptions with HTML links

Part One: Populism—an introduction

Joe Klein of Time magazine summed up the elite Washington view in a Slate essay when he described populism as a “witlessly reactionary bundle of prejudices: nativist, protectionist, isolationist, and paranoid.”

Anyone who took political science from any self-respecting liberal arts college in USA probably learned to spout the same reactionary nonsense. But in the land where Populism was invented, such academic indoctrination often fails its accomplished task. The late writer Molly Ivins, a hero of American progressives, proudly called herself a Populist and proved her credentials on a regular basis. The cultural Texas Populism of her youth proved more durable than her fancy Ivy League education.

Part Two: Populism--Size matters

Any society formed by humans eventually has to grapple with the question, “what is private? and what belongs to the group as a whole?”

In spite of historical examples where virtually everything of value is thought to belong to individuals (laissez-faire capitalism) or the whole society (communism) such extreme examples have tended to be unstable because humans instinctively seem to believe that an effective social order must be a mixture of private and public.

The Populists of the late 19th century found themselves in the middle of this dilemma.  On one hand, they believed that the owner-operator arrangement in agriculture was not only history’s most efficient, it had been endorsed by Christ himself. On the other hand, they wanted to use government power to regulate big business.  Even if these seemly conflicting demands made instinctive sense, it laid the Populists wide open to the charge inconsistency.  “If,” asked Populism’s critics, “private ownership and management is such a good idea for farmers, why isn’t it a good idea for Standard Oil?”

Part Three: Populism--a matter of class

But just because Marx proposed a class analysis that never much fit the American experience did not mean that class had lost importance, no matter how irrelevant it had become in academe--as the American worker discovered when the Republicans opened naked class warfare during the Reagan administration.  The first shot was the firing of the air traffic controllers.

The destruction of PATCO was the USA part of a world-wide effort to roll back the gains workers had made since 1932.  In England, Margaret Thatcher accomplished the same sort of demonstration of naked class interest by destroying the coal miners union.  Since the Brits can talk about virtually nothing without discussing class, the Thatcherite assault on blue-collar living standards was routinely described in terms of class warfare.  But while the Brits discussed class warfare, the Americans rarely did.  Interestingly, the outcome for the people who live off their paychecks was nearly identical on both sides of the Atlantic.

Part Four: Populism--Marxism NOT

The French and American Revolutions were about making social adjustments to the trappings of feudalism--including slaveholding, serfdom, and indentured servitude.  Of course, there were some rumblings about the conditions of trade and manufacturing, but these were mostly line items on a much larger list of grievances.

In the meantime, there was a very real revolution going on in England.  Some may scoff that the Industrial Revolution does not qualify because there was so little armed struggle involved, but it was the most important revolution of all.

Part Five: Modern Populism--technological literacy

Because everything we use requires tools to make, tool creation represents the most sophisticated form of manufacture. It is difficult to make DRAM chips: it is much MORE difficult to make the tools that can make the DRAM chips. And of course, it is insanely difficult to make the tools that can produce those DRAM making tools, etc.

Because there are greater and less difficult forms of tool use, tool users stratify along skill lines. It is in the creation and use of tools that we discover the origins of meritocracy. In the world of tools, it does not matter your age, race, social class, looks, or gender--only your skills. And because these skills can be learned, we also have the origins of social mobility.

 Scientific Institutionalism

Fuzzy logic has more good minds (and good websites) than Veblen. Therefore, much of this site is devoted to restoring the intellectual reputation of Albert Einstein's favorite American science writer. Any intellectual descendant of Lotfi Zedeh should find Veblen quite fascinating. Both were superb minds. This site intends to build bridges between the intellectual great-grandchildren of Charles Sanders Peirce.

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.

Writer's projects

568-74 Dayton Ave.
St. Paul Minnesota

Built in 1904, the Dayton Ave. rowhouse building was meant to house the middle classes that served the robber barons on nearby Summit Ave. Increasing economic pressures caused the rowhouses to be subdivided in the 1930s. During WWII, a citywide housing shortage made further subdivisions profitable. In the late 1950s, a planned freeway construction project that ran through a nearby black community, changed the racial composition of the neighborhood. There were 31 units when riots broke out in 1968. By 1975, it had been boarded up for 6 years and looked this forlorn.

570 Dayton before
Story as written in the Minneapolis Tribune


419 Ashland Ave.
St. Paul, Minnesota

This excellent example of a Queen Anne house needed extensive repair. The couple who had purchased it could afford to replace the gingerbread. Rebuilding this staircase was an excellent education in 1880 era construction techniques.

Cass Gilbert Lytchgate
St. Paul, Minnesota

Cass Gilbert was a Minnesota architect on the make. He had designed the State Capitol building. Eventually he would move his practice to New York where he would design the Woolworth Building--at the time (1910), the tallest building in USA.

A lytchgate is rare architectural feature of old churchyards. It is meant to be large enough to shelter a coffin and the pallbearers (lytch is an old english term for a corpse). This lytchgate was never used for that purpose because the churchyard was never used for burials. Rather, it became a popular feature of the church and rare was a wedding that didn't use it for photographs of the wedding party.


Tool Use and Design

When I was only five years old, a member of my father's church gave me a box of woodworking tools. He believed that all good little Smalanders (the province in southeast Sweden which was home to a majority of those emigrants who found their way to America's Midwest) should know how to build. As a result, my childhood was spent building toys, kites, treehouses, soap-box derby style coasters, and most especially flying model airplanes.

Beginning at age 15, I worked summers on home-building crews eventually acquiring journeyman carpenter skills. Following graduation from the University of Minnesota, I became involved with the rebuilding of an historic neighborhood in St. Paul. Our projects had a social dimension--we wanted to hire and train "street people" who came from a half-way house for drug and alcohol abuse. Because nineteenth century carpenters were so skilled, reproducing their work with essentially unskilled labor required tool modifications, fixtures and jigs. I became interested in various tool design practices.

For a period of time, I did nothing but design and build production equipment. In 1984, I was granted a 19-claim product-by-process patent (U.S.#4,484,782) for the tooling necessary to produce prescription seating for the bad-back market. This tooling was a combination of the accuracy and cost-effectiveness of mass-production methods with an ability to make each product significantly different from the next one. It is a thinking that combines Japanese lean production methods with Scandinavian ergonomic considerations and German "Green" design-for-disassembly practices.


Thorstein Veblen



The restoration of the Veblen farmhouse in Minnesota

in .pdf form

7.8 megs

Some of Thorstein Veblen's writings

Thorstein B. Veblen

The essays

“Why is Economics Not an Evolutionary Science”

Veblen's first academic essay, it is a direct assault on the "scientific" pretensions of the economic community.

The Limitations of Marginal Utility

The Theory of Marginal Utility is the lynchpin of classical economics. It was also the pet subject of John Bates Clark, Veblen's first economics professor. Taking on Marginal Utility was necessary in any construction of an alternative to the traditionalists.

The Instinct of Workmanship and the Irksomeness of Labor

This essay would eventually lead to Veblen's favorite book—the 1914 Instinct of Workmanship. This essay is not as complete but it covers the same ground.

Review of John Maynard Keynes,
The Economic Consequences of the Peace

Keynes was a wealthy investment banker with a prestigious academic appointment at Cambridge. Veblen was the son of people who lived on the very edge of western civilization. Keynes was actually at Versailles when the end of World War I was negotiated. Veblen watched from the sidelines. Yet history will record that Veblen's analysis was an order of magnitude more prescient and interesting.


The Books

The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899)

The book that made TBV famous. It gave the language a new term—conspicuous consumption. Utterly brilliant!

The Higher Learning In America:
A Memorandum On the Conduct of Universities By Business Men

Whenever a lowly professor becomes internationally famous, there is built-in friction. The University of Chicago has since made it easier to finesse this problem. But from the moment Theory of the Leisure Class was published, Veblen's days at Chicago were numbered. This was John D. Rockefeller's school and making fun of robber barons would not be tolerated. This book describes the poisoned atmosphere in early 20th century academia using Chicago examples. Very little has changed.

The Vested Interests and the Common Man (1919)

Less theoretical than theory, this was Veblen describing an American society that was dealing with massive income inequality in the international panic following the Russian Revolution.

The Engineers and The Price System (1921)

Perhaps Veblen's most complex and political work, Engineers describes reasons why an industrial society should be managed by technically-trained experts.

The description of the Veblen settlement in USA

by TBV's siblings

very helpful to the restoration effort!

Andrew to Dorfman (1)

Andrew to Dorfman (2)

Andrew Veblen wrote Jospeh Dorfman to complain about the misrepresentations of the Veblen family history contained in Dorfman's biography of Thorstein. Although Andrew was unsuccessful in getting the biography changed, these letters proved amazing accurate when describing the house.

Emily on the family history

Emily was Thorstein's sister who was closest in age to him. So her descriptions of her childhood would be most similar to his. Wonderfully written.


Orson Veblen was the brother who became the sort of citizen who ran a small-town business, had dozens of friends, and was a trustee for the newly founded St. Olaf college in nearby Northfield Minnesota. In spite of the fact he didn't have a clue as to why his brother become so famous, Orson paints a generous portrait of a sibing he admired.

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