Question Time: Veblen and Our Conspicuously Working Billionaires
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My question is, What happened to last week? I thought I would have a chance to do a second QT installment and now it’s Monday and I’m only just now getting to what I would normally do over the weekend.
If you have questions for next week, please put them in the comments.
David Roberts asks: “I'd be interested in your take on Veblen as it relates to the current depiction of the very wealthy in our media. More often, they are depicted as obsessed with their work life rather than displaying their wealth through leisure.”
It’s not just media portrayals. At least in the United States, the relative status of conspicuous leisure and conspicuous work has definitely changed since Veblen published The Theory of the Leisure Class in 1899. (If you’re curious, you can find a nicely formatted PDF of the book online here.)
Veblen puts forward an aristocratic model of wealth and prestige. Here, the need to work for a living is seen as a mark of inferiority, because in earlier societies the strong hunted and pillaged and only the weak and subordinated (including women) produced things. Society changed, but the habits of mind established in those earlier social structures didn’t. “The performance of labour has been accepted as a conventional evidence of inferior force; therefore it comes itself, by a mental short-cut, to be regarded as intrinsically base,” Veblen writes.
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