Charles Camic

 

On his book Veblen: The Making of an Economist Who Unmade Economics

Cover Interview of June 23, 2021

A close-up

I would be happy if readers opened Chapter 3, “Beginnings.” Here I tell a family story and a national story as a prelude to the story of Thorstein Veblen as an intellectual innovator.

The family story is that of Thomas and Kari Veblen, a newly married couple who saw few opportunities in their native Norway. So, in 1847 they crossed the Atlantic in a whaling tub and made their way to the upper Midwest where, after a rough start, they built a prosperous farm, where they adopted the latest technological innovations.

Simultaneously, Thomas and Kari tended carefully to the schooling of their nine children, enrolling seven of them (including two daughters) in the preparatory program of a nearby college, where four of them then continued their studies into the college proper.

By a stroke of fortune, that college was Carleton College, named for a Boston brass manufacturer who in 1871 gifted the school with a million dollars (in today’s dollars), the largest sum given up to then to a Midwestern college. Spending wisely, the college soon boasted a cutting-edge curriculum in the natural sciences (which taught evolutionary theory with approval), the humanities, and the social sciences.

In the social sciences, Carleton established one of America’s first professorships in the subject of political economy, hiring for it the future giant of American (neoclassical) economics, John Bates Clark. Following Clark’s example, Veblen then decided to attend graduate school and, for this reason, to leave the farmlands to live in the industrializing cities of Baltimore and Chicago (with many destinations in between). The timing of this move coincided with the birth of graduate schools in the United States, which were then trumpeting their use of modern scientific methods to study the natural world and the social world, economic life in particular.

In microcosm, this saga was the drama of postbellum America: the Great Atlantic Migration, the agricultural settlement of the Midwest, the explosive takeoff of urbanization and industrialization, the transformation of higher education through capitalist philanthropy, and the celebration of scientific methods.

All of these epochal developments enveloped the family of Thomas and Kari Veblen and also buffeted the budding economist in their midst. In the third chapter of my book, the reader sees the nesting of these Russian dolls.