Thorstein Veblen, Prescient on Today's Media

Dan Gillmor is a BoingBoing guest-blogger.

Via Joe Costello, a friend and former colleague:

While Keynes is all the rage these days, as the way things actually "work" in our society are laid bare for a short period, Veblen keeps popping up in my head. On Stewart v Cramer, I found this from The Theory of Business of Enterprise written in 1915 and as good a critique of 20th century media written, and for anyone who "stickle for truth", remains a major issue to sort for 21st century democracy.

I will say Veblen was a funny SOB, certainly intentionally rare for any economist -- though if you look at absurdity as humor most modern economists should have their own shows on Comedy Central. While Veblen was there, the University of Chicago actually knew something about economics:

200px-Veblen3a dg14.jpg
The current periodical press, whether ephemeral or other, is a vehicle for advertisements. This is its raison d'etre as a business proposition and this decides the lines of its management without material qualification. Exceptions to the rule are official and minor propagandist periodicals, and in an uncertain measure, scientific journals. The profits of publication come from the sale of advertising space. The direct returns from sales and subscriptions are now a matter of wholly secondary consequence. Publishers of periodicals, of all grades of transiency, aim to make their product as salable as may be, in order to pass their advertising pages under the eyes of as many readers as may be. The larger the circulation the greater, other things equal, the market value of the advertising space. The highest product of this development is the class of American newspapers called "independent." These in particular -- and they are followed at no great interval by the rest -- edit all items of news comment or gossip with a view to what the news ought to be and what opinions ought to be expressed on passing events.

The first duty of an editor is to gauge the sentiments of his readers and then tell them what they like to believe. By this means he maintains or increases the circulation. His second duty is to see that nothing is said in the news items or editorials which may discountenance any claims or announcements made by his advertisers, discredit their standing or good faith, or expose any weakness or deception in any business venture that is or may become a valuable advertiser. By this means he increases the advertising value of his circulation. The net result is that both the news columns and the editorial columns are commonly meretricious in a high degree.

Systematic insincerity on the part of the ostensible purveyors of information and leaders of opinion may be deplored by persons who stickle for truth and pin their hopes of social salvation on the spread of accurate information. But the ulterior cultural effect of the insincerity which is in this way required by the business situation, may of course, as well be salutary as the reverse. Indeed the effect is quite as likely to be salutary, if "salutary" be taken to mean favorable to the maintenance of the established order, since the insincerity is guided by a wish to avoid any lesion of the received preconceptions and prejudices. The insincerity of the newspapers and magazines seems on the whole to be of a conservative trend.


  1. Veblen is good stuff. I think he did a lot of work on and coined the term, “conspicuous consumption.”

  2. @#1- Nor will it, unless people are somehow willing to pay as much for information they disagree with as information they enjoy.

  3. Veblen is overrated. He doesn’t say anything that a smart Socialist hasn’t said a thousand times.

  4. I read “The Theory of the Leisure Class” in college, which is indeed all about conspicuous consumption. Veblen was a sharp guy.

  5. @#4- Sure you can disagree with data. You may be wrong to do so…or the data may be wrong…or the data may be presented in a biased fashion…but you can certainly disagree and people certainly do.

    If you had a newspaper which ran news articles about how much the Detroit auto industry would need to cut worker benefits and salaries, some people would find that objectionable. If you had another which focused on the need to maintain worker salaries and benefits lest the Detroit economy plunge further into the abyss, you’d have people objecting to that as well.
    If nothing else, there’s the disagreement as to which data are important. That makes the difference between the NYT, the Wall Street Journal, and Fox News even if all the information in each were perfectly correct.

  6. Yeah, conspiracy theories from a hundred years ago.

    That’s somewhat unfair, but its 5 am and I need to go to bed, so I can’t make a more nuanced critique.

  7. Takuan, you don’t do much with statistics, do you?

    I do.

    I can make them say damned near anything, and it will look like solid data. I DON’T, but it’s easy to do. I’ve advised on a couple of research projects where the main researcher had basically paid me to come onto the project to cook his or her numbers, and then were furious when I wouldn’t.

    So they just found another statistician who would.

    Luckily, my little soft science backwater doesn’t do much to change the world one way or the other, but I also don’t think it’s any different from other fields which DO.

    Data is most definitely subject to agree/disagree, because it is never the whole picture. It’s not even most. It’s a tiny, selected fraction, and it might even be phony.

  8. If you ask me what Veblen really said about the state of 20th-century journalism, it depends on what his definition of ‘is’ is.

  9. Certain guys just won’t go away, Veblen, Keynes, Marx, Malthus, Darwin, etc. Academic raiders loot their tombs and establish reputations and tenure by classifying and analyzing the artifacts. The latest crop of grave-robbers are postmodernist scramblers whose ambitious results are both obfuscating and confounding.

    “Stickle” as a verb. How neat.

  10. @KYLE:
    So everything is opinion, then.

    I don’t think so.

    What most of us in this thread including Takuan know is that even cynical bastards have to produce reports that basically jibe with what the other reporters publish. Otherwise, you’re sticking your neck out for a bald falsehood which is the worst way to risk your reputation.

    And its true what CICADA pointed out: Different pieces of data will seem unimportant or dangerous to different parties. So we are bound to see lies by omission. That is why its important to review different news outlets and sources (and different types of sources) to get an accurate picture.

  11. as the way things actually “work” in our society are laid bare for a short period

    Why the scare quotes? The vast majority of things in our society are still working just fine, media appearances to the contrary.

    As for the (dis)agreableness of data, it seems to me that Takuan’s point is that raw data is neutral in the sense that it is what it is, whether you like it or not, whereas Kyle Armbuster Expert Statistician’s point is that the way data is analyzed and/or presented can muddy the waters easily and substantially. These aren’t mutually exclusive points of view.

  12. @ Cicada – That’s not data, the examples you gave are opinion. Though I’ll agree that people can reject some facts in favor of other more agreeable facts.

    “Yeah, conspiracy theories from a hundred years ago.
    That’s somewhat unfair…”

    More than unfair, I’d say almost wholly false. The nature of the relationship of news media to their advertisers is hardly a secret.

  13. Veblen never ceases to amaze me with his prescience. Theory of the Leisure Class is one of the best reads on any subject, much less political economy. The term to remember from the work is not ‘conspicuous consumption’ but ‘pecuniary emulation.’

  14. “Though, data is in the eye of the transducer.”

    Something we can agree upon. The information we get from our senses has already been preprocessed for us to some extent.

  15. Commenting re Kyle above, every TV station has a “Research Department”. Unlike similarly named departments elsewhere the RD in TV spins the latest rating book numbers to make the station look attractive. Thus if you’re third in a 3 station market you might be first in a time period for some demographic group. One research practitioner I worked with was at least honest. On the wall was an attractive plaque with the legend: “Torture the Numbers and They’ll Tell You Anything”

  16. Veblen’s point is not that there is a media conspiracy, but that no conspiracy is necessary because the dependence of journalism on advertising creates an automatic bias. Granted the way things are structured, it would be extremely surprising if the press were objective and fair minded.

    Political prejudices make it difficult to look at our media dispassionately, but commercial journalism has been around for a long time in many countries so it is possible to get insight into how it works by looking at what happened in places and times whose debates are irrelevant to us. A good choice is the press in the France of Napoleon III whose corruption and institutionalized mediocrity is utterly obvious in hindsight. The self-important pronouncements of its long-forgotten pundits sound like they belong on the OP-Ed pages of the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal. And its hardly a mystery why they defended an absurd status quo–Louis Napoleon was every bit as much of a buffoon as George Bush. It paid to be a right-thinking hyperpatriot and public sycophant just as it still pays to tell people, especially people with money, how wonderful they are. Thing is, if how this worked in 1860 is perfectly clear, why is anybody surprised at how it works in 2009?

  17. Why the hate for the University of Chicago Economics Department? Jealousy? Failure to recognize the difference between the laws of economics and how politicians interpret the laws?

  18. A little popular literature trivia:

    In the late John D. McDonald’s “Travis McGee” series of detective novels (identifiable by the colors in their names), McGee’s best pal was a semi-retired economist named “Meyer.” Meyer lived on a houseboat that he’d named the “John Maynard Keynes,” until this boat was blown up. He soon bought a new houseboat to replace it, and named this one the “Thorstein Veblen.”

  19. Totally agree with Jim Harrison’s informative comment and Dan Gillmor’s editorial comment with his Veblen quote posting.

    Veblen really deserves to be read more by students of economics–if only for the hilarity of some of his skewering comments of the business establishment and economics profession of his time. His “trained incapacity” quotes, as I recall, referred primarily to the academic economics instruction in the university system of the early 20th century.

    Some of his writing is clearly dated. His flirtation with technocracy that he appeared to later abandon by the end of his life is such an example. However, his iconoclastic distrust of the “established” classes and their kept flunkies in journalism, academia, etc. was an intellectual virtue of the highest order. His perception of the prevailing finance and business practices of the early 20th century were that they were mostly based on “fraud and chicane.” Not totally unlike many of the practices of Wall Street and the mortgage industry today….

    He was always the outcast outsider. The son of a Norwegian-American midwestern prairie farmer populist. He died in 1929 just before Wall Street crashed. Would have loved to have gotten his reaction to that crash and the one that we are living thru now.

  20. Although I am not personally familiar with Veblen’s work, I am in a graduate course on political economy, and my well-published professor is quite enamoured of his work.

    You can see the fruits of his (Dr. Jonathan Nitzan’s) labours that have built off a Veblenian foundation at this comprehensive link:


  21. @26 Excellent analysis, however he’s only ‘dated’ with respect to actual examples and not to what those examples represent. He might talk about what a footman might wear, but how far removed is that from what an executive assistant might wear?

  22. He taught for a while at Carleton College in Minnesota. The story there is that the way he did his dishes was to put them on the front lawn and turn the hose on them. Rational, very.

  23. So if we shouldn’t take seriously the viewpoint of Keynes and other economics, and that our current thinkings about how the economy works are a bit bull… why should be believe a word that Veblen says?
    Is it maybe because he just happens to share your worldview?

    I would agree with what he’s saying, but to say that he actually knows something about economics, and his words are ‘truth’ – well it says more about you Dan Gillmor, than Veblen.

  24. Reminds me of an English teacher in high school, a former seminarian and owner of an Irish pub, who implored impressionable sophomores to read Veblen’s “The Theory of the Leisure Class.” And here it returns (thanks BROTHER PROVISIONAL).

    What’s also interesting here is considering how Veblen’s analysis compares not to the periodical press, which we know is now severely crippled, but to blogs and other on-line organs of information. Does seem that they are candidates for similar analysis.

  25. Chomsky’s Propoganda Model of media is very similar to Veblen’s with a few added filters like ownership of media conglomerates that didn’t factor as much in Veblen’s day.

    Having recently read The Theory of the Leisure Class, in which Veblen coined the phrase “conspicuous consumption, it struck me that he pretty much makes it up as he goes along. Even if what he says makes sense, there’s no research to back up his arguments, no interviews with conspicuous consumers, just his opinions. And now it’s the kind of book that modern academic theorists might cite as gospel truth.

  26. “…meretricious in a high degree.”

    Gotta love that.

    Roach, The Space Merchants was by Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth, not Poul Anderson and.

    And yes, good point.

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