Veblen and Women and Mencken and Cowen

Today, Tyler Cowen lists his Favorite Things Minnesota, which oddly doesn’t mention fishing, and has this to say about Thomas Friedman, that he, “ought to be considered one of the world’s leading conservative columnists but is not.”  Interesting.  Let’s look at some of his latest.

Here’s a column on the State Department Perpetual Lifetime Full Employment Act and the newly revived and always hopeless US-led Israeli-Palestinian talks.  “Daring to Fail“.

There’s some undiscovered law that proves a correspondence between the lameness of one’s slogans and the lameness of one’s underlying thinking.  “Daring to Fail” and “Leading from Behind” and “Bend Over” “Lean Forward” are all clearly terrible phrases that don’t even use euphemism well to obscure the rot below.  “Yes we can” is all they’ve got.

My favorite line from the article:

If Abbas — who foolishly did not take advantage of former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s offer of a two-state deal in 2008 — did not take advantage of this renewed U.S. effort, it is not clear when the next bus would come again for him, if at all.

How about every other year?  Every single presidential bus driver, in every single term, is determined to make a stop in Jerusalem.  The deal on offer may be more or less generous (the completion of the wall certainly changed the calculus of leverage), but the bus runs on schedule and one needn’t worry about missing it; another will certainly come along shortly.  I’m reminded of Derbyshire’s great line from We Are Doomed where he demonstrates this endless cycle repeating over and over and lets out a primal scream of, “Nooooo …..”

Here, he discusses the situation in Egypt with absurd equivocation between the military and the islamists.  There’s this gem:

The Arab world did not have the roots of democracy that could quickly blossom or modernizing autocrats, who built broad, educated middle classes that could gradually take control. And it did not have an E.U. to act as a magnet and model. So when the lid came off with the Arab awakening, there was no broad-based progressive movement to effectively compete with the same old, same old: the military and Muslim Brotherhood.

Funny, I thought Egypt’s problems had something to do with the fact that the very un-progressive Muslim Brotherhood has the numbers to win under democracy, roots or not.  If only there were a progressive, environmentalist, pro-gay marriage Arab-EU that could keep all the islamists under control as well as the armed forces.

But the premise isn’t even true.  The Egyptian military autocrats weren’t stupid and, over decades and facing incredible obstacles, did indeed try their best to ‘modernize’ their country and elevate their small smart fraction to elite positions in the secular bureaucracy and business-owning middle class.  This while having no great oil reserves, and simultaneously suppressing the jihadists (for which they often paid with their lives) while protecting minorities like the Christian Copts, preserving peace in their region for 40 years (surrounded by hated Israel, chaotic wreck Sudan, and crazy Qaddafi-Libya), and being an ok ally to the USG when it needed to do a little extraordinary rendition.

Given another generation or two, their own version of gradual Cathedralization would have conceivably overcome their demographic and fertility rate disadvantages.  They could have done this much quicker, and for perfectly plausible environmental and nutritional-security reasons, with a Chinese-style population policy, but the West would have squealed and the Jihadists would have killed.  But if left alone, perhaps even offered a little help, Mubarak and his heirs could have transformed Egypt into an embryonic Friedmanistan.  Alas, Blue-Gov just couldn’t keep it in its pants when the opportunity presented itself and Friedman and Indyk told us Mubarak had to go because of Democracy.

Finally, here he is in Salina, making a movie – and writing a column ridiculously titled, “Kansas and Al Qaeda”, trying to draw one of those ‘the world is flat’ connections between entirely unrelated events while getting in all his favorite pet environmental issues.  Issues – I should not fail to mention – that fly in the face of the accomplishments in Industrial Agriculture achieved by another Cowen listee – Norman Borlaug who must unfortunately make company amongst the other mediocre Nobel Peace Prize winners because there isn’t a Nobel for horitculture so, um, “He fed the hungry, but the world is also ‘hungry for peace’ or something”.

But see, even though wheat is a global market commodity dominated by China, India, ex-Soviet and Anglosphere countries (Global Production: 675 MMT, KS: 9 MMT) and droughts are routine in dry Southwestern Kansas (as anyone could tell by looking at a satellite picture on a google map, and where they grow that wheat with well-water central pivot irrigation), and that even were the Kansas Crop to be decimated by two-thirds by an isolated, local weather event decreasing the global supply by only 1% …

Well, somehow it, and not population growth, global demand, or the Federal Reserve, still raises prices enough to motivate salafist caliphatism.  Next Tom blames Detroit’s bankruptcy on climate change too.  I doubt he mentions ‘monoculture’ in that one, where it actually makes sense.  Thomas Friedman – neither great nor leading nor conservative.  He certainly married up though, so congrats on that.

But Cowen’s a smart guy, usually sane, and whose writing I enjoy.  He knows better than to characterize Friedman that way, so, as usual, you are tempted to read between his lines and wonder what he’s getting at.

But it is impossible to know what he’s getting at when he gives even faint praise to Thorstein Veblen (who was, once upon a time 115 years ago, a really big deal), who only ever wrote something true when it was so completely obvious that no one else had thought to write it down as if it were an “insight”.  And often it was false.

What man could take on the intellectual prince of the age and demolish his standing with ease?  Our hero Mencken, of course.  Chapter V of Volume I of his Prejudices, is dedicated to Professor Veblen.  Here he is on “conspicuous consumption”:

… it seems to be that there is little truth left in Prof. Dr. Veblen’s theory of conspicuous consumption and conspicuous waste – that what remains of it, after it is practically applied a few times, is no more than a wraith of balderdash.  In so far as it is true it is obvious.  All the professor accomplishes with it is to take what every one knows and pump it up to such proportions that every one begins to doubt it. What could be plainer that his failure in the case just cited?  He starts off with a platitude, and ends in absurdity.”

Beautiful.  Obviously Mencken is not impressed.  But when Veblen gets going on sexuality-related behavior patterns, Mencken unleashes, and I can do no other than by excerpting the passage in full – enjoy:

His final conclusion is as unsound as his premisses.  All it comes to is a plain begging of the question.  Why does a man forbid his wife to drink all the alcohol she can hold?  Because, he says, it “detracts sensibly from his comfort or pleasure.”  In other words, it detracts from his comfort or pleasure because it detracts from his comfort or pleasure.  Meanwhile, the real answer is so plain that even a professor should know it.  A Man forbids his wife to drink too much because, deep in his secret archives, he has records of the behavior of other women who drank too much, and is eager to safeguard his wife’s self-respect, and his own dignity, against what he knows to be certain invasion.  In brief, is is a commonplace of observation, familiar to all males beyond the age of twenty-one, that one a woman is drunk the rest is a mere matter of time and place: the girl is already there.  A husband, viewing this prospect, perhaps shrinks from having his chattel damaged.  But let us be soft enough to think that he may also shrink from seeing humiliation, ridicule, and bitter regret inflicted upon one who is under his protection, and one whose dignity and happiness are precious to him, and one whom he regards with deep and (I surely hope) lasting affection.  A man’s grandfather is surely not his chattel, even by the terms of the Veblen theory, and yet I am sure that no sane man would let the old gentleman go beyond a discreet cocktail or two if a bout of genuine bibbing were certain to be followed by the complete destruction of his dignity, his chastity, and (if a Presbyterian) his immortal soul …

And before tiring of his easy work, Mencken takes exception to Veblen’s theory of the American Lawn.

… he turns his garish and buzzing search-light upon another problem … First, why do we have lawns around our country houses?  Secondly, why don’t we employ cows to keep them clipped, instead of importing Italians, Croatians, and blackamoors? …  But why don’t we keep flocks?  Why do we renounce cows and hire Jugo-Slavs?  Because, “to the average popular apprehension a herd of cattle so pointedly suggests thrift and usefulness that their presence … would be intolerable cheap.”  With the highest veneration, Bosh!  Plowing through a bad book from end to end, I can find nothing sillier than this.  Here, indeed, the whole “theory of conspicuous waste” is exposed for precisely what it is: one percent platitude and ninety-nine percent nonsense.  Has the great professor, pondering his great problems, ever taken a walk in the country?  And has he, in the course of that walk, ever crossed a pasture inhabited by a cow?  And has he, making that crossing, ever passed astern of the cow herself?  And has he, thus passing astern, ever stepped carelessly, and —

But this is not a medical work, and so I had better haul up. The cow, to me, symbolizes the whole speculation of this laborious and humorless pedagogue.  From end to end you will find the same tedious torturing of plain facts, the relentless piling up of thin and over-labored theory, the same flatulent bombast, the same intellectual strabismus.  And always with an air of vast importance, always in vexed and formidable sentences, always in the longest words possible, always in the most cacophonous Englih that even a professor ever wrote …

So much, at least for the present, for this Prof. Dr. Thorstein Veblen, head Great Thinker to the parlor radicals, Socrates of the intellectual Greenwich Village, chief star (at least transiently) of the American Atheniums.

The whole chapter is wonderful, and all six volumes are worth your time.  Where is Veblen’s Mencken to Cowen’s Friedman today?  If TAC is looking for something to do, then maybe it should try to cultivate one; if not in his heroic solitary output, then at least as a collective project.

But that project is not my project, upon which I shall write more when I have time.  Unlike the average American Lawn, my country estate does indeed have dairy cows in the barn, and they need milking, and the milking needs supervision, at least until I replace my imported Jugo-Slavs and blackamoors with Japanese robots.  So, until next time my friends – Sayonara!

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3 Responses to Veblen and Women and Mencken and Cowen

  1. Pingback: Randoms | Foseti

  2. Bill says:

    The Egyptian military autocrats weren’t stupid and, over decades and facing incredible obstacles, did indeed try their best to ‘modernize’ their country and elevate their small smart fraction to elite positions in the secular bureaucracy and business-owning middle class.

    Just a quibble. What you say is true of Nasser and true enough of Sadat. But Mubarak?

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