Friday, 18 January 2013

Part XXIII – Birth, Waste and Academia

This is part of a series discussing The Theory of the Leisure Class, by Thorstein Veblen.  Chapter Five is titled The Pecuniary Standard of Living.  

Veblen believes that because custom demands a standard of living based on conspicuous waste, this in turn acts as a Malthusian check (I had to look this up) in lowering the birth rate in some classes, particularly amongst those ‘given to scholarly pursuits’.  I guess academia has never paid particularly well, eh?  Veblen explains why ‘there is no class of the community that spends a larger proportion of its substance in conspicuous waste than these’:
“Because of a presumed superiority and scarcity of the gifts and attainments that characterize their life, these classes are by convention subsumed under a higher social grade than their pecuniary grade should warrant. The scale of decent expenditure in their case is pitched correspondingly high, and it consequently leaves an exceptionally narrow margin disposable for the other ends of life. By force of circumstances, their habitual sense of what is good and right in these matters, as well as the expectations of the community in the way of pecuniary decency among the learned, are excessively high — as measured by the prevalent degree of opulence and earning capacity of the class, relatively to the non-scholarly classes whose social equals they nominally are.”

I've no idea how true this idea was in Veblen's time, but I'm thinking it seems a broad generalization to make today. I know university lecturers and professors who are frugal and others who spend every cent.   My general impression is that travel rather than cars or clothing is a priority.  Come to think of it, I know of no academics with large families...

So ends Chapter Five.  Next week we’ll tackle Pecuniary Canons of Taste.


Unknown said...

No, this doesn't ring true of academics I know either. Maybe if you think about all of the $$$ spent on higher education to become an academic it makes more sense?

Beryl said...

Birth, Waste, and Academia - interesting things to tie together.

Shelley said...

Susan - Yes, it does. The cost of acquiring higher degrees is a sort of conspicuous consumption (and in some cases waste) and may not leave much money for loads of children.

Beryl - A rather odd grouping, now I think of it! Those are just the next ideas I seemed to pull out of Veblen before I got to the end of the chapter.