Veblen in Plain English: A Complete Introduction to Thorstein Veblen's Economics, by Ken McCormick. Youngstown, NY: Cambria Press. 2006. Paper: ISBN 0 977 3567 6 0, $24.95. 144 pages.
Once in a great while one is asked to review a book that is actually a pleasure to read, and Ken McCormick's Veblen in Plain English is such a book! Direct, lucid and succinct, the 144 pages succeed marvelously in presenting a coherent presentation of Veblen's system of thought. In so doing McCormick has accomplished what I heretofore thought impossible: present the complexity of Veblen's thinking in a form accessible to introductory students. He does this without compromising the totality of Veblen's vision. As a result, the reader will finish with a thorough understanding of how to apply Veblen's analysis to interpret their world. "How" you might ask? Allow me to explain.
The secret to McCormick's approach is two fold. First is the compartmentalization of Veblen's writing around four modes of analytical inquiry: Instincts and Institutions, Technology and Social Evolution, Capital and Business Enterprise, and Consumer Behavior. Second, he logically organizes, presents and builds Veblen's evolutionary analysis keeping in mind his audience. Crucial to his approach is the disregard of the historicity of appearance in favor of the logical sequence of ideas. Thus, we work toward the Theory of the Leisure Class rather than from it, and the student is able to quickly savvy the institutional forces shaping consumptive behavior after a thorough introduction to the role instincts play in shaping social evolution.
Another reason for McCormick's elucidative success is the orderly development of ideas. He begins each unit with clear succinct definitions that logically and orderly present Veblen's essential modes of intellectual inquiry. For instance, we see "instincts as 'the innate and persistent propensities of human nature,'" and "'institutions are habitual methods of carrying on the life process of the community.'" Equipped with clear definitions, he goes on to present the dichotomies of Veblen's analysis and their application to interpret not only the inhibitory forces of habitual behavior, but the role of technology--"matter-of-fact, cause-and-effect thinking"--in perturbing outmoded avenues of thought. On the way, the reader receives an inviting sample of "Veblenian" passages, not only to provide evidence for interpretation, but also to illuminate Veblen's thought...