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Tomgram: Ann Jones, Our Veblen Moment

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Here was a tweet from October 2014 about a president who liked to golf: "Can you believe that, with all of the problems and difficulties facing the U.S., President Obama spent the day playing golf. Worse than Carter." And that was just one of 27 times between 2011 and 2016 that Donald J. Trump tweeted, often bitterly, about Barack Obama's presidential golfing breaks. Take this one, for instance: "While Obama vacations, golfs, attends parties & jazz concerts, ISIS is chopping heads off of journalists."

That, of course, was before the same Donald J. Trump amazed himself and much of the rest of America by becoming president and promptly began setting records as a member of the leisure class on his own golf courses. "We pay for Obama's travel so he can fundraise millions so Democrats can run on lies. Then we pay for his golf," he tweeted back when he wasn't costing Americans a fortune by spending his leisure time (and cheating like mad) playing... well, the sport of plutocrats.

Honestly, Thorstein Veblen would have loved Donald Trump. I mean, how many twenty-first-century billionaires actually have a website dedicated just to tracking their appearances on those same golf courses? As president, he brought his billions (not as many admittedly as he claimed, but still...), his family, and his family businesses into the White House and rested them all on the backs of the American people, especially on that base of his that only loves him more for it. Even for the maestro of The Apprentice and The Celebrity Apprentice, it's been a performance to remember. In terms of presidential leisure imagine this: he's either been playing on or visiting one of the 17 golf properties he owns or operates every fourth day of his presidency. He's spent 167 days so far on a golf course, while the Secret Service racked up almost $370,000 just for golf cart rentals and tens of millions more for other golfing-related expenses.

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What a life of leisure at the taxpayer's expense, even if The Donald has never read (nor have most of the rest of us) Thorstein Veblen's nineteenth-century classic, The Theory of the Leisure Class. Yet, as TomDispatch regular Ann Jones reminds us today, more than a century ago, in his own gilded age, Veblen nailed our guy to a cross of golf clubs as he did so much of a gilded plutocratic world that has now become ours. Tom

The Man Who Saw Trump Coming A Century Ago
A Reader's Guide for the Distraught
By Ann Jones

Distracted daily by the bloviating POTUS? Here, then, is a small suggestion. Focus your mind for a moment on one simple (yet deeply complex) truth: we are living in a Veblen Moment.

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That's Thorstein Veblen, the greatest American thinker you probably never heard of (or forgot). His working life -- from 1890 to 1923 -- coincided with America's first Gilded Age, so named by Mark Twain, whose novel of that title lampooned the greedy corruption of the country's most illustrious gentlemen. Veblen had a similarly dark, sardonic sense of humor.

Now, in America's second (bigger and better) Gilded Age, in a world of staggering inequality, believe me, it helps to read him again.

In his student days at Johns Hopkins, Yale, and finally Cornell, already a master of many languages, he studied anthropology, sociology, philosophy, and political economy (the old fashioned term for what's now called economics). That was back when economists were concerned with the real-life conditions of human beings, and wouldn't have settled for data from an illusory "free market."

Veblen got his initial job, teaching political economy at a salary of $520 a year, in 1890 when the University of Chicago first opened its doors. Back in the days before SATs and admissions scandals, that school was founded and funded by John D. Rockefeller, the classic robber baron of Standard Oil. (Think of him as the Mark Zuckerberg of his day.) Even half a century before the free-market economist Milton Friedman captured Chicago's economics department with dogma that serves the ruling class, Rockefeller called the university "the best investment" he ever made. Still, from the beginning, Thorstein Veblen was there, prepared to focus his mind on Rockefeller and his cronies, the cream of the upper class and the most ruthless profiteers behind that Gilded Age.

He was already asking questions that deserve to be raised again in the 1% world of 2019. How had such a conspicuous lordly class developed in America? What purpose did it serve? What did the members of the leisure class actually do with their time and money? And why did so many of the ruthlessly over-worked, under-paid lower classes tolerate such a peculiar, lopsided social arrangement in which they were so clearly the losers?

Veblen addressed those questions in his first and still best-known book, The Theory of the Leisure Class, published in 1899. The influential literary critic and novelist William Dean Howells, the "dean of American letters," perfectly captured the effect of Veblen's gleeful, poker-faced scientific style in an awestruck review. "In the passionless calm with which the author pursues his investigation," Howells wrote, "there is apparently no animus for or against a leisure class. It is his affair simply to find out how and why and what it is. If the result is to leave the reader with a feeling which the author never shows, that seems to be solely the effect of the facts."

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The book made a big splash. It left smug, witless readers of the leisure class amused. But readers already in revolt, in what came to be known as the Progressive Era, came away with contempt for the filthy rich (a feeling that today, with a smug, witless plutocrat in the White House, should be a lot more common than it is).

What Veblen Saw

The now commonplace phrase "leisure class" was Veblen's invention and he was careful to define it: "The term 'leisure,' as here used, does not connote indolence or quiescence. What it connotes is non-productive consumption of time. Time is consumed non-productively (1) from a sense of the unworthiness of productive work, and (2) as an evidence of pecuniary ability to afford a life of idleness."

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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