Accidental Veblenian, Intentional Institutionalist, and Inevitable Feminist

By Waller, William | Journal of Economic Issues, June 2005 | Go to article overview

Accidental Veblenian, Intentional Institutionalist, and Inevitable Feminist


Waller, William, Journal of Economic Issues


I had hoped to begin this address with some humor. Recent events have made it hard to think of anything amusing that wouldn't be either cynical or insensitive. So as I sat preparing this introduction I gave some thought to both the grim character of our current social situation and the reality of those grim circumstances as reflected in my own community. Recent weeks have included a natural disaster (earthquake and tsunami) in South Asia; the ongoing Iraqi war with no foreseeable beneficial outcome for the Iraqi, American, and other people involved; and a reactionary nightmare on the American national political scene. Each of these events has impacts on all of us including the bucolic little community in upstate New York where I live. Three of my colleagues and their immediate families all survived the tsunami in South Asia, a local young man returned home from completing a tour of duty in Iraq, and political participation and voter registration in the small county in which I live is at a historic high. That doesn't seem so bad.

There are problems in our bucolic little paradise. The wine industry had a bad year because of a harsh frost last winter. Bugs still eat crops. And a young man living down the road from me did not survive a terrible automobile accident. We also have all the usual problems that small towns, rural areas, and small colleges endemically exhibit. And all the social structures and institutionalized behaviors accumulated over the years to address these problems are in place. This gives me hope.

These observations remind me that lives are lived in communities and we must keep those communities strong and functioning. They also remind me that we have some time to organize and resist the reactionary forces being brought to bear on our society. I believe such circumstances present both challenges and opportunities for institutional economists.

With that in mind I want to focus more specifically on three elements of my own scholarly development within institutional economics--those are, specifically, my intentional institutionalism, my accidental Veblenism, and the inevitability of my feminism. I abandon this autobiographical ordering for one that is more thematically coherent.

Accidental Veblenian

My interest in the scholarship of ThorsteinVeblen is derivative of my study of institutional economics. I had already been exposed to the so-called "oral tradition" when I began reading Veblen, and that provided the lens, so to speak, through which I interpreted his work. I guess that was as good a starting point as any. The reason I began to re-read and re-explore Veblen is every time a new topic or problem presented itself and I looked to see what prior institutionalists and other scholars had done with the topic or problem, inevitably, I always found myself back reading Veblen. This is a function of two important observations about Veblen. The first is Charles Whalen's observation that Veblen seemed to be the last person to know everything. (1) The second is my own observation that the older I get, the smarter Veblen gets. Since I believe these observations are correct I have simply resigned myself to the continuing need to read Veblen on a regular basis. This need has caused me to assign something by Veblen to nearly every course I teach.

Since my scholarship often employs this reading of Veblen, he often shows up haunting the endnotes of my articles. Consequently, I get many invitations to give papers on Veblen, which I mostly accept since I am already busy re-reading Veblen anyway. Which, of course, takes me to interesting conferences where I learn more about Veblen, which in turn necessitates more reading and writing about Veblen. This cycle of work on Veblen seems to be a nice example of circular causation and feedback effects. This process has caused at least a third of my career to be directly related to scholarship on Veblen. I guess that is an example of cumulative causation. …

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