Thorstein Bunde Veblen (1857–1929) may no longer feature on the curricula of most economics students, but in terms of editions of his books published and doctoral work dedicated to his work and legacy he remains America's most famous economist. Veblen is the intellectual father of the two most influential economic schools to offer an alternative to today's mainstream economics: evolutionary economics and institutional economics. He vivisected modern capitalism and redrew the very framework of social science, and his renown goes well beyond the Ivory Tower. His name, alongside his signature concepts such as ‘conspicuous consumption’ and ‘vested interests’, appears in scholarly studies as well as novels and popular media, from the works of novelist John Dos Passos to Fortune Magazine. Other great economists may be cited in academic articles, but theatrical plays are rarely dedicated to their persons and their names are seldom invoked in comedy films as is Veblen's. His international reach extended far beyond the Atlantic communities: six of Veblen's books have been translated into Japanese, and at least two into Chinese.4 But who was he?
In a 1924 letter – written on the stationary of the New School for Social Research where he was employed at the time – Veblen describes himself to a certain ‘Mr. Pritchard’ as ‘an average person with few and slight ties of family or country, being born of Norwegian parents in America and educated at various American schools, and having never been hard at work or very busy‘.