veblen on graduate students

25 January 2013

The effect of this factor of the standard of living, both in the way of retrenchment in the obscurer elements of consumption that go to physical comfort and maintenance, and also in the paucity or absence of children, is perhaps seen at its best among the classes given to scholarly pursuits.

Because of a presumed superiority and scarcity of the gifts and attainments that characterise 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 own 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.

In any modern community where there is no priestly monopoly of these occupations, the people of scholarly pursuits are unavoidably thrown into contact with classes that are pecuniarily their superiors.

The high standard of pecuniary decency in force among these superior classes is transfused among the scholarly classes with but little mitigation of its rigour; and as a consequence there is no class of the community that spends a larger proportion of its substance in conspicuous waste than these.

Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class, 1899. It is all a single paragraph in the original, but for legibility's sake in the format of this blog has been broken apart per sentence.

Update: having been told that the quote is a little opaque, here's a quick interpretation: graduate students (scholars) are socially respected above where their wealth should locate them among the social classes. By being considered social peers by wealthier individuals (who have “earned” their social standing), they are forced to invest an amount comparable to their so-called peers in keeping-up-with-the-Joneses. Inasmuch as this is hardly feasible on the standard stipend of a graduate student, they are inevitably — and endogenously! — the poorest of all, and waste their income to such an extent that mere survival can seem an insurmountable task.

It is more than slightly self-involved.


On Malthus:

The conspicuous consumption, and the consequent increased expense, required in the reputable maintenance of a child is very considerable and acts as a powerful deterrent. It is probably the most effectual of the Malthusian prudential checks.

My, how Jevons would be displeased.

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