In this memoir, Veblen (Business: The Heart of the Matter, 2017) recounts a successful career in agricultural commerce and consulting and articulates a general theory of business as an agent of progress.
The author was born in 1929 in Hallock, a small town in the Red River Valley of Minnesota—a place for which he says he still feels a “twinge of nostalgia.” The area was dominated by farming communities, and its residents were largely second- and third-generation Scandinavians. Veblen asserts that he inherited a “cultural affinity for work” from his “stoic and taciturn” forebears. “My boyhood exemplars…were amazingly determined, resilient, and hard-working.” A restless child—he refers to his schoolboy days as an “incarceration”—Veblen eventually graduated from California State Polytechnic College, where he studied agriculture. The author’s enterprising career started at Cargill, a massive “grain merchandizing outfit,” and his initial apprenticeship grew into a 20-year tenure there. It was an experience that deeply influenced his understanding of management practices, he says. Always looking for new opportunities, Veblen also served as a White House Fellow, worked as an agricultural consultant at the Stanford Research Institute, and started his own business, Food System Associates. In charmingly buoyant prose, the author shares the lessons that he learned along the way, and he lays out his vision of business as a “vital force for advancing human well-being”—a catalyst for innovation, productivity, and democratic self-governance. It’s a stance that departs significantly from the anti-capitalist theories of his famous great-uncle Thorstein Veblen.
The author’s career is an extraordinary amalgam of focused work and experimental meandering, or as he puts it, a fusion of enterprise, industry, and speculation. His remembrances are vivid and precise but expressed in an informal, anecdotal tone. The author’s experience is wide enough to appeal to readers of diverse backgrounds as well as those interested in the inner machinations of American government; for example, when Veblen was a White House Fellow, he was placed in the Department of the Interior, where he tried to improve the accessibility of national parks. He also furnishes a thoughtfully synoptic history of his birthplace, and he addresses the immigrant experience of balancing fidelity to one’s culture with a desire for cultural assimilation. However, the best part of the book is Veblen’s philosophical meditation on the nature of business—a “social construct” that kaleidoscopically shows the full range of human nature from the heights of generosity to the depths of avarice. In his well-argued, if exceedingly optimistic, account of the transformative powers of commerce, he sees progress as the fruit of superior business practices: “Commercial society holds promise for creating an enlightened world order.” Veblen’s memoir, which is festooned with black-and-white photographs from the author’s life, sometimes delves too deeply into minute autobiographical detail. However, he does offer some valuable insights into the agricultural business world as well as the problem of world hunger.
A recollection of an eventful life, related with candor and verve, and a stimulating reflection on the capabilities of commerce.