November 28, 2021
A Time to Give Thanks
Thanksgiving is upon us again, bringing to mind the pilgrim story. That is a fine tale of religious refugees, which is probably the most enduring and evocative American experience. But rightly understood, the American Thanksgiving comes to us from Abraham Lincoln. It was made by his proclamation of October 3, 1863, while the Gettysburg dead were still being gathered, on an autumn day in the shadow of our nation’s darkest hour. If Mr. Lincoln could find reason to call us together for a day of gratitude, we can now have no cause to do otherwise.
Shifting focus to our most recent year, America’s factories have recovered and produced more goods this summer than at any time in history. Our ports are full, sending a record value of these goods abroad. At the same time, ships bring more goods to our factories and stores from trading partners abroad. Our American dollar rules the globe, denominating everything from global oil shipments to taxi cab trips in Bangladesh. All of this happened in the wake of the biggest economic shock in global history.
Today, Americans have never been richer. Indeed, we are so affluent that our standard of poverty lies slightly above the global average income per household. Thus, a very poor American is richer than half of all living people. One out of three Americans have wealth that places them in the top 10 percent world wide.
Growing wealth and rising economic fortunes are good things. Improved economic conditions free people to pursue broader dreams and aspirations. Our affluence permits us to retire, to take longer vacations and spend more time with family. Economic growth funds research and development, science and education. It is not everything, but it unleashes great possibilities.
America’s enrichment is even more bounteous coming as it did in a time of unequaled global economic growth. The past 30 years have seen more people escape poverty than in the 30 centuries before that. Since 1990, the global poverty rate dropped from 1:3 to 1:10 worldwide. Close to 3.0 billion people escaped the most dire impoverishment in just three decades.
This stunning growth came about almost wholly as a consequence of market-based reforms. What we call capitalism, free trade and a focus on building democratic institutions freed more humans from economic bondage in a little over one generation than any other force in human history. This stunning growth of wealth also permitted other institutions to thrive.
To offer an example, more than 1.0 billion humans — one out of every seven of us — were vaccinated against COVID in just one month of 2021. This is, hands down, the most remarkable human achievement in history. Within 18 months of a new disease attacking our species, we developed multiple vaccines, tested and manufactured them, and distributed them to 179 nations, which then administered them to more than 1,000,000,000 people in 30 days.
These marvels of science, free markets and dedicated public workers don’t free us from the realities of being human. We are imperfect, so while we set aside for giving thanks, there will still be murders, assaults and theft. The glories of our age haven’t changed human nature. Still, one useful way to judge our times is through a thought experiment akin to that offered by philosopher John Rawls.
Suppose you were given a choice of when and where to be born. You could pick any place and any time in all of history, but there’s a catch: You must enter the world under a veil of ignorance about who you will be. You can choose the time and place, but not your gender, or race, or intelligence. You cannot choose your parents, nor their occupations, nor their education. You cannot choose to be tall, or short, or beautiful. You may be healthy or disabled, belong to a religious minority, or be a refugee. Knowing nothing about who you will be when born, you may only choose where and when’ll be born.
Can there be any doubt about when and where you would choose to be born? Of course you’d choose to be born now, in the United States. And, it would not matter what chance delivered you to be. This place and time would yield the highest income, the longest lifespan, and the greatest opportunity for human flourishing.
It is worth thinking through this critically, especially at a time of giving thanks. No group of Americans have suffered worse within our national experience than those of African, Native American or Japanese ancestry. Still, on average the most affluent and successful people of African or Japanese ancestry worldwide are Americans. Despite slavery and mass incarceration, here they thrive in ways that are almost unknown in Africa and rare in Japan.
We cannot make that direct comparison for Native Americans, but do know that that the poorest reservation family incomes are three times that of the world average.
Every other displaced minority, from the Scots-Irish and Ashkenazi Jews to Guatemalans, are better off here than in the lands that drove them away. If you are gay, Jehovah’s Witness, transexual, or atheist, you will find more acceptance, less bigotry and more opportunity here than anywhere else in the world.
There is more work to be done in our effort to create a more perfect Union, and naturally we will not agree on the most pressing priorities. We are an exceptional nation, whose current greatness lies not only in our many successes, but in acknowledging our many shortcomings. But, this weekend is not set aside for celebration or critical introspection. The task before is easier; we are called merely to give thanks. Or, as Mr. Lincoln proclaimed, the day shall be ‘solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People.’
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