A Time of Thanksgiving 2010

Americans have much to be thankful for...

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In 1621, the Pilgrims (Leyden Puritans), along with 90 Wampanoag Indians who taught them how to sustain themselves, held a feast after their first harvest, often referred to as the First Thanksgiving. Actually, the Pilgrims considered it “a day of thanksgiving and of prayer and fasting,” as they would have considered any day that warranted the recognition of God’s goodness.

In 1789, both Houses of Congress called on George Washington “to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer (Thursday, November 26th) to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.”

Two hundred and twenty-two years, seven major wars (from the War of 1812 to the War in Afghanistan) and ten profound financial crises later (from the Panic of 1819 to the Mortgage Crisis of 2007), despite the economic difficulties we face, still Americans have much to be thankful for. From sea to shining sea, the U.S. produces more food than many countries put together. The sad fact is that, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, we throw away 25% – some 25.9 million tons – of all the food we produce for domestic sale and consumption. Food First indicates that, all foods considered together, there is enough food available to provide each person worldwide with at least 4.3 pounds (2 kg) of food per day. That includes two and a half pounds of grain, beans and nuts, about a pound of fruits & vegetables, and nearly another pound of meat, milk and eggs. So, what’s the problem?

Unfortunately, people like me too often make sport of the agricultural industry. How? I invest in companies that buy swaths of land, leverage the produce, and auction it to the highest bidders who then distribute the goods to the wealthiest regions of the world that deliver maximum profit. The poorer parts of the world rely on government agencies or international organizations, to which we also sell for a small profit, but primarily for the tax break. When disaster strikes, such as the wildfires in Russia this past summer that reduced its wheat output by 25%, we opportunely raise prices on lower supply. We make lots of money, but some face rationing – at best.

In addition, as the rising price of animal feed eats into meat-production profit, instead of giving animal stock away to others who can raise them to sustain their livelihoods, we carefully calculate how many animals we should slaughter and sell to market as a way of cutting feed cost and padding the bottom line. And then, this Thanksgiving Day, we will partake in a hearty meal, enjoy a time of socializing, consider how good life is, and say to ourselves, “What a great country!”

The United States is a great country with innumerable opportunities to prosper. However, with much fortune comes much responsibility – a point we ‘haves’ should take to heart.

It may have been the Thanksgiving spirit that finally moved Warren Buffett to write an op-ed letter in appreciation of U.S. officials’ handling of the economic crisis, published on November 16 for the New York Times, which reads (abbreviated):

“My mother told me to send thank-you notes promptly. I’ve been remiss.

Let me remind you why I’m writing. Just over two years ago, in September 2008, our country faced an economic meltdown. Indeed, all of corporate America’s dominoes were lined up, ready to topple at lightning speed. [But it wasn’t] just business that was in peril: 300 million Americans were in the domino line as well. Just days before, the jobs, income, 401(k)’s and money-market funds of these citizens had seemed secure. Then, virtually overnight, everything began to turn into pumpkins and mice. There was no hiding place. A destructive economic force unlike any seen for generations had been unleashed.

Only one counterforce was available, and that was you, Uncle Sam. Yes, you are often clumsy, even inept. But when businesses and people worldwide race to get liquidity, you are the only party with the resources to take the other side of the transaction. And when our citizens are losing trust by the hour in institutions they once revered, only you can restore calm.

The challenge was huge, and many people thought you were not up to it. Well, Uncle Sam, you delivered. So again, thanks to you and your aides.”

A gentleman by the name of P. L. Allen also wrote letter to the New York Times, which reads (paraphrased):

“Why devote an editorial column with statistical praise telling your readers that we should be thankful for wealth which we know exists but few possess?

Could you not inspire us with greater patriotism and loftier ambitions by urging us instead to be thankful for an aroused public sentiment that has compelled legislators...to enact laws which will do much toward stopping the illegal accumulation of money by a few and restoring opportunity to the many?

Let Americans be thankful that at last they are awake and pray that they be not lulled to sleep again by such a deadly compound as the Syrup of Prosperity and the Sparkle of Wealth.”

By the way, P. L. Allen’s letter was written on November 30, 1906. If there was ever a “Back to the Future” moment, this is (was) that moment. Regrettably, we were lulled to sleep, but hopefully never again.

We Americans have much to be thankful for. Our leaders indeed acted forcefully and faithfully in their effort to protect us from financial harm – even now, working hard to ensure such an event never happens again. But let us be determined never again to allow the deceitfulness of wealth to lead us into social or financial bondage, or to lure us into abandoning fiscal or moral responsibility. And, finally, let us give the ultimate credit to the One on whom the U.S. explicitly relies: “In God We Trust”.

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About Tony Richardson