Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

22 November 2012

Thanksgiving Message 2012: A Baker’s Dozen Reasons to be Thankful


[For a recent post on the South’s future, click here. For a post on support for Obama as a function of state GDP and net tax receipts/payments, click here.]

A Thanksgiving message is a five-year tradition on this blog. It’s especially meaningful for me this year, when I’m abroad. (I will spend the day passing through the Suez Canal.)

Thanksgiving I love above all holidays. It’s uniquely American. It has no nationalist, religious, political or military flavor. It celebrates the peaceful co-existence of two cultures: innocent Native Americans and refugees from religious persecution in England.

Most of all, it celebrates the help that Natives gave the presumably more “advanced” immigrants. Without that help, many of our forbears would not have survived. So Thanksgiving celebrates the mutual self-help that is our species’ chief evolutionary advantage.

Thanksgiving’s main purpose is giving thanks. This year, we have lots to be thankful for.

Many of our blessings are mixed. But that, too, is a form of blessing. As the writer Heinlein observed, “At cusp, choice is. With choice, spirit grows.” The choices we have just made in our election, together with other choices yet to be made, will nurture our spirits and fix our fate.

That, too, is a blessing. We can still chart our own destiny. We just have to do so wisely.

So here, in November 2012, is a list of some of our many blessings, in rough order of importance:

1. We are still a free people. The greatest massing of money and power ever assembled in any capitalist society sought to buy us and failed. We can make up our own minds and still control our own destiny.

2. As the old song says, “We are the world.” Every racial, ethnic, national, cultural and religious group lives among us. Most have equal or nearly equal opportunity to succeed, and all make the most of what chances they have. Immigration and diversity enrich us beyond measure, and far beyond the comprehension of nations that don’t celebrate them.

3. We are beginning to understand what builds true success and happiness. We have rejected a path of lower taxes, less regulation and more power to those who already have too much. The class war is not over; it never will be. But a decisive battle has been won. And our youth, as always, understand that money is not everything. Although its walls may be tarnished, we still live in the shining city on the hill—all of us.

4. We still have capable entrepreneurs. Aging oil buccaneer T. Boone Pickens is still investing in wind power and natural gas. Elon Musk is pushing solar power, commercial space travel, and electric cars. Entrenched industrial barons scoff, but they scoffed at Carnegie, Edison and Jobs, too.

5. We are learning to live within limits and discovering the preciousness of peace. Both lessons are hard for us, as settlers of a sparsely populated continent and the world’s sole remaining superpower. But recent experiences have taught us the cost and unintended consequences of environmental heedlessness and war. As long as nuclear weapons remain only a deterrent, the absence of wars on the territory of major powers that has so far characterized the postwar period is likely to continue.

6. The Internet has made communication and knowledge universal. Only sixteen years have passed since the Internet’s release for general commercial development. The global changes in those few years have been breathtaking.

Among many other things, the Arab Spring and the change in attitudes toward minorities, including gay marriage, could not have occurred without it. We are just on the threshold of a new age in which good ideas prevail and bad ideas die quicker than at any time in human history. We Yanks can be proud of providing the infrastructure for that age.

7. We are learning to cooperate. The urge to circle the wagons and beat our chests like victorious apes is still strong. But the better angels of our nature have prevailed. Russia, which is too far away to have any serious quarrel with us, is no longer our enemy. Our disputes with China are economic and will remain so. The world’s big hot spots today—in the Middle East, still-split Korea, and the pesky Daioyu/Senkaku Islands—are far from our shores, albeit indirectly dangerous. And our youth have many qualities, good and bad, but one of their foremost is teamwork.

8. We still have free speech. Freedom of propaganda disgusts us and nearly overwhelmed us. But common sense prevailed. Our near-absolute freedom of speech still gives us a greater chance to discover truth—in science, politics and daily life—than ever in history.

9. We still help each other. Our big disputes are largely abstract and future-directed. When it came to extending unemployment insurance to 99 weeks and passing the first stimulus bill (which economists of both parties told us we needed to avoid a second Great Depression) we acted, together. There are far too many homeless and far too many poor in America today for comfort. But we are all far better off than less than a century ago, during the Great Depression. Economic recovery is too slow, but it is coming.

10. Except in the few hot spots, the world’s big conflicts today are economic. They take place in meeting rooms, not on battlefields. They involve much the same old pride, nationalism, greed and stupidity as always, but far less blood and far fewer deaths. And, by and large, the people who “wage” these conflicts, bargaining in closed rooms, are smarter and better educated than the emperors and generals of bygone ages. So our future is brighter, even if our present is cloudy and often filled with meaningless words and seemingly endless delay.

11. We Yanks are free to define ourselves again. For three generations, we defined ourselves in reaction to Communism abroad. (Despite our panic attacks and Vile Joe McCarthy, there never was any real threat of it at home.)

Often our reaction was extreme. Abysmal author but successful polemicist Ayn Rand was our first apostle of extremism. Barry Goldwater pushed us into its nearest approach to national influence.

But every serious Communist threat expired a generation ago, with the Soviet Union’s collapse and China’s earlier transformation into single-party authoritarian capitalism. The two generations of Cuban refugees who defined themselves by raw hatred for Fidel Castro are passing from the scene. In their wake they are leaving a part of the Old South—Florida—transformed by an influx of retired Northerners and a much mellower range of Hispanic immigrants.

Florida is now uniquely cosmopolitan and international and likely to be Democratic from here on out. At a minimum, it will never return to traditional Southern isolationism.

Like anti-Communism, Islamophobia is on the wane. In a nation founded on religious tolerance, it never really had much hold outside the usual pockets of ignorance. Now the global failure of international terrorism, coupled with the inherent moderation of the Arab Spring, have taken the wind out of its sails.

So we Yanks need no longer define ourselves by what we hate. Like Florida, we are all free to define ourselves by our aspirations and multiple cultures.

12. We are still the principal heirs to three glorious global traditions. In the last half-millennium, our species has learned: (1) individual responsibility and freedom of conscience, (2) personal accountability of leaders, especially at the very top, and (3) real economics, including the value of free markets and competition and the evils of monopoly in any form.

These are seminal human achievements. We Yanks have been at the forefront of the last two and key modern exponents of the first.

Recently, we have fallen behind a bit on (2) by failing to subscribe to the International Criminal Court. But Europe has taken up the slack. If our species can continue realizing these three principles in practice, and if we can avoid killing ourselves with nuclear fire or climate change, our common human future has no limits.

13. Our own Yankee future is still largely in our own hands. We still have the world’s most powerful economy. We still have the world’s best military. We still have a degree of market isolation and independence, even in energy, if we choose to preserve it. Despite our recent madness, the rest of the world still looks to us first for leadership, as we refine and perfect these three great principles of the Second Millennium in the Third.

Our future is, as always, precarious, but not nearly as much as during the Cold War. The values of co-existence and cooperation that we Yanks honored so long ago with our very first Thanksgiving are increasingly universal. We are no longer alone in a world of monarchs, emperors, butchers and despots.

These are no mean blessings. They are good reasons to give thanks, right here, right now, in November 2012. Happy Thanksgiving!

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