When people think of Thanksgiving, they think of Pilgrims and Indians, sitting down at the same table to give thanks…but in this DR Classique, first run on Thanksgiving Day, 1999, Bill Bonner gives us a lesson in the real history behind the holiday…
I turned to my trusty assistant…Beirne White…this morning.
“Beirne,” I said gravely, “tell me about Thanksgiving in Mississippi.”
Beirne proceeded to tell me about a Mississippi bluesman named “Son” House, who lived to be 102 by doing what bluesmen tended to do…chasing bad luck, bad liquor and bad women.
“What has that to do with Thanksgiving?”
“Nothing,” he replied…whereupon he drew on the resources generously provided by Britannica.com, formerly of Chicago, lately of cyber space, to get me the research I requested.
Beirne hails from Mississippi. And while Mississippians will sit down with the rest of the nation…and tuck into their turkeys with equal relish…perhaps only substituting Bourbon Pecan pie for the sweet potato or pumpkin pie enjoyed in Maryland…it was not always so. Somewhere deep in the most primitive part of his medulla oblongata, the part of the brain where race memories are stored, Beirne resists Thanksgiving. It is, after all, a Yankee holiday.
Thanksgiving in France: Commemorating the Northern Victory
In the middle of the War Between the States, both sides would proclaim days of “thanksgiving,” following the progress of the war as we now follow the progress of the stock market. After each of the first and second battles of Bull Run – which sent the Yankees fleeing back to Washington – the Confederates proclaimed days of thanksgiving. But it was Lincoln’s day that stuck. Declared after the battle of Gettysburg – the last great Napoleonic charge of military history – Thanksgiving was set for the third Thursday in the month of November, commemorating the Northern victory.
Beirne doesn’t say so…but this fact must stick in his craw. It doesn’t help that the original celebration took place in Massachusetts. And that it was hosted by a dour bunch of Puritans, who probably wouldn’t have been able to enjoy a good dinner if their lives depended on it. But they certainly had a lot to be thankful for.
As the Wall Street Journal reminds us annually, they nearly exterminated themselves in typical Yankee fashion – by wanting to boss each other around. They had arrived in Massachusetts by accident and bad seamanship, intending to settle in the more hospitable climate of Virginia, which had been colonized more than 10 years before. Once in Massachusetts, they proceeded to set up such a miserable community that surely most of them, had they lived, would have longed to return to England. The Soviets could have learned from their example and spared themselves 70 years of misery. Only after the “witch-burners and infant-damners” abandoned their communal form of organization, and allowed people to work for themselves, did the colony have a prayer of survival.
But victors write the history books. And now this precarious celebration by a feeble group of religious zealots has turned into the most American holiday. After Appomattox, the South was helpless. Its natural leaders, the plantation aristocrats, were either dead, bankrupted and/or discredited.
Many of them went to Northern cities, like New York or Baltimore, where, Mencken tells us, they “arrived with no baggage, save good manners and empty bellies.” They enriched the North. But back home, they were sorely missed. “First the carpetbaggers,” says Mencken, “ravaged the land…and then it fell into the hands of the native white trash…” Scars of war can take a long time to heal. But 130 years later, the South is the most economically and culturally robust part of the nation.
Thanksgiving in France: A Unified, National Myth
Thanksgiving was declared a national holiday in 1931. Through the Depression, and then WWII, Thanksgiving grew in importance. In a country where roots meant almost nothing, where people were ready to pick up and move at the drop of a hat, where there were huge differences in what people thought and how they lived, Thanksgiving served to provide a unified, national myth… most popularly expressed in Norman Rockwell’s Thanksgiving cover for the Saturday Evening Post. Roots mean more in Mississippi than they do in California.
“No man is himself,” said Oxford, Mississippi’s most celebrated alcoholic, “he is the sum of his past.” Unlike so many other American writers of the 20th century, Faulkner stayed home. The forward to the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture has a passage from Faulkner, saying: “Tell about the South. What’s it like there. What do they do there? Why do they live there? Why do they live at all?”
Even in Faulkner’s Mississippi…Thanksgiving is now part of everyone. Where Beirne goes…it goes too. And so, all over the world, Americans, gathering in small groups, like pilgrims on distant shores, celebrate the holiday (if not on the actual day…perhaps the weekend following…as we will do.) This can require a little ingenuity. Americans in France have to search for the ingredients. Pumpkins are hard to pronounce-citrouilles-and hard to find. Cranberry sauce is unknown.
But my mother discovered a store in Paris specializing in American groceries, named “the Real McCoy.” She hastened thither yesterday, and brought back canned pumpkin, cranberry sauce and peanut butter. Thanks to this outpost of American culinary supplies, we will be able to have a very typical Thanksgiving dinner went we slide our chairs up to the table on Sunday. Art Buchwald has translated the Thanksgiving story for the French, deftly turning Captain Miles Standish into Le Capitaine Kilometre Deboutish. But no one has refashioned American Thanksgiving recipes for the metric measuring cups here in France. My wife, Elizabeth, descendant of the Puritan fathers…former resident of New York…a Yankee, in other words…and my mother – issuing from Southern Maryland tobacco farmers and the French bourgeoisie – will do their best.
And we will be thankful.
The Daily Reckoning
November 24, 2005 — London, England
Bill Bonner is the founder and editor of The Daily Reckoning. He is also the author, with Addison Wiggin, of The Wall Street Journal best seller Financial Reckoning Day: Surviving the Soft Depression of the 21st Century (John Wiley & Sons).
While the rest of the nation takes the day off, here at The Daily Reckoning headquarters in London we continue our lonely vigil. Today, as every day, there are things to reckon with. But we, too, pause to reflect on the many things we have to be thankful for. We have not been drafted and sent to Iraq. We have not been rounded up and hustled off to a ‘black site,’ where imperial lackeys do dark things. We do not work for GM or Wal-Mart. We earn a decent living, for a writer, doing what we want to do. We are as healthy as a locust stump. We have a happy, healthy family. We have a credit card…with a line of credit that has never been exhausted. We have not had all our money stolen by government …nor have we lost it in the investment markets. We are almost free (we pay taxes in the U.S., France, and Britain). We are almost white (of Irish extraction). And definitely over 21. What more could we ask for?
There must be a fixed sum of absurdity in the world. Let others count their blessings. Our job is to point out the preposterous…the calamitous…and the mendacious. In WWI it seemed as though all the world’s absurdity was concentrated in a single disastrous event – a war so lame brained and ruinous it practically destroyed Western civilization. Later, absurdity took a new form – ‘isms’ that changed the map of the world. . National socialism in Germany brought another war. Communism in Russia brought seven decades of misery. Colonialism became a bad thing and was replaced by nationalism, which turned Africa into a murderous dump. There were other isms too – in art…in philosophy…and in politics. Almost all were sordid or mad.
But no one cares much about isms anymore. Che has become a T-shirt symbol; young people think he played the guitar in Elvis Presley’s band.
But if there is a fixed sum of absurdity in the world…where has it gone?
There is a ‘glut of savings,’ says Fed chief-dauphin Ben Bernanke. ‘We think, they sweat,’ say the economist impersonators. ‘Prices are not rising,’ say the Pinocchios over at the Labor Department.
We note that the world’s richest people now depend on the savings of the world’s poorest. Is that not absurd, dear reader? We note also, that the world’s greatest military power throws its weight around all over the world – making the world ‘freer’ and more democratic, we are told – and expects the still-Red Chinese to finance it. Is that not mad, dear reader?
“It’s unbelievable,” said Kurt Richebacher last night. We dined with Dr. Richebacher, who made one of his rare trips to London.
“I’ll tell you what is really crazy,” he began. “Everybody says that the U.S. economy is the most flexible in the world. They must be dreaming. The U.S. economy is completely inflexible. It suffers from huge problems that are obvious to any serious economy, mainly the lack of savings and the current account deficit. But the economy is so inflexible; it can’t do anything about them. And, even worse, no one can even talk about them. Well, I shouldn’t say no one. There are a few of us. But we are outsiders. We are marginal. The people on the inside do not even seem to recognize that there is a problem.
“In the last five years, the US economy has lost 3million out of 17 million manufacturing jobs. This is almost the definition of an economy in decline. It is an economy, as Hayek would say, that is shrinking. Of course, the people who call themselves economists in America – with the exception of Stephen Roach – say that the trade with China is symbiotic. The Chinese send the Americans goods; the Americans send the Chinese bonds. No serious economist would say that this is a healthy situation.
“What they did was to stimulate the economy more than any government had ever done. The tax cuts were worth about $860 billion. And the low interest rates brought $3 trillion of new credit into the system. But even all that didn’t create a boom. Take out all the lies and measurement nonsense and you see an economy that has never recovered. Talk about jobs? America has 1.2 million real estate agents. It’s all a housing boom…caused by the credit expansion.
“And you know why profits are up in the United States? It has nothing to do with healthy, growing businesses. Just the opposite. These businesses have stopped investing in new plant and equipment. So they have much less capital equipment to depreciate. As depreciation collapses, profitability goes up – especially when they’re making money from financing activities. But this can’t last.
“It’s unbelievable. I grew up in a time when you wanted to save so that your children would have a better life than you had. Now, in all the Anglo-Saxon economies, people don’t seem to want to help the next generation, they want to cheat it, by leaving a legacy of worn-out capital…and debt.
“I tell you the whole thing is a monumental fraud. And Mr. Alan Greenspan is merely an extraordinary criminal. Here is something for Americans to think about as they celebrate their Thanksgiving Day. Why is it that we Europeans have a higher standard of living than they do? Yes, it’s true. My son works in America. He barely gets any time off. He has hardly any vacation to come to visit me. In Europe, we get at least 6 weeks, sometimes much more. And people don’t have so much debt. Property prices have risen in France, for example. But they rise on savings, not debt. And everybody is always saying what a mess the German economy is in. But when I look at it carefully, I see that it is solid. And growing. It has a positive balance of trade. And the Germans’ saving rate is going up – above 10%.
“I like the European model much better.”
More news, from our Editor-in-Chief…
Addison Wiggin, reporting from Boston:
“Ben Bernanke, who will take over as Fed Chairman on January 31, recently promised to ‘maintain continuity with the policies and policy strategies established during the Greenspan years.’ Bravo. Can’t wait.
“For our part in the circus, we sent – as we’ve been threatening to do – 537 copies of our new book Empire of Debt to all the Senators. And their cohorts across the rotunda. And the Commander-in-Chief down the street.
“The cover letter we sent with the book suggested that continuing the policies of Alan Greenspan, while it might be what the country wants, is not likely to yield the desired result.
And more views and idle chitchat….
*** The big financial story is the rise of gold. The ever-more-precious metal is almost twice the price it was when we recommended it 6 years ago. That is not a spectacular profit, but it is a solid one. Readers would have done better to buy Google when it came out at 85…or buy Miami apartments, flipping them every year.
But both Google and property are speculations (unless you intend to have and to hold the property). Both could go down as well as up. (At this point, we would guess the most likely direction is down.) Gold, on the other hand, is not a gamble. It is insurance against other people’s gambles. The Anglo-Saxon economies are leveraged on debt. The Chinese economy is dangerously dependent on demand that really doesn’t exist. The entire world carries more than 200 Trillion in derivatives…that no one quite knows what to make of. Gold may not go up. It may not go down. But it won’t go away.
*** The Dow seems headed to 11,000. Gold seems headed to $500. Which trend do you think will last? In the short run, both are likely to correct. Gold must be nearing a pull-back. Stocks too. But we will use the correction as an opportunity to buy only one of these investments. You can guess which.
*** We are learning Spanish. This morning we bought a newspaper – La Republica – thinking it would give us a chance to see how much progress we have made. We struggled through half of page one before we realized that the paper was written in Italian, not Spanish.
Still, over on page two, we found an interesting article. “U.S. military bases in Italy,” we think the headline says. It is followed by a map showing seven locations, adorned with pictures of battleships and aircraft. It is an impressive display of military might. It reminds us of why we Americans are so proud. No sparrow can fall anywhere on the planet without awakening a sentry in one of the empire’s overseas garrisons.
*** And so, dear, dear reader…we give thanks today to you…for graciously reading The Daily Reckoning. Humbly, we only hope it is worth at least what you pay for it.