Thanksgiving Day in our nation remains sacred because it is about the universally accepted idea of sharing across lines of culture and race and income level.
Our original image, myth or not, is of indigenous people and Europeans sharing their gifts and bounty. A second prevailing image is that of the Norman Rockwell painting with an extended and prosperous American family sharing the turkey in joy and harmony.
So I wonder why this universally accepted ideal of sharing seems to draw a more negative reaction in our political world. My Republican friends warn me that I should never use the term “redistribution of wealth.” It has a bad reputation. Jon Stewart used to quip something to the effect: If I listened to my conservative friends I would have to tell my kindergarten boy not to share his crayons with kids who don’t have crayons. That would make them lazy.
To be fair, I’d say that we often undervalue what such conservatives are saying. There is a danger in having the government spend money we don’t have. We must recognize that there is a point when government spending means we will have to tax the citizens too much and they have a legitimate right to protest. Individual initiative will be stifled when too much of our earned income goes to taxes.
While presidential candidate Bernie Sanders declares himself a socialist, I think he should say that he is first a capitalist. Capitalism means that individuals should have the right to own stuff and keep most of the income they earn from their work. Without self-interest, and even, at times, excessive self-interest (greed), we would not create the wealth needed to feed, house, entertain and defend ourselves. But after the wealth is created, we need a responsible government to “redistribute” it — or share it — with those who are not able to earn enough money for themselves. All governments do this to some extent. Why deny it?
The richest 1 percent of the world will soon own more than half of the world’s wealth, according to a recent Oxfam study. The rich have gone from owning 44 percent of the world’s wealth in 2009 to 48 percent last year. If this continues as projected, they would own more than 50 percent of total global wealth by the end of this year.
Economists argue whether such concentrations of income and wealth are sustainable over time. But studies by the Congressional Budget Office, the Census Bureau and Pew Research Center highlight emerging problems. For instance, Pew researchers found that after the recovery from the Great Recession started, mean household net worth for the upper 7 percent rose 28 percent between 2009 and 2011, while mean net worth for the bottom 93 percent actually fell by 4 percent.
Can you imagine how much worse inequality would be if governments were not busy redistributing the wealth citizens have made by their personal initiative? From parks in poor neighborhoods to universal education to roads for everyone to safety nets for housing, income, and health, we need redistribution from the wealthy to the poor and middle class. Without that redistribution, some segments of society would become so dysfunctional that income disparity would become dangerous to peace and civil tranquillity.
We should push “empowerment” programs over “entitlement” programs. People need to work to increase their wealth. But let’s be reasonable. Maybe this Thanksgiving we can take a lesson from our families and apply it to our communities at large:
We don’t help our family members by doing for them what they can do for themselves. Likewise, we don’t help citizens by doing for them what they can do themselves to produce goods and services and create wealth. But on Thanksgiving Day, we should also remember the timeless mythical image. Some brought turkeys and ducks. Others brought cranberries and vegetables. Others made pies. What we celebrate and affirm this week is the pooling and redistribution of the wealth.
Joe Selvaggio is CEO of MicroGrants.