Occupy Thanksgiving

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Occupy Thanksgiving

This Thanksgiving, inspired by the Occupy movement, I have found myself thinking about how my family shares this special meal.  When we take a helping of something, we start with a modest serving, to make sure that all will have enough (and that we won’t take too much to eat, and waste some).   If there is some left-over after everyone has taken a serving, we may take a second helping.  No one takes the last serving of a dish without asking everyone if they want more.  This behavior didn’t come naturally to me and my siblings; as children, we had often fought to have more of a scarce delicious item, and my parents had patiently forced us to share.  They successfully taught us to truly “share” our meal in this way, and in doing so, strengthened our connections with one another and our sense of ourselves as a family.

With my Occupy glasses on, I imagine a Thanksgiving dinner for our whole country.   To make it easy, I imagine ten people at the table, who divide the pie amongst themselves in the way that income is divided in the U.S.  My Dad, at the head of the table, passes the pie to his left.  The first person takes almost half of the pie (46%), leaving about half for the other nine.  Of these nine, the first eight take more than their share, leaving only one fiftieth of the pie for the last one.  The first person is unable to finish his huge piece of pie, while the last person (actually 15% of US households) doesn’t have enough.  If the pie instead represented financial wealth, the division would be even more unequal.  The first person would take four-fifths of the pie; the second would take one tenth, and the remaining eight would share the remaining tenth

Then I imagine what would happen to the guests who took far more than their share.  If they were children, they would be corrected (that’s our only pie, you need to share!).  If they were adults, we would probably assume that they didn’t know that this was our only pie, and expect them to offer to share what they took.  If they didn’t, there would probably be an awkward silence, accompanied by shocked and disgusted looks, and ostracism from future such gatherings (see what happens when we invite those in-laws; never again!).

In our economy, people receive their shares in income, not pie, and this creates even more distortions.  Instead of leaving their extra “pie” on their plates, the wealthy use it to buy political influence, so they can get even more pie in the future.  They leave much of it in their bank accounts or use it for speculation.  Because this income isn’t spent on the purchase of goods and services, the demand for them is reduced.  This creates a tendency towards  “underconsumption,”  which certainly contributes to our current economic crisis.   

Why doesn’t the deprived majority of us force the others to share?  First, because we all don’t sit down at the same “table”, many of us aren’t aware of how much the rich have accumulated.  Second, we have been taught that the huge slices of the wealthy represent their “just desserts” – that they contribute more to the economy than the poor, and should receive more, out of fairness and to encourage others to work hard or take risks as entrepreneurs.   Third, the superrich monopolize the mass media and its message, using it to hide and justify their enormous income and wealth.

Our country is in economic crisis.  Almost fifteen million are unemployed, and four million are facing foreclosure.  Student debt exceeds credit card debt.  Speaking for the have-nots, the Occupy movement has shone a spotlight on the concentration of income and wealth among the top 1%, and on the way it subverts the democratic process.   And they are trying to practice what they preach.  In their encampments, they have worked to create economies of abundance and sharing, where food and medical care are freely shared.  All tents, other than group tents, are about the same size, and occupy more or less the same amount of space.  All present at their open meetings have a voice in their consensus decision-making process.  Sounds like a Thanksgiving dinner I would want to go to.   

Julie Matthaei

Julie Matthaei is a professor of economics at Wellesley College, and a co-founder and board member of the U.S. Solidarity Economy Network. Email: jmatthae@wellesley.edu

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