In 1621 the pilgrims were starving after their communal farming system gave them little incentive to work hard, leading them to rely on the generosity of their native neighbors at the first Thanksgiving. But in the long run they were able to produce their own feasts after switching to a private property system. Economist Ben Powell tells the story briefly here, or you can read the primary source, William Bradford’s Diary here.
It is customary in many families to “give thanks to the hands that prepared this feast” during the Thanksgiving dinner blessing. Perhaps we should also be thankful for the millions of other hands that helped get the dinner to the table: the grocer who sold us the turkey, the truck driver who delivered it to the store, and the farmer who raised it all contributed to our Thanksgiving dinner because our economic system rewards them
Powell calls this “the real lesson of Thanksgiving”, and while I think there are other great angles to the story this is certainly a real lesson of Thanksgiving.
But is it true? In short: no. I’ll explain why, but my larger goal is to get you to think more clearly about inflation.
How should we measure the cost of a Thanksgiving meal? A widely used measure comes from the Farm Bureau, which shows that the cost of a traditional turkey-centric meal costs about 14% more than last year. In dollar terms it is $53.31 for a turkey, a pumpkin, cranberries, sweet potatoes, stuffing, etc. That’s more that it has ever been, in dollar terms. Farm Bureau has been tracking the cost of this same meal since 1986.
So in one sense, it seems like the headline claim is true. Most expensive Thanksgiving ever!
But we need to think deeper. A nominal price doesn’t actually tell us much. If a long-lost cousin from the Republic of Horpedahl told you it costs 1 million Jeremys to buy a Thanksgiving dinner, what would your reaction be? The first and best reaction is: how much do people earn in the Republic of Horpedahl?
We should ask the same question in the United States today: how do incomes today compare to incomes in the past? Which measure of income you use is important, but if we use median usual weekly earnings of full-time workers, we can make a simple comparison of how much of your weekly earnings would be needed to buy a traditional Thanksgiving meal. This chart shows exactly that. In 2021 that meal will be the second lowest it has ever been as a percent of median earnings — higher than last year, but tied with 2019 for the second lowest. And much less than in the late 1980s and early 1990s (I use third quarter data for each year, the most recent available).
Adjusting for income is the best way to look at this question. It’s not perfect — part of this depends on what income measure you use — but it’s much better than the alternative. The worst approach is to just look at nominal prices. This tells you virtually nothing.