by Jon Sanders
Research Editor and Senior Fellow, Regulatory Studies, John Locke Foundation
In 1946, a journalist knew economics. That journalist was Henry Hazlitt, one of the 20th century’s most influential economic thinkers. That year was when he published a book called Economics in One Lesson.
It’s in there you can find this fantastic distillation of economic thought:
The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups.
Seven years earlier, if President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had a grasp of this wisdom, he might not have changed the expected date of Thanksgiving. And we might have had the bizarre occasion of North Carolina, a solidly Democratic state, choosing to celebrate “Republican Thanksgiving.”
Thanksgiving, of course, had been celebrated in America since the 17th century, but President Abraham Lincoln established the tradition of celebrating it on the last Thursday in November. That was until 1939.
As strange as this sounds to 21st-century ears, back then the Christmas shopping season didn’t start till after Thanksgiving. Shoppers weren’t inured to having to walk past the pre-lit LED Holiday Trees to find the Hallowe’en candy aisle. They didn’t have to select skeleton masks to the wails of Mariah Carey bansheeing, “All I Want for Christmas is Youuuuu.” In their day, they celebrated one holiday at a time, and that’s the way they liked it.
Since the calendar date of Thanksgiving changed while that of Christmas was always December 25th, the length of the Christmas shopping season fluctuated. The shortest shopping season would be when the last Thursday of November was also the last day of November (the 30th). Such was the case in 1939.
In August of that year, retail merchant lobbies captured the ear of Commerce Secretary Harry Hopkins about their plight. A shorter shopping season would mean fewer sales, and we’re still in a depression. A longer season would increase sales, employment, and purchasing power nationwide.
Hopkins brought their concerns to the president. Shortly afterward, FDR proclaimed that Thanksgiving that year would fall on November 23rd, not the expected November 30th.
Without Hazlitt’s insight, the results of this decision would seem straightforward. The president has changed the date of the holiday, and in so doing, extended Christmas shopping by a week. That should help the retail merchants this year
But Hazlitt’s insight covers not just immediate but also long-term effects of an act or policy. It also involves looking at its consequences on all groups, not just the one. To practice the art of economics is not to be satisfied with the intent behind a choice, but to understand and, as best as possible, anticipate the unintended consequences of a choice.
So who were some of the other groups who were affected? Ironically, bunches of retail merchants were harmed, not helped — such as smaller retailers and merchants counting on the longer fall clothing season. Calendar makers were unhappy and suddenly seeing their calendar print runs for the next year thrown into doubt. Football schedules were disrupted, as was all the expected economic activity surrounding the traditional Thanksgiving football games around the country.
Politics in every state was upended. Imagine being an elected official beset with the usual partisan squabbles suddenly having to deal with whether to “stand with the president” on which Thursday is the right one to gather together with family and friends in humble gratitude for God’s blessings.
Melanie Kirkpatrick wrote in the Wall Street Journal in 2009 about the ensuing chaos:
First to complain was Plymouth, Mass., home of the Pilgrims and location of the first Thanksgiving in 1621. “Plymouth and Thanksgiving are almost synonymous,” intoned the chairman of the town’s board of selectmen, “and merchants or no merchants I can’t see any reason for changing it.”
College football coaches also objected. … Many colleges ended their football seasons with Thanksgiving Day games, a custom that dated back to the 19th century. In Democratic Arkansas, the football coach of Little Ouachita College threatened: “We’ll vote the Republican ticket if he interferes with our football.” …
Now, however, the celebration became a political hot potato. Governors had to read public opinion, examine the local business climate, consider political loyalties, and decide which date to select as the official Thanksgiving.
Do they stick with tradition and celebrate Thanksgiving on Nov. 30, or follow FDR’s lead and change the date to Nov. 23? It wasn’t long before people started referring to Nov. 30 as the “Republican Thanksgiving” and Nov. 23 as the “Democratic Thanksgiving” or “Franksgiving.”
States wound up splitting almost evenly in determining which Thanksgiving to mark: 23 opted for Nov. 30th (including North Carolina), 22 for Nov. 23rd, and three opted for both. This mess meant that holiday travel plans were disrupted for people coming from out-of-state to celebrate with their family, if the states marked separate dates.
It did, however, provide fodder for The Three Stooges. In the 1940 comedy short “No Census, No Feeling” (skip ahead to the 11:25 mark if you’re cursed with a blinkered outlook unable to enjoy even a quarter-hour of The Three Stooges), viewers enjoyed this bit of dialogue:
Larry: Where is everybody?
Curly: Maybe it’s The Fourth of July.
Moe: The Fourth of July in October?
Curly: You never can tell. Look what they did to Thanksgiving!
Still, like so many other government plans to help the economy by promoting the interests of one group without paying attention to other groups or long-term consequences, it didn’t work.
By 1941, Kirkpatrick wrote,
retailers had two years of experience with the early Thanksgiving, and data were available regarding the 1939 and 1940 Christmas shopping seasons. In mid-March 1941, The Wall Street Journal reported the results of a survey done in New York City. The Journal’s headline put it succinctly: “Early Thanksgiving Not Worth Extra Turkey or Doll.” Only 37% of stores surveyed favored the early date. In Washington, the federal government reported that the early Thanksgiving resulted in no boost to retail sales.
On Dec. 26, 1941, FDR signed a joint resolution of from Congress that established what we have now, Thanksgiving celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November.
Epilogue: Perhaps we should set aside the Thursday before Thanksgiving to mark “Franksgiving” as a time to commemorate government turkeys that didn’t take other groups, long-term effects, and unintended consequences into account. Buckle up, Pilgrim.