I am, like other Americans at this season, most thankful for my family and its traditions. This year, as every year for the past 47, I will join my extended family and some old close friends for a Thanksgiving dinner in the Philadelphia suburbs. This year, as for the last 24 years, (since my first two children were born), three generations will come together. On Thanksgiving afternoon, we will play the same rain-or-shine coed, multigenerational touch football game we always do, meeting as always in the small park where I learned to play touch football. My brothers and I will try and fail to contain the next generation.
We will also, if experience is any guide, devote a lot of time together, to debating the issues of the day. The arguments will be vigorous, long and loud, nearly always offered in good humor. I will be only one of a half dozen trained economists at the Thanksgiving table. Around the table there will also be some actors, a couple of psychiatrists, a lawyer, a teacher, a young banker, an artist, a former Israeli paratrooper, several students and more. But training and experience won’t count for much. Participants ages 19 to 90 all get to have their say on the topics of the day. Issues will range from price of housing, to how to put more people to work, to why it’s so hard for independent theatre to finance itself, to how foreign aid can help bring greater peace to the Middle East, to developments in mental health treatments, and more.
If history is a guide, I will learn from all the debate. We all will. But what I look forward to, and feel most thankful for, is the chance to reconnect with certain values my parents transmitted on such occasions and to watch my children, in turn, connect with these values. I was taught that the world can be understood—but that understanding takes effort. Understanding the world better is the first step to making it better. And that in turn depends on reasoned argument where as at our Thanksgiving table what matters is what is said not who says it.
As I am thankful for my family and its tradition of loving argument, I am thankful for the privilege of living in and serving a nation grounded in a commitment to reasoned discourse. And I am fervently hopeful that at a time when we see ever shriller argument in the public square that my children’s generation will maintain and enhance that commitment.
Larry Summers is President Emeritus at Harvard University. He served as the 71st Secretary of the Treasury for President Clinton and the Director of the National Economic Council for President Obama.
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