Thursday, November 28, 2013

Economies of scale and specialization in giving thanks

Today is the day that Americans give thanks for (as President Lincoln first proclaimed in 1863) “the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies.” Over the next 150 years, 28 successive presidents issued their own proclamations marking this most American of holidays.

When we lived in Silicon Valley, five years ago we hosted a Swedish researcher and his wife visiting Stnaford through the beneficence of a Scancor post-doctoral fellowship. As a homework assignment, I assigned him to “Consumption rituals of Thanksgiving Day,” an exemplar of interpretivist consumer behavior research that I was assigned to read in my PhD marketing seminar. (One of the four students from my cohort became a scholar in this tradition, writing “Religiosity in the abandoned Apple Newton brand community” that earned more cites more quickly than the earlier paper.)

Today we are hosting the extended family’s Thanksgiving feast, with our household of four being joined by 23 others, representing a total of 11 households. Five of those households are singletons (and thus some don't cook) so we have seven households bringing side dishes, desert and other items.

I jokingly said in an email this morning that we’d crowdsourced Thanksgiving dinner. Upon further reflection, that’s not strictly true because we’re not leveraging the “wisdom” of crowds. Instead, it seems more of an example of economies of scale and specialization.

Yes, it’s more work for my better half to cook 30 lbs of turkey than 15, or to make 123 rolls instead of 30. However — from watching my mom make the whole scratch dinner for years — it is far less work if you don’t have to make the mashed potatoes, salad,and (especially) pie the same day you’re making turkey.

So here with our family pot-luck we’ve re-derived the basic principles of barter and trade that were developed by human society thousands of years ago. We will give thanks for the economic and material comforts that such exchange has made possible for us, both in our own family, and in our community, nation and the global economy as a whole.

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