My daughter’s 4th grade class is reading a short story by O. Henry called The Two Thanksgiving Day Gentlemen. (A two minute read.) In about an hour I will go to her class and lead a discussion of the story. Here are my notes.
In the story we meet Stuffy Pete. He is sitting on a bench waiting for a second gentleman to arrive. We learn that this is an annual meeting on Thanksgiving day that Stuffy Pete is always looking forward to. Stuffy Pete is a ragged, hungry street-dweller and the gentleman who arrives each year treats him to a Thanksgiving feast.
But on this Thanksgiving, Stuffy Pete is stuffed. Because on his way to the meeting, he was stopped by the servant of two old ladies who had their own Thanksgiving tradition. They treated him to an even bigger feast than he is used to. And so he sits here, weighed down on the bench, terrified of the impending arrival.
The old gentleman arrives and recites this speech.
“Good morning, I am glad to see that the vicissitudes of another year have spared you to move in health about the beautiful world. For that blessing alone this day of thanksgiving is well celebrated. If you will come with me, my man, I will provide you with a dinner that should be more than satisfactory in every respect.”
The same speech he has recited every year the two gentlemen met on that same bench. ”The words themselves almost formed an institution.”
And Stuffy Pete, in tearful agony at the prospects replies “Thankee sir. I’ll go with ye, and much obliged. I’m very hungry sir.”
Stuffy’s Thanksgiving appetite was not his own; it now belonged to this kindly old gentleman who had taken possession of it.
The story’s deep cynicism, hinted at in the preceding quote, is only fully realized in the final paragraphs which contain the typical O. Henry ironic twist. Stuffy, overstuffed by a second Thanksgiving feast collapses and is brought to hospital by an ambulance whose driver “cursed softly at his weight.” Shortly thereafter he is joined there by the old gentleman and a doctor is overheard chatting about his case
“That nice old gentleman over there, now” he said “you wouldn’t think that was a case of almost starvation. Proud old family, I guess. He told me he hadn’t eaten a thing for three days.”
Social norms and institutions re-direct self-interested motives. Social welfare maximization is then proxied for by individual-level incentives. But they can take on a life of their own, uncoupled from their origin. This is the folk public choice theory of O. Henry’s staggeringly cynical fable.