A Christmas Repost

December 25, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

Economists, says Dan Ariely (WSJ article here), have a problem with gift giving.  It does not fit into their models.  It is supremely irrational.  Some economists write as if they are actually offended by it, as though gift giving is literally unnatural, a violation of human nature.  But if there is a “natural” economy, it is not an economy based on rational self-interest.  It is the gift economy.  Gift economies precede even barter economies.  The rationalized market we take for granted is an economy-come-lately.

Matt Yglesias in Slate  has a take similar to Ariely’s. He also has some suggestions for gifts. 

Even I said something along the same lines two years ago, and I’m reposting it.  If stores and radio stations can recycle the same old songs (including “mine”) every Christmas, and television can give us the same Christmas specials, why not?


What was in those boxes we unwrapped and opened today? Gifts, most people would say.

But according to a Grinch-famous 1993 economics article by Joel Waldfogel, those boxes were also crammed with “deadweight loss” – the difference between what the giver paid for the book or bauble and what it was actually worth to the recipient.

Waldfogel surveyed Yale undergrads and concluded that “between a tenth and a third of the value of holiday gifts is destroyed by gift-giving.” Destroyed. That $40 sweater you gave to your cousin’s husband – you destroyed $10 of its value.

Here’s the key question Waldfogel put to his Yalies about gifts they’d received: “If you did not have them, how much would you be willing to pay to obtain them?”

By this method, a really good gift would mean a high deadweight loss. For example, I would never pay more than $40 for a sweater for myself. No sweater to me is worth more than that. But suppose a good friend bought me a really, really nice $200 sweater. I love that sweater. I love it precisely because it’s an extravagance I never would have allowed myself. But the most I’d be willing to pay for it is $40. So according to Waldfogel, my friend destroyed $160 (80%) of the sweater’s value.

When I first heard about the Waldfogel study, I thought it was a bit of self-parody – like those jokes about engineers , where the engineer sees everything in terms of the concepts of his profession and thus misses the point. (Waldfogel, for example, refers to the “inefficiency” of gift-giving, as though the point of gift-giving were efficiency.) But Waldfogel wasn’t kidding. He just published a follow-up book, Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn’t Buy Presents for the Holidays.

In fact, gift-giving has become increasingly rationalized and efficient. Children write letters to Santa specifying what they want; brides and grooms have bridal registries that do the same. Cash and gift cards are becoming more popular as gifts. There is no doubt that gift-giving is an economic exchange, and it would be silly to pretend that economic value has nothing to do with it (it’s the thought that counts). But it’s equally silly to think that it gifts are only economic and that they have no social meaning.


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