In a recently published book, Scroogenomics, Joel Waldfogel, Professor of Business and Public Policy at the University of Pennsylvania, examines the economics of giving presents and considers whether we would be better off being Scrooges. This book brings to a general audience some of Professor Waldfogel’s work on giving. In a 1993 paper, he argued that holiday gift-giving involves a deadweight welfare loss. “I find that holiday gift-giving destroys between 10 per cent and a third of the value of gifts.” (See The Deadweight Welfare Loss of Christmas. Note: you should be able to access this from a UK university site if you are logged on.)
The core of his argument is that many gifts we give are not really what the person receiving it would have chosen. If you give someone a gift costing £10 for which the person would not have paid more than £6, then that is £4 wasted – a deadweight loss of £4.
So should we all be Scrooges and stop giving? Think of all money that would be saved and which could be spent on things that were more wanted. But wait a minute. What about the pleasure (i.e. utility) of giving? And what about the pure pleasure of receiving a gift, irrespective of the gift itself? Should these be added in to arrive at the total utility? Then there is the pleasure (or hassle) of shopping for the gift. Shouldn’t this be taken into account too? In other words, to establish deadweight loss, we need to take into account all the pleasures and displeasures of the process of giving and receiving.
Finally there is the question of whether better research on the part of the giver into the tastes of the receiver would enable them to choose more wanted gifts. Or should we simply give cash or gift tokens: at least these can be used by the recipient for whatever they choose?
Interview with Joel Waldfogel Princeton University Press, on YouTube
See also the following articles:
It’s not just Scrooge who wants Christmas abolished Financial Times, Tim Harford (20/11/09)
Stop blaming Grandma for cruddy Christmas presents Seattle Times, Joel Waldfogel (20/11/09)
It may not be the thought that counts Washington Post (22/11/09)
Economics of gift vouchers BBC News Magazine, Ruth Alexander (17/12/07)
The high cost of ugly, useless Christmas gifts Globe and Mail (Canada), Erin Anderssen (13/11/09)
Author’s argument that unappreciated gifts drag down economy isn’t Scroogish, it’s foolish Mlive.com, Nancy Crawley (8/11/09)
Give gold, not myrrh The Economist (21/12/09)
- What factors would need to be taken into account in attempting to measure the true deadweight loss of giving? Would this involve inter-personal comparisons of utility and, if so, what problems might arise from this?
- Examine whether it is better to give cash or gift tokens rather than a physical gift?
- Consider whether charitable donations would be the best form of gift to a friend or relative?
- One practice used in many families is the ‘secret Santa’. This is where everyone in the family secretly draws the name of another family member at random. They then buy a gift for this person and put the gift under the tree (or in a box). Thus each person gives just one gift and receives one gift and nobody knows who has given them their gift. Normally a maximum value of the gift is determined in advance. Consider the advantages and disadvantages of such as system. Is it a more efficient way of giving?
- What are the macroeconomic arguments for giving presents at Christmas time or at other festivals?
This podcast is from the Library of Economics and Liberty’s EconTalk site. In it, Scott Sumner of Bentley University discusses with host Russ Roberts the role of monetary policy in the USA since 2007 and whether or not it was as expansionary as many people think.
In fact, Sumner argues that monetary policy was tight in late 2008 and that this precipitated the recession. He argues that the standard indicators of the tightness or ease of monetary policy, namely the rate of interest and the growth in the money supply, were misleading.
Sumner on Monetary Policy EconTalk podcast (9/11/09)
- Why is it important to look at the velocity of circulation of money when deciding the effect of interest rate changes or changes in the monetary base? Can the Fed’s failure to take velocity sufficiently into account be seen as a cause of the recession?
- Is there evidence of a liquidity trap operating in the USA in late 2008?
- How could the Fed have pursued a more expansionary policy, given that interest rates were eventually cut to virtually zero and the monetary base was expanded substantially?
- Why does Sumner argue that monetary policy should focus on influencing the growth in aggregate demand?
- How useful is the quantity equation, MV = PT (or MV = PY) in understanding the role and effectiveness of monetary policy?
- What is the Keynesian approach to monetary policy in a recession? How does this differ from the monetarist approach? Are both approaches focusing on the demand side and thus quite different from supply-side analysis of recession?
- Why is the consumer prices index (CPI) a poor indicator of a nominal shock to the economy? Should the central bank focus on nominal GDP, rather than CPI, as an indicator of the state of the economy and as a guide to the stance of monetary policy?
- What are the strengths and weaknesses of using a Taylor rule as a guide to monetary policy? Would nominal GDP futures be a better target for monetary policy?
The following video and audio podcasts look at resistance by the US oil and coal industries to measures to curb the consumption of oil and coal. Despite the clearly estabilised link between burning fossil fuels and global warming, many in the two industries reject, or at least question, the evidence. After all, it is in their commerical interests to promote the consumption of fossil fuels!
Elsewhere in the USA, interesting scientific developments are taking place to combat global warming. One measure is the production of ‘green oil’ produced from algae. Growing the algae absorbs carbon from the atmosphere.
In few areas are economic arguments so intertwined with political ones. The podcasts look at some of the issues.
Energy policy divides in the US BBC News, David Shukman (2/11/09)
America’s energy policy dilemma BBC News, David Shukman (2/11/09)
Texas takes on green energy BBC News, Roger Harrabin (1/06/09)
Ethical Man: Green revolution in Texas BBC Newsnight, Justin Rowlatt (11/3/09)
Climate plans part of wider battle over American freedom Ethical Man (Justin Rowlatt) blog (BBC) (3/11/09)
Obama urges climate change effort BBC News (3/11/09)
Al Gore on tackling global warming BBC Newsnight (4/11/09)
Al Gore on beating the ‘oil habit’ BBC Today Programme (4/11/09)
- To what extent will the free market result in a shift to greener energy sources? Why will any shifts towards greener fuels still not result in the socially or environmentally optimum use of fossil and ‘green’ fuels without government intervention?
- What policies could governments adopt to internatlise the externalities involved in burning fossil fuels?
- How suitable are cap-and-trade policies (tradable permits) for tackling global warming? What conditions are necessary for such policies to be effective?
- Why is tackling climate change politically difficult for (a) individual countries and (b) the world as a whole? How is game theory relevant to your analysis?
The following two clips look at John Maynard Keynes’s contribution to macroeconomics and whether his theories have been proved to be correct by the events of the past two years.
“What would John Maynard Keynes make of the financial crisis and the credit crunch?” In the first clip, “Author Peter Clarke, former professor of modern British history at Cambridge University, and the former Conservative chancellor Lord Lamont consider whether Keynes’s ideas were twisted by modern politicians to support their desires to run big spending deficits.”
What would Keynes make of the crisis? BBC Today Programme (25/9/09)
Is Keynes influencing today’s politics? (video) BBC News (2/10/09)
- How is the recent crisis and recession similar to and different from the Great Depression of the inter-war period?
- Can recent fiscal policies adopted around the world be described as Keynesian?
- How would a government of a Keynesian persuasion attempt to manage the move from recession to economic growth and deal with the problem of mounting public-sector debt?
The leaders of the G20 countries gathered in Pittsburgh on 24 and 25 September 2009 to discuss a range of economic issues. These included co-ordinated action to ensure the world economy maintained its fragile recovery; reforming the IMF; agreeing action on bank regulation and the limiting of bankers’ bonuses.
The following is a selection of podcasts and videos looking at various aspects of the summit and its outcomes. The first one, to set the scene, is a webcast from the IMF looking at the state of the world economy and the role of macroeconomic policy and banking regulation. There are also some articles looking at the achievements of the summit. (See here for G20 draft communiqué)
World Economic Outlook, September 2009 (video) IMF Webcast (22/9/09)
G20: Who will feel the pain and when? (video) BBC Newsnight (25/9/09)
G20 leaders meet in Pittsburgh BBC Today Programme (25/9/09)
‘Little change’ in bank regulation BBC Today Programme (25/9/09)
World Bank’s Zoellick on G20 Summit (video) CNBC News (25/9/09)
G20 ‘was a successful meeting’ BBC Today Programme (26/9/09)
Obama on G20 plans for financial reforms (video) BBC News (25/9/09)
Greater role for emerging powers BBC News, Amartya Sen (25/9/09)
Preventing Another Global Crisis (video) CBS News (25/9/09)
Obama hails progress at G20 (video) Reuters (26/9/09)
World map of deficits and stimulus spending
The cost of the financial meltdown: Deficits and spending BBC News
G20: Banks to be forced to double capital levels Telegraph (25/9/09)
Will tough new G20 measures work? BBC News (26/9/09)
Analyst View: G20 ends reign of G7 in Pittsburgh Reuters (25/9/09)
Leaders bury differences over bonuses to agree standards FInancial Times (26/9/09)
Same tune, different fiscal instrument on bank bonuses Times Online (25/9/09)
G20: History and fudge Peston’s Picks, BBC News (25/9/09)
What the G20 said on bonuses (and why it didn’t say much at all) eFinancialCareers (27/9/09)
Hamish McRae: G20 communiqué signals transfer of power to the emerging world Independent on Sunday (27/9/09)
The G20 fantasy Guardian (27/9/09)
- Explain the issues faced by the G20 countries.
- To what extent is trying to reach international agreement on co-ordinated action a prisoner’s dilemma game? Is it, nevertheless, a positive sum game?
- What was agreed at Pittsburgh and to what extent will it lead to action as opposed to being mere rhetoric?
- The G8 is effectively dead, having being replaced by the G20, plus Spain, The Netherlands and various international bodies, such as the IMF. What are the advantages and disadvantages of this move?