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?