The Calculus of Christmas

Posted: December 18, 2013 in Consumerism, Culture, Economics, Tacky

Here is something I’ve never done before: go into my blog archive and bring something forward. The original post went up in Dec. 2006 and since then received fewer than 30 direct views. (The number of passive views when it was visible on the homepage is unrecorded.) I’ve kept the primary link but updated the second one. Otherwise, the blog has not been rewritten. The original has been deleted.

Is gift giving primarily a demonstration of warm, fuzzy sentiment for family and others, or is it primarily an economic activity? To judge from the aftermath of Christmas, it’s far more calculated than it is emotional. Most of us are familiar with news reports at the onset of the Christmas season, which trumpet the increase or decrease in spending on the weekend following Thanksgiving over the previous year or years as though that were valuable news. Perhaps the media can be forgiven such a misplaced focus, since there is no way to report a change in public sentiment or mood. Similarly, perhaps the childhood obsession with reporting to friends the Christmas haul is forgivable. I know I did that when I was younger.

Less forgivable is the coldly impersonal discussion of Christmas gift-buying habits such as this one by James Surowiecki in The New Yorker. His utterly charmless analysis concludes that gift cards may be a better choice than a “real” gift at least partly because the cost of a real gift to the giver is often greater than what the recipient would have paid for it — a phenomenon called “deadweight loss.” This is related to the emotional cost of a poorly chosen gift, which almost everyone has experienced on one side of the exchange or another. Although Surowiecki (who is apparently out of touch with the Christmas spirit or the spirit of giving) doesn’t mention children, parents of a typical two-year-old are likely to be familiar with the child’s simple, unbounded elation ripping through wrapping paper and opening boxes, overlooking or oblivious to the gift object inside. It’s hard not to take pleasure in such simple joy, though adults are oblivious if no two-year-old is on hand.

Surowiecki’s argument, if Christmas is analyzed purely as economics, also suggests that there is a better return on investment (ROI) for less expensive gifts as compared to more expensive gifts, eliminating the “waste” of deadweight loss. An even better solution is the gift card, which ensures that there is no unwanted gift, since the recipient makes his/her own choices. Taken to its logical conclusion, we will soon all be giving gift cards to each other, which are in effect interest-free loans to merchants, rather than piles of cash. At the end of each Christmas season, we will then be able to calculate our profit/loss based on the value of gift cards purchased and received. Merchants will love it, because in addition to cash cards never redeemed, consumers generally add something over the amount of the gift card to obtain the card’s full value — a phenomenon called “uplift spending.” Kinda makes me all warm and fuzzy inside.

  1. Jennie says:

    Part of my own personal problem with Christmas is the sheer number of people I would have to buy for. Do I spend $5 for 20 people or buy my closest people bigger gifts? What if I don’t have money to buy anything? Then what…? Guilt eats at you when you receive and don’t give.

    I’m not against Christmas, but I think the meaning of it is gone. I asked my 8-year-old the meaning of Christmas and she said it was to “GET GIFTS!” with enthusiasm. Now maybe that’s partly my own fault for not teaching better…but she loves Christmas for the stuff, not the meaning of it.

    • Brutus says:

      I’m not saying it’s easy, but try not to let the guilt motivate you into something you know in your heart of hearts is just a scam. Instead, recognize that social engagement has become a game rigged to convert citizens into consumers the same way that civic and political engagement carries the implicit expectation of donations to causes and candidates. By all means, one can give gifts and donations out of earnest desire, but interlocking obligations drummed into us are mere inducements to conformity.

      As to the meaning or spirit of Christmas, it’s become a tawdry secular holiday honoring the wrong things. Celebrate it as you see fit or not at all. The non-Christian part of the world gets along without it, though I daresay they’re all getting sucked slowing into the gift exchange charade.

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