Virulent memes and disciplinary linkbait: A Christmas post

Joel Waldfogel Meet Joel Waldfogel. Joel published a now much quoted article on the deadweight loss of gift giving, the basic idea being that if I buy you a present I have to guess what you want. Since you’d be better at doing that than me, there’s a loss of consumer satisfaction. Fair enough as an article, though it’s more an artefact of the juxtaposition of two worlds, the rarefied world of a particular formal approach to economics and life itself. They are pretty self-evidently a fair way apart so the attention the article got is in my opinion a little like the attention one pays to an unusual shell one finds on the beach – arresting but of little consequence.

Somehow to me anyway, the insight in Joel’s article doesn’t seem so important.  After all we’re around a quarter of a millennium away from Adam Smith’s having observed that, even in his own time, much, perhaps most of people’s consumption was not focused on the meeting of immediate human needs, but rather on the meeting of aesthetic and social needs.

Anyway, Waldfogel’s article gets taken out for its customary stroll round the block by economic columnists on every continent ¹ every Christmas.

Anyway, in this strange and rich world in which we live Joel has obviously led his life under the shadow of his 1993 achievement and this has led to a book. The (dreaded) book of the article. Who knows, maybe it’s a great book, full of wide-ranging and searching thought about the phenomenon under study. If so gentle reader, please let us all know.

¹ With the likely exception of Antarctica.

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10 years ago

Just an observation.

In our close family, we get kids presents, but exchange vouchers and a nominal ‘stocking stuffer’ wrapped to look like a present for the kids to distribute round the Xmas table. Once we were adults, our family always asks each other what they want for Christmas.

The reason we do this is that we know that (1) we can choose our own stuff better than making someone guess, and (2) we get better value from the vouchers and post Christmas sales.

We did this without reading the book…never even thought the idea particularly clever – just obvious. Maybe more people are actually doing this sort of thing than you might think? If so, it might explain why the book got the reception you described. So I am going to look out for the book to see what on earth he can put into a whole book on the idea.

10 years ago

Shitty unwanted Xmas presents are deadweight loss?

Tell that to the people who can only afford to buy shitty unwanted Xmas presents for people because they work in the shitty unwanted Xmas present industry.

I like to think hard about presents and buy second-hand, so I don’t think people would often do better with the pittance I spend. It’d be lucky to get them a six-pack.


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