“Scroogenomics”: Clueless About Holiday Ethics

I had decided to write about the new book “Scroogenomics: Why you shouldn’t buy presents for the holidays”early yesterday. I should have assumed that our current Scrooge-in-Chief, George Will, would have the same idea. He did, and greeted his readers with typically sour tidings as he heartily endorsed this commercially clever and ethically fatuous book. The brain-child of economist Joel Waldfogel, “Scroogenomics” argues that holiday gift-giving makes no economic or social sense, and is a net drag on everyone. Will’s quote from it is as revealing as any:

Gifts that people buy for other people are usually poorly matched to the recipients’ preferences. What the recipients would willingly pay for the gifts is usually less than the givers paid. The measure of the inefficiency of allocating value by gift-giving is the difference between the yield of satisfaction per dollar spent on gifts and the yield per dollar spent on the recipients’ own purchases.

All of which means that Waldfogel (and Will) are hopelessly confused about the social and ethical value of gift-giving, which has little to do with the ratio of “the yield of satisfaction per dollar spent.”  We have the entire year to try to be rational, which results in creeping isolation and misery that can become crushing by year’s end. I have a list on my computer. It includes the names of all the people I care about whom I need to talk to and see, because I care about them, miss them, and yet have been too consumed with daily obligations and crises to let them know that I haven’t forgotten they exist. Any cost/benefit analysis would show that I have too many such people to fit in  the time my obligations allow for them. I run my own business, and for me, time is money. Those wonderful people I have neglected for months or worse  won’t know what I have “spent” to let them know that I care, nor should they. You can’t put a dollar sign on being human. As for me, my feeling of satisfaction when I have finally done the right thing cannot be allocated a dollar value. It is, as the commercials say, “Priceless.” Gifts during the holidays are exactly the same.

Look at the lessons of the classic holiday stories that will soon become ubiquitous. In “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the money George Bailey’s neighbors pour on  his table in the film’s classic finale is wasted, according to any logical analysis. All that cash wouldn’t stop George from being arrested (at least, not until the warrant for his arrest was also added to the pile, an act that might well get the jolly official fired); he would still be suspected of embezzlement. It probably wouldn’t stop authorities from closing the Bailey Savings and Loan. The gifts are also superfluous: George’s wealthy friend Sam Wainwright is covering the whole amount anyway…George stands to make a profit if everyone doesn’t swarm the table and take their money back. Still, the literal value of the money is completely irrelevant to the significants of the gifts. The giving, not the gifts, is what matters to George.  It proves his life has had meaning. It proves he has friends.

Ralphie’s Red Rider BB gun, the climactic gift in “A Christmas Story,” will almost certainly prove to be a letdown from the hero’s long and desperate anticipation of it. But the gift justifies itself in a second, in the look of joy on Ralphie’s face, in the moment of realization by his father that Dad has made a child’s deeply felt wish come true. Author Waldfogel grudgingly admits that he wouldn’t want to rob children of these moments, but adults are different.

Balderdash. When it comes to the holidays, we’re all children, or should be. Remembering what is like to be a child is one of the primary functions of holidays.

Could there be less rational gifts than the watch fob and the combs the lovers in O.Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi” exchange, each having sold the possession (his gold watch, her luxurious hair) that inspired the other’s gift ? Or the humble gifts bought by John Walton with his last paycheck in Earl Hamner’s “The Homecoming,” to let his family have a Christmas in the middle of the Depression?

If Waldfogel’s point is that most people don’t put enough thought and meaning into their gift-giving, he chose an inarticulate way to say it. That’s no reason to  jettison caring, kindness, empathy, generosity and charity during the holidays, the one time when tradition and culture can focus our attentions on real values, not price tags. The fact that an important thing is done badly is not a justification for not trying to do it better, or not doing it at all.

I”ll give the professor the gift of the benefit of the doubt, and presume that he made his cold-hearted, muddle-headed argument knowing that he would get some TV interviews and a George Will “Huzzah!” out of it without putting a dent in the holiday spirit of anyone who had any to begin with.  If indeed he doesn’t understand—and we have certainly learned of late that there is  a lot economist don’t understand, like, say, economics—why gift-giving is an essential, humanity-confirming component to the holiday season, then we should regard him as the reformed Ebenezer Scrooge regarded those who ridiculed his sudden conversion to the Christmas spirit:

“…he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.”

It’s quite enough for me, too.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. Let’s make those gifts memorable this year.

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