Atlas Shrugged: The Mocking

Monday, December 31, 2012

How Terrible Is Megan McArdle?

Despite the fact that I am trying to move beyond being a Megan McArdle-centric blog, that TBogg already wrote a very funny recap of the post in question, and that Charles Pierce wrote a pithy and wonderfully illustrated post* on McArdle as well, there is one thing I would like to point out as well.

 First, let us pause to acknowledge that of all the ways to discuss the economics of Christmas, McArdle chose to examine whether or not she is getting her money's worth when she receives presents from friends and relatives.

How Terrible Is Christmas?

Should we bother giving all those useless gifts?

I am probably not the right person to answer this question: I spend the week with my father, who lives in a cosy little house with a water view, where we eat a lot and have reasonable conversations. During this week, presents are opened, mostly things that the other person actually wants and can use. I have no horror stories to share.  
But in this post I'm specifically addressing a question that is raised by one economist or another almost every year: isn't Christmas a huge waste? All those presents that no one wants represent huge deadweight loss. Wouldn't well all do better by giving cash, or skipping the process entirely?

Naturally, when McArdle discusses people who get crummy presents she does not include herself. Her family visits evidently are small, quiet, reasonable, and lucrative. No visits to Mom and Dad in her childhood home; her parents are evidently divorced and her father has moved to the seaside. No raucous get-togethers with hoards of relatives, grandparents, cousins and uncles and aunts, with little kids chasing each other around the house and toddlers playing with the wrapping paper and boxes. No loud and laughing reminiscences of childhood pranks or amicable bickering over adult differences of opinions. It's all terribly cosmopolitan.

This seems like a silly question in a world of wishlists--I got the exact martini glasses I wanted, the exact electric pressure cooker I wanted, and the exact 13-inch cast iron skillet I wanted, because people could go right on my Amazon wish list and identify them. And yet, I still had the surprise and thrill of opening gifts (well, okay, I knew what the skillet was before I opened it), because there were a number of things on my list. As far as I know, this experience was shared by everyone else around the McArdle hearth. And by millions of other families in the United States.
McArdle's relatives know better than to wing it when it comes to gift-giving.
I'm reading David Graeber's book, Debt, and while I'm aware of the problems, I do think he gets one thing really right: his exploration of money as a substitute for strong relationships. That is its appealing feature for cosmopolitans, of course; relationships are wonderful in theory, but in practice, they inevitably turn out to be parochial and limiting and an endless amount of work. You do this time consuming task of finding gifts which often aren't right, and then pretending to like and use the wrong things others have gotten you . . . and why bother if you could each buy yourself better stuff? The sociologist and anthropologist answer that the work is the relationship. The only way to have strong social ties is to spend an "inefficient" amount of time and resources investing in them.
Since McArdle just said her family chose to avoid any relationship work by using wishlists for their loved ones, we are left with only one sad conclusion. Nobody wanted to waste any of their time choosing a gift for her. And it is no wonder, for McArdle thinks that relationships are "parochial" (limited in scope or outlook), "limiting" (again), and hard work. Cosmopolitans, like McArdle and her family, would rather just spend money than give time. (Which makes all her donations of time to the IHS rather odd.) But fear not, relatives sometimes are of use after all. McArdle notes that they can sometimes come up with a present that McArdle never even knew she wanted, thereby broadening her shopping horizons. Let's let McArdle have the last word:
How much is that option value worth? I'd say a lot. Especially if it comes bundled with stronger relationships.


*note the url

10 comments:

Ken Houghton said...

It's not the peak of editorial laziness, but in quoting Gabriel Rossman's guestpost for her at The Atlantic (from way back in May), she left in his asterisk:

"I like Waldfogel a lot* and think this article makes a real contribution in showing how gifts are a deadweight loss when viewed from the perspective of market pricing."

The note in the original reads: "* I [i.e., Rossman] am familiar with and admire Waldfogel's work because we both study mass media. My favorite of his articles is a QJE on chain ownership in radio to which I devote an entire lecture in my undergraduate course"

The note in her current post is, of course, missing. But no one bothered to edit the asterisk out.

KWillow said...

...gifts are a deadweight loss when viewed from the perspective of market pricing..."

Say what? WTH is "market pricing?" Isn't christmas the make-or-break time of year for many businesses? Isn't a huge part of our economy (a bit recklessly) affected by christmas sales?

Arglebargle is married and she just hangs out with her dad (alone or with her Freedumb Works hubby? Does he go to his folks alone?) for christmas week?

She wanted a cast iron skillet? Aren't they pretty easy to acquire? I ask for (and give) unusual "special" gifts at Christmas. Maybe in Arglebargle's life every day is christmas, so she might as well ask for mundane every-day items on that special day.

Weird and pointless, as usual for her.

zombie rotten mcdonald said...

KWillow, she wanted a SPECIFIC cast-iron skillet. It was probably color-and-size coordinated for a certain location on the Wall O'Pans behind her in most of her photos.

I imagine if her family had given her an incorrect one, the Christmas Essay would have been markedly different.

Susan of Texas said...

Dear Diary,

I am *so* disappointed. I asked Santa for a Banker Barbie or a Mini Cooper for Ken but I got a Madge instead. Nobody wants Madge. She doesn't have a cool townhouse or a car or neat accessories or lots of careers. She's just Barbie's friend. Barbie doesn't want a friend cause they're too much trouble and you have to spend your allowance buying them birthday presents because your mom and dad want you to learn fiscal responsibility. Barbie *really* wants a six-figure job in the financial industry and an Armani suit. Sheesh!

Santa sure is dumb.

Love, (Princes) Megan

KWillow said...

"Wall O'Pans" HaHa! I like it. I have Calaphon pans with red enamel to match my blood-red sink, but I keep them in a drawer when not in use. Not that I'm boasting, I got 'em at TJ Maxx.

casino implosion said...

Now I feel bad for present-shopping off of wish lists. :(

Susan of Texas said...

No, it's not the wish list, it's McArdle's belief that shopping for loved ones is a pain in the neck so people shop from wish lists.

After all, what is a letter to Santa but a wish list?

Adam Eli Clem said...

Someone, somewhere noted McArdle's opinions of relationships and suggested that Suderman had better lawyer-up.

Lurking Canadian said...

I'm thinking Megan needs a visit from a dead business acquaintance.

Batocchio said...

Like others, I'm reminded of the non-ironic libertarian paeans to pre-conversion Scrooge.

The thing is, she really could use to read more anthropology. Ya know, the study of humanity and human nature? How in some ways it's universal and other ways not? A great way to challenge one's notions? One of the landmarks of the field is Marcel Mauss' book, The Gift. And anthropology has a great term called generalized reciprocity for the way friends and family do things for each other without a specific quid pro quo, and how this benefits everybody (assuming someone's not a tool). It dovetails nicely with the concept of a social contract and liberal policies of investing in the Commons. It's the antithesis of Ayn Rand and glibertarianism. And because McArdle does not understand human nature apart from her own greed and vanity – after all, she just advocated training small children to rush armed gunman rather than enacting sensible, proven gun laws – she just doesn't get it. (I'm sure aimai can add much more.)