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