My review of Joel Waldfogel’s *Scroogenomics*

It's locked away in Books and Culture, A Christian Review and I don't know if it will show up on-line.  Anyway, here is a bit from that review:

…For all his polemic, Waldfogel never recognizes that the instrumental nature of gift-giving can alienate us from the true meaning of Christmas and other holidays and celebrations, not to mention alienating us from the true virtue of giving.

Nor, on the other hand, does Waldfogel consider the best available defense of gift-giving — namely, that it is a useful form of social theater.  His economist biases reveal themselves when he considers only the value of the gift and not how the gift may enhance (or damage) the associated relationships.  Don't we all use gifts to judge who really understands us and thus who is worthy of our time?  To put it bluntly,I wouldn't marry or even continue to date a woman who gave me The Da Vinci Code for my birthday.  But if I receive the book, maybe that's for the best: then I know the relationship doesn't have a future.  In a world where we are looking at a large pool of people for the potential of closer ties, poorly chosen gifts in fact may be the greatest gift we can receive.  Using economic terminology, a lot of gifts are about sorting and signaling.  A world of perfect gifts is also a world where I don't meet many new people or take many chances in relationships.

I should note that I liked the book more than that excerpt, taken alone, indicates.  As is often the case, the parts where I praise the work are simply less interesting.  You can order the book here.  In case you don't remember, he's the guy who did the first work on the "deadweight loss of Christmas."  The book has come out just in time for…the Christmas season.


I'm convinced people do engage in a lot of signaling based on how irrational they appear otherwise. I'm also convinced they are wrong. For example, they often reward people for being good at signaling.

"I wouldn't marry or even continue to date a woman who gave me The Da Vinci Code for my birthday."

Nonsense. He would if she was hot enough.

My sister gave me "The DaVinci Code." I don't know how I'm supposed to respond: we weren't planning on marrying or even dating.

Incidentally, she wasn't just (or even primarily) signalling about herself. She thinks that we take the Christianity thing a little too seriously and likes to make subtle jabs. Consider the possibility that most gift-givers are saying something about the recipient.

Nonsense. He would if she was hot enough.

Beauty fades; crazy is forever.

"I wouldn't marry or even continue to date a woman who gave me The Da Vinci Code for my birthday."

That makes two of us. Too few people think this way -- have these dealbreakers. That's either because they think if it's attractive they'll take it, or because they're generic humans to some degree or another.

Conversely, I think it's important to have what I call "mate minimums," the stuff you absolutely can't live without, from looks to ethics to anything else that would be a dealbreaker if it were missing or different. My shorthand when I was shopping: "Tall, evolved, man of character, who thinks for a living and cares about making a difference in the world."

Some of that is shorthand (when I say "evolved," for example, I mean rational, and a few other things). Basically, I spent about eight years mostly without a regular guy in my life until I met my boyfriend, who fits all of those, including being very ethical, which is very important to me. If you ask people, they'll tell you of course they want an ethical partner. But, unless they prioritize it, they may only end up with one by accident.

“people do best when they make choices for themselves† - this is a ridiculous assertion, and highlights a lot of what is wrong with macroeconomics. In a world of perfect information that would be true, but we still don’t live in that world. A lot of us don’t have time to worry about every single purchase we make - it makes perfect sense for me to outsource some of my clothes purchases to my spouse, and for me to find good literature for my wife to read. The results of our efficent division of labor are then presented to each other as “gifts†. Seems like Waldfogel is completely missing this element. In my experience Waldfogel is wildly overstating the number of “ugly sweater† gifts Americans are giving each other. Most people give their near and dear ones lists of desired items and usually get gifts from that list. For every wacky present I’ve received from a senile great aunt, I’ve probably received an equal or better gift I never would have thought to buy myself - whether a great jazz album from my brother, an interesting bottle of wine from a colleague or the “discount† iPod from my uncle Vinny.

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