Dec 16 2010
Every year around this time economics students and teachers alike begin looking forward to the long Christmas holiday right around the corner. Two or three weeks of yuletide cheer, mistletoe, snow men, caroling, food, family and… dead weight loss. That's right, what'd you think this post would be about, the efficiency of Christmas? Come on… it's the DISMAL science! Not the jolly science!
The tradition of giving Christmas presents has long fallen under the scope of economic researchers who seek to understand more about the rational, or as it turns out, irrational behavior of individuals in society. From an economic standpoint, many of the things that Christmas traditionalists believe are bad, are actually good, while the traditions many believe are good are in fact quite bad from an economist's viewpoint. Basically, economists are grinches. So prepare to be grinchified…
Are you the kind of person who thinks doing all your Christmas shopping online is cold, impersonal, and against the holiday spirit? Well, Stephen Dubner, co-author of Freakonomics, argues that shopping online is far more efficient than spending days roaming the malls and shopping centers searching for the right gift for your loved ones. Says Dubner about “clicking and gifting” (i.e. shopping online):
See here's the thing: I like the sound of clicking and gifting, that sounds efficient to me. That's what we need to bring to the holidays, is more efficiency, less emotion. Let's get rid of that.
Economists' disdain for Christmas shopping is not limited to criticizing the inefficiency of spending hours shopping for gifts, in fact the tradition of giving gifts itself is considered economically irrational and inefficient. Sure, you say, it's the thought that counts. Well, that's just stupid. A gift giver can think all he wants about what a friend or a loved one may want for Christmas, and end up buying the thing they think the other person wants. But when it comes down to it, each of us only really knows what one person in this world wants, and that is ourselves, that's right, the royal ME.
So basically, any gift you can buy for someone else will bring them less benefit than a purchase they themselves make; so WHY BOTHER? What it comes down to is self-interest in the end. When we buy a gift for another person, it is ultimately for our own benefit, which as we will see soon, most often exceeds the benefit of the receiver of the gift.
This is what's known as the dead weight loss of Christmas. From an economic standpoint, Christmas is not “the most wonderful time of the year”, rather it's “the most inefficient time of the year” (not so catchy as a song lyric, I'm afraid). Dead weight loss is like when,
…my wife's great-grandma buys me a sweater at $85 and to me it's worth like $1.50. Because I don't like it… so that's $83.50 deadweight loss… And the holidays are jam-packed with that kind of waste.
We've all been there, as both the gift giver and the unfortunate receiver of a gift we don't like or even want. In fact, this phenomenon can be graphed using a basic diagram learned by all high school economic students: the marginal benefit, marginal cost diagram. Look at the graph below and see if you can figure out what it shows, then scroll down and read the explanation.
Basically, what the graph above shows is that the act of giving gifts brings benefits to the gift giver that are not enjoyed by the gift's receiver. From the ultimate consumer's standpoint (i.e. from the perspective of the gift receivers), many of the gifts received for Christmas will be valued far less than the amount of money, time and energy that went into choosing and buying them by the gift giver.
In other words, the marginal cost of shopping for and buying Christmas presents exceeds the marginal benefit of those who receive them, hence, the market for Christmas gifts fails since the behavior of private individuals results in a level of Christmas shopping that exceeds the socially optimal efficient level, at which the marginal benefit of the give receivers intersects the marginal cost of gift production. Resources are over-allocated towards Christmas present shopping because it is simply impossible for gift givers to know the precise preferences of those for whom they shop.
That $85 sweater, for instance, may have only been “worth” $1.50 to the poor fellow who received it. The dead weight loss, therefore, is the resources that went towards producing and purchasing a sweater for someone who doesn't even like it, and all the other possible ways those resources and that money could have been allocated.
Have I ruined your Christmas yet? Well, fear not, there is an economically efficient way to approach the Christmas season and to maintain the beloved tradition of gift giving! That's right, even the Grinch economists have a solution to this wasteful problem! And it is so simple… it is… CASH! Cash is the ultimate gift, perfect in every way. No time whatsoever is wasted in the process of deciding what to give someone. Simply put your debit card in the ATM machine and your entire season of shopping is done!
Cash is the perfect gift to receive too. There is no chance you will be unsatisfied with what you ultimately “get” for Christmas. Cash can be spent on the goods from which the receiver himself enjoys the greatest marginal utility per dollar he spends. The dead weight loss above is completely eliminated when cash is given instead of other presents. The marginal benefit of the giver and the marginal benefit of the receiver are the same since the giver can rest assured that the receiver will spend it on something that provides him with the greatest possible benefit.
So there is a happy ending to this story after all! Maybe someday when economic education has truly succeeded we can once and for all do away with the wastefulness and inefficiency of Christmases past and form new traditions rooted in the efficiency of cash gifts. So, students of economics, if you want to make your loved ones happy this Christmas, you now know what to do. In the process, you'll help make the world just a little bit more efficient!
For more on the dead weight loss of Christmas, listen to and discuss with your class the two podcasts below, from two of my favorite shows, American Public Media’s Marketplace (from which the quotes above are taken) and NPR’s Planet Money.
- A market failure in economics exists whenever resources are allocated inefficiently towards the production or the consumption of a certain good. What makes holiday gift giving a market failure?
- Why is the marginal benefit of a gift giver often times greater than the marginal benefit of a give receiver? How does this discrepancy result in “negative social benefits” as indicated on the graph?
- What is dead weight loss and how does holiday gift giving result in it?
- Why are cash gifts more “efficient” than buying presents for others? How would an economist analyze the efficiency of gift cards or gift certificates compared to presents? To cash?
- Should we scrap Christmas and replace it with Economistmas? For Economistmas, everyone would get exactly what they want, which is to say, everyone would get money to BUY exactly what everyone wants. Surely you agree this would be far superior to our antiquated traditions rooted in inefficiency and dead weight loss, right?
Author's note: For the record, I have bought my wife and family the perfect gifts this year! They're simply going to love what I got them! And no, it is not cash! ;o) Merry Christmas!!