Commerce Claus: The Behavioral Economics of Christmas

— The New Republic

Some economists dislike Christmas. They allege that it “destroys value,” which is, in Econoland, the first and only sin. The economist Joel Waldfogel, author of Scroogenomics, goes so far as to contend that the winter holiday season is “an orgy of value destruction.” Waldfogel’s main concern is that the value of gifts to their recipients is typically far lower than the money that was spent on them. He found that of the $65 billion spent on winter holiday gifts in 2009, about 20% was wasted, in the sense that the gifts were worth that much less to the recipient than they cost. And indeed, it is an inescapable fact of life that people who receive holiday gifts often don’t much like what they get. If you’ve ever been presented with a sweater that you would never wear in public or electronic equipment whose purpose escapes you, you will understand what Waldfogel is talking about.

In hard economic times, when both the government and ordinary people are trying desperately to save money, this is a sobering analysis. We don’t propose that Congress should try to solve the debt crisis by requiring people to give holiday season money to the Treasury Department rather than spending it on presents. But mis-giving does no good for anyone, and we have a few ideas about how to make it through the season a bit more easily.

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