JANUARY 6, 1997
My earliest Christmas memory is of dogmatic conflict. I spent hours trying to disabuse my elementary-school classmates of their belief in Santa Claus. My passionate (and, I should point out, correct) arguments met with horrified indignation. Historical vindication--most of my peers came around to my point of view by the time we reached high school--did little to win back their warm regard. In fact, I have just one other opinion that consistently provokes the same level of vituperation as Santa heresy. It happens to impugn another holiday nostrum: gift giving. My case is rooted in a simple, and I would say noble, desire to promote human progress. After all, when we troop to the mall to pick out presents for our loved ones, we are reverting to barbaric rituals that predate the rise of trade. "An intensive circulation of gifts and return gifts, of ceremonial and hallowed offerings," writes economic historian Georges Duby, "permeated the entire social structure" of pre-modern Europe. The proliferation of presents, while economically inefficient--"These offerings partly destroyed the products of labor"--were justified as promoting "goodwill." Worst of all, you couldn't escape the gift cycle. Quoting anthropologist Marcel Mauss, Duby notes "[B]asically they were strictly obligatory, under pain of private or open warfare." While these scholars were describing a primitive economy, it still holds true. If you don't believe me about private or open warfare, try telling, say, your girlfriend that you don't do gifts. More on that below.
The gift-based economy died out because currency rendered it obsolete. So it's curious that one month out of the year we resurrect this brutally inefficient custom. It has little to do with generosity: gift transactions are enforced by threat of social alienation--the accusation of being a "Scrooge"--and undertaken with the expectation of receiving equal compensation. (Unilateral gifts, like those from parents to young children, are OK in my book.) But if greed is the motivation for holiday gift giving, then it's misplaced. Which brings me to the crux of my economic argument against rampant present-purchases. Gift givers and receivers actually deprive one another of wealth. How? Well, holiday presents are usually not functional goods, such as cereal, but instead luxuries that we wouldn't buy for ourselves, such as fancy chocolates. If you and I exchange boxes of chocolates (or some such frippery), we've essentially forced one another to purchase chocolates for ourselves. But there's a reason people don't often buy themselves fancy chocolates: most of us would rather get M&Ms and spend the rest of the money on something else. Christmas spawns industries devoted to useless goods like fruitcake and flavored popcorn. More commonly, it forces us to pay for things we like, but whose cost exceeds their worth to us. Suppose a box of chocolates costs $15. I don't buy chocolates for myself, because they're worth only $5 to me. You choose not to buy $15 cologne because it's worth only $5 to you. Swapping chocolates for cologne penalizes each of us $10. Yes, sometimes you can buy somebody a gift he would buy for himself. But the more likely this is, the higher the likelihood that he actually has it already. OK, so gifts detract from our material welfare. But, you point out, they still provide psychological benefits--goodwill, etc.--beyond their tangible value. The problem is, you can use that argument to preserve any inefficient practice. Gift-based societies also buried the dead with all their worldly possessions. This often impoverished the deceased's surviving family, but it gave them considerable psychological benefits. Of course, once society figured out its wastefulness, those psychological benefits disappeared. Why should we derive satisfaction from impoverishing those we hold dear?
Now, some in the pro-gift faction actually argue on economic grounds, too. The economy, they say, depends on frenzied holiday-induced sales. Actually, it doesn't. Economists incessantly lecture us to save more--our national savings rate is notoriously low, after all--and consume less. And discontinuing gifts would give consumers more satisfaction with less stuff, by letting them choose what goods they end up with when the tinsel or the Menorah have all been packed away. Those previously employed in the field of fruitcake manufacturing would find work making things people actually want. Worse still, gifts deflate productivity. Indeed, the culture of gifts glorifies nonproductivity. The best gifts must be laboriously sought (like this year's ridiculously scarce toy sensation Tickle Me Elmo; a New York Post headline the week before Christmas caught the spirit: "SCALP ME ELMO!," it read) or, better still, hand-crafted. According to gift etiquette, a present's value directly correlates with the effort put into it. But, people ask, wouldn't I like to own a sweater that my mother knitted for me? No. In a fraction of the time it would take her to knit a sweater, my Mom could earn enough money at work to buy me a much nicer sweater and have plenty of cash left over for herself. A homemade sweater would merely make me feel guilty that Mom had wasted all those hours during which she could have been enjoying a good book. If jobless mothers insist upon adding to the GNP every Christmas, they can calculate the hours they would have wasted on non-cost-effective sweater-knitting and instead use that time laboring in a workplace that uses efficiency of scale--say, a steel factory--and send a portion of the proceeds to their children. That check from home would be so much more satisfying if you knew your mother had spent a whole day smelting iron for it.
Obviously, my logic has not yet won over a majority of the population--most importantly, that segment of the population that is dating me. A month after we began dating, my girlfriend celebrated her birthday. Shortly before her birthday dinner, I stopped at the corner store looking for a card. I ruled out any cards featuring big-eyed fuzzy animals or messages that end in exclamation points. That eliminated all the birthday cards. Giving her a get-well card struck me as inappropriate. After long minutes of deliberation I settled on a relatively understated anniversary card, taking care to cross out the word "anniversary" and write in "birthday." My anti-gift arguments having met with an unenthusiastic reception, I decided to throw in a present. In an effort to preserve my intellectual integrity, I gave her a gift certificate, the closest acceptable substitute for cash. So far so good. Where I probably went wrong, in hindsight, was in my choice of gift certificate. I recycled one that a friend had given me the previous year. Re-gifting wasn't a problem, I figured. We could use the certificate (for a meal at the Cheesecake Factory) on a date. For weeks, though, she declined to go. Eventually, after I pressed, she revealed that the gift certificate had expired months before her birthday. The blame for this tragedy, obviously, rests on society. Last week, I gave my girlfriend a scarf, a nice one, not previously owned. Foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.
Jonathan Chait is a senior editor of The New Republic.