Fraser Forum

The economist’s guide to Christmas gifts: know your recipient’s subjective value

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We do a lot of joking, this time of year, about economists and gift-giving. With papers like Joel Waldfogel’s “The Deadweight Loss of Christmas,” which argues that giving gifts other than cash actually degrades value and makes everyone worse off, or Stephen Landsburg’s praise of Scrooge as a pattern of generosity, there’s a lot to joke about.

It’s no wonder that The Atlantic was unable to resist the temptation of making Christmas cards out of the kinds of things economists say about gift-giving. “In some cases, non-pecuniary values are important.” Even when they’re praising gift-giving, economists can make it sound just awful.

But the truth is that economists understand the single most important thing about gift-giving better than anyone else does. They understand subjective value.

Subjective value tells us that each of us is unique, and because of that, each of us likes and dislikes different things for reasons that make sense to us but may not make sense to anyone else. I put a high subjective value on cashmere yarn, early 20th century fiction, and dark chocolate. Other people inexplicably ignore those things and value Steely Dan, hockey, and imported olives instead.

In order to give a good gift you have to understand, as economists do, that value is subjective.

Then you have to think about what the gift’s recipient values and provide that.

This is why those little online lists and department store displays of “Top Ten Gifts for 2015” so rarely succeed in suggesting things that specific people on your gift-list actually want. By listing gifts that will be widely acceptable, they forgo the opportunity to find a gift that will be individually delightful. And that’s because they can’t do that. Only you can do that. Giving a gift that recognizes another person’s understanding of subjective value is an intimate gesture that no generic set of suggestions can help you accomplish.

Finding the right gift for the right person demonstrates that you have learned to understand the other person's subjective valuations. The material gift you give is the just physical manifestation of the fact that you understand the other person and care enough to show it.

The real gift is the understanding.


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