Why we give gifts

JDN 2457020 EST 18:28.

You’ll notice it’s Sunday, not Saturday; I apologize for not actually posting on time this week. Due to the holiday season I was whisked away to family activities in Cleveland, and could not find wifi that was both free and reliable.

But since it is the Christmas season—Christmas Day was last Thursday—the time during which most Americans spend more than we can probably afford buying gifts (the highest rate of consumer spending all year long, much of it on credit cards, a significant boost for the economy in these times of depression), I thought it would be worthwhile to talk about why gifts are so important to us.

As I’ve already mentioned a few posts ago, neoclassical economists are typically baffled by gift-giving, and several have written research papers and books about why Christmas gifts are economically inefficient and should be stopped. Oddly it never seems to occur to them that if this is true, then there is widespread irrational consumer behavior that has nothing to do with government intervention or perverse incentives—which already means neoclassical economic theory is in serious trouble. Nobody forces you to buy gifts, so if it’s such a bad idea but we do it anyway, we must not be rational agents.

But in fact it’s not such a bad idea, and it’s “inefficient” only in a very narrow-minded sense that takes no account of relationships or human emotions. Gifts only make us not “rational agents” in that we are not infinite identical psychopaths. There is in fact nothing irrational about gifts.

Gift-giving is a human universal; it has been with us far longer than money or markets or indeed civilization itself. Everyone from tribal hunter-gatherers to neoclassical economists gives gifts, and in fact most people who descend from populations that lived in higher latitudes (that is, “White people”, though perhaps in a later post I’ll explain why our “race” categories are genetically absurd) actually celebrate some sort of gift-giving ceremony around the time of the Winter Solstice. Many of our Christmas traditions actually come from the Germanic holiday Yule, which is why we say things like “Yuletide greetings” even though that has absolutely nothing to do with Jesus. We celebrate around the Solstice because it was such a momentous season for us, the darkest night of the year; as if the darkness and cold weren’t bad enough by themselves they are the harbinger of the dreaded winter that prevents our crops from growing and may not allow us all to survive. We reaffirm our family ties and promise to help each other through this dangerous time. Music, gifts, and feasting are simply the way that humans organize our celebrations—again this is universal.

What do gifts accomplish that a simple transfer of cash would not? I can think of three things:

      1. Convey closeness: First of all there is of course the fact that by buying someone a gift at all, you are expressing the fact that you care about them and want to be close to them. But the choice of the gift also matters. Your closest friends always buy you the best gifts, because they know you the best. Thus the sort of gift you receive from someone is a measure of how well they know you. Many of us give each other lists of ideas to buy, but I always include more on the list than I expect to receive and encourage people to buy things that are not on the list that they think I might enjoy. A computer program can buy things off a list; the point is that we express our relationships by choosing things we know people want without them having to ask. We trust people to know us well enough to get it right most of the time; they’ll probably make mistakes (most people think they know others better than they actually do), but the mistakes are made up for by the successes. The disappointment in getting something you didn’t want isn’t even so much in the thing as it is in the fear that your loved ones don’t know you as well as you thought they did; this is why I consider it important to express—gently and tactfully of course—when you really don’t like a gift you received; you want them to know you better and do better next time, not keep giving you things you hate while you brood behind fake smiles. What you choose to buy conveys what you know and how you feel; this is why the best gift is one you love to have but didn’t ask for. That’s why I’m honestly more excited about my new travel pillow and copy of Randall Monroe’s What If? than I am about my new Bluetooth headset; of course the headset is more expensive and more useful, but I specifically asked for it. My sister and my mother knew me well enough that the book and the travel pillow I didn’t have to ask for.
      2. Grant permission to indulge: This is particularly important in the United States, because our society has Puritanical roots that make us suspicious of any activity that isn’t directly linked to productive efficiency. Honestly when those economists criticize Christmas as “inefficient” they are not so much making a serious economic argument as they are expressing in terms familiar to them the centuries-old Puritanical norm. It is considered unseemly to buy things for yourself that are purely for fun, particularly if they are expensive. You are expected to buy only the minimum you need, because any more is greedy; the notion seems to be that there is only so much stuff to go around, and if you take more others will have less. (This could scarcely be further from the truth; your frivolous consumer purchases can save children from starvation by giving their parents jobs in factories.) Neoclassical economists often think they are immune to this sort of norm, but aside from their discomfort with Christmas, the sense of righteousness they often have around “raising the savings rate” says otherwise. The link from savings to investment is tenuous at best, but one thing saving definitely does do is prevent you from spending indulgently. But since buying things that make us happy is actually kind of the entire point of having an economy in the first place, it is necessary to find workarounds for this oppressive ethic. One solution is gifts; to give someone else an indulgent gift allows them to engage in indulgent activities, while preserving their own status as someone who wouldn’t normally waste money in that way, and since you are not the one indulging you can hardly be accused of frivolity either. This is also what gift cards accomplish; in economic terms gift cards seem weird, because they are at best as good as cash, and often far worse. But gift cards are typically for retail stores where it is hard to buy something that’s not indulgent, thus offering permission to indulge. This is why a gift card for GameStop or Dick’s Sporting Goods makes sense, but a gift card to Walmart or Kroger seems odd. This is also why receiving cash or an Amazon gift card doesn’t feel as good; since you can buy just about anything, the social norm toward spending responsibly returns. (Never buy anyone a VISA gift card; it’s basically the same as cash except you’re giving some of the money to VISA.)
      3. Conveys your own status: By buying expensive things for other people, you raise your own reputation as an individual. This one is easy to become cynical about, so it’s important to be clear what it actually means. Conveying your own status doesn’t necessarily mean arrogantly domineering over other people. It certainly can mean that, which is why if your cousin has $20 million and buys everyone in the family a new car every year, you’d honestly not be that thrilled about it; yeah, it’s nice getting a new car, but your cousin is clearly showboating his superior wealth and trying to make everyone else look cheap and/or poor. But there is a way to elevate your own status without downgrading everyone else’s, and truly generous gifts are a way of doing that. If the things you buy are really things your loved ones truly need, then you express your generosity and love for them by buying more than you can easily afford. Philanthropy is also a means of conveying status, and again comes in both forms. When Carnegie built buildings and named them after himself, he was being arrogant and domineering. When Bill Gates established a foundation to combat malaria and poverty in Africa, he was being genuinely generous. This kind of status is always a bit paradoxical: The best way to earn a reputation as a good person is to honestly try to help people and have little concern for your own reputation; people who try too hard to improve their own reputations just end up seeming arrogant and narcissistic. In order to deserve status, it is necessary not to directly seek it. The clearest example here is Jonas Salk: He invented a vaccine that saved the lives of thousands of children, making him more deserving of a billion dollars than anyone else I can think of. And he had a chance at a billion dollars, but he specifically gave it up, because in order to get it he would have had to enforce a patent that would raise the price of the vaccine and allow children to needlessly suffer and die. It was the very character that made him deserve the wealth that caused him to refuse it. The only way to hit the target is to aim much higher.

If you really want to insist, yes, there’s also some sort of net transfer of wealth involved in gift-giving, because it is expected that the richer you are the more you’ll spend on gifts. But that’s a very small part; even in hunter-gather societies that have negligible levels of inequality human beings still give each other gifts. Gifts are a part of us; they are written in the language of life itself upon the ancient thread that binds us to our ancestors and makes us who we are—by which I mean, of course, DNA. We could probably no more stop giving gifts than we could stop feeling love.

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One thought on “Why we give gifts

  1. […] As I wrote about in last year’s Christmas post, many economists believe that much of this spending is inefficient, because they don’t actually understand what gifts are for. Fortunately economists seem to be coming around and seeing why gifts are actually beneficial, though their reasons for this are sometimes dry enough that they don’t make great Christmas cards. (That doesn’t stop some people from saying that you shouldn’t give gifts, and if you give anything you should give cash.) So no, the economy will not live or die depending on how much people buy at Christmas. While it is the most economically significant holiday, it is still not really all that economically significant. […]

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