This Month in Reality: Scroogenomics



I saw this book on Eleventh Stack earlier this month and decided that it might be the perfect read for the holiday season. We’ve been reading A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens on Periscope, so this seemed to be the perfect foil to the original story. I still feel that way now that I’ve listened to it. This book is written by Joel Waldfogel, an economist whose specialty seems to be investigating something called dead weight loss. Or, more generally, the efficiency with which resources are put to use. In the book he lays out an argument for more efficient gift giving (or not giving).

The argument goes like this: I give you a sweater worth 50 bucks but you only get 20 bucks worth of enjoyment out of it. My gift of that sweater destroyed 30 bucks worth of value. Or, worse: I give you a sweater worth 50 bucks but you enjoy it 20 bucks worth. However, you would have bought yourself a different $50 sweater that would have given you $80 worth of enjoyment, so now the $50 sweater gift destroyed $60 worth of value (what you would have enjoyed minus what you are enjoying). Waldfogel walks us through all different ways that value can be measured and how economist collect and analyze that data. He also discusses what that means, not just for gift giving, but also for giving to charity and government spending (which he used as examples).

The book was really heavy on data, so be warned. More than a few reviews on goodreads panned it because it had too many numbers in it. (Personally, I would have been disappointed with fewer numbers. The book was written by an economist and published by Princeton University Press. Knowing those two facts, I expect to see a lot of data.) But, Waldfogel made some really great arguments for being thoughtful about what you give to whom, and I liked that. He also made some great suggestions for how to give more efficiently. One of the suggestions that he made was using the holiday season to give through people instead of to people. Which is to say: giving a gift in the name of someone to a charity or an organization. One of the things that we can do is give people money to give to charity. He hypothesized a charity gift card scheme that I haven’t seen but I do hope to eventually see. The idea would be that you’d give someone this charity gift card that they could then log into a website and give to the charity of their choosing. What a beautiful idea.

To bring this back to Scrooge and A Christmas Carol, what this book kept making me think about was the value and usefulness of something. And, this is a message that also keeps coming up for Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. Twice now in the story so far (if you’re keeping up with us on periscope or katch), Scrooge has been confronted with something from his past or his present that made him rethink the value of something or someone in his life. Remembering what it is like to be alone at the holiday season makes Scrooge wish he’d been kinder to a caroler. Seeing exactly who the ‘surplus population’ is makes him regret his callous statements about the poor. Gift-giving is wonderful and provides us an opportunity to let people we care about know that we appreciate them. And, as Waldfogel points out, in many instances it is mandatory. You can’t not give a gift to your mother-in-law just because you don’t know her very well and you think anything you’d give her would just be wasted. So, since you have to give, strategies for how to give better can only be a good thing. We can be thoughtful about how we give when we give so that, in general, some good comes from our giving. The goal isn’t to hoard, but rather not to waste.

I enjoyed this book immensely, and if you’re interested in the economics of giving, you might want to give it a spin.

I got this book from

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