Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Scroog-enomics: A Book Review

Originally posted on July 23, 2010

Joel Waldfogel recently published a little book titled Scroogenomics: why you shouldn’t buy presents for the holidays. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press (2009). The author presents results of his research showing what I’ve become aware of for years: Folks frequently get gifts that they don’t care for that much. The author finally suggests, why don’t we just use that money to give to charity at the Holiday season? I agree. That this took 175 tiny (2.5 x 3.5-inch) pages (and counting the border space, even smaller)– what could have been a long article or two in a magazine such as The Atlantic or Harpers, is ironic: Publishers are brazenly promoting another kind of wasteful enconomics! (I read a similarly tiny book by Harry Frankfurt, “On Bullshit,” published a few years back  (Hey! I just noticed—it’s the same publisher—Princeton U. Press!), and I had a similar response: It had some good points but it was a type of bulls**t to present it as a book and charge accordingly when it could have just as well been a magazine article.)

On the whole, though, I agreed with the author’s main thesis. He also offered some other intriguing bits, such as the fact that the USA is far from the most extravagant country regarding gift-giving. Other countries also do this giving of gifts for non-Christian holidays, like Diwali in India.

I consider what my wife and I do to offer a healthier alternative: We celebrate life by giving ourselves little indulgences that we clearly want, and there’s no guessing about it. This relieves the other from the rather onerous exertion of wondering if we’ve given the right thing, a bit of worry, decision-stress, playing into the myth that if you really loved me you’d know what to give me.

I think the emotional cost of “read-my-mind and show that you really love me” attitude adds another not-insignificant factor to the author’s noting the value lost in the gift itself. (He surveyed people to compare what they would have paid for various gifts and compared this with the actual price of the gifts. The difference was about 20-30% on average. But add to the value lost the stress of shopping and guessing and hoping and worrying

Here’s another interesting family dynamic: What happens when two families who are technically related are on different pages about this? What if one family would rather give to charity, or not do expensive presents, and the other family is into the myth and suggest indirectly that they’d be hurt or disappointed if they don’t get presents, or their kids at least should get presents—even though it’s clear that the kids are getting more presents from more relatives than we ever dreamed of getting? Perhaps we should factor in other types of friction and hidden costs, too. The point is that the book is worth reading or at least skimming if the library has it—or ask the library to order it—or get it on loan from a branch library—and then use the book to talk about the stresses of gift giving at the holidays. The whole idea of talking about that and other stresses—well, I believe in talking about things openly.

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