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Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn't Buy Presents for the Holidays

Web-Exclusive Book Review

You know what else is ridiculous? Schlepping a 70-foot blue spruce all the way from Vermont to Rockefeller Center and festooning it with thousands of tiny lights simply so people can look up and say "Ooh!" for a few days around the winter solstice. And while we're at it, can you imagine how many needy people could be fed with the pounds of rice that get tossed about after wedding ceremonies? Won't someone think of the hungry?!

Holidays are times of extravagance—indeed, excess practically defines them. They resist rationality, let alone scolding economic analysis. So people spend irresponsibly around Christmastime and give impractical gifts? Guess what: they already know that.

If that sounds a mite grinchy, it's because, playful book title notwithstanding, Waldfogel betrays his fundamental seriousness when he indulges in this straw-man argument: "Some people" say that 1) because gift-giving is voluntary it cannot, by definition, be inefficient, and is ultimately a positive act; and 2) because it's been done for centuries it can't be inefficient. Really? Who in the world has ever made such arguments?

It's actually much simpler than that. Somewhere amid our irresponsible profligacy is a tickle, a buzz, that's every bit as integral to the holiday experience as a crèche or menorah. And if our culture accedes to the dreaded "deadweight loss" with an utter lack of outrage, maybe it's because spending lots of money around the holidays has become a self-bestowed perk of the affluent society—even if we're no longer nearly as wealthy, individually or as a nation, as we once thought we were.

So, hey, Professor Ebenezer: lighten up, will ya?

Michael Flaherty is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, New York.

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