We live in contrarian times. At least that's what my recent scan of bookstore shelves suggests: every month another quirky social observer arrives on the scene to persuade us of the value of unconventional thinking (as Malcom Gladwell did in Blink, for example) or to turn us on to a bizarro alternate reality (as Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner did in Freakonomics).
Joel Waldfogel enters that dubious pantheon with Scroogenomics, in which he critiques the annual orgy of consumerism we call the holiday shopping season. An economics professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, Waldfogel trots out a wealth of statistical and empirical data to drive his argument home.
In a series of surveys going back to 2002, Waldfogel asked people to rate the personal dollar-value of holiday gifts they received relative to what the items actually cost. Not surprisingly, he found a significant gap—one that grows larger the more distant the relationship with the gift-giver. Anyone who's ever received a golf-club mitten, ugly sweater, or singing battery-powered fish knows exactly what the author is talking about.
Waldfogel's research revealed that, on average, a dollar spent on oneself provides 18 percent more satisfaction than a buck spent by others on us. In the big societal picture, he maintains, that disparity represents an inefficient allocation of resources that yields "a meager amount of material satisfaction for the amount of money spent."
That difference in value is what's known, in economics jargon, as "deadweight loss," and in 2007 it amounted to about $12 billion of the $66 billion that Americans forked over at malls and on retail Web sites. (In fact, Scroogenomics is an expansion of Waldfogel's 1993 article for the American Economic Review entitled "The Deadweight Loss of Christmas.")
Cold, hard cash can be a risk-free alternative, but in many gift-giving circumstances—younger relative to an older one, for instance, or coworker to coworker—laying out the long green would be short on taste.
Then there are gift cards. Purchases of these convenient surrogates reached $63 billion in 2005, and their popularity continues to soar. But the rub here is that roughly 10 percent of their value goes unredeemed because of lost or forgotten cards, or through the money sacrificed when, for instance, you buy a $46.50 item with a $50 card and never spend the rest. Overall, about $8 billion per year is lost to non-redemption—two-thirds of the "deadweight loss" calculated above. Plus gift cards rob you of the fun and anticipation of feverishly tearing open a gift-wrapped package.
All told, it makes for a lot of evaporated capital. And it gets worse: the bulk of holiday shopping is done with credit cards, which inflict "debt hangovers" on consumers that persist well into the following year.
So, let's see … that makes Christmas shopping wasteful, wrongheaded, and potentially injurious to one's personal finances, right? I'm not convinced. Waldfogel's screed (published as a pocket-sized hardcover—a sarcastic stocking stuffer, perhaps?) may be dang-near irrefutable by the numbers, but it's difficult to take to heart.
That's because, in the end, the message of Scroogenomics amounts to a well-meaning but empty truism. You know the kind I'm talking about: "When you have your health, you have everything." Or "It's what's inside that counts." Though theoretically or philosophically valid, such maxims are irrelevant to life as it is daily—or, in the case of holiday shopping, annually—lived.
"Can I have some outrage here?" Waldfogel demands at one point, suggesting that if America's holiday shopping budget were scrutinized as closely as a government program, the waste would incite citizens to riot in the streets. "Is anyone even concerned about this?" he rails. "Santa is a beloved figure, but this is ridiculous."
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.
Read more Web-exclusive book reviews.