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To test price theory, try a cash gift next Valentine's day.
December 20, 2013 4:09 AM   Subscribe

The IGM Economic Experts Panel tackles the Inefficient Santa question: "Giving specific presents as holiday gifts is inefficient, because recipients could satisfy their preferences much better with cash."

Most of the expert panel reject the standard price theory result that cash is better than an in kind transfer (at least in the case of gifts).

Reasons given include: revealed preference (after all, people do give gifts); the pleasure of the gift giver; the possibility that the recipient might imperfectly know their own preferences; and signalling.
posted by hawthorne (59 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

 
King Midas: a completely rational men, by economics standards
posted by thelonius at 4:16 AM on December 20, 2013 [9 favorites]


the pleasure of the gift giver

Yeah, but as the parent of the recipient, keep your goddamned electronic toys to yourself.
posted by Jpfed at 4:23 AM on December 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


"Instead of proposing to your wife w/diamond ring, you offer a gift card of equal value. Efficient--if you don't count your hospital bills." --Austan Goolsby

...sounds like an argument for cash gifts + single-payer healthcare.
posted by drlith at 4:30 AM on December 20, 2013 [4 favorites]


The Dismal Science, indeed.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:35 AM on December 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


I'd much rather have cash when it comes to holiday gifts from the people I work for, instead of what I get. A box of spices from some exclusive "Boutique Spices" mail-order company? Yeah, I don't cook. Now I have a box "worth" $50 that I can't use and can't spend. A Whole Foods gift card? I could by two weeks' worth of food at my regular supermarket for the few measly items that will buy at Whole Foods. Two different gift cards for a "mani/pedi" (I have never had a manicure, nor do I want one) that I'll never use and can't return, when instead I could have had the ninety dollars they cost.

Gift cards instead of cash are only good gifts for people who already have everything they need, and only shop for things they want. Gift cards are for the kind of people who can afford to buy gift cards.
posted by tzikeh at 4:40 AM on December 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Giving presents is somewhat useful in disguising how much we are actually giving a person. Unless you're some sort of expert shopper, socks are socks and you don't actually know what they cost, or you would have to sit and think about it to come up with a number, whereas handing someone the purchase price of the socks will immediately sum up how much you think that person is worth or how much you can afford or both. If you're in a roomful of people getting and giving gifts, it's not as brutal as it would be if everyone just handing one another cash.

Also, exchanging cash cancels out the gifts: if I give you 50 dollars and you give me 50 dollars, we each get nothing.
posted by pracowity at 4:53 AM on December 20, 2013 [13 favorites]


pracowity: "Also, exchanging cash cancels out the gifts: if I give you 50 dollars and you give me 50 dollars, we each get nothing."

Isn't that the exact point of giftgiving though? If you give me a gift, I'm immediately and unremittingly obligated to give you a gift of equal (or slightly greater) value. Gifts == obligation, full stop.

If we just gave each other cash, this process would be so much easier (although admittedly a little socially inconvenient to let others see precisely how much you think they're worth, as pracowity pointed out.)
posted by namewithoutwords at 5:10 AM on December 20, 2013


"their preferences" might include, I dunno, a close family?

TIL 50 percent of economists are idiots. But thankfully the other 50 percent are not.
posted by EnterTheStory at 5:10 AM on December 20, 2013


Also, exchanging cash cancels out the gifts: if I give you 50 dollars and you give me 50 dollars, we each get nothing.

"Forced" gift giving (eg, Christmas, birthdays) ends up being worse. If I give you a gift I bought for $50, and you give me a similar gift -- and we don't know each other that well -- then we're unlikely to get $50 of value out. Let's say we get $10 (because we didn't really like our respective gifts). We each lose $40 of value. You know who doesn't lose money? The corporations we bought those gifts from.

If we had just not given one another gifts at all, then we'd be much better off. Giving gifts to people you don't know *very* well, in or above your own socioeconomic stratum, is typically only good for makers of cheap crap. It's a bad kind of wealth transfer.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 5:10 AM on December 20, 2013 [16 favorites]


To test price theory, try a cash gift next Valentine's day

That's soliciting, quite illegal I'm told.
posted by Renoroc at 5:21 AM on December 20, 2013 [15 favorites]


I have worked on creating, over decades of effort, a culture of haphazard and sincere gift-giving among my friends. With my closest friends, we're at a point now where nobody expects a gift, but once every few years something might turn up that feels right, so I'll send it to them. Then maybe nothing for a few years after that.

The net effect is really low-stress, and it's a genuine surprise and pleasure to get something in the mail, instead of having to second-guess what somebody's going to get you and worry about whether you're getting "enough" for them and etc.

With the "chaos gift" system, things given are also usually slightly non-intuitive (generally not something the person already had on their radar), but generally also really appropriate.

And isn't that the point of gifts? To be a little non-intuitive and surprising? I always look at gift-giving as a chance to introduce somebody to something interesting, not to fulfill an expectation they already have. There's a spirit of "arrgh somebody gave me something that might make me broaden my horizons a little this is the worst" in this thread that feels a bit... churlish?
posted by Shepherd at 5:22 AM on December 20, 2013 [27 favorites]


I personally hate receiving gifts not because of a feeling of obligation (I am a huge jerk, so don't worry about it), but because I honestly don't know how to react. I was told that etiquette dictates you not open a present in front of the giver for this very reason, but apparently no one I've ever met has heard of this so I am always pressured to act delighted while publicly opening a present. Delight is a difficult thing to do for me, whether a gift is wanted (Friday the 13th playing cards- thanks, Eric) or unwanted (ugly sweaters- thanks, Grandma), so I just end up feeling awkward.

So yeah, giving cash is great and even more so if we reach a day where it equals out and we don't have to give or receive anything.
posted by Literaryhero at 5:37 AM on December 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


It's a bad kind of wealth transfer.

Giving gifts is not really about wealth transfer, though, at least not in a purely economical sense. The idea is that you're receiving this surplus that you wouldn't have had otherwise, but which you're not supposed to save for yourself - a gift obliges you to reciprocate, either in return or by passing it on, so that the true transaction is a social one, and the relationships of all involved become the beneficiaries of the surplus.

This is why it feels so wrong, to me anyways, to try and apply this sort of economic rationality to gift giving, because by its nature it is opposed to a severely self-interested capitalism.
posted by onwords at 5:38 AM on December 20, 2013 [6 favorites]


"Instead of proposing to your wife w/diamond ring, you offer a gift card of equal value. Efficient--if you don't count your hospital bills." --Austan Goolsby

...sounds like an argument for cash gifts + single-payer healthcare.

Even under the current system the payer would be single.
posted by jaduncan at 5:56 AM on December 20, 2013 [10 favorites]


to add to what onwords says: as a social transaction, part of gift-giving is the demonstration of how much you know and care for someone. Cash suggests that you don't know the person well enough to pick out something that they would like.

I like giving presents to people I'm close to - my SO, my mom, my in-laws, because it is a chance to pay attention to their needs or desires and look for something that would please them. Cash would be a cop out.
posted by jb at 5:58 AM on December 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


Somehow, having economists talking about gift-giving (I won't say gifting) resonates similarly to how NORAD tracks Santa Claus on X-mas Eve.
posted by The Potate at 6:01 AM on December 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


These people, they have never heard of gifting economies, I assume? Gifting has a completely different cultural value than the exchange of cash. See also: the first half of Lewis Hyde's The Gift.
posted by whimsicalnymph at 6:03 AM on December 20, 2013 [4 favorites]


Instead of proposing to your wife w/diamond ring, you offer a gift card of equal value.

Maybe we're weird, but this, more or less, was how we did things.

I knew my partner would want to have a say in what her ring looked like---it's hers after all, and she's going to wear it for a long time (hopefully). However, I did want to be able to do the traditional asking, meaning I needed something.

The "gift card" was a ring from the jeweler, to be exchanged at an agreed value when we went back for our custom rings. This way we got both: my wife was able to design her own ring, and we did have a memorable proposal dinner.

No hospital bills paid. In fact, I'd recommend proposing with a "gift card" to anyone.
posted by bonehead at 6:05 AM on December 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Even under the current system the payer would be single.

Having said that, when I proposed I did so without a ring on the basis that my partner knew her own taste in rings well and might prefer to spend the money on something more interesting than a larger rock.
posted by jaduncan at 6:06 AM on December 20, 2013


I used to argue with my older brother about this. He insisted on giving me gifts I neither wanted nor needed, and got mad at me when I gave him a gift card (to a store where I knew he shopped). So I spent years buying him DVDs that he might plausibly have liked, although I was pretty sure that he never watched them. Gifts are good for people you know well enough to buy a good gift. Gift cards are good for people when you know where they shop. Cash is good for young children and nieces and nephews, because who knows what the heck kids like these days?

My brother managed to die this year, just before his birthday, precipitating one last giving crisis. We all gave to a charity in his name, which I suppose was nice.
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:09 AM on December 20, 2013


I knew my partner would want to have a say in what her ring looked like

My partner and I made an unspoken agreement to pretend that we had a vague, casual interest in jewelry stores and a passing curiosity about the size of her ring finger. We were not thinking about getting married, no, of course not, it was just a disinterested investigation of what an ideal engagement ring for a hypothetical, abstract person would be.

keep your goddamned electronic toys to yourself

This year while shopping I saw a toy car that was powered by screaming. It was controlled by a microphone such that the louder the child screamed the faster it would go. I can't imagine how much I would have to hate a parent to give that to their toddler, or soullessness required to invent it.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 6:14 AM on December 20, 2013 [20 favorites]


So I just realized that the Mr. Spock from the evil universe was probably an economist


But I don't know what he was doing on the bridge of the Enterprise
posted by Ray Walston, Luck Dragon at 6:15 AM on December 20, 2013


Behavioral economist Dan Ariely talked about an approach to gifts that has to do with always including some kind of story about the gift. (I am going to mangle this explanation, but I'll try my best).

He's written about gifts several times, but when he talked about them in his recent Coursera class, his thinking seemed to go a bit further than what I see in these articles.

Gifts are more about social connection than cash value. They yield something extremely valuable that has no cash equivalent. Conversely, a really bad gift (e.g. deodorant, or something from your spouse that demonstrates no understanding of you as a person) is not just "zero gain"; it's got a negative value and actually makes a relationship worse.

With gifts, we implicitly communicate how well we know the recipient and how much we think about them. Gifts are also an opportunity to disclose something personal about ourselves.

These things are implied (by the giver) and inferred (by the recipient) from the gift itself, but can also be communicated explicitly. Doing so is also a gift - even a short account shows the recipient more time thinking about the person, more disclosure about you as the giver and how you think about the world.

Got a box of chocolates from your sister? Was it just because she was walking past a Godiva chocolate store on their way to buy herself shoes, or is it because the courage, beauty, and sacrifice of Lady Godiva reminded her of the way you've been taking care of your kids? Giving another tie to Dad? Will he care whether you picked the first yellow one you saw, or would he like to know that you looked in three different stores and chose this one because the slight amber color seemed prettier to you?

Did you give some cookies to your UPS deliverer? Was it because you just always give cookies to everyone in hopes of getting better service (what he may automatically assume), or was it because you noticed and appreciated that he took extra care with that super-heavy equipment delivery and the extra calories are the least you can do?

Taking the time to have reasons for particular gifts, and taking the additional time to communicate them, shows that you think about the recipients as particular human beings. Noticing people as individuals, and connecting to them in a genuine human way, can be some of the best gifts.

Of course there are times when that's not best. I'm not familiar with it, but the traditional tipping culture in New York may be an example -- holiday tips seem to be some kind of economic expectation, and detailed individual relationships with every client could be burdensome. With a distant relative or even a co-worker/secret Santa exchange, though, some communication of the thought behind the gift could be the best way to capture the best parts of gift giving without succumbing to the perceived requirement of buying more useless, expensive, wasteful stuff. You can give something simple and small, but add meaning that is special and particular to you and the person to whom you give it.
posted by amtho at 6:16 AM on December 20, 2013 [16 favorites]


I just realized that the Mr. Spock from the evil universe was probably an economist, But I don't know what he was doing on the bridge of the Enterprise

He was the dismal science officer.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 6:17 AM on December 20, 2013 [21 favorites]


I have never had a manicure, nor do I want one

Reconsider! Or else feel free to regift them to an undeserving stranger, e.g. me.
posted by 1adam12 at 6:25 AM on December 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


I enjoy the act of opening the gift. The surprise of finding out what I've received. Sure, sometimes a particular gift is not great, but I can take that. Opening up an envelope of cash just isn't as thrilling unless it is an obscene amount, and that's not good for other reasons.

Also, I like that sometimes I can't bring myself to splurge on something, but wife or parents will decide to do so.
posted by Area Man at 6:26 AM on December 20, 2013


Do you remember all the times your grandmother gave you cash in a Christmas card?

Or do you remember the time she made you a huge batch of peanut brittle that you ate all at once because it was so delicious?
posted by helicomatic at 6:42 AM on December 20, 2013 [4 favorites]


This type of thinking is why my brother and I still exchange gifts with our parents. Even in our 30s we still come out ahead.

also,

Metafilter: powered by screaming.
posted by mullacc at 6:44 AM on December 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Coincidentally (well, not very, given the season) I had a drop-everything, stop-and-listen moment last night when the CBC started playing the Fireside Al reading of the Gift of the Magi.

And so I present to you:

The Gift of the Magi
by O. Henry, amended to reflect the findings of the IGM Economic Experts Panel
One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. And sixty cents of it was in pennies. Pennies saved one and two at a time by bulldozing the grocer and the vegetable man and the butcher until one's cheeks burned with the silent imputation of parsimony that such close dealing implied. Three times Della counted it. One dollar and eighty- seven cents. And the next day would be Christmas.

There was clearly nothing to do but flop down on the shabby little couch and howl. So Della did it. Which instigates the moral reflection that life is made up of sobs, sniffles, and smiles, with sniffles predominating.

Then Jim came home and she gave him the $1.87. He then gave her $0.94, being $1.87 divided in two, with Della receiving the odd penny because Jim was nothing if not a gentleman.

"This seems practical," Jim said.

"Yes," Della said. "I am pleased that we submitted this situation to rigorous economic analysis and arrived at an outcome that maximizes efficiency while minimizing uncertainty."

The magi, as you know, were wise men--wonderfully wise men--who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication.

And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two very sensible children in a flat who through cold, calculated analysis, did not sacrifice anything and proceeded according to the light of pure logic.

But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts, these two were just the absolute fucking worst.

O all who give and receive gifts, such as they are the absolute worst. Everywhere they are the absolute worst.

They are not the magi.

They are robotic dipshits.

On December 27, they broke up.

THE END

posted by Shepherd at 6:56 AM on December 20, 2013 [18 favorites]


as a social transaction, part of gift-giving is the demonstration of how much you know and care for someone. Cash suggests that you don't know the person well enough to pick out something that they would like

While this is true, it's also saying that the purpose of giving a gift really isn't anything about the person you're giving it to -- the primary purpose is to obtain a social advantage for yourself.

Giving cash: not just an efficient transfer, the sacrifice of your own welfare in favor of maximizing the welfare of the recipient also marks you as having the virtue of a saint. (mild hamburger)

And especially appropriate for Christmas, given the stories of St. Nicholas chucking sacks of money (not socks, or boxes of spices, or other consumer goods) through the windows of at-risk wmen.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:10 AM on December 20, 2013


What I like about this poll is that you're allowed to answer "Uncertain" and then rate the confidence level of your answer as 10/10. That's a pretty good description of my own views about most economic questions!
posted by escabeche at 7:10 AM on December 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


That's soliciting, quite illegal I'm told.

I'm sick and tired of this ignore-Canada-bias on Metafilter.
posted by Jahaza at 7:16 AM on December 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


Giving presents is somewhat useful in disguising how much we are actually giving a person.

Yes, exactly. I was getting gifts for my coworkers last night (I'm on vacation). The nice calendars I saw for sale last month or so at a fair--I forget how much they were charging at the fair, probably about $12 or so. They were literally $1 here! So naturally I got a bunch for people. I felt like an asshole literally spending $1 on gifts....but how are they going to know? They don't read this website. And I'm sure the coworkers probably do the same thing when they're on vacation.

But seriously now, $20 in the mail or a $40 gift card says something about how much you are worth to that person, and it's uncomfortable to KNOW that. Or if they got you something that's obviously a cheap piece of crap, I suppose.
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:47 AM on December 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


If you give cash then what about the elaborate re-gift strategies developed, eh? If you give cash, how can you get the juicy stories and anecdotes of gift giving gone wrong? Giving cash not only robs you of elaborate social capital transfers BUT deprives you of narrative and that is just not forgivable. Seriously, how can my father justify the posession of this without saying, "Well, my grandson got that for me."

Cash is nice and all, but actually knowing what people have as theory of your mind? Priceless.
posted by jadepearl at 7:59 AM on December 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


I have plenty. The best gift to me is to take any monies you would have spent, and give it to a local charity.

That poor fucker sleeping on the street needs a gift approximately infinity times more than I do.
posted by five fresh fish at 8:05 AM on December 20, 2013


The wealth transfer question got me thinking - when two friends or family members have a wide gap in social class, do they give each other gifts of substantially different value? Not in my experience. My wife and I are friends with a couple who are much wealthier than we are, and they've never given us anything that wasn't comparable to stuff we'd give them.

The exception is my parents, but that seems like a different thing.
posted by roll truck roll at 8:20 AM on December 20, 2013


Cash is nice, but I always find myself spending it on ephemeral things like tacos or beer.
posted by oceanjesse at 8:21 AM on December 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


I always look at gift-giving as a chance to introduce somebody to something interesting, not to fulfill an expectation they already have.

This sums up my sentiments precisely. I hate being asked "what do you want"? I feel like, if you have to ask me that, just don't get me anything and no hard feelings. I don't want to order off of a menu for gifts, and I don't want you telling me what you want, either. Nobody ever does, and I still manage to find stuff that I think they will like. If I have ever been wrong, they have so far been too polite to tell me.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 8:47 AM on December 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Re: wealth transfer - deadlined gifting just makes corporations richer. You don't have the time to shop for a deal, because you need it by the 25th, so you pay anywhere from 10% to 30% more than you, or your giftee, would otherwise need pay for the item.... inefficiency #1. Also, used items are seen as taboo in gifting, but with eBay I can save 50%-70% on items I need. If I was to put them on my Christmas list and get box-new versions, I'd feel like I was simply asking my gifters to give money directly to Amazon or Walmart... inefficiency #2.

Giving gifts can be great fun, yes, but the biggest gift of Christmas is to corporations, as we all pay them for a bunch of unnecessary crap we'll give to someone who doesn't want it because of a social obligation perpetuated each year by huge amounts of advertising.

That's why I asked for toilet paper for Christmas. I'm definitely going to use it, and it works as a gift since it's something I often didn't realize I needed.
posted by scrowdid at 8:57 AM on December 20, 2013 [4 favorites]


Yeah but it won't satisfy my preference for testing if you really love me.

A roomba!! This is what you think of me? You don't know me at all. It's OVER.

etc etc.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 8:59 AM on December 20, 2013


I rarely articulate this out loud, since I don't want to open myself up to accusations of being the least romantic person on the planet, but my opinions on gift giving changed immensely once I got married and started sharing a bank account with my spouse. The whole process of buying gifts for each other seems like this artificial exercise we have to play out because of tradition. When I get a gift from my wife, while I of course always express gratitude, the whole concept seems bizarre (especially during the few years I was the sole breadwinner in the family) since in essence I am saying, "Thank you, wife, for taking money that was already sitting in our bank and giving it back to me in a different form". Particularly when one of us asks for a very specific item, the gift is basically the gift of time saving, freeing the other person from having to make a trip to the store or going through the monotonous check-out process at an online retailer.

Logically, it would make just as much sense to say, "Let's make a budget of $X for this gift-giving occasion, feel free to take that money out of the bank and spend it on whatever frivilous thing you want for yourself" (this would be very useful for me, who often feels guilty buying all but the most basic necessities for myself). But, in reality, I have a feeling such a suggestion would only serve to move me to the couch for a few days.
posted by The Gooch at 9:59 AM on December 20, 2013


I love giving gifts, although I also think something free like a list of books available at the library that you think the recipient would like can make a great gift.

And on the engagement ring front, I made it very clear to my now fiancé that I wanted to have a say in the ring I was planning on wearing for the rest of my life. I still had a wonderfully romantic proposal with champagne on top of a mountain, complete with a ring that was very large and sparkly on account of the LED. And now I have a beautiful ring with a blue green sapphire that he would never have guessed I wanted.
posted by carolr at 10:07 AM on December 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


>That's soliciting, quite illegal I'm told.

>>I'm sick and tired of this ignore-Canada-bias on Metafilter.

See and I just assumed it was an American site, and that we're squatting in their territory and will slowly take it over from the inside out.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 10:37 AM on December 20, 2013


Logically, it would make just as much sense to say, "Let's make a budget of $X for this gift-giving occasion, feel free to take that money out of the bank and spend it on whatever frivilous thing you want for yourself" (this would be very useful for me, who often feels guilty buying all but the most basic necessities for myself). But, in reality, I have a feeling such a suggestion would only serve to move me to the couch for a few days.

My wife has suggested we adopt this approach. I wasn't receptive. For some of us, the giving and receiving of gifts is an important way to show affection and reinforce social bonds. I don't see it as being any more irrational than someone being huggy. I know that if my wife never gave me a Christmas present, I would feel much less loved. And I fully recognize that the money is coming out of the same account.
posted by Area Man at 10:42 AM on December 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


Isn't that the exact point of giftgiving though?

I always thought you were supposed to give someone something special that you think will make the recipient happy. It might be something the recipient wouldn't have thought of, never even heard of. It might be something only you make yourself. It says something about what the giver thinks and feels about the recipient.

Cash is generally for when you can't be bothered to come up with a person-specific gift or you just have no idea what would please the recipient because maybe you're an aunt who lives miles and decades away.
posted by pracowity at 10:56 AM on December 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


...the gift is basically the gift of time saving, freeing the other person from having to make a trip to the store or going through the monotonous check-out process at an online retailer.

It can be the gift of knowing your wife so well that you can find or imagine something that will delight her, but that she hasn't already discovered on her own. Especially with the wonders of online shopping :)

For example, does she get cold a lot? Maybe a hat (warmer and more beautiful than the hat she has), or gloves, or a seat warmer, or some silk leggings would be the thing. If you poke around a little, you can find gloves that have a bluetooth phone built in so she doesn't have to take them off to receive a call, or you can look around Etsy or a really top-notch store for a gorgeous knitted hat that she wouldn't find herself. If you just have the kind of mind that doesn't know what other people like (do try with your spouse, though!), it's OK to ask "would it be OK if I got you a hat?" -- you could even be a super-awesome thoughtful spouse and ask her friends.

Just sayin' -- there are perfectly rational reasons we don't just exchange money.
posted by amtho at 11:15 AM on December 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


There's nothing to replace the childish glee of tearing the paper off a wrapped-up box. Give me a $25 gift nicely chosen and wrapped over a $50 check any day of the week. Especially if it's fairly large. (I know a lot of women hope for small boxes, but since I'm not a jewelry person those are less appealing.) It's about symbols, not economics. For members of my family who are hard to shop for, I tend now to make charitable donations, and I try to get creative with where they go. This year I am making a lot of gifts for Christmas. Those things matter.

But I do overall think that exchanging nice gifts with people you aren't super close to is a bad idea, for a similar sort of reason. If it's not symbolizing a deep fondness for the person, then it really is just an economic transaction and you're probably better off just agreeing to meet for dinner sometime to hang out and both benefit by social contact you might not have had otherwise.
posted by Sequence at 11:36 AM on December 20, 2013



Cash is nice, but I always find myself spending it on ephemeral things like tacos or beer.

I'd vastly prefer the ephemeral and transient gift to Another Thing In My House. If I like the person enough to exchange gifts, then I want to spend time with them more than I want a thing, so a nice dinner (or we can cook together! also rad!) or an afternoon at a movie we both really want to see is the better gift in my mind.

Although the best gift I ever got was a check covering the last of my student debt.
posted by The Whelk at 11:47 AM on December 20, 2013


I'll never forget the Christmas my brother and I gave each other identically-denominated iTunes gift cards.
posted by The Card Cheat at 12:00 PM on December 20, 2013


The thing about gifts, for me, is that they shouldn't be entirely practical.

I mean, I could give my mother a $50 gift certificate, but she'll only go out and spend it on something like a water filter for the refrigerator.
On the other hand, I can send her $40 worth of chocolate, which she would never buy for herself with a gift card because it's too extravagant, but will enjoy immensely.

Similarly, I'd never go out and spend $25 on one pair of socks with a gift card because, seriously, $25?!
But at the same time, if someone gave the socks themselves, it's awesome.

So, there is that intangible quality of a gift being something that someone wants, but wouldn't get for themselves, even if they can afford it.
posted by madajb at 12:27 PM on December 20, 2013


Also, it should always be restated in threads about this topic:

It really is the thought that counts, even if it's the worst possible gift.

Unless, of course, an envelope of cash will literally keep you from being homeless, in which case, that hot chocolate sampler was a horrible idea.
posted by madajb at 12:30 PM on December 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


I'd vastly prefer the ephemeral and transient gift to Another Thing In My House.

Yes, this is also my feeling on the matter. My mother especially is really bad about getting me Things for the Sake of Getting Things. This year I desperately tried to get her to get me just one thing and nothing else because I just do not have room for "stuff" but I was only able to talk her down to two things.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 12:44 PM on December 20, 2013


Reminder: The "dismal science" reference refers to the fact that it was abhorrent that economists thought blacks were comparable to whites. Robert Carlyle thought slavery was superior to the newfangled concept of "supply and demand", which favored letting men alone.
posted by politikitty at 1:04 PM on December 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


the true transaction is a social one
Spoken like a sociologist/anthropologist, onwords! Having been one I agree and still have my copy of The Gift from college, too.
posted by linux at 1:22 PM on December 20, 2013


With my kids, gift-giving is a purely selfish act--for me. I get more satisfaction out of watching my son and daughter's eyes light up when they open a new toy or book (not because I want them to have lots of stuff or to adopt an ethic of excessively valuing stuff, but because I look forward to the experiences they'll have playing with them) than I would or could ever get out of a cash present. Well, unless it was a life-changing amount of cash (in which case, all the better for me to buy more presents with)!

(Seriously I have to hold back, because it makes me so happy to give presents to my kids, I'd spoil them rotten if my wife didn't have a say, too.)

Life is about experiencing things, not about trading units of abstract value. Economists aren't just wrong, they aren't even wrong, when they start applying their impoverished analytic tool set to matters of the human heart.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:39 PM on December 20, 2013


Vaguely related : Gifting by Halcyon
posted by jeffburdges at 2:10 PM on December 20, 2013


Well, it's nice to see that for the most part economists aren't completely insane, but I am still somewhat troubled by the fact that there are a couple of 100% confident "agree"s there.

I suppose the people who agree are the economics equivalent of the old "first, assume the cow is a sphere" joke physicists.
posted by lucidium at 4:28 PM on December 20, 2013


I'm also someone who happily gifts my SO out of our joint account - I like surprising him.

As for people who have enough things: if you know well enough that they don't need things, you can gift an experience or service (like a day at a spa, or by making them homemade cookies).

And for people who you know DO need things, even essentials: one year, my mother gave my brother groceries for Christmas, both basics and nice stuff he might never have bought for himself. He was happy.
posted by jb at 4:40 PM on December 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


As someone chronically short of cash, I love it when I get a gift card to the local horsie emporium. Then I can choose whether to spend it on a totally cool and slightly extravagant thing like a new bridle, or just spend it on the prosaic, but necessary, horse feed. Much more fun than a gift card to the local department store (even if I do need new undies.)

What makes me cringe a bit is gifts from family like the big fuzzy slippers or the back massager. It's not just something they grabbed near the checkout, I know they are giving them because they are thinking of my physical comfort, as they ask if my feet are tired or my back is sore, but dang, I'd really rather have a new bridle! They are gifts from a place of love, so I take them in the spirit offered and use them after working around the horses.
posted by BlueHorse at 4:30 PM on December 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


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