Yes, I fully realize I’m a bit of a killjoy, posting a review about a book called Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn’t Buy Presents for the Holidays.
And yes, I fully realize the irony that a good many Eleventh Stack readers might very well be out doing the exact thing that economist Joel Waldfogel cautions against, instead of reading my brilliant review of this intriguing book.
To that I say, bah humbug. Because really, it is high time that someone tells it like it is in regards to holiday gift giving. It isn’t a secret that every year we spend way too much on gifts people don’t want, don’t need and would never buy for themselves.
Walk through a major department store in December. The aisles are blocked not just with panicked shoppers but also with tables covered with “gift items.” In the aisles near the men’s clothing department, you’ll find lots of golf-themed knickknacks — mugs festooned with golf balls, golf club mittens, brass tees, and so on. Would anyone buy this stuff for him-or-herself? Does anybody want it? I’ll hazard a “no” on both counts. But it’s there every year, along with singing fish — and it sells — because of a confluence of reasons that together make a perfect storm for wasteful giving (6).
According to Waldfogel, we spent $66 billion dollars on this type of crap during the 2007 holiday season (and that was eight years ago!). He breaks down how he came up with this $66 billion dollar figure in great detail, including examining the retail sales for November, December and January. You’ll just have to read the book for those calculations, while trusting me that his math makes much more sense than mine ever could.
Where the wastefulness comes in is with an economic term called “deadweight loss,” which describes “losses to one person that are not offset by gains to someone else.” The way I understand this is if you buy me a sweater for $75, that same sweater might only be worth $25 to me. (Or, in other words, if I was to purchase said sweater for myself, $25 would be the maximum amount I would personally spend.) Hence, the “deadweight loss” is $50. That’s the wastefulness aspect of the holidays and when you multiply this by billions of crappy cheesy sweaters and stupid singing fish, then you’re talking some big bucks being wasted.
I think this is a concept that most of us kind of already knew, but seeing these numbers tossed around is sobering. It makes me want to never buy another thing again, for any holiday.
One might think that the solution is to give gift cards, which is logical and reflects the increase in gift card sales in recent years. But Waldfogel states that even gift cards (while a better alternative to yet another FORE THE BEST UNCLE! golf mug) have some negatives. They expire. They get lost. Sometimes they are for stores that the recipient isn’t interested in.
Waldfogel presents (heh … pun not intended) his theories in great detail, with many supporting facts. Scroogenomics is more wonkish than whimsy, and since I’m not a mathematician (despite sometimes playing one in my day job here at the Library) some of the number-crunching made my eyes glaze over a bit. Waldfogel calculates and compares the United States’ holiday spending with that of other countries and with the amount spent in decades past, as a way of stating that this over-consumption of gift-buying isn’t new. It’s a valid argument and one that makes much sense.
Although Scroogenomics has a bit more highfalutin math than I was expecting, I still enjoyed this book, which I borrowed from the library (naturally). It’s an eye-opening read jam-packed with information and facts that would likely appeal to fans of Freakonomics or Malcolm Gladwell (which I am.). It’s the epitome of efficient (it’s about the size of my palm) which makes for a fast (and sobering) read.
~ Melissa F., who hasn’t bought a single holiday gift yet and is more inspired than ever to procrastinate on her shopping.