Economist's Christmas

Instructor: Tyler Cowen, George Mason University

What do you really want for the holidays? And how can you be sure you’re giving the perfect gift to someone else?

Of course, you want to get your loved ones something they will appreciate, but you face a knowledge problem: you don’t know everything about their wants and needs. You also have an incentive problem: oftentimes people aren’t quite as careful choosing a gift for others as they would be if buying something for themselves.

We’ve all received a present that we didn’t really want. When that happens, the value that we place on the gift can be less than its cost. According to research by economist Joel Waldfogel, gift givers spend an average of $50 on gifts that recipients only value at $40. Given that Americans spend around $100 billion on Christmas gifts, we’re wasting $18-20 billion every holiday season!

Is there a solution to this costly problem? Well, you can always give cold, hard cash! Many gift recipients would prefer it. But if you know the recipient’s tastes very well, you do have the opportunity to give them a non-cash present that they’ll love and that creates value by lowering their search costs.

There are, of course, occasions where the gift of money doesn’t make sense. Perhaps you want to signal that you care in a different way, or maybe there’s a custom you want to follow. You’ll just have to risk it in these situations.

Around the holidays, there’s also a spike in charitable giving. If you face knowledge and incentive problems in giving gifts to loved ones, you can imagine that these issues increase when you’re giving to someone you’ve never met. To combat this problem, some charities, such as GiveDirectly, give cash to people in need so that they spend charitable donations however meets their needs.

The efficiency of an economist’s Christmas may feel less warm and fuzzy, but the value creation is no less generous!

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