WASHINGTON -- Another huge value-destroying hurricane is about to slam America, destroying billions of dollars of value. Another Katrina? No, another Christmas.
This voluntary December calamity is explained in a darkly amusing little book that is about the size of an iPhone. "Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn't Buy Presents for the Holidays" comes from a distinguished publisher, Princeton University Press, and an eminent author, Joel Waldfogel of the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton business school. He says that the crux of Yuletide economics, which common sense suggests and research confirms, is:
Gifts that people buy for other people are usually poorly matched to the recipients' preferences. What the recipients would willingly pay for gifts is usually less than what the givers paid. The measure of the inefficiency of allocating value by gift-giving is the difference between the yield of satisfaction per dollar spent on gifts and the yield per dollar spent on recipients' own purchases.
By calculating the difference between the consumption of holiday goods (e.g., jewelry, but not gasoline) in December as opposed to November and January, you get a rough estimate of Christmas spending. Waldfogel's conservative estimate is that in 2007, Americans spent $66 billion on gifts and produced $12 billion less satisfaction than would have been produced if the recipients had spent the $66 billion on themselves.
At least the Christmas stimulus strengthens the economy, right? Wrong, says Waldfogel. If all spending justified itself, we would pay people to dig holes and then refill them -- or build bridges to unpopulated Alaskan islands. Spending is good if the purchaser, or the recipient of a gift, values the commodity more than he does the money it costs. Otherwise, there is a subtraction from society's store of value.
Christmas etiquette involves composing one's face to feign pleasure when unwrapping an unwelcome windfall -- say, a sweater of an appalling color and a style that went out of style in the 1940s -- and murmuring "Oh, you shouldn't have" without revealing that you mean exactly that. Price of the sweater: $50. Value to recipient: $0. Actually, less than zero, considering the psychological cost of the forced smile.