Dear Economist: What’s the best Christmas present?

Dear Economist,
Can economics help me pick out the perfect Christmas gift for my brother?
Tim Maly, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

Dear Tim,

Your letter obliges me to disinter the influential research of the economist Joel Waldfogel on the “deadweight loss of Christmas”. Fifteen years ago, Waldfogel published an academic article demonstrating that the recipients of gifts would not generally have been willing to pay what it cost to provide the gift. A £30 sweater was valued at £20, for example, creating a “deadweight loss” of £10. Siblings were not the most incompetent givers – that honour goes to aunts and uncles – but they were not especially competent either.

Waldfogel’s work is often misinterpreted as suggesting that gift-giving is pointless. That is not true. He explicitly excluded the sentimental value of gifts from his calculations, and, of course, the sentimental value is part of the purpose of giving presents. That may explain why the economists Sara Solnick and David Hemenway have discovered that we prefer unsolicited presents to those we have specifically requested. It may also explain why gift vouchers are a bad idea: they have no sentimental value but still create deadweight loss, since many expire without being used, or are sold at a loss on eBay – as the economist Jennifer Pate Offenberg has documented.

All this points to the optimal gift-giving strategy: you need to minimise the deadweight loss while maximising the sentimental value. This suggests buying small gifts and striving for emotional resonance. Look for something inexpensive, and consider supplementing it with a letter, a photo, or time spent together.

If you feel a financial transfer is necessary, slip a cheque into the envelope too. I wish you, your brother, and all the readers of this column an optimal Christmas.

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