Published on 5 Dec 2016
This week: Let’s get in the holiday spirit! What would an economist do about Christmas gifts?
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!
December 6, 2016
December 5, 2016
It’s from a brewer in Houston I’ve never heard of, so the chances that it’ll appear in the government monopoly liquor stores here in Ontario are pretty small:
A Christmas Story is such a staple of the American holiday season that in 1997, Turner Broadcasting’s TNT or TBS networks began running “24 Hours of A Christmas Story.” All day long on Christmas Eve and all day long on Christmas Day, you can turn on the TV and catch A Christmas Story. When the screaming kids have finally gone to sleep, and you’re done with all your wrapping, you can sit down and catch a true American classic that will let you unwind, make you laugh, and remind you of the Christmas frustration of kids everywhere.
When you sit down to watch the movie, grab a beer. It will undoubtedly help you relax. Christmas is stressful, especially as a parent. You can see this in the character of “the Old Man” in Ralphie’s story. His father is always trying to balance a battle against his angry furnace, the neighbor’s wild and hungry dogs, and the stress of balancing life with his kids and his job.
In the mid-twentieth-century, middle-America setting of A Christmas Story, “the Old Man” probably drank some pretty boring beer to relax at the end of a long day. You, my friends, have many more options. There are plenty of Christmas beers, and we’ll get into them in the coming weeks, but there is one you just can’t pass up if you’re a fan of A Christmas Story (and let’s admit, you all are).
Karbach Brewing Company out of Houston makes a beer called Yule Shoot Your Eye Out. With a wonderful reference to the classic line from A Christmas Story, the gang at Karbach take it one step further with a representation of the famous leg lamp on the can.
March 24, 2016
The cheerleader effect describes a human perception issue where pictures of any woman in a group are often considered more attractive than a picture of that woman alone (this may apply to men as well, but I have always heard it referred to women). Apparently women exploit this effect by posting pictures on dating sites that show them in groups of their friends rather than alone. Anyway, I have developed two corollaries:
Polo Shirt Effect: Polo shirts in a store appear more desirable when grouped with other similar shirts in an array of colors than when presented alone. This effect is strong enough to trump the paradox of choice, where offering consumers more choices can tend to flummox them and cause them to buy less. I believe arrays of multi-hued polo shirts presented together increase purchases of these shirts.
Christmas Tree Effect: We almost never buy ornaments for our tree. 95% are individually ugly, but meaningful, constructions by our kids over the years. The rest are what remain after breakage of some commercial ornaments we bought 20 years ago on deep discount in the after-Christmas sales. But a tree constructed of these ornaments is beautiful. So ornaments look far better when massed on a tree than they look individually.
Warren Meyer, “My Contributions to Social Science”, Coyote Blog, 2015-01-06.
December 25, 2015
“Fairytale of New York,” The Pogues featuring Kirsty MacColl
This song came into being after Elvis Costello bet The Pogues’ lead singer Shane MacGowan that he couldn’t write a decent Christmas duet. The outcome: a call-and-response between a bickering couple that’s just as sweet as it is salty.
Not to encourage miserliness and general miserability at Christmastime, but here’s a realistic take on the deadweight loss of Christmas gift-giving:
In strict economic terms, the most efficient gift is cold, hard cash, but exchanging equivalent sums of money lacks festive spirit and so people take their chance on the high street. This is where the market fails. Buyers have sub-optimal information about your wants and less incentive than you to maximise utility. They cannot always be sure that you do not already have the gift they have in mind, nor do they know if someone else is planning to give you the same thing. And since the joy is in the giving, they might be more interested in eliciting a fleeting sense of amusement when the present is opened than in providing lasting satisfaction. This is where Billy Bass comes in.
But note the reason for this inefficient spending. Resources are misallocated because one person has to decide what someone else wants without having the knowledge or incentive to spend as carefully as they would if buying for themselves. The market failure of Christmas is therefore an example of what happens when other people spend money on our behalf. The best person to buy things for you is you. Your friends and family might make a decent stab at it. Distant bureaucrats who have never met us — and who are spending other people’s money — perhaps can’t.
So when you open your presents next week and find yourself with another garish tie or an awful bottle of perfume, consider this: If your loved ones don’t know you well enough to make spending choices for you, what chance does the government have?
I wonder […] what younger generations make of the cartoon A Charlie Brown Christmas. Charles M. Schulz was obviously, almost blatantly, the American Kierkegaard — an austere, offbeat prophet of existentialist unhappiness from America’s weird Nordic/Lutheran corner. Kierkegaard, like other gloomy European philosophers, had a pretty good run of popularity in the ’60s, but you don’t see him on posters very often anymore. Questions about behavioural authenticity and the meaning of ritual fit the mood of a world just beginning to secularize.
In the cartoon, Charlie Brown, clad in classic existentialist discontent, obsesses over whether he is doing Christmas right, eventually experiencing anguish over whether there is any such thing as “right.” The answer to his questions turns out to be a Bible verse quoted by Linus, the theologian of the Peanuts cast, who seems to cut cleanly in one stroke through Charlie’s neurotic contortions. Linus’s Bible quote about peace on Earth and goodwill toward men still chimes in our hearts because of its stately archaic language, but as an answer to Charlie Brown’s concerns it is not rationally satisfying, and in fact it is hard for us to understand Charlie’s problem at all.
It is Lucy who now seems to be the clued-in one — truly a woman ahead of her time. “We all know that Christmas is a big commercial racket,” she tells Charlie Brown. “It’s run by a big Eastern syndicate.” The key is that she says this without rancour, almost admiringly: she would have loved the whole idea of Black Friday.
Colby Cosh, “Good grief! The commercialism of Christmas isn’t so bad”, Maclean’s, 2014-12-25.
December 24, 2015
If you hurry, you can just get your Santa’s Visit Application in before the deadline tonight!
Ayn Rand, the poet-theorist of capitalism, had a clever Lucy-like line about the “commercialization of Christmas”: she said it was the best thing about Christmas. “The gift-buying … stimulates an enormous outpouring of ingenuity in the creation of products devoted to a single purpose: to give men pleasure,” she said in 1976. “And the street decorations put up by department stores … provide the city with a spectacular display which only ‘commercial greed’ could afford to give us.”
Rand saw exchange as the ideal model for all human relationships. Sometimes the free-marketeers who have borrowed her style and her ideas are accused of heartlessness for this attitude. Things like holidays and families, they say, should be shielded from the supposedly brutalizing effects of mere trade. What one notices about these arguments is that they smuggle in the notions of exchange and mutual advantage by the back door: everyone benefits selfishly from having havens from selfishness.
What one notices about the people who make these arguments, on the other hand, is that they have an excuse for not being attuned to giving as much as they get in personal relationships or social environments. If you’re exchange- or trade-minded, you will usually be asking yourself whether you’re paying your parents back well for raising you, doing right by your friends, being a good guest when hospitality is extended, observing implied social contracts correctly.
As Rand said, there is a Christmas ideal of “goodwill toward men” that is connected with all these things, and not exclusive to Christianity. The gift-giving part of Christmas, the part where silly mammals rummage in the marketplace trying to please and surprise one another by selecting shiny material objects, has swallowed the part in which we celebrate rescue from hell. It’s a good thing, Charlie Brown. Or a very entertaining sort of racket, at any rate.
Colby Cosh, “Good grief! The commercialism of Christmas isn’t so bad”, Maclean’s, 2014-12-25.
December 23, 2015
Published on 22 Dec 2015
Welcome to a NEW kind of film-criticism series, built around the radical premise that just because “everyone knows” a movie is a classic doesn’t mean it stops being worth a deeper look.
At first, A CHRISTMAS STORY was a small 1983 movie that not a lot of people saw. But within a few years, regular Seasonal TV replays had turned it into a counter-culture staple – an All-American Christmas Movie that was *just* sly and jaded enough to be the “cool” alternative to more saccharine Holiday fare. Today, it’s celebrated as an unironic generational classic on par with CHARLIE BROWN, THE GRINCH or IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE.
But does it deserve to be? The word “overrated” may as well have been invented to describe seasonal family-favorites we feel duty-bound to revisit on a yearly basis. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the story of Ralphie and his Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle BB gun with a compass in the stock and a thing which tells time isn’t a good movie… but does it belong among the *great* movies?
This Christmas, thousands of people will watch Ralphie, Randy, Mom and The Old Man’s adventures – many as part of the now-ubiquitous 24-hour marathon. But before you do, maybe pull up a chair and listen as we explore whether or not A CHRISTMAS STORY is… REALLY THAT GOOD.
H/T to Victor for the link.
Gregg Easterbrook receives the perfect, perfect holiday letter:
Don’t you hate boastful holidays letters about other people’s fascinating lives and perfect children? Below is one Nan and I received last week.
What a lucky break the CEO sent his personal jet to pick me up from Istanbul; there’s plenty of room, since I have the entire aircraft to myself, to take out the laptop and write our annual holiday letter. Just let me ask the attendant for a better vintage of champagne, and I’ll begin.
It’s been another utterly hectic year for Chad and I and our remarkable children, yet nurturing and horizon-expanding. It’s hard to know where the time goes. Well, a lot of it is spent in the car.
Rachel is in her senior year at Pinnacle-Upon-Hilltop Academy, and it seems just yesterday she was being pushed around in the stroller by our British nanny. Rachel placed first this fall in the state operatic arias competition. Chad was skeptical when I proposed hiring a live-in voice tutor on leave from the Lyric Opera, but it sure paid off! Rachel’s girls’ volleyball team lost in the semifinals owing to totally unfair officiating, but as I have told her, she must learn to overcome incredible hardship in life.
Now the Big Decision looms — whether to take the early admission offer from Harvard or spend a year at Julliard. Plus the whole back of her Mercedes is full of dance-company brochures as she tries to decide about the summer.
Nicholas is his same old self, juggling the karate lessons plus basketball, soccer, French horn, debate club, archeology field trips, poetry-writing classes and his volunteer work. He just got the Yondan belt, which usually requires nine years of training after the Shodan belt, but prodigies can do it faster, especially if (not that I really believe this!) they are reincarnated deities.
Modeling for Gap cuts into Nick’s schoolwork, but how could I deprive others of the chance to see him? His summer with Outward Bound in the Andes was a big thrill, especially when all the expert guides became disoriented and he had to lead the party out. But you probably read about that in the newspapers.
What can I say regarding our Emily? She’s just been reclassified as EVVSUG&T — “Extremely Very Very Super Ultra Gifted and Talented.” The preschool retained a full-time teacher solely for her, to keep her challenged. Educational institutions are not allowed to discriminate against the gifted anymore, not like when I was young.
Yesterday Rachel sold her first still-life. It was shown at one of the leading galleries without the age of the artist disclosed. The buyers were thrilled when they learned!
Then there was the arrival of our purebred owczarek nizinny puppy. He’s the little furry guy in the enclosed family holiday portrait by Annie Leibovitz. Because our family mission statement lists cultural diversity as a core value, we named him Mandela.
Chad continues to prosper and blossom. He works a few hours a day and spends the rest of the time supervising restoration of the house — National Trust for Historic Preservation rules are quite strict. Corporate denial consulting is a perfect career niche for Chad. Fortune 500 companies call him all the time. There’s a lot to deny, and Chad is good at it.
Me? Oh, I do this and that. I feel myself growing and flowering as a change agent. I yearn to empower the stakeholders. This year I was promoted to COO and invited to the White House twice, but honestly, beading in the evening means just as much to me. I was sorry I had to let Carmen go on the same day I brought home my $14.6 million bonus, but she had broken a Flora Danica platter and I caught her making a personal call.
Chad and I got away for a week for a celebration of my promotion. We rented this quaint five-star villa on the Corsican coast. Just to ourselves — we bought out all 40 rooms so it would be quiet and contemplative and we could ponder rising above materialism.
Our family looks to the New Year for rejuvenation and enrichment. Chad and I will be taking the children to Steamboat Springs over spring break, then in June I take the girls to Paris, Rome and Seville while Chad and Nicholas accompany Richard Gere to Tibet.
Then the kids are off to camps in Maine, and before we know it, we will be packing two cars to drive Rachel’s things to college. And of course I don’t count Davos or Sundance or all the routine excursions.
I hope your year has been as interesting as ours.
Jennifer, Chad, Rachel, Nicholas & Emily
(The above is inspired by a satirical Christmas letter I did for The New Republic a decade ago. I figure it’s OK to recycle a joke once every 10 years.)
December 22, 2015
Rick McGinnis says they don’t make Christmas movies like they used to (but we probably deserve it):
Arguing about the best Christmas movies inevitably turns into a debate about the best version of A Christmas Carol, so I’m going to bluntly state that it’s Alistair Sim’s film, released in Britain as Scrooge.
I’m aware that other versions of the Dickens story have their followings, and while there are no doubt virtues in the Scrooges of Albert Finney, George C. Scott, Jim Carrey, Kelsey Grammar, Henry Winkler, Hoyt Axton, Patrick Stewart, Jack Palance, Susan Lucci, John Carradine, Fredric March, James Earl Jones, Cicely Tyson and the very busy Bill Murray, they are merely streams and tributaries that flow in and out of the great grimacing Ebenezer that Sim embodied with almost unseemly relish in director Brian Desmond Hurst’s 1951 film, which looks like a Victorian lithograph brought to life and tugs even more deftly at the heartstrings thanks to Richard Addinsell’s score.
There was a time in my life when Christmas day only began after I’d had a chance to screen the film, alone in the early winter night, bracing myself for the sobs when Sim’s face collapses from fear to contrition as he finally meets his nephew Fred’s pretty young wife, and begs her forgiveness for being hard-hearted.
A bachelor for too many years, I watched the film aware of how Scrooge-like I was becoming with every Christmas; I needed to ride through Dickens’ story with Sim for the catharsis-by-proxy necessary to face family and friends the next day, marking time till my own redemption.
Published on 5 Oct 2013
I know there’s a good few copies of this out on YouTube, but here it is, again! The other copies were either split up into individual tracks, the best complete one (from BBC Four’s rebroadcast in 2009) had the wrong aspect ratio, which annoyed the hell out of me! So, here this is…
Video and audio have been tidied up very slightly, not much was needed!
Kate Bush – Christmas Special
(Gymnopédie No.1 – composed by Erik Satie) 03:44
Symphony In Blue 04:44
Them Heavy People 08:20
(Intro for Peter Gabriel) 12:52
Here Comes The Flood (Peter Gabriel) 13:22
Ran Tan Waltz 17:02
December Will Be Magic Again 19:43
The Wedding List 23:35
Another Day (with Peter Gabriel) 28:05
The Man With The Child In His Eyes 36:21
Don’t Push Your Foot On The Heartbreak 39:24
“I was recently asked about this BBC TV special and I thought I’d share my comments here. Kate: Kate Bush Christmas Special is a stage performance by Kate Bush with her special guest Peter Gabriel. Though most of the songs are not holiday ones, they come from Bush’s first three albums (Never for Ever her third album would be released in 1980 after this 1979 TV special was taped). The performances include costumes, choreographed dances and a wind machine, creating an eclectic music TV special to say the least.
This is one of the programs that makes my research quite difficult — because it calls itself a Christmas Special yet it contains only one performance of a Christmas song “December Will Be Magic Again” (a song that wouldn’t be released as a single by Bush until the following year, in 1980). TV programming that calls itself a Christmas Special and yet contains little to no Christmas entertainment is actually quite common — especially on the BBC.
Between the end of November and the end of December each year, there is quite a bit of special programming on television. Remember Elvis’ 1968 Comeback Special — it aired in December that year and includes only one holiday song, a performance of “Blue Christmas.” Is it considered a Christmas special? No, not really. And so, despite its title, the lack of holiday programming in Kate Bush’s 1979 TV special means it shouldn’t be considered a Christmas special either. But the Kate Bush Christmas Special is certainly worth watching!”
H/T to Ghost of a Flea for the link.
December 21, 2015
Uploaded on 15 Dec 2015
The Monkees perform “Riu Chiu” from Episode 47, “The Monkees’ Christmas Show”.
H/T to Kathy Shaidle for the link.
November 10, 2015
Katherine Timpf can’t believe that anyone is taking this nonsense in any way seriously:
Please stop embarrassing yourselves.
I woke up this morning to find that real, adult people are actually upset that Starbucks’s holiday cups do not mention Christ or Christmas on them — and the absence of such language as an attack on their religion.
Yep, that’s right. The “War on Christmas” season has arrived, and Starbucks has chosen the side of the godless hedonism that is destroying our society. Don’t let the fact that it still sells a Christmas Blend, a “Merry Christmas” gift card, and an Advent calendar fool you — Starbucks is clearly The Devil’s Coffee, and you have every right to be this upset.
That is, of course, if you are an insane person.
December 26, 2014
Mark Steyn on how the brave and timely action of a “special-events employee” in Riverside California just barely averted a horrific hate-ish crime-ish:
I passed through Shannon Airport in Ireland the other day. They’ve got a “holiday” display in the terminal, but guess what? It says “Merry Christmas.” The Emerald Isle has a few Jews, and these days rather a lot of Muslims, and presumably even a militant atheist or two, but they don’t seem inclined to sue the bejasus out of every event in the Yuletide season. By contrast, the Associated Press reports the following from Riverside, Calif.:
A high school choir was asked to stop singing Christmas carols during an ice skating show featuring Olympic medalist Sasha Cohen out of concern the skater would be offended…
I hasten to add this Sasha Cohen is not the Sacha Baron Cohen of the hit movie Borat. The Olympic S. Cohen is a young lady; the Borat S. Cohen is a man, though his singlet would not be out of place in a louche Slav entry to the ice-dancing pairs. Likewise, the skater-puts-carols-on-ice incident seems as sharply satirical of contemporary America as anything in Borat, at least in its distillation of the coerciveness of “tolerance”:
A city staff member, accompanied by a police officer, approached the Rubidoux High School Madrigals at the Riverside Outdoor Ice Skating Rink just as they launched into ‘God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen’ and requested that the troupe stop singing…
The cop and the staffer — “special-events employee Michelle Baldwin” — were not acting on a complaint from the celebrity skater. They were just taking offense on her behalf, no doubt deriving a kinky vicarious thrill at preventing a hypothetical “hate crime.” The young miss is Jewish, and so they assumed that the strains of “Merry Gentlemen” wafting across the air must be an abomination to her. In fact, if you go to sashacohen.com, you’ll see the headline: “Join Sasha On Her Christmas Tree Lighting Tour.” That’s right, she’s going round the country skating at Christmas tree lighting ceremonies. Christmas tree lighting ceremonies accompanied by singers singing Christmas music that uses the C word itself — just like Sasha does on her Web site.
Nonetheless, the Special Events Commissar and her Carol Cop swung into action and decided to act in loco Cohenis and go loco. Many of my fellow pundits find themselves fighting vainly the old ennui when it comes to the whole John Gibson “War On Christmas” shtick, but I think they’re missing something: The idea of calling a cop to break up the singing of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” would strike most of the planet as insane.