Friday, December 16, 2011

Here, Take My Money, Spare Me Your Problems

Mark Perry, channeling Steve Landsberg, channeling Joel Waldfogel, channeling Seinfeld, can't understand gifts; why don't we all just give cash?

Dear God, does this need explaining again?  The cute point--the point only an economist could love--is that the donee, almost by definition, knows his own wants better than anyone else, and so the best the donor can hope for is to get the ball back to the line of scrimmage.*  True, true, true.  But the point of the gift is not to accomplish the donee's wants.  Rather the focus is on the donor.  The gift tests the empathy, attentiveness, general acuity, not to say commitment, of the donor.  So this is one contest where "close" really does win the  cigar.   If the donee dreamt of taable mats and the donor gives her doilees, the donee may be a little crestfallen, but she can say, "how thoughtful of him to try."  If he gives 12-guage shotgun shells, she is bound to conclude "I really don't think he was listening."  If he gives cash, the donee can infer that he is saying: "I really don't give a rat's ass what you do with your life; here, solve your own problem."

Sheesh, is that so hard to understand?  So give it a try.  You'll get it wrong but you may get an A for effort.  Unless you are an economist.

Updatae: Ignoto recalls to mind Woody Allen on mastrubation: hey, it's sex with someone you love. 

*It is suggested to me that once in a while the donor gives the donee something he didn't know he wanted until he got it.  Point taken, although I suspect it's pretty rate and in any event it doesn't deflect the thrust of the argument. 


Ken Houghton said...

"Point taken, although I suspect it's pretty rate and in any event it doesn't deflect the thrust of the argument."

No. It confirms the argument: the donor knows the donee better than s/he knows himmerself (at least in this specification). In economics terms, the Utility received by the donee is significantly higher than the cash itself would be.

It's when economists start confusing money (means to the end) with Utility that they go astray--from their own theories.

they call me trouble said...

Which is exactly why you don't look a gift horse in the mouth.

Ebenezer Scrooge said...

There is two things left out here. First, some gifts are personal, but others are social obligations that are basically fairly impersonal. Our host's thoughts apply to personal gifts, but not to social-impersonal ones: office gifts, weddings, doormen, and the like.

Second, with social-impersonal gifts, customs vary. Many cultures believe that cash is shit, and you don't give the gift of shit. Such cultures tend to go for impersonal things like bottles of booze. But this is not universal. My tribe, for instance, is notorious for giving checks at weddings and bar mitzvahs.

Anonymous said...

weird, weird, weird. you've got kids in their 40's and 50's, grandkids and great grandkids. greats -- ok, books and toys. adults -- entend subscriptions you started for them 40 or so years ago when they went off to college. but checks are the best in addition to the subscriptions. they can bank it, they can pass the money along -- let them decide.