Columns, Opinion

Minority Report: The joy of giving

We are in the season of giving. Though 11.5% of Americans plan to spend nothing on the holidays this year, the other roughly 90% will financially participate in the festivities.

I feel for those who cannot afford to spend anything this holiday season, and I understand why someone might not give due to economic hardships.

However, after reading a particularly grinchy Jessica Grose column in The New York Times, I found that some avoid giving out of selfishness cloaked in self-care. Grose said she “find[s] the whole exercise to be emotionally exhausting and spiritually unfulfilling, often causing more anxiety for both parties than it’s worth.”

Yvonne Tang / DFP Staff

Grose grew up in a Jewish household and did not celebrate Christmas gift-giving traditions. I respect different cultural and religious practices surrounding the act of gift giving, but I disagree with her argument in regards to the perceived lack of value in gifts.

“As soon as I was old enough, around 12, as I recall, my parents just started giving me cash instead of gifts for both my birthday and the holidays,” Grose wrote. “It was more efficient and about as sentimental as making a list and them buying from it.”

Later in the column, Grose mentions University of Minnesota economics professor Joel Waldfogel and his book “Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn’t Buy Presents for the Holidays.” In that book, Waldfogel advocated the position that holiday gift giving is wasteful because it destroys “between 10 percent and a third of the value of gifts.”

However, Waldfogel errs in his methodology of determining the value of gifts, for he attempts to quantify something that is not quantifiable. When Waldfogel’s estimates that gifts lose at least 13% of their dollar valuation, he gets that 13% figure by asking some of his students to approximate the value of their “gifts as the ‘amount of cash such that you are indifferent between the gifts and the cash, not counting the sentimental value of the gift.’”

Waldfogel attempts to strip down a meaningful, cherished and emotional tradition into dollars and cents.

Waldfogel’s reasoning is flawed in multiple ways here. First, presumably, Waldfogel assumes that if the recipient of the gift was given that same amount of money, the recipient would have spent the cash, which is anything but guaranteed. Sometimes our loved ones surprise us with gifts we would not have thought to give ourselves, weakening the cash-as-a-suitable-replacement argument.

Second, the only way Waldfogel can put a dollar amount on everything is via a grotesque amputation of the sentimental value of the gift from the gift itself. I cannot separate the sentimental value of the gift from the gift itself.

The emotional value is what would make me so hesitant to give up, for example, a book my dad got me for Christmas even if double the price of the book was offered in cash. If a loved one gets me a gift, the love with which they gave the gift is inextricable from how much the gift is worth to me. To put a dollar amount on love is something only the most “curmudgeonly” of economists could do.

I am trying to imagine the farcical situation in which a person approached me with gobs of cash attempting to buy my Christmas presents off me, as if they were for sale to the highest bidder. I suppose there is an amount I would sell them for. However, the sum would so exceed the gift’s market value that no reasonable person would want to buy them. Of course, this circumstance is precluded by me having no interest in selling my Christmas presents.

My only hope after reading Waldfogel and Grose’s alternative-gift-giving rhetoric is that not many shared their ideas.

Unfortunately, Grose mentions that she knows that many people share her hatred of gift giving. I feel sorry for these people. Perhaps they could benefit from a visit from three ghosts before Christmas.

During the Christmas season, I express my love for my family and close friends by giving gifts. I feel loved when I see that those closest to me cared enough to spend their time and effort on gifts for me. I cannot view gift giving through a cynical, transactional lens.

The holiday season is the one time of year where we think of others more than ourselves. Nearly a third of yearly donations to charity happen in December, and that is no coincidence. So if you find your cynical side buying into arguments with the name “Scrooge,” consider instead following his advice, and “honoring Christmas in [your] heart, and trying to keep it all the year. “





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