Monday, December 28, 2009

Are Homemade Gifts Better Or More Special?

That is what world renown economist Daniel Hamermesh says. The article is A homemade Christmas. Here is the relevant passage, which says that making your gifts is
" option that is not only cheaper but shows care and thoughtfulness, said Daniel Hamermesh, an economics professor at the University of Texas at Austin and author of “Economics Is Everywhere.” Hamermesh said studies have shown gifts typically cost more than they are worth to the people who receive them, information that should, but often doesn't, tone down frenzied Christmas shopping behavior.

“There is too much compulsion (at Christmas) to buy something nobody wants,” Hamermesh said. “If the point is to ... show that you care, you would do better (to make something) than spend the money.”"

The point Hamermesh makes about gifts costing more than they are worth to the people who receive them is something I discussed a few weeks ago with Is Christmas Gift Giving Inefficient?.

But just because you take the time to make something does not necessarily show that you care more than if, say, you took the time to earn extra money so you could buy a nice gift for someone. Why would taking time to earn money to buy a gift be less worthy or special than taking time to make a gift? And what if you are not good at hand crafts? Or what if your time is valuable? Do we really want President Obama taking a long time to sew his wife a dress?

Economist Steven E. Landsburg had some interesting things to say about gift giving in his book The Armchair Economist: Economics & Everyday Life. From chapter 2:
"I am not sure why people give each oher store-bought gifts instead of cash, which is never the wrong size or color. Some say that we give gifts because it shows that we took the time to shop. But we could accomplish the same thing by giving the cash value of our shopping time, showing that we took the time to earn the money.
My friend David Friedman suggests that we give gifts for exactly the opposite reason-because we want to announce that we did not take much time to shop. If I really care for you, I probably know enough about your tastes to have an easy time finding the right gift. If I care less about you, finding the right gift becomes a major chore. Because you know that my shopping time is limited, the fact that I was able to find something appropriate reveals that I care. I like this theory."

I think it might also mean that you cared enough to get to know the person in the first place. Dilbert had a funny strip on Christmas about this. Here is what happens:

Panel 1
Dilbert: Merry Christmas. Here's a hundred bucks.
Dogbert: And here's a hundred bucks for you.

Panel 2
Dilbert: We could save another step by setting up an electronic transfer with an annual recurring option.
Dogbert: Excellent.

Panel 3
Dogbert: Or we could not give gifts.
Dilbert: Hush your crazy talk.


Unknown said...

Like with most "traditions", it is always valuable to ask the question "why". Why do we give gifts at Christmas? How and for what reason did the tradition begin? Answering the Why question will not necessarily weaken traditions, in fact knowing why can make traditions more meaningful.


Cyril Morong said...

Thanks for dropping by and commenting. I think anthropologists would say that gift giving helps build social connections through reciprocity. You have to think about someone else to give them a gift and they have to think about you. The gift is proof that you both care about the other.

Maverick said...

Hey Mr.Morong I have a joke for you... Did you hear of the economist who dove into his swimming pool and broke his neck?
He forgot to seasonally adjust his pool.

It took me awhile to get it but i thought you might get a little he he ha ha out of it.

Cyril Morong said...

Thanks for the joke.