Thursday, 23 December 2010

Happy Festivus

Joe Bennett's wonderful rant against Christmas, and discussion of a very poorly thought out plan to hitchhike from Moose Jaw to Regina mid-winter, reminds me of Joel Waldfogel's piece on the deadweight costs of Christmas.

Waldfogel reckoned that folks like the gifts they receive less than what people spend on them. The difference is a deadweight cost. Summing up, he found the deadweight costs of Christmas were on the order of 10%-33% of the deadweight costs of income taxation.

The literature has moved on a bit since then. Some sentimentalists figure that Christmas is a net gain - that people like the gifts they get by more than what was spent on the gifts. But I've not seen anybody pay proper attention to the transaction costs involved. Weigh up the time, effort and anxiety that weigh down on the giver trying to decide what to purchase. That has to be worth something. Then the time, effort, hassle, inconvenience and irritation of the Christmas shopping experience. Folks who plan ahead can get it all done online and avoid some of those costs. But each day's delay brings positive probability of coming up with some idea of what would be a more appropriate gift. And if you order something too early, there's greater chance of forgetting that you'd bought it (if you hide it well) or its being found by the would-be recipient (if you don't).

Then, weigh the congestion costs. Pity the guy who just honestly needed to buy a blender because his old one broke on the 24rd of December.

Festivus (see the video above) clearly dominates. Mainly because there's no inefficient gift giving. But also because of the airing of grievances and feats of strength. Bryan was onto something when he posted on the hypersensitivity awareness training: it is increasingly difficult to find ways of expressing displeasure with people without it leading to resentment and, potentially, retaliation. Imagine replacing the norm of gift-giving with a one-day free pass for the airing of all grievances. Anyone failing to air a sufficiently weighty grievance would be subject to as much disapprobation as someone who currently gives an inappropriate Christmas gift, and anyone bearing a grudge the next day would be as stigmatized as a re-gifter. I suppose a world in which this were possible would be one in which it wouldn't be necessary: the impossibility of a desirable Festivian airing of grievances. Imperfect worlds.

Susan has invited some folks round to our place tonight for an early Christmas dinner. But I think she forgot that today is Festivus. The aluminum pole is coming out tonight!


  1. "Then, weigh the congestion costs. Pity the guy who just honestly needed to buy a blender because his old one broke on the 24rd of December."

    This is really really real and ought to be stressed. I am a Christmas abstainer and would have gone clothes shopping yesterday night had it not been for fear of being trampled to death by increasingly panicky slaves of irrationality-based customs.

    If I were in the USA I'd be preparing a lawsuit right now.

  2. and you have to tidy up the garden, scrub the toilet, etc. All part of the Christmas tax