The case for giving ‘bad’ gifts this year

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL December 25, 2020

If you’re reading this today, the headline probably caught your eye either because you’ve just received a few bad Christmas gifts or given them. Bad, in this case, meaning the definition that economist author of ‘Scroogenomics’ Joel Waldfogel offered in the early 1990s.

Each Christmas, Mr Waldfogel moaned, we divert finite resources of energy, raw materials, skill and time to make a ritual out of giving friends and family unwanted gifts. It’s insanity, at least according to the rational economist.

Mr Waldfogel, however, was not the first to make this observation.

Tim Harford, also an economist, recently noted that American author Harriet Beecher Stowe came to somewhat the same conclusion 170 years ago: “There are worlds of money wasted, at this time of year, in getting things that nobody wants, and nobody cares for after they are got”.

But as the pandemic shows us, things change.

In a recent chat with Mr Scroogenomics himself (click here to listen, it’s just 9 minutes) Mr Harford found that his view of bad gifts had changed.

“Some things are really different about this Covid year,” Mr Waldfogel said. People have lost jobs; others are still earning money but have no way to spend it. “Maybe even bad gifts are a useful, relatively high return investment this year,” he said.

This is probably true. Isolated at home, starved of company and desperate for human connection, people will probably have put a great deal of effort into gifts this year.

(In which case, they’re probably not bad gifts at all! And Mr Waldfogel’s original complaint falls.)