This post was co-authored with a recent AMU Economics Graduate, Michael Maynard (Linkedin here). It is based on his senior thesis entitled “The Highest Virtue: Re-examining gift Giving and Deadweight Loss”
When my older sister was in middle school, she received a book of baby animal stories. She loved that book and read it every day. A couple of years later my mother accidentally donated it, and my sister was heartbroken. We went to the thrift store repeatedly that week hoping to encounter it before it sold, but we never found it. Years later, our father scoured the internet trying to find the lost book – to no avail.
Years after that, I stumbled onto the exact same copy of the book in the for-sale corner of a nearby library. For a single dollar and negligible effort, I purchased the book that had long frustrated my family’s searching. Shortly before the birth of her first child, I gave the book to my sister for Christmas. It was one of the best Christmas gifts she had ever received.
Economic theory typically assumes that individuals have perfect information. Therefore, they are best suited to purchase their own gifts. That’s what motivates the not-so-romantic economist prescription to give a gift card or cash for birthdays, Christmas, graduations, etc. The theory states that, if we do not intimately know the receiver’s preferences, then we have incomplete information and it’s better to give a money-gift rather than to give a gift from which the receiver would enjoy less additional utility.
I’m on the record as being against preschool classroom Valentine’s Day parties. As Scrooge said, people are “spending the mortgage money on frivolities”. The parents sending in gifts is the pinnacle of the rotten heap. I would abolish daycare Valentine’s Day parties entirely – outlaw them like those super sized soda cups.
Now, with Covid subsiding and my son in elementary school, I’m getting to see school-aged-kid birthday parties (as I mentioned yesterday). The parties as events that build social capital are great. The gifting aspect of it is mostly dumb. I abhor waste. I put “no gifts” on the birthday invitation for my son.* Most guests brought a present anyway. Next year, should I write “if you bring a gift I will burn it in the driveway before you can enter”? These parents would say they are worried about the island of plastic trash in the Pacific, but what do their actions tell?
It would be nice if school birthday parties could adopt the white elephant/Yankee swap convention that keeps present volumes down at Christmas/holiday parties, but it’s impossible for logistical reasons. If it were socially acceptable to grab a lightly used board game out of your basement and wrap it up to give a school friend, that would also be better. Maybe I should write that on our invitation next year and report back to you all! What do the really really crunchy parents do?
Economists think it’s clever to say, “Haha. You thought Christmas presents were wholesome, but they are inefficient. Merry Deadweight Loss.” Personally, I like most Christmas/holiday presents for the signaling value. I’d be happy with Christmas presents if we could get plastic junk for kids under control and heavily curtail presents at other times of the year.
Related resources: 1) Alex and Tyler donned Christmas sweaters to bring you this video on Christmas gift giving 2) Zachary has written about Christmas gifts
*Do you like funny stories? My son can read. When he noticed that I had written “no gifts,” he got mad at me. I explained that people can still bring gifts if they want to. Then I was mortified when he came home from school reporting that he had told his classmates that they can still get him presents.
I have two gift recommendations for you this year. Typically, I purchase a lot of very practical items. My wife makes fun of me for requesting tools and hardware as gifts – but hopefully the following list will provide some crossover between practicality and good gift ideas.
Depending on your family’s traditions both of these gifts are stocking stuffers.
1) Laurie Berkner CDs
Having children means that you hear opinions and preferences from more people. And children are sure to share those opinions. When you’re in the car, I recommend that you strike first with 2 different CDs (or mp3 albums) by Laurie Berkner. Laurie Berkner is a singer songwriter who creates outright good children’s music. She has variety and produces earworms that are not too bad to have around. The Ultimate Laurie Berkner Band Collection is a crowd-pleaser. If you’ve got a more intense personality and your children can handle it, then I strongly recommend The Dance Remixes. It rocks.
The idea here is game theoretical. Your children are going to find something that they like. A lot. Odds are good that waiting for them to encounter something won’t bode well for your happiness once they find it. Take the first-mover advantage and introduce them to Laurie Berkner. They’ll get hooked and you’ll be stuck listening to a lot of children’s music. But at least it will be good/tolerable that you also enjoy… Unlike some other alternatives…
2) Highly Specific Treats
We live in a rich society. Most of us walk the store aisles implicitly saying ‘no’ to the vast majority of goods. Even the ones that we like. Take the opportunity that the holiday season provides and say “yes” to getting some special treats. These treats fall into two categories: 1) “Nostalgic Treats” & 2) “I’ve never tried it”.
1) Sharable Nostalgic Treats
When I was about 4-5 years old, I remember getting great big bags of pretzels that were covered in a mustard powder (“mustard pretzels”). As it turns out, they are only a regionally available product and I never saw them again after my family moved from Tennessee. But 33 year old me thought “Surely, the internet has them”. And indeed they do! I made this purchase at a per-unit price that I would not typically indulge. However, I got to share the story and the experience with my family. It pleased me to share a deep memory with them and it pleased them to get a ‘special’ snack. For me, it was mustard pretzels. For my wife, it was a bulk pack of Heath and Skor bars.
2) I’ve never tried it
Separately, while watching Captain America and the Winter Soldier, it occurred to me that I had never knowingly had Turkish Delights. So, I found a variety pack of fancy ones. First, they’re delicious and you feel fancy while eating them. Second, this is 21st century America. What’s the point in saying that we’re rich if we’re not willing to act like it a little? Maybe it’s not Turkish Delights for you. Maybe it’s Pilipino rice candies or Mexican Tamarind candies. Make sure that you get a couple of new treats and share them with others. The purchases are much more worth the price when you consider the nested utility function among your loved ones.
Here are three things that I would recommend as gifts, depending on circumstances. The first is a really small, really bright keychain light, the second is a very inexpensive (40 cents apiece) flying spinner, and the third is a bike that folds up.
Photon Keychain Flashlight
I like the tiny lights from PhotonLight.com. They are so small that they do not burden your keychain, but they are powerful and physically tough. Most models are waterproof, and let you change batteries if they wear out. Nowadays everyone has a cell phone with a built-in light, but there are times when I am not actually carrying my phone (I know that may be hard for some readers to conceive of) and I need a flashlight function. If I pull out my keys to use in a dark situation, it is helpful to be able to just feel this little guy on my keychain and squeeze it, rather than pulling out my phone and manipulating that to get a light. I encourage other family members to use these little lights as a safety item.
This one you just squeeze to make it light up. That is perfect it you only need the light for a few seconds at a time. The MicroLight II ($11.95) adds a tiny slider on/off switch, so you can turn it on for minutes at a time, like a regular flashlight.
The Photon light model I carry is the Freedom light ($15.95). It has a number of modes you can access by squeezing for a couple of extra seconds. I put it in flashing light mode to get car drivers’ attention when I need to cross a busy road in our neighborhood. Photon sells a larger, rechargeable, very bright keychain light for $24.95.
Inexpensive Helicopter-Type Spinner Toy
Here is a fun kid toy which is really cheap per capita:
On Amazon it goes by the name of POPLAY Twisty Pull String Flying Saucers/Helicopters, 40 PCS. Each set consists of a twisty stick, a helicopter spinner, and a little shover piece. You hold the stick in one hand, drop the collar-like shover piece down over it, then thread the spinner down the stick. To launch, hold the shover piece and lift quickly. It the spinner will reliably fly up 10-15 feet and then settle down. Kids can try to catch it on the way down.
For $15.99 you get 40 of these sets, which is 40 cents apiece (!!). So you can hand them out as party favors or whatever.
High Quality, Low-Priced Folding Columba Bicycles
I wanted to get a on-road/off-road bike that would not take up too much room in our townhouse, and that could fit in my Civic trunk. (I ditched my ancient previous bike when we moved a year ago, partly because it would have taken up too much room in our moving pod).
After a lot of roaming the web, I found a vendor that offers direct from-China-to-you savings. (Nearly all bikes are made in China, so there is no getting around that). 2KSilver supplies a wide line of “Columba” brand folding bikes. The Columba name is probably a knockoff of the highly-regarded “Columbia” brand, but in fact the Columba bikes seem to be solid, middle-grade machines with Shimano derailleurs.
I eyed their line-up of 20-inch wheel folding bikes, like this one ($250 plus shipping):
It weighs only 27 pounds ( kg) and folds down to 31″x14″x25″. People sometimes take a bike like this on the train for commuting; they can ride to the train station, then ride from the station in town to their office. The 20” Columba bikes look fine for that application, but with the small wheels and the 7-speed gearing only on the back wheel, the internet opinion is that this sort of bike would get tiresome riding long distances or off-road. It might make a good mid-sized children’s bike.
I have been really happy with it. The tires and gearing are perfect for my casual on/off road use (moderate-length road trips or dirt/gravel trails; not 100-mile marathons or extreme mountain biking). It has shock absorbers in the front fork and below the seat. The frame folds in half, and the seat post and handlebar assembly pop out quickly to make a package that will fit in a cloth bag. But it is a good machine at a good price even if you don’t care about compact storage.
One touch I appreciated about the web site is that (unlike some sites) they were realistic about the comfort level for tall riders. I bought the recommended longer seat post, so my legs are not crunched. They used to offer an extended handlebar stem so you are not so hunched over while riding. That seems to be out of stock, so I bought some “Bar Ends” that attach to the ends of the handlebars and stick up a couple of inches. For a younger teen or for shorter men or most women, these accessories would probably not be needed.
The seat that came with this bike was a perfectly fine, standard narrow seat. However, I find it painful to have my weight on those little “sit” bones like you are supposed to. So I ended up getting a big fat padded Bikeroo bike seat, and then putting a gel seat pad on top of that, for luxurious sitting comfort.
Bottom line: If you are in the market for a general-purpose bike for you or a family member, I’d recommend looking at the bikes available on the 2KSilver site.