The Economics of Good Gift Giving

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.

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Optimal Policy & Technological Contingency

A person’s optimal choice depends on what they know. To consume more ice cream? Or to consume more alcohol? It depends on what we know about the expected utility across time. If a person thinks that alcohol has few calories, then it is understandable that they would choose to drink rather than eat. The person might be totally wrong, but they are acting optimally contingent on their knowledge about the world. (FWIW, 4oz of ethanol has 262 calories and 4oz of typical ice cream has 228 calories.)

The case is analogous for good government policy. The best policy is contingent on accessing the distribution of knowledge that’s inside of multiple people’s heads. It’s not sensible to assert that a policy is suboptimal if the optimal policy requires knowledge that neither a single individual nor all people together have. Even if the sum of all knowledge does exist, it may not be possible to access it.

Economists like to tell their undergraduate classes that it doesn’t matter who you tax. But that’s contingent on 1) identical compliance costs among buyers and sellers and 2) identical relevant information. If a tax comes as a surprise to the buyer or the seller, then it absolutely matters who is taxed.

When I was in 1st grade in North Carolina, my class went on a field trip to a Christmas tree farm. We learned a bunch about maintaining the farm and we got to choose a pumpkin to take home. At the end of our visit we took turns perusing the gift shop. My mother had generously given me a dollar to spend  and I was eager to spend it (I rarely had money to spend). Unfortunately, even in the early mid-90s, most of the things in the shop cost more than $1. So, I settled on purchasing some beef jerky that cost 99 cents.

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