Using Economics to Save Presents from the Economists

Economists like to hate on gift giving. Many of them consider purchasing a gift for another person as a futile attempt at imagining the preferences of another person. Given that you can’t perfectly know another person’s preferences, your gift selection will be sub-optimal. The argument goes that your friend or spouse or whomever would have been better off if you had given them money instead. Then they could have made the gift decision fully equipped with the information that is necessary to make them happiest.

There are some obvious things that are glossed over. Purchasing a good gift – or even writing a card – carries a big load of signaling value. People like to be liked and receiving a good gift signals that the giver cared enough to research appropriate gifts. Also, receiving money as a gift puts the onus of research and transaction costs on the receiver. If the recipient’s value of time is adequately high, then cash payments are even more resource destructive than giving a non-pecuniary gift. Especially if there is an expectation that the giver will later enquire about how the funds were used. At that point, the giver is saddling the recipient with all of the anxieties and costs of choosing a gift that makes another person happy.

But I want to talk about a non-obvious benefit of gift giving.

First, I want to talk about student loans (I promise, it’s relevant). Plenty of people argue that college students don’t understand debt and that they therefore don’t understand the future cost that they will bear by borrowing. When the lender is the department of education, there is no defaulting with the hope of bankruptcy. The debt will get repaid…. So far anyway.

If it’s true that students don’t understand debt, then we can appropriately construe future student loan payments as lump-sum costs. Of course there is deferment and forbearance – but put those to the side. The bottom line is that, almost regardless of a debtor’s activities, they must repay their debt. It doesn’t matter how the debtor earns or consumes, the debt must be paid. This fits the description of a lump-sum cost. Usually, things like lump-sum taxes are hypothetical and unpopular among the laity. But, if we accept that the decision-making-student has incomplete information in regard to the debt’s future payment implications, then the debt payments are exogenous and unavoidable from the future debtor’s perspective.

This is a good thing for the productivity of our economy. Because people are making tradeoffs between the two goods of leisure and consumption, a lump-sum tax causes individuals to work more than they would have worked otherwise. Lump-sum taxes don’t reduce the marginal benefit of working. Essentially, a debtor’s first several hours of work pay-off his debt first and then he gets to work for his own consumption.

Importantly, this ignores any human capital effects of the education. It doesn’t matter whether education actually makes people more productive. The seemingly exogenous debt payments cause debtors to work more and produce more for others. The RGDP per capita of our economy rises and we know that most of the benefits of work do not accrue to producers. Student debt, with the accompanying assumptions laid out above, therefore increases our incomes because it acts as a lump-sum tax.

Now it’s time to save presents from the economists.

As families get older and siblings drift apart, gift-giving begins to become less exciting. I’m tempted to say there is a natural process in which the first couple of adult-sibling Christmases include decent gifts. Then, the gifts become not-so-great as siblings become less familiar with each others’ preferences. Knowing this and still wanting to give a suitable gift, siblings may turn to gift cards. The less that a sibling knows the preferences of another, the more general the gift card.

If you’ve grown more distant from your brothers/sisters and you know that you’ll receive a gift, then it’ll probably be an Amazon, or Walmart, or some other gift card that permits spending on a broad variety of gifts. There comes a point when you’re spending $X on gift cards each year where $X = $x(n). That is, you’re spending some amount on each sibling for a total of $X each year. And for the sake of social cohesion and norms, all of your siblings are doing the same thing and spending the same amounts.

Importantly, you don’t control the social norms, nor your number of siblings. It might seem like you’re all just trading dollar bills at a unitary exchange rate, leaving no-one better or worse-off. But, trading cash is gauche. So, distant siblings trade broadly attractive gift cards in order to achieve that gift-like aura.

Social norms also say that gift giving is not a trade. If you don’t receive a gift, then you’re supposed to be ‘ok’ with that. So, each year you will spend $X on gift cards for your distant siblings and there is some probability that you get nothing in return. If you can’t control the number of siblings that you have and you can’t control whether you receive a gift card in return, then giving cash or cash-like gift cards to your siblings each year is a lot like a lump-sum cost. Socially – or maybe morally – you shouldn’t just ignore your siblings and it is incumbent upon you to give a gift.

Having to give away a lump-sum of money or money-like things no matter what else you do is a lump-sum cost. If people bear lump-sum costs, then they will work a little bit more and produce a little bit more for society. If gifts suboptimal but at least considered a ‘good’, then we’re better off: we work more to make others somewhat better off with resources that wouldn’t exist if we hadn’t chosen to give to others.

There are some caveats, of course. Economists are often not so popular at parties for a variety of reasons. One reason is that they flout social conventions. An economist might scoff at the social constraints as unbinding. Others would disagree. Another point of contention may be that an individual can choose to work no more, but to invest less instead. But this really just pushes the problem off until the individual has less income in the future and works more to compensate for it at a later time. A 3rd caveat is that we can choose the amount that we spend in others. But that just implies that at least part of the gift giving ritual isn’t a lump-sum cost. It does not imply that none of gifting giving is a lump sum cost.

Regardless, the social convention of giving gifts can provide for a Schelling point that makes us a more productive as a society. We spend on others, to a great degree beyond our individual control, in order to avoid severe social stigma. And, if we can’t control all of who counts as a worthy recipient of gifts, then we have a lump-sum cost to some degree. Giving gifts makes sense as a productive convention because it makes us a richer as part of a general equilibrium – if not a partial equilibrium. Merry Christmas.

Has Economic Growth Really Slowed Since 1970?

In the post-WW2 era, by many different measures the US economy performed better before about 1970 than after. You can apparently see this in many different statistics. For example, the productivity slowdown is a well-known and well-studied phenomenon. And even given the productivity slowdown, median wages don’t seem to have kept pace with productivity growth.

I think there are good reasons to doubt these particular statistics. For example, on wages and productivity see this working paper by Stansbury and Summers.

But even considering all these criticisms of the statistics, we do observe that overall GDP growth has been slower since about 1970. Why might this be?

In an NBER summary of his research, Nicholas Muller argues that a big part of the GDP growth slowdown is because we aren’t including environmental damage in the calculation. This is not a new argument (Muller is an important contributor to this literature), and the exclusion of environmental damage is a well-known flaw of GDP, but Muller’s paper does a great job of quantifying how much we are mismeasuring GDP. The following figure is a nice summary of what GDP growth looks like when we consider environmental damage.


If we use the standard measure of GDP, growth indeed slowed down after 1970. If instead we augment GDP for environmental damages, the period after 1970 was actually faster! The adjustment both slows down growth from 1957-1970, and speeds up growth after 1970.

There are lots of things we can draw from this, but if the results are close to accurate, there is a clear implication: environmental regulations (such as the Clean Air Act) do reduce GDP growth, as traditionally measured. So the skeptics of regulation are partially right: regulation reduces growth!

However, this seems to be a clear case where standard critiques of GDP (as you can find in just about any Econ 101 textbook — yes, really!) need to be incorporated into the complete cost-benefit analysis of the impacts of environmental regulation.

You Shouldn’t Be Writing (All the Time)

Many people get the idea that they should be working all the time. Certainly many academics do, which for us means a continuous internal reminder that “you should be writing”.

I thought this way in grad school but I don’t anymore. I now almost never work on nights & weekends, and often not on afternoons. Yet I get just as much work done, maybe more, and I’m much happier about it. How can this be?

This post from Ava provides a great explanation. Its very short and you should read it, but I think it illustrates best through its literal illustrations:

Today is a good example. I’m writing this at noon, having just finished the revisions requested by a journal after 3 hours of solid work. Now, rather than start revising the next article & doing a bad job of it, I’ll take the rest of the day off. Real original thought is hard- I know I can do it for about 3 hours on a typical day, I have no one to impress by pretending to work longer, and one way or another the output will speak for itself. As remote work grows, this ability to do the real work and then stop rather than fill time “working” should be available to more people outside of academics.