Gift-giving to others these holidays

Dear St Andrew’s community,

I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, it’s hard to ignore, Christmas seems to be here already! But the calendar says that we are just half way through November…. are you a super organised person and you’re starting to think about (or buy for) the list of gifts? Stop! Joel Waldfogel, author of Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn't Buy Presents for the Holidays (Princeton), is convinced that giving obligatory Christmas presents is bad economic policy.  But before you sing for joy about the time and money you will save, he has a strong point to make at the end about the notion of giving.  A number of years ago he was interviewed by TIME magazine about his book.

In this interview, he was asked to explain his position and I found his responses really interesting. 

My objection is that the (Christmas) spending doesn't result in very much satisfaction. Normally if I spend $50 on myself, I'll only buy something if it's worth at least $50 to me. But if you buy something for me, and you spend $50, since you don't know what I like, and you don't know what I have, you may buy something that I wouldn't pay anything for. And so you could turn the real resources required to make valuable things- into something of no value to me. And that would destroy value.

When asked about the fact that spending is good for the economy, his response was clear:

First of all, the economy consists of buyers and sellers. You think about why we spend in the first place. We spend in order to produce satisfaction for buyers. We don't spend in order to help sellers. It's fine if we do help sellers, but we're actually trying to produce satisfaction. If the spending we engage in doesn't produce any satisfaction (for the recipient of the gift), then it's hardly a measure of well-being. I'm not against the spending. But whatever amount of spending we do, we should get as much satisfaction out of it as we possibly can.

When he was asked to comment on gift-giving and his own children I admit his answer resonated well with me:

Well, I do give them (Christmas) gifts, because they are people whose preferences I know a lot about. The problem arises in the situations where we have to give a gift, but we have no idea what the recipient wants. I'm not against giving gifts in the situations where we have a good idea what people want.

It was perhaps his last comments that I found the most challenging and yet the most liberating.  The notion of service and sacrifice underpinned Waldfogel’s reply when asked what to do in response to his comments,

A solution that we see increasingly and that I advocate is giving gifts to charity. If you look at data, as people get richer, they give a higher fraction of their income to charity. This is the luxury that they enjoy, to be rich enough to give gifts to charity.  So if you think that luxuries in that sense are things people would like to do, if only they had more money, then (Christmas) giving — giving someone the ability to give to charity — is a way to allow them to experience a luxury.

I hope to have a small influence.  I'm not the only person who sees some madness in our behaviour of endless gift giving to those who don’t value the gift. And so I think people are looking for opportunities to do good for the world. I think people enjoy giving; there's something joyful and sacrificial about giving. And I'm not against that. I'm happy to see the same amount of spending, but if we could just eliminate the really sloppy stuff, and maybe shunt some of [the gift-giving] to good causes, that seems consistent with people's religious goals, it might even be good for the world.

So as we enter the final weeks of the year, let the Christmas season be a time to remember that our giving has great value when we give to those in need. St Andrew’s has once again put up our giving trees in the Learning Hub and Main Admin, in order to support members of our local community who are in need.  Please consider your ability to give non-perishable food, or a voucher or a gift for a child who will otherwise not receive a gift at Christmas.   I realise most of us will continue to give gifts to those we love; I’m, not sure I can follow all of the advice above!  However, as we consider gifts for those close, let’s also consider how we can support others.  Whatever our circumstances, we are all able to assist those less fortunate and I encourage each one of us to reflect on the concept of giving this year and focus our thinking toward how we can support those in need.  Our Year 9 students will be putting these gifts together in the last week of term, so we encourage families to get involved in the next two weeks to fill underneath our trees with generous donations.

Reverend Chris Ivey