Gambling across borders

A blog about the productive life of risk

Why do we exchange gifts?

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The aftermath of the festive period is all around us. The consequences of annual exuberance take many forms: piles of wrapping paper, cards and leftovers; extra weight, to be lost in the New Year; hangovers and strained relationships. As a collective sigh of relief marks the departure of the final guest it is perhaps a good time to reflect on why we exchange gifts at all.

The differences between economists and anthropologists are never more obvious than when they are attempting to provide explanations for gifting. It is also one of the rare moments when anthropologists, accustomed to being treated as poor relatives by economists, can finally say without fear, ‘welcome to my world!’ Anthropologists love gift economies, we are comfortable talking about them and confident that when economists try to do the same they are going to look very silly. Like Joel Waldfogel, whose 2009 book Scroogenomics argued that Christmas should be cancelled because it is inefficient. Waldfogel estimated that Christmas in the United States destroys around $12 billion or 0.1% of GDP due to misaligned incentives which remain uncorrected because the majority of people greet even the most ghastly offering with a polite, ‘Thank you! It’s just what I’ve always wanted’, before joining the return lines at The Gap or dropping off whatever monstrosity has been foisted upon them at the nearest charity shop.ID-100123710

Waldfogel’s argument is based on data gathered from his students at Yale. He asked them to estimate the value of the gifts they had received for Christmas, and how much they would be willing to pay for them. The average receiver’s valuation was 90% of purchase price, creating a ‘deadweight loss’ of 10%. Unsurprisingly, the efficiency of gift giving was inversely related to generational distance. The novelty knitwear favoured by grandparents is the quintessentially inefficient Christmas gift. One of the difficulties with Waldfogel’s argument should be evident here: money may be an efficient way to exchange and preserve value between people with very different tastes, but it is not a great gift, particularly in the capitalist societies of Europe and North America. Among the Merina of central Madagascar, for example, money substitutes for gifts in a wide variety of contexts including during weddings when a portion of sheep from the groom’s family is replaced by cash, without any reduction of symbolic value. The Merina’s relaxed attitude to cash is reflected in their use of Vola, or ‘money’ as a girl’s name, equivalent to Soa (beautiful) or Lalao (playful).

Anthropologists start from a different position, pointing out that gift exchange is about relationships between people, rather than relationships between people and things. It is therefore not captured by calculations of the objective values of things, but on subjective assessments of how the movements of objects adjust and reflect relationships. The value of a gift does not reside in its price, but in the relationships that it embodies as it moves from one person to another: gifts, unlike commodities, are, in anthropologist Annette Weiner’s word, ‘inalienable possessions’. Societies including the Trobrianders and Samoans, appear to exemplify this alternative logic – rather than seeking to maximise profits and individual accumulation using commercial principles, goods move as gifts, in order to create and sustain relationships between people. According to Marcel Mauss, author of The Gift, ‘The object of the exchange was to produce a friendly feeling between the two persons concerned, and unless it did this, it failed in its purpose.’

So what’s wrong with giving cash in Europe and North America? Why does it not create a ‘friendly feeling?’ After all, to quote the phrase, it is always the right size and the right colour. Economist Michael Spence suggests that giving money to a girlfriend communicates a lack of concern or engagement where a personalised gift signals greater thought, time and knowledge, an appropriate investment by a lover. Ellingsen and Johannessen assume that both altruists and egocentrics want to be perceived as generous, and attempt to prove that the ‘non–monetary donation necessary to distinguish oneself as an altruist is smaller than the corresponding monetary donation’.

But can economists’ explanations capture the categorical error of conflating kinship with economics in a capitalist society? Can these utilitarian explanations account for the inappropriateness of giving cash to a spouse on an anniversary? Or the difference between buying a rose at a restaurant table for a woman with whom you are sharing a third date, and leaving some money on her bedside table when you leave the next morning?

We do not give cash in these circumstances, even though it is the most efficient gift, because to do so collapses the opposition between money and love. In capitalism, as Marx said, money ‘becomes pregnant’ and exchange replaces production. In order to maintain this ideology, we work hard to attribute different qualities to particular spheres of exchange: speculation is animated, or fetishized – imbued with its own energy – that of the invisible hand. Morality and kinship are human affairs, mobilised by equally unfathomable, but contrasting ties of blood and instinct. By bringing money into the social realm, thoughtless gifters make explicit the equivalence between money and relationships, and risk revealing that economies are man-made. And what could be worse than the revelation that we actively enslave ourselves? By sticking to jumpers we remain comfortably within the human realm, however inefficient that may be.

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Written by samkelly2014

March 24, 2014 at 10:00 am

Posted in News

Tagged with , , , , ,

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