Oliver Offenon. asks the question: “What is the purpose of this season of buying and buying more?”
“That’s a twisted view,” I respond. “It’s the season of giving. Buying is a necessary activity people engage in as they prepare to give.”
“If people made things, put some of themselves into their gifts,” Oliver says, “it would be different. Giving would be more personal, more significant.”
“What is more personal than your time?” I ask.
“Exactly!” Oliver declares. “Time spent making gifts is a most personal statement about the value of the relationship to the giver.”
“You’re thinking in terms of a romanticized 19th century world, not today’s America,” I say. “Few Americans are proficient in traditional crafts. Most people today don’t know how to work with wood or clay, with wool or cotton. Manufacturing in the 19th century replaced those skills so that there are few who can make furniture or knit sweaters in modern America.
“Mechanization increased production, standardized parts, and made it possible for millions to enjoy quality material goods previously available to only the wealthiest.”
“It’s just not the same,” he says.
“It’s better than the past,” I reply. “Today a giver buys goods (like cell phones) that an ordinary person cannot make. The cost of the cell phone is the number of hours the giver works to earn the price of the cell phone.”
“It’s so impersonal,” Oliver objects.
“It is remarkably personal,” I insist. “For the money a worker earns s/he gets to choose from an enormous variety of goods and services. At the simplest level, a gift of money offers the recipient the opportunity to choose from a virtually limitless catalogue of goodies. The giver is saying, ‘Here are five hours of my life; use them as you choose.’”
“That’s vulgar,” Oliver protests.
“No,” I say softly. “That is liberating the recipient who can avoid the tyranny or ignorance of a giver who does not understand or approve the recipient’s choices.”
“It takes all the meaning out of gift giving,” Oliver says. “A gift should reflect the opinion the giver has of the recipient.”
“People should separate the idea of gifts from the concept of behavior modification or the amelioration of need,” I say. “When I give a gift of music, I am telling the recipient what I think s/he should be listening to. If I choose a band I know the recipient likes, I am endorsing the recipient’s choices.
“When I give warm gloves, I say the recipient does not have the necessities of winter. I am correcting her/his oversight or poverty.”
“What a perverse view you have of giving,” Oliver says. “For you a gift is a criticism, not a statement of affection. You don’t partake of the joy in giving and receiving.”
“I don’t see it that way,” I protest. “My views are just standard conservative economics.”
Morton J. Marcus is an economist, writer and speaker formerly with the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.