Economists ponder Christmas gift-giving

A roundup of economists blogging on Christmas gift-giving:

Are men or women more tolerant of inappropriate gifts?

Christmas Signaling - What do our gifts say?

Weak Social Theories - Modeling gift giving without giving too much away

The Point of Tipping? - How to tip the newspaper deliverer

Markets in everything: Boxing Day edition - How to allocate seats for the holiday family dinner

Non-Sequitur of the Day - Should the government use gift cards to stimulate the economy?

Our Daily Bleg: What Do You Get an Economist?

Advice for the Generous - Greg Mankiw receives advice on worthy charities

The Potlatch Scandal: Busted for Generosity (see, also, the critical comments)

Comments (1)

I posted this online at The New York Times in response to their article cited here on potlatch. At first I thought I was posting to Episcopal Cafe but decided I mind as well send it now that I had written it.

Gary Paul Gilbert

Lots has been written on the potlatch but anthropologists can't agree on what it means. More interesting, as far as I am concerned, is that the late French philosopher Jacques Derrida, in his book Given Time, points out that Marcel Mauss's classic 1924 text The Gift (Essai sur le don) fails to notice a gap between a gift, which should never be returned, and an economy, which is all about exchange. Gift exchange is an oxymoron.

At the risk of oversimplifying, an analogy in theology, not my favorite discipline, would be the relation between grace and law.

Chance and necessity is a better one, I think.


Making sense of potlatch misses the point that it shouldn't make sense or rather that there is an irreducible element of nonmeaning, as Georges Bataille pointed out in his masterpiece The Accursed Share (1949). Bataille was freaked out at the inevitable return of meaning and understanding to something which he thought should have no meaning, no purpose. Bataille, like Derrida, focuses on the moment in potlatch, as reported by Mauss, where all could be loss, where coins are burned and nothing remains.


Bataille, after all, was a rebel surrealist.

A better view of potlatch or the gift is that it is the return of the repressed of economies of meaning, a kind of irreducible "stupidity," to quote postmodern theorist Avital Ronell.

Gary Paul Gilbert

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