Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Silly: A Gift That Keeps On Giving

AS THE Professor has never been invited to inspect blonde economics writer Jessica Irvine’s lavatory (or stay over for breakfast), there is nothing more substantial than a Bunyip’s intuition to suggest her bowl-side magazine rack holds a few old copies of The Economist. Amongst them, quite possibly, is the bumper Christmas issue from way back in 2001, which the Silly’s go-to gal on matters monetary may well have flicked through in recent days, for it is in that particular edition that a little story appears in regard to the “deadweight loss” of Christmas gift-giving. Coincidentally, the same topic also consumes her latest Silly column. While there are nowhere near enough coincidences of phrase and sentence to suggest Philcherian plagiarism, her recapping of Yale economist Joel Waldfogel’s  argument that Yuletide largesse is grossly inefficient does suggest a need to update her reading room with some more contemporary titles.

That ancient copy of The Economist generally accepts Waldfogel’s analysis and so, some ten years later, does Irvine. Had she kept up with her reading a rather different Silly column would almost certainly have emerged, as the American’s methodology and analysis have been given quite a bit of stick over the 20 years since his thoughts were first put on paper.

As far back as 1997, Jeffrey Tucker of the Mises Institute did a very good job of dismantling Waldfogel’s cute theory, noting in passing that its chief appeal is the invitation for economists “to presume they are smarter than the mass of the buying public, which persists in the irrational habit of buying things for each other instead of sending money or, even better, just spending it on themselves.”

As she works for the Silly, Irvine could not be expected to permit the opinions of a free-market disciple into her home, which is quite probably a sackable offence at Fairfax World Headquarters. But the American Economic Review would probably be acceptable, and 15 years ago that publication set about Waldfogel with the sort of focus Santa reserves for naughty boys. Then there is this, and this and even this in The New Statesmen.

Perhaps, in the weeks to come, Irvine might care to address – and if she wishes to advance her career, endorse -- the curious theory that a newspaper’s circulation is entirely irrelevant to its survival prospects. In the meantime, with another column due soonish, she can probably be found seeking further inspiration in her lavatory

UPDATE: There may well be another specific Economist in Irvine's privy. In its 2009 Christmas edition, the magazine that calls itself a newspaper re-visited Waldfogel, with whom its editors must be seriously smitten. That article ends with the suggestions that (a) gift cards are a more efficient conduit for generosity and (b) charities might be the best recipients.

And how does Irvine wind up her column? By noting that (a) "the more socially acceptable option of gift cards" is rather nice and (b) charities really appreciate donations.


  1. "the more socially acceptable option of gift cards"

    Not financially acceptable unfortunately. The last adventure with gift cards (not given out to our grandchildren at the date of insolvency), earned us a rate of 32 cents in the dollar. Yes Borders. Never again will we ever buy a gift card from ANYBODY.

  2. It's somewhat telling that the only people who read the Economist these days aren't actually economists (Ms Irvine definitely isn't an economist).