This Christmas, why not make your gifts especially expensive and thoughtless?

How to protect your pockets.
Dec. 2 2010 6:39 PM

The Sky Mall Stimulus

This Christmas, why not make your gifts especially expensive and thoughtless?

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But here's the thing: None of this matters in the current weak economy. What we need is stimulus, and it's clear the new Tea Party-tinged Congress won't let President Obama provide any. Christmas spending is all we're likely to get.

In a weak economy, Americans don't have the luxury of worrying whether their spending patterns are efficient; they just want to see somebody spending money, period. Nor (despite the sudden vogue for deficit reduction) do they really want to spend much time worrying about debt. Efficiency and debt are both important considerations, but not while unemployment remains close to 10 percent.

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Now let's return to the topic of consumption. Many, many years ago, economists used to worry that people's economic wants far exceeded their economic needs. These wants were judged the creation of evil advertising executives on Madison Avenue. Advertisers, John Kenneth Galbraith famously observed in his Mad Men-era book The Affluent Society, "bring into being wants that previously did not exist." Over time, economists let go of the worry that this was necessarily a bad thing. How could you even tell the difference between what people wanted and what they needed? They probably didn't know themselves. Meanwhile, an economy based on wants rather than needs had more room to grow, however inefficiently.

Wasteful Christmas spending carries this thinking one step further. If Christmas present-giving were efficient, that would necessarily limit how much Americans spent on Christmas presents. Being inefficient, it does not. The more inefficient the better! Expensive gifts purchased without the slightest consideration of the recipient's desires would seem the order of the day. A good present is good, but a lousy present is better. Go out and buy the special person in your life something really, really expensive that he or she is guaranteed to neither need or want. Then throw away the gift receipt. Your loved one will despise you, but your nation will thank you.

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Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.

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