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Drama Queen

Last month, President Obama scandalized the United Kingdom by presenting its Prime Minister with a collection of movie DVDs rather than a lavish, personalized gift. Today, Obama met with Queen Elizabeth and presented her with an iPod filled with video and photographs of her 2007 visit to the Richmond, Jamestown and Williamsburg. And it still isn't enough.The Telegraph sniffs, "The Queen already has an iPod, a 6GB silver Mini version she bought in 2005 at the suggestion of Prince Andrew." Well, you know, it's kind of hard to find something that's both useful and new for a queen. If there was something she really needed or even wanted, she would probably have it already, on account of being a queen.

Of course this merely illustrates the whole futility of gift exchanges. I've written about this topic before. The problem with gift exchanges is that they presume that others know what we want better than we do. If you buy me a sweater for $30, and I don't have it already, the reason I don't have it is probably because there are better ways I can increase my welfare for $30.

One-way gifts from a person of greater means to a person of lesser means -- like a parent giving something to a child --do have utility function. But the practice of socially-enforced gift exchanges is simply a formula for waste at best and social tension at worst. In my anti-gift Diarist, linked above, I noted the barbaric history of European gift exchange:

"An intensive circulation of gifts and return gifts, of ceremonial and hallowed offerings," writes economic historian Georges Duby, "permeated the entire social structure" of pre-modern Europe. The proliferation of presents, while economically inefficient -- "These offerings partly destroyed the products of labor"--were justified as promoting "goodwill." Worst of all, you couldn't escape the gift cycle. Quoting anthropologist Marcel Mauss, Duby notes "[B]asically they were strictly obligatory, under pain of private or open warfare."

The fact that Obama's gift-giving practices have actually damaged in some small way the transatlantic alliance may be the reductio ad absurdum of the whole gift-exchange racket.

--Jonathan Chait