Sympathy for the Scrooge

mcduck Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was recently described, rather accurately, by C. Montgomery Burns, proprietor of the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant, as “the story of a fine businessman who’s hounded into acting nice by three socialist ghosts.”

How fitting then, that the onset of the 2009 holidays brings us Scroogenomics, by economist Joel Waldfogel.

Waldfogel’s topic is the wastefulness of Christmas gift-giving in corporate capitalist America.

In its summary of Scroogenomics, Business Week reports:

Waldfogel says holiday spending is “a massive institution for value destruction.” That’s economist-speak for the fact that so many gifts—billions of dollars’ worth, he contends—match up so poorly with what recipients want or would have bought for themselves. Now, in a new book, Scroogenomics (Princeton University), he puts an updated figure on the waste arising from holiday giving. “U.S. givers spent $66 billion in 2007,” he writes, but the value of recipients’ satisfaction is much lower. Quantified, the satisfaction gap represents “an annual deadweight loss of $12 billion.” That’s approaching what the federal government dissipates yearly, he says, citing the $17.2 billion in misspending estimated by Citizens Against Government Waste.

“Value destruction,” of course, is exactly, precisely the true wonder of Christmas for our overclass of corporate shareholders.  As recent events have once again shown, their socio-economic order generates an unending problem of over-accumulation of wealth at the top.  In order to alleviate that systemic dilemma on investor-friendly terms, huge and increasing waste is absolutely required.  No Christmas-as-usual would mean even worse Depression.

Wittfogel, meanwhile, is not against gift-giving, properly done.  He merely points out that our annual Christmas waste-orgy is a mighty poor version of charity and love.  We get flattered — mostly by corporate marketers but also by our own hopes, vulnerabilities, and lack of institutional awareness — into thinking all the geegaws and rubbish we circulate are somehow on target, somehow a workable substitute for making the world a better place, somehow a deep lesson learned and applied.

Among its many terrible ironies is the fact that Corporate Capitalist Christmas leaves us not even doing as well as the post-haunting Scrooge.  He, you may recall, provided some true essentials, not Pet Rocks, to the Cratchits.