Does Christmas Destroy Wealth?

Posted: Dec 22 2013, 1:21pm CST | by , in News


Usually the so-called “War on Christmas” is cast in culture terms. (Is it, for instance, really a War on Christians?) I have it on good authority from one writer friend, who’s doing the research, that Christmas is actually holding its own, at least as a publicly acknowledged holiday. And in my own experience, wishings of Merry Christmas are on a sustained upswing. There really does seem to be a difference from the too-touchy times of even five years ago.

But setting all that aside, there’s an interesting case to be made that at least some significant part of the Christmas season is more akin to economic conflict, or to the economic costs of war. Usually we think of “materialism” or “commercialism” as a force powerful enough to “secularize” Christmas because of the great earthly benefits and pleasures it provides us — and our economy. Tim Carney wants to complicate that picture:

@ryanlcooper @chrislhayes @mattyglesias @tylercowen Buying a Christmas Sweater no one wears–and creating a market for such–destroys wealth

— Timothy P Carney (@TPCarney) December 22, 2013

Naturally, he’s riffing off the visions of stimulative sugarplums dancing in neoliberal heads:

@tylercowen Still seems like we should add a major gift-giving holiday in late June. Jobs for new grads!

— Matt Yglesias (@mattyglesias) December 22, 2013

All this can sound like a real out-of-touch laugh. But these inside-the-Beltway thought experiments shed light on something important. Assume that Tim is right, and Christmas is hagridden with economically bogus “stimulative projects” that destroy wealth. Why would they exist?

The answer isn’t to be found in economics, which would lurch off at once in search of some “rational explanation,” however bonkers. Well, maybe that’s a touch unfair. But consider that psychology offers an easy, very plausible answer: people like to experience the feeling of control over at least one kind of squandering in their lives. Waste is everywhere. We waste time, we waste opportunities, we waste relationships, we waste our potential. And it’s oftentimes very hard-seeming to get a handle on even one of these things. It’s certain much easier-seeming to react to the discomfort and sadness of uncontrolled waste by compensating for it instead of addressing it head-on. So, look! I can waste my own money! On something I surely don’t “need!” Hell, I barely even want it. ‘Tis the season!

There’s a wealth of insight waiting to be cashed out here. I’ll leave it to you, for instance, to contemplate how this attitude might interface with big political stimulus projects. Nietzsche said that genius squanders by nature. Keynes would democratize that, wouldn’t he? Institutionalized squandering is the “genius” of those who order their lives around the principle that we’re dead in the long run… if, that is, they also order their lives around evading the sense of powerlessness that more or less secretly eats away at their own felt aliveness.

Source: Forbes

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