Gift Exchange

by Kieran Healy on March 14, 2007

James Joyner is perplexed by John Quiggin’s beard. Or, more precisely, by this:

bq. All manner of worthwhile charities hold events wherein people are “sponsored” based on how many miles they bike, laps they walk, hours they go without sleep, ropes they jump, or what have you. Why the need for the gimmick? Are there some significant number of people who don’t give a damn about curing leukemia but are nonetheless willing to donate to the cause for whatever pleasure seeing people shave their beard yields? Or who aren’t sure whether breast cancer is more worth curing than some other disease and make that determination based on what physical challenges the antis are willing to undergo to prove their point?

It’s a good question. But I think the answer will not be found in differences in degrees of pleasure or utility between “Cure for cancer” and “Cure for cancer plus John Quiggin having no beard.” Neither is it quite a question of uncertainty about one’s preference for giving money to a charity being clarified by the knowledge that someone is also doing a sponsored walk.

Instead, what we’re seeing here is the norm of reciprocity in action. You give me something, and that means I can give you something back. A cure for breast cancer or leukemia is very worthwhile but from the point of view of the immediate exchange it is a long way off. I know that my money will not buy a cure, at least not in any direct or immediate way. Moreover, when it comes to giving away my money, there are innumerable worthwhile charitable causes that might plausibly make a claim on some of it. What things like sponsored shaves or Walks for the Cure or a Free Car Wash (with a donation) do is establish a local gift relationship with someone in particular, for something in particular. Sure, the particular thing being given (a shave, a car wash) is trivial in comparison to the overall cause (a cure for cancer). Nevertheless, it is the small relationship of reciprocity that makes the exchange meaningful for the giver and thus makes it much more likely to actually take place.

In a strictly economic framework, these kinds of activities are analogous to the deadweight loss of Christmas gifts (why not just give money, after all?), or are simply advertising gimmicks whose only function is to attract attention. But the resolution to the puzzle is also similar: without the framework of mutual reciprocity, the exchange likely wouldn’t happen in the first place — even if in principle a more efficient (no shaving, no car-wash) solution would be available to narrowly rational agents with the right preferences. That is why almost all forms of charitable giving in fact involve some kind of reciprocal exchange, whether it’s something as trivial as getting a badge, or as heavily mediated as the performances by celebrities on a telethon.


by Chris Bertram on March 14, 2007

There’s been just about nothing in the Anglophone media about the controversy surrounding Volker Schlöndorff’s new film “Strajk: die Heldin von Danzig”: which deals with the birth of Poland’s Solidarity movement and is loosely based on the role of Anna Walentynowicz in the union. Walentynowicz is outraged at Schlöndorff’s movie which portrays her as illiterate and the shipyard workers as, among other things, hard drinkers. She’s threatening legal action. There’s some coverage “here”: , “here”:,2144,2377595,00.html and “here”: . I’d be interested to read comments from Polish or German readers about how the row is being reported in those countries.

Bundling Babbling Brooks

by Henry Farrell on March 14, 2007

A third post mentioning Tyler Cowen in less than a week; this time for his “post”: on the rationality of boycotting. I was thinking of this already today, after reading “Steve Bainbridge”: on the change in the _New York Times_ paywall policy. As of today, anyone with a .edu email address should be able to “access Times Select for free”: I never subscribed to Times Select, mostly because it was a bundled package. I would happily have paid $40 a year to read Paul Krugman’s column on its own – but didn’t, because I would have been paying for Maureen Dowd, Thomas Friedman and Brooks too (the last of whom I used to find the most infuriating of the lot when I was able to read him, because I felt that he was smart enough to write, think and argue so much better than he did).

Tyler suggests that in general it’s better just to send money to the people that you want to help, but that boycotting may make sense if you want to hurt the individual being boycotted, and know that your boycotting is likely to hurt him/her. I don’t think that the latter this is my motivation here – I’ve no particular desire to hurt any of ’em (although I’d probably pull on Friedman’s mustache of understanding if I was in the lift with him, just because). It’s more that I’d feel uncomfortably intimate if I paid for the service; I’d feel as though I was specifically choosing to support a crowd of people whom I have no desire to support. Which is to say that decisions to buy can sometimes be less market-rational than they are expressive. I suspect that the same is true of many boycotters (though certainly not all) – they aren’t necessarily seeking to achieve concrete results so much as they’re expressing their identity through market choices.