He who hears the shema drinks the shekar!

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Last Minute Christmas Shopping?

Stephen Dubner (of Freakonomics fame) provides a rather compelling reason why
consumers might not want to be so quick in buying gift cards for that hard-to-shop-for person:

[F]or the merchant...the gift card is a godsend. Just think of it: In the weeks leading up to Christmas, millions of people visit your store or Web site and hand you billions of dollars in exchange for nothing more than a plastic I.O.U. that may never even be redeemed. Best Buy, for instance, earned $16 million last year in gift-card “breakage,” which is the industry’s term for card value that was bought but never redeemed. Then there’s what retailers call “upspending”: most customers who do use their gift cards spend some of their own money to buy merchandise that is more expensive than the value of the card.

For the giver, meanwhile, a gift card could hardly be easier. But most economists would argue that if a gift card is so transparently good for the giver, it is necessarily bad for the recipient: the fact that it can be bought so easily signals to the recipient that the giver didn’t put much effort into the gift.

In the end, the value of any gift is overwhelmingly dependent on the nature of the relationship between giver and recipient. The economist Alex Tabarrok, writing recently on the Marginal Revolution blog, put an even finer point on this fact, noting that each of us has many “selves,” including a “wild self,” and that “we want the wild self in someone else to be wild about us.” His advice? “If you want to please the economist in me, send me cash. If you want to please my wild self (you know who you are!), use your imagination.”

So next year, if you need a gift for a strict rationalist, consider cash. If you want to appeal to someone’s wild self, you’ll have to use your imagination. And if you’re hoping to send a little something extra to the shareholders of Best Buy or the Gap or Tiffany, consider a gift card.

This makes sense to me on a number of levels, but I'll pick just one.

Vicky and I registered this past spring at Crate & Barrel and Bed Bath & Beyond primarily because
that's just what engaged couples do...and not so much because we really needed the things we registered for. If we had strictly operated on the later premise, our registry would have actually been quite small. The kinds of things (truth be told) that we were really interested in were things like a modest couch/recliner set....and who is going to give that for a wedding gift!

Had we been moving into a 3 bedroom, 1600 sq. feet home, together then there likely would have been all sorts of things we would have needed to 'fill in' the place. But we were going in the opposite direction -- from my studio and her one bedroom apartment to just her apartment!! Needless to say, we quickly realized that wasn't going to work....so we moved into a more spacious 2 bedroom place a few blocks away. Still, in typical California fashion, it's hardly booming with space.

So what happened? We ended up with a lot of nice gifts that we simply didn't have room for! What do you do then? Well, one option would be to store it all in the mother-in-law's house 25 miles away. I actually know someone who married fairly recently -- I won't say who -- who privately confessed to doing this very thing. But, being the 'cruel' people that we are, Vicky and I decided to take the insensitive route -- "
Let just return the stuff we don't really need...and exchange it for cold hard cash!"

Which brings us back to the point being made by Dubner. I've admittedly fallen into the 'gift card' myth many times in the past, but the evidence doesn't lie. There's a reason Best Buy parades gift cards before you on virtually every isle -- they know many of those $50 gifts are really just gifts
to Best Buy, not the consumer who receives to card.

The next time you think about giving a 'gift card' for a wedding or Christmas gift, why not just give them cold hard cash instead? It's certainly not less-thoughtful, and it actually provides more immediate-yet-flexible liquidity. I doubt too many Koreans have read
Freakonomics, and I'm not sure I fully understand the complexity of motives behind Asian-wedding gift giving....but they clearly understand that most of us low and middle income people will always benefit (and enjoy!) the most from monetary gifts.

So Bah humbug to gift cards, I say!

[And if you are reading this blog and you were one of the people who gave us a non-monetary gift for our wedding, we truly appreciate your decision to give whatever you gave! Rather, this commentary really has to do with my own public 'repenting' of all the gift cards I've given people as gifts in the past!]


Postscript: Dubner has a great piece released yesterday on charity giving. His blurb about tithing didn't strike me as particularly revolutionary, but it did occur to me how manditory tithing cuts against the whole theonomic rationale (i.e. law) behind tithing. Anyone interested in a soft-pedaled form of 'Christianized Socialism'? Of course, I learned from a good friend a couple years ago that there are actually Reformed church sessions that think the entire congregation should give all of their goods/possessions to the session, only to have the sessions distribute it as needed. What a grand idea: Reformed charity in the form of Christian communism! Seriously....who can make this stuff up?

Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Problem with American Education

One of my favorite libertarian economists, Walter E. Williams, comments on the demise of public education:
American education will never be improved until we address one of the problems seen as too delicate to discuss. That problem is the overall quality of people teaching our children. Students who have chosen education as their major have the lowest SAT scores of any other major. Students who have graduated with an education degree earn lower scores than any other major on graduate school admissions tests such as the GRE, MCAT or LSAT. Schools of education, either graduate or undergraduate, represent the academic slums of most any university. As such, they are home to the least able students and professors with the lowest academic respect. Were we serious about efforts to improve public education, one of the first things we would do is eliminate schools of education.
One thing I like about Williams is that he is not afraid to call a spade a spade. Williams is responding a recent report that found 15-year old American students ranked 33rd in math literacy among industrialized nations (and 27th in science). And, as usual, we are so accustomed to throwing government money at everything that invaribly the answer becomes spending more tax-payer money on education.

Virtually everyone Christian I know teaching in the public school system has in one way or another confessed that Bush's 'No Child Left Behind' has been a colossal failure. Obama wants to allocate another $18 billion to reform federal education. Is there any indication this is going to actually work, given our track record?

The question of a child's education has become a boiling point in most conservative, evangelical churches (
especially of the Reformed variety). Especially over the last 3 decades, the condemnation of the public school system has taken an increasing religious/theological direction, perhaps due to certain theocratic presuppositions that have gained momentum on the Christian-culture horizon. But as one who finds most of those arguments dubious, what should one do?

I think Williams provides a much more compelling rationale for why Christians parents might want to look into other educational options....and not for the usual
religious reasons. Could it be that an individual might want to pursue private, Christian, Charter, or even home schooling options for the simple reason that public education is more and more a vastly inferior product? [Wow, such an 'un-spiritual' reason!]

Williams somewhat humorously notes, "Mathematics, more than any other subject, is culturally neutral. The square root of 16 is 4 whether you're Asian, European or African, or even Plutonian or Martian." Might we add to that list

[Kuyperian backlash, anyone?]

Monday, December 17, 2007

Friday Night Lights

It's funny what at TV show will do to a native Californian's perception of high school football in Texas. Admittedly, I've only seen one episode of Friday Night Lights thus far. This is just a wild guess, but by gut tells me that most people back in Texas find this show rather humorous...if they have even seen it at all. That's because most of them have little interest in what Hollywood thinks Texas football looks like, when they can enjoy the real thing for themselves!

While I've thoroughly been 'corrupted' by life on the West Coast, the two parts of Texas life that I miss enjoying are (a) family/friends and (b) the atmosphere of High School football. Of course, it didn't hurt that I went to a high school (Katy High School) that has won three state titles in the Class 5A (the state's largest) section since 1996.

This year, they are 15-0, ranked as high as No. 2 in the country by some polls, and now get their chance this weekend to win yet another state championship against Pflugerville in the Alamodome (San Antonio). This is what their playoff domination has looked like so far (in chronological order):
Katy 58 - Strake Jesuit 18
Katy 42 - Houston Madison 8
Katy 30 - Pasadena Memorial 14
Katy 42 - Clements 0
Katy 66 - San Antonio Madison 21

Sorry to gloat, but I guess it doesn't bode well to be named 'Madison' this year! :-) Keep in mind Clements was 13-o coming into their meeting with the Tigers; it's even better when your older cousin graduated from the school on the losing end! :-) And it's not all that often that your team breaks the school record for the most points scored in a game (66) this deep in the playoffs.

I would not want to be rooting for Pflugerville (12-3) this weekend!

It remains to be seen where star RB Aundre Dean (seen below) will end up. He verbally committed to UCLA this past Spring, but the rumor is that he would go somewhere else if Karl Dorrell was fired as the Bruin head coach (which happened on Dec. 3). Bummer, Bruin fans!