Our Daily Bleg: What Do You Get an Economist?

Freakonomics reader Presh Talwalkar, author of the Mind Your Decisions blog, wonders why there’s no holiday-gift guide for economists:

I see many practical applications to such a list. It could help students give gifts to professors, businesses give gifts to hired economists, etc. Perhaps this list would reduce the “deadweight loss” of Christmas gifts.

The problem, of course, is that economists — like cynics — are said to know the price of everything but the value of nothing. Talwalkar, however, is pressing on. He’s listed a few ideas on his blog — along with why they would appeal to the economic-minded:

Calvin and Hobbes: Even economists need to laugh once in a while. But there is an interesting connection that Calvin and Hobbes were named after those famous philosophers, so it is not surprising that many of the plot lines are about economic discussions in governance and parenting.

Arrested Development: O.K., this is a personal choice … but I suspect economists would enjoy watching the strategy of scheming family members. And the writing is great.

But Talwalkar wants to build a much more comprehensive guide. So blog readers, what would you get an economist? Or economists, what sorts of gifts are you hoping for?

Christopher Tyler

Cash, hence avoiding any transfer loss?


get em a cup of rice and a prostitute- if they can't tell the difference, they're a true economist


A hug.


Several pair of gloves for "on the one hand, on the other hand..."

At least one glove should be invisible.

Sam Thornton

A humble pie.


Most years, some rice, and some meat.

What with the economy being what it is this year: more rice.


Magic Yoda 8-ball.


Let's assume the recipient was an economist....


In order of desirability-

1. Cash
2. Renewed subscription to The Economist.
3. Nice bath towels or sheets (economists are stingy and probably underestimate the value of quality linens)
4. A nice fountain pen with red ink (for peer reviews and grading)
5. A gift certificate good for an hour worth of listening about any topic. (Seriously, does anyone really want to listen to my theory on the implications of the latest US balance of payments data?)


There's only one answer to this - money. This has no deadweight loss at all and allows the economist to maximize his utility, unless said economist derives extra utility from having boxes under the tree to shake instead of a dull and impersonal check.


A few years ago a friend got me copy of a new book called "Freakonomics".

Bobby G

Cash is seriously the best answer... assuming the economist understands the economics behind the gift, he can then allocate those funds towards things he wants according to his indifference curve, rather than you trying to guess.

However, general gift giving practices dictate that the best gifts are items that are overvalued by the recipient. If the recipient is an art appreciator, and you find them a brilliant painting by an unheard-of painter, that would be a good gift... they would appreciate it more than the small fee you paid to purchase the painting, most likely.

Carrie mentioned a gift certificate for listening... that's actually not that bad of an idea. Maybe instead of an hour, though, they would appreciate smaller denominations, like 60 1-minute of listening cards to pay out before or after... more versatility that way.



tell the economist that the two of you don't have to exchange gifts this year and he's free to spend the money on himself


Money is a very poor gift. Yes... we all know that it avoids the major problem with gift-giving, which stems from a lack of information about the recipient's preferences. Despite that, money is a horrible gift for two reasons (according to yours truly).
(1) It's too easy. Your relatives think, "well, everyone needs money!" and they call it a day. It's true, we all need money. The problem is that giving money a signal that you didn't spend any time (or energy) thinking about what the person wants. Even for economists, cash gifts fall short of meaningful gestures. (Same with gift cards, which I think, objectively, are worse than money).
(2) Utility is what Economists are really concerned with, not money. Let's face it... Money is only useful to economists insofar as it serves as a best approximation for utility. How do you provide your recipient with more utility? Get your favorite economist a gift she wouldn't have purchased for herself...
As a gift idea:
-- Hard-cover editions of Economic classics (assuming you do some research to make sure your recipient doesn't already have them). Keynes's "General Theory" is something many economists haven't read, despite studying it with some rigor. Keynes is also known for having beautiful prose (which most Economists clearly lack).


Nadav Zohar

Economists are human beings, not Vulcans! Like most people, they will probably feel happy about having received any gift that somebody took the time to pick out and buy for them. The only thing to be decided, then, is: What are the economist in question's tastes?

Once again I find myself puzzled and fascinated by the economics of taste--individual taste, profoundly, is neither random nor predictable!


Meredith, you could solve the "boxes under the tree" problem by using cash (perhaps coins) instead of a check. A few rolls of quarters make a fairly compact and heavy box.


1. Tenure

2. Early access to a data set that is expected to be released to the public (must be early enough so that he or she can do an analysis and publish a paper).

3. A comb. He won't want it. But he needs it.


Send him a 1200 page book and a note exclaiming how the author praises him for his scholarship and economic solutions. Don't give a page number.

At least it'll keep him occupied for a couple of weeks--and that's good for all of us.


Never give an economist anything. Ever.

The reason why is the same as why you would never tip an economist: "It only invites a lecture on the economic theories of tipping and nobody has that kind of time."

myron w

... a window...for a clearer view of all the externalities out there...