The road to Spyhill

Economists have a sort of half-joke, inspired by Yale’s Joel Waldfogel, about the “deadweight loss of Christmas”. Every year we humans race around, spending, collectively, billions of dollars trying to find noncash items that other people in our lives will like. But we are less than perfect at intuiting the preferences of others, and it is the rare recipient who will value what he receives from everybody as much as he would what he could buy himself with the cash equivalent. The total worth of the gifts exchanged at Christmas thus inevitably ends up being smaller than the amount spent. Viewed this way—and it’s obviously not an unreasonable way—Christmas is a giant global potlatch, an orgy of value destruction.

The case for Christmas, of course, is as obvious and easy to make as the one for inefficiency/imbecility of Christmas. This 2001 Economist piece on Waldfogel’s idea offers several points in defence of the potlatch, making them in that charmingly autistic way economists are known for. Gift recipients aren’t perfectly conscious of their own potential preferences; some gifts may be items a person can’t obtain for himself at any price; and gifts—stop me if this sounds crazy—sometimes do have a sentimental value beyond the cash paid for the item itself.

But I couldn’t help thinking about Waldfogel’s Christmas when I encountered this engrossing local press item about a mislaid package of goods collected for fire-ravaged Slave Lake, Alberta:

A local man was surprised to find boxes of new clothes and donations that were slated for Slave Lake in the [Calgary] city landfill.

…Nielsen says there were dozens of sealed and neatly packed boxes in the trash.

Some of the items were brand new and still had the tags on them.

Nielsen says it was obvious someone had gone to a lot of work to try to help people who had lost everything.

“I opened the box and it was like a knife through my heart. I’ve seen lots of horror and this just shattered me. The box was full of children’s clothing. Someone had gone to a store, bought children’s clothing, and had the foresight to throw something in for the mother too,” said Nielsen.

One worries that Mr. Nielsen might have been slightly less horrified if the box had contained an actual child. The containers were labelled with the name of energy company Total E&P, whose employees had gathered clothing and toys for the victims of the fire. “Employees had held a month-long drive to collect donations for Slave Lake victims,” notes the CBC. “They carefully packed up the collection and addressed it to the Red Cross, and called their internal courier to take it away. The Red Cross, though, does not accept items for donation, only cash…”.

So while the packing was “careful”, the research…? Not so much. Someone located another Calgarian with good intentions, Melissa Gunning, who was gathering material to be sent to Slave Lake fire victims. Unfortunately, by that time, the brave people of Slave Lake were already becoming overburdened with donor goods.

Emergency workers in Edmonton soon told her to donate some of what was collected to local charities, which she tried to do. “We still had all this stuff left in storage. Nobody would come and pick it up and unfortunately we couldn’t get anybody else to drive it,” said Gunning.

This past weekend, swamped by the donations from the campaign, Gunning hired some help. A junk removal company was hired to go through the remaining storage bins and sort what was good to a local charity and take the rest to the dump.

Unfortunately, the “Just Junk” removal firm seems to have treated the entire load as, well, just junk. And since salvage is strictly forbidden at the Spyhill dump, the good work of Total’s employees has gone for naught. I am, of course, using the phrase “good work” to refer to work that has good intentions, not work that accomplishes anything good. Total E&P is a subsidiary of a publicly traded company; the employees have access to a share-ownership plan. Literally ten seconds’ research would have revealed that the Red Cross is happy to take gifts of stocks and mutual funds. But that kind of thing isn’t in the Christmas spirit, is it?

I fear Paul Nielsen, the appalled discoverer of the items in the landfill, unwittingly saw straight to the heart of the matter. Someone went to a clothing store, bought a bunch of cute outfits for somebody’s else’s children, and “had the foresight to throw something in for the mother”, without the much less impressive foresight required to ask “Hey, will the Red Cross actually take this crap?” This is a “someone” who probably thought herself very clever in finding a absolutely bulletproof excuse for a shopping excursion, perhaps even on company time. The value of her “aid” turned out to be significantly less than zero, but that was surely beside the point to begin with. If it weren’t, the incessant entreaties of professional charitable organizations everywhere—“Please stop showing up with bundles of blankets and cans, and just give us cash already”—would actually have had some effect by now. And we would have fewer grotesque comedies like this one from Okotoks.

I suspect the diversion of the Total donations to the landfill is an example of something that happens a lot more often than we dare imagine. There is a thin worldwide layer of iridium that marks the extinction of the dinosaurs. Perhaps future geologists delving down into the leavings of our time will find an equally pervasive stratum of useless goods, purchased on incoherent charitable impulse by the fabled “middle class” after pictures of calamity have been shown on television. Teddy bears, soccer balls, Playstations, soap-on-a-rope: will the Cuviers and Lyells of tomorrow be able to infer the meaning of it all?

It is about time, anyway, that some cynic observed that responding to a natural disaster is not like Christmas gift-giving. At Christmas, you’re guessing at a loved one’s potential preferences. In essence, you are playing a game. Analogous behaviour in the face of a disaster—guessing at what people need, when you could give cash immediately for experienced responders to spend on life-or-death logistical priorities—is crass and arrogant, literally the opposite of charitableness. But of course, the impersonal gift of a cheque in an envelope doesn’t give you the chance to show off to co-workers or other relevant audiences what a lovely and decent person you are.