If you still haven’t gotten a holiday gift for someone — or anyone over the age of 12, for that matter — you’ve come to the right place. As an economist, I can assure you that not only have you done the responsible, even thoughtful, thing. It may also not be too late to make the right decision.

Every holiday season, people ask me how much to spend on gifts. The most important question is what is a gift and how much is it worth.

Often, what we buy is all wrong, blowing holes through personal budgets. People generally spend more on gifts than expected. The average yearly cost is $650, without making anyone much happier. People give expensive gifts to partners who break up with them, and worse.

At Christmas, one out of five people go into debt. Publishers tell me January is a great time to sell financial advice books — people are chastened by their overspending and a little scared.

Almost always, the gift is worth less to the recipient than what the giver paid. We all know Sam would sell the $25 mug you gave him for less -- estimates are 10%-30% less — producing a “deadweight loss” of $8. When you add up all those deadweight mugs, earrings, games, sweaters and other unwanted, regifted or discarded gifts, I estimate total American deadweight loss at Christmas could be about $170 per person, or $32 billion.

Every year finds us seeking a solution to deadweight: white elephant parties; $20 limits; couples pledging “no gifts this year, honey”; and charities instead of gifts. Or we contemplate a thoughtful homemade gift. But we chicken out. We still click on Amazon and rush the malls with a frenzy in the countdown to Christmas.

Thus, while it may sound dreary, the green-eyeshaded economist says the most efficient gift is just plain old cash. If you want to share some feelings, make your own cards, since $5 cards are probably $4.50 deadweight.

Despite the advice to spend less on gifts because they aren’t worth that much, this time of year economists take a back seat — we’re in the anthropologists’ and sociologists’ lane. That’s because presents are really about something else. They are often the first step in building a social relationship. And when gifts are refused or unreciprocated, relationships break. Also they are pure commodity exchanges. They aren’t gifts at all.

In one of the many how-to advice columns about gifting etiquette — what to give whom and how much — it is clear that presents are a social expectation, giving something to get something; it’s about as close to an exchange of money for services you’ll find.

Sociologist Theodore Caplow studied Christmas gift-giving in Muncie, Indiana, in the late 1970s, collecting data on 366 Christmas gatherings and 4,347 individual gifts. Gifting was revealed to be a rigid ritual, not the voluntary, spontaneous exchange people insisted it was. Participants gave one present each to their mothers, fathers, sons and daughters, and to each of these people’s spouses. A person was expected to give something to their own spouse. Participants expected to receive at least one gift in return from each of these persons. And that was more than 40 years ago, before the flood of cheap imports and Amazon made gift-giving easier.

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