Democracy Dies in Darkness: Spotlight and the Trump Presidency

When it won the Best Picture Oscar a year ago, Spotlight’s message about journalism seemed important. With Trump in the White House, it is essential.

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Last year’s Oscar winner

It is hard to feel sorry for a film that won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Screenplay, was nominated for four others and grossed $90 million. However, a year after Spotlight surprised many by winning the most prestigious Academy Award, it is hard not to think it arrived just a little too early to be truly appreciated.

It tells the story of a team of journalists investigating one of the largest criminal cover-ups in American history. For decades, Catholic priests in Boston abused children. Confronted with this fact, the church hierarchy acted not to protect the victims but the perpetrators. It used its enormous informal influence in the city to keep allegations away from both the criminal justice system and explicit public attention. But Spotlight’s real focus is not on the priests or the church. Rather it is on the city of Boston itself. The film’s contention seems to be that abuse was widespread that most Bostonians knew it was happening. But it was easier to tacitly accept it, than to face the fact that a key ingredient of the social glue holding the city together, was in fact toxic to children. At one point a character opines that: “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.”

Even some of the journalists shown acting heroically to uncover the scandal, are shown to have been willing to partake in this silence, until pushed to confront that truth. That push comes, perhaps inevitably, from outsiders. Thus, in a film that is in large part about Catholicism, key narrative roles are played by non-Catholics. There is Mitchell Garbidian, an Armenian-American litigation lawyer played by Stanley Tucci, who specialises in representing victims of clerical sexual abuse, and who keeps trying to raise the alarm about quite how many clients he has. But most compellingly there is Marty Baron.

Though Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams were nominated for Oscars for their performances, the best performance in the film comes from Liev Schreiber as Baron. The real Baron grew up in Florida, the son of immigrants from Israel. He worked at a number of America’s most prestigious newspapers before returning to Florida, to edit the Miami Herald, before moving to Boston in 2001 to do the same job for the Globe.

Spotlight repeatedly underlines the importance of his status as a Jew in a Catholic city. From his trying to learn about the city’s baseball team from a book, to his being handed a Catechism by Archbishop Law, the film’s ‘big bad’. On multiple occasions native Bostonians at the Globe are leaned on by Diocesan officials to convey to Baron that the digging he has instigated is not ‘how things are done round here’. Yet it is precisely because he is not invested in the city and its dominant religious institution, that he understands that something untoward is occurring. It is he, who forces his journalists to investigate the abuse allegations, and to focus on the church rather than individual priests.

The revelations that resulted would force Archbishop Law to resign, provoke institutions well beyond the Catholic Church into taking stronger measures to protect children, and end much of the deference previously showed towards the Church. It would also win Baron and his colleagues a Pulitzer Prize.

Fact and fiction

Writing about seeing himself on the screen, Baron wrote that:

Liev Schreiber portrays me as the newly arrived top editor who launched that investigation, and his depiction has me as a stoic, humorless, somewhat dour character that many professional colleagues instantly recognize (“He nailed you”) and that my closest friends find not entirely familiar.

But he also saw a broader significance in the film’s depiction not of him but of his profession:

Aside from the acclaim of critics, “Spotlight” already has delivered one gratifying result. In emails, tweets and Facebook posts, journalists have declared themselves inspired, buoyed and affirmed. That is no small matter in this badly bruised profession. We have felt the traumatizing financial effect of the Internet and been berated by just about everyone, especially politicians in a campaign season that has seen us cynically labeled “scum.”

One journalist wrote me that “the story that inspired the movie serves as a wonderful, wonderful reminder why so many of us got into this business in the first place and why so many stayed despite all the gloom and doom and all the left hooks that landed squarely on our chins along the way.”

A reporter for a major national publication said he had gone to the movie with his entire family. “My kids suddenly think I’m cool,” he said.

Especially heartening has been the reaction of some publishers. One in California rented a theater to show the movie to the paper’s entire staff. Another wrote me on Facebook: “You and the Spotlight team . . . have reenergized me to find a business model to support this critical work.”

Cut to the present

Marty Baron is no longer at the Boston Globe. Since 2012 he has edited an even more august publication: the Washington Post. That has made him an important player in the unsettling confrontation between the media and President Trump.

The print publication that Trump appears to have the most animosity towards is the New York Times. However, it is arguably Baron’s journalists who’ve unearthed the most damaging revelations about the new president.

A staff reporter named David Farenthold revealed that despite Trump claiming to be a generous donor to charity, he actually gave hardly anything away. Most of the money possessed by his charitable foundation was donated by other people, and that was frequently used not for charitable purposes but to enrich Trump. For example, to pay out of court settlements arising from the misdemeanours of Trump’s businesses.

Then Farenthold also got hold of the so-called ‘Access Hollywood tape’ in which Trump makes a succession of crass comments about women, including that being famous allowed him to ‘grab them by the pussy’, which was interpreted by many people, including me, as an admission of committing sexual assault.

Most recently, it was Post reporters who revealed that Trump had been warned that his National Security Advisor, Mike Flynn, had been communicating with Russian diplomats. Something the administration had previously denied.

This has naturally not escaped Trump’s attention. His ire appears to be directed not at Baron but at Jeff Bezos, the Post’s owner and a co-founder of Amazon. Before the election, he complained about “purposely negative and horrible and false articles” the Post was writing and warned that he might take his revenge on Bezos by going after Amazon. At one point saying: “Believe me, if I become president, oh do they have problems, they are going to have such problems” and intimating that he might target Amazon for tax and anti-trust investigations.

Shooting the messenger

At a conference in 2002, Professor Mary Ann Glendon, a future US Ambassador to the Vatican would proclaim that: “…if fairness and accuracy have anything to do with it, awarding the Pulitzer Prize to the Boston Globe would be like giving the Nobel Peace Prize to Osama bin Laden.”

You see, the tendency to deride good reporting that you find inconvenient as ‘fake news’ is not new.

For almost a century journalists have been reciting variants of the saying that “News is what somebody does not want you to print. All the rest is advertising.” One such variation replaces the word ‘advertising’ with ‘public relations’. And as Mark Harris of Vulture has written because Trump’s interaction with the media has primarily been in the context of the entertainment industry, he’s primed to thinking that journalists should indeed act like publicists:

Every entertainment journalist will, sooner or later, be told by a PR representative, “Hey, we’re all in the same business here.” For the journalists and quasi-journalists Trump encountered during his decade-long run as The Apprentice’s star and co-producer, that was uncomfortably close to the truth. Trump thought they needed him more than he needed them, and believed that if they stepped out of line or off of the publicity game plan, he could punish them by cutting them off. And the evidence he chose to see backed him up. For proof, you have only to think back to the perfectly titled Access Hollywood and ask yourself what put Trump on that bus in the first place and allowed him to talk so freely. The answer: It was a safe space, a faux-journalistic enterprise produced by NBC, the network that aired The Apprentice, in which different house rules prevailed. The “interview” was a publicity segment, the “journalist” was a douchey wingman, the actress unwittingly roped into being their tour guide was a performer on Days of Our Lives, an NBC daytime soap on which Trump was about to do a cameo, which would help Days of Our Lives, which would help The Apprentice, which would help Access Hollywood. Hey, we’re all in the same business here.”

This is Trump’s understanding of journalism; it’s the bubble in which he lived for the decade before his campaign began, and it shocks and enrages him when journalism decides to be something other than flattery-for-access.

The result Harris argues is that real journalism of the kind done by the Boston Globe or the Washington Post looks to him like bad journalism. He complains that it is not only ‘fake’ but also ‘nasty’ and bemoans that it relies on leaks of confidential information. He has also accused the media of representing ‘special interests’ rather than ‘the people’.

Baron has suggested that, in this context:

It is no wonder that some members of our staff at The Washington Post and at other news organizations received vile insults and threats of personal harm so worrisome that extra security was required. It is no wonder that one Internet venue known for hate and misogyny and white nationalism posted the home addresses of media executives, clearly inviting vandalism or worse. Thankfully, nothing that I know of happened to anyone. Then there was the yearlong anti-Semitic targeting of journalists on Twitter.

Renewed relevance

It is, therefore, regrettable that Spotlight came out last year rather than now. Many of this year’s nominees can be seen as gaining relevancy from Trump presidency. But broadly speaking, they do so with a general message about tolerance of minorities. Spotlight appears inadvertently much more specifically directed at our present moment.

At the time of its Oscar triumph, Spotlight’s message was considered worthy but not controversial. Objecting to the value of investigative journalism would have seemed as silly as attacking helping the unlucky or striving against the odds. Now it is a divisive political issue. The President’s chief strategist has openly questioned the right of the media to investigate his boss and said the media should ‘keep its mouth shut‘.

Spotlight is a great dramatisation of the case for why this must be challenged with the utmost intensity. A tale of journalists breaking a story, based in part on leaks of confidential information,  about the wrong doing of people in power, that must have seemed ‘nasty’ to those powerful people, who disparage it as ‘false’ even though the carefully assembled evidence shows it is true, is something we could really do with seeing on the screen right now.

Baron recently authorised a change in the Post’s masthead. Underneath the paper’s title now sit the words ‘Democracy Dies in Darkness’.  Spotlight dramatises the truth of that sentiment for its audience. It illustrates that only by having powerful people asked awkward and potentially ‘nasty’ questions, can those with less power be protected from having ‘nasty’ things done to them.

There will always be men like President Trump and Archbishop Law. Let us hope there will remain journalists with the freedom to investigate them.

Going out with a misfire

Sherlock’s final episode was by far its worse

 

Author’s note: I meant to publish this close to the time Sherlock‘s finale was broadcast but was travelling and I got distracted. Hope at least some of you are still interested in reading it.

<Spoilers>

I was six when my Dad started reading me Conan Doyle as bedtime stories. So if I describe myself as a lifelong Sherlockian that is only a very mild exaggeration. As nerds tend to be, I am extremely exacting when it comes to adaptations of my obsession and I was sceptical of the whole notion of a modern update of the character. Despite that I almost immediately came to adore Sherlock.  It was clearly made by people who knew the source material and had captured its spirit. At one point I wrote that:

The idea that we are living in a golden age of telly is now commonplace. The programs used as evidence of this are typically American cable shows like Breaking Bad and Mad Men. But given Sherlock’s fantastic writing, acting and plotting it deserves to be up there too.

I kept faith with it when it began taking a lot of flak. The quality undeniably dropped in the third season but it could only be realistically deemed as bad if judged by its own stellar standards. The mysteries were definitely less exquisitely crafted than before and indeed seemed mostly to function as playground for the characters but as those characters were still a riot to watch that was hardly a fatal flaw. Sherlock was still soaring, just at a lower altitude than before.

Therefore, I am rather disappointed to report that its final episode is genuinely poor. Not less good, not worse but actually bad.

It was not totally without merit. As has often been the case, even when the  narrative failed the actors still delivered. It was genuinely sad to see Molly being humiliated again, Mycroft trying to sacrifice himself and Moriarty being theatrically reptilian as per usual. But these character moments didn’t really lead anywhere. Indeed, Molly’s appearance felt less like a fitting send off than a final insult and Moriarty seemed to be there mostly as a form of fan service.

And much of the narrative depended on undermining the coherence of the characters. You or I might not notice that we are repressing memories or looking at an optical illusion simulating glass rather than real glass, but the preceding four series have made it clear that Sherlock would have. However, his unexplained intellectual dive was nothing compared with his brother’s, who goes from being established as the smartest character in this universe to being so dumb that he lets his evil genius sister meet Moriarty without supervision!

A bigger problem, however, was that the proceedings seemed to be in the wrong genre. It appeared to be set in a Bond villain’s lair run by a opponent nearer in conception to something from a horror movie and in execution to something from Doctor Who. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with genre shifts – executed well they can make a show – but a finale is an odd place for one and the effect was jerky and discordant. The whole episode felt contrived and overwrought.

The whole episode felt contrived and overwrought. The first half was rushed and marked by abrupt shifts in location and tone. And once we got to the meat of the story it hardly felt worth it: facing off against Euros felt less like the organic end to Sherlock’s journey than a contrivance to drag him there. It all seemed rather daft. At one point an exploding drone forces the heroes to leap from the windows of Baker Street accompanied by terrible CGI flames. In another, the villain appears to possess the power of mind control. And as already mentioned the Holmes brother’s intellects take a dive for no reason. That such a smart and entertaining show has apparently ended with a collage of dumb, unsatisfying moments is a grave disappointment.

Conservatives will miss Obama

Note: I am writing this quickly on my phone, so apologises for spelling and grammar errors and the lack of citations

I saw the above on my Facebook feed this morning from the most important right-leaning magazine in America. And it made me realise that many conservatives have no idea how lucky they have been to have President Obama as an opponent.

Their opposition to him has been tenacious and unprecedented. Virtually every initiative of Obama’s presidency has been opposed by every single Republican congressman and Senator. By contrast, many of the key parts of President George W. Bush’s agenda – the Iraq War, the Patriot Act and No Child Left Behind – were backed by a clear majority of congressional Democrats. And conservative opposition went beyond policy. Polls suggested that around half of Republican voters – one of whom is now President – believed the racially tinged concoction that Obama was not born in America and therefore inelligible for the office he held.

The ferocity of this fightback might lead one to imagine that it was directed against a uniquely implacable and unrelenting foe. In fact, Obama’s whole political identity was built on the possibility of finding common ground with opponents. The speech to the 2004 Democratic convention that propelled him to national prominence proclaimed that “there are no red states and blue states, there is only the United States“.

That wasn’t mere rhetoric. He appointed multiple Republicans to his administration including not one but two Secretaries of Defence. His signature healthcare policy was borrowed from Mitt Romney’s tenure as a governor, who borrowed it from right-leaning think tanks trying to devising a conservative alternative to single payer. To the horror of many of his liberal supporters, he not only continued but intensified Bush’s policies on drone strokes and mass surveillance. He spoke in defence of free speech on campuses and about the dangers of political correctness. And he ensured that the African-American president was not a radical like Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton but a man who emphasised his Americaness over his blackness.
They are unlikely to be so lucky again. The Republicans are remaking the Democrats in their image. The success of Sanders insurgency has demonstrated that the Democratic Party is on its way to becoming as liberal as the Republicans are conservative. The Sanders insurgency was an explicit rejection of Obama’s compromises: notably in the conviction that the Affordable Care Act was inadequate and that only single payer would do. That was predictable: what is the point of trying to compromise with a movement that has spent 8 years being so uncompromising. The strength of conservative opposition to Obama has apparently proved him wrong that there are no Red and Blue Americas. Democrats now operate in a deeply divided political system where their only way to win is take all without compromise. And the changing demographics of America may well enable them to do just that. It thus may come to be that in the decades to come, Republicans look back on Obama as the good kind of Democrat president.

To the Dark Side and back

Rogue One’s a masterfully intense look at both the price and the necessity of war

This review focuses on the final section of Rogue One. While there are few explicit spoilers – at least if you’ve seen a New Hope! – you can probably infer a lot.

More or less from the moment that Rogue One’s premise was announced I’ve been excited about it. A tale of the forgotten Rebel heroes who stole the plans for the Death Star sounded distinct from anything the franchise had attempted before: a story of spies and soldiers rather than mystic warriors. This sounded reminiscent of my favourite parts of the now defunct Expanded Universe, which tended to the grimiest and most grounded installments in it. Then Felicity Jones – who I last saw giving an Oscar nominated performance as Stephen Hawking’s wife in the Theory of Everything – was cast in the lead and it picked up another big plus mark in my mental tally. Next the trailers came along, and they were intense and packed with foreboding and gorgeous looking visuals. It came to seem important as well as entertaining when Trump won the American presidency and some of his supporters amongst the ‘alt-right’ identified a female led story of a multi-racial band of heroes defying a fascist regime as a threat to their movement. Oh and having already psyched myself up for it being the film of the year, it was then released in Korea a fortnight later then everywhere else, with the result that I was hearing from friend after friend how great it was.

For the first hour, I wondered if my galaxy sized expectations were doing the film a disservice. I was impressed by the more grounded feel, by Star Wars delivering fight scenes worth watching as fight scenes for the first time, and most of all by K2, the snarky war droid faintly reminiscent of Marvin from the Hitchhiker’s Guide.* But I wasn’t really engaged enough to truly relish Rogue One.

Then it moved into its final act and it suddenly began doing the impossible: not only meeting but exceeding my absurd expectations. That’s all the more striking because I usually hate final acts in which smaller confrontations give way to masses of explosions. And let’s be clear, the finale of Rogue One does not want for explosions. There are explosions in buildings, explosions on beaches and explosions in space. Plus there are a lot of things happening at once, many of them involving characters we’ve barely seen before, which can become jumbled and disengaging if handled badly. This was largely what sunk the Phantom Menace. 

But director Gareth Edwards turns it into something stunning. He unfolds a tapestry of warfare, that’s bleak and brutal but also affirms the possibility of defying seemingly impossible odds. The best sequence to illustrate that doesn’t even feature the main heroes. The Death Star plans are aboard a rebel ship and have been put onto the drive that will eventually be stowed into R2D2 in A New Hope. However, the ship has been damaged and now boarded by the Imperial forces. A group of nameless rebel soldiers stand in a corridor, guns at the ready, awaiting the onslaught of Stormtroopers. Instead they find themselves facing Darth Vader. They shoot at him but this is of course in vein. He can deflect their blasts with his lightsaber. As he slices through those nameless soldiers, and on one occasion uses the force to smash them against the ceiling, the soldier at the end of the corridor tries desperately to open a door so he can pass the plans to a colleague on the other side. Which he succeeds in doing just before his inevitable demise at the hands of the Sith lord.

This is not what victory looks like in most films. It does not constitute a happy ending because in no way does it make you feel happy. It is as gloomy as those trailers promised. I’d go further and say that by the end Rogue One is harrowing. It makes you feel the desperation of the characters: they know that success is nearly impossible but pursue that small possibility with a ferocious determination and little regard to their own survival.

Star Wars has always thought itself important. There are people who agree and even try to turn it into a religion. That claim’s never been all that convincing. Its mythology is just too silly. But with Rogue One, the franchise makes its best case that it is indeed something more than an entertaining fairy tale. It is not only riveting, though it clearly is. Nor is it simply powerful, though I was struck dumb with emotion. Rather it is Star Wars engaging with war in all its violence, horror and heroism. And it’s epic, in every sense of that word.

 

*I promise I wrote that line before hearing Kermode and Mayo’s film review making exactly the same comparison

My #10 most viewed posts of 2016

 

Looking back at my writing this year is bittersweet. Much of what concerns me about the current state of the world was also a great spur for writing. In previous years I often had to look hard for topics to write about. In 2016, they seemed to come in waves, each hitting me in the face and then yelling at me for not having written about them yet. My problem, therefore, has generally been focusing on any one topic long enough to fashion it into a post. An upshot of this is that I have lots of half-written posts that may finally get finished in 2017.

They are mostly about religion and covering that topic is my writing resolution for the next 12 months. It seems to be one of the few subjects at the moment where I can find readily find hope, not only for the hereafter but also in the possibility of (re)building actual existent communities in the present. That might go some way towards addressing the sense of dislocation that propelled so many people towards the political extremes this year.

And it is of course politics that dominates this list: lots on Brexit, the US elections and reviving liberalism. Weirdly, however, the other topic that has done remarkably well is music. I say weird because I hardly ever write about it. When I do it has tended to be to share factoids. As far as I can recall there are only two occasions on which I attempted something more ambitious. They were both on Leonard Cohen, both written within the past few months and both take top slots in this list.

Aside from the posts below, my favourites and the one on which I got the best feedback were on the folly of thinking Britain is a boat rather than an island and another reflecting on my feelings towards the US following Trump’s victory. I also really liked Rob’s piece on the Stop the War Coalition’s ‘curious’ comfort with non-Western militarism.

As always, thank you for reading. I could do write in a notebook or keep it is a word document but there’s something about having an audience that makes it seem more worthwhile. I know that the internet means you have literally unimaginable choice as to what to read but you have chosen to spend a small part of your time on my writing and that makes me intensely grateful.

 

#10 Liberalism for pessimists

Irving Kristol once quipped that a conservative is “a liberal who’s been mugged by reality”. But as we’ve seen there’s a hard headed case for liberalism. What makes for authoritarianism is not scepticism about humanity but selective optimism that gives some the right to rule over others. The central liberal insight is that power is dangerous – whoever has it.”

#9 Don’t confuse liberalism with radicalism

I don’t think that presenting a depressing case for liberalism has been a concious mission of mine this year but I seem to have been doing it

#8 A Very British Assassination

Speaking of depressing topics, probably my saddest post of the year was in response to the murder of Jo Cox. A review of MPs being murdered led me to conclude “….it’s important that we grasp that Britons have no special immunity to violence. The UK is not a theatre in which it is safe to shout fire. If you dehumanise an other – be they immigrants or the Tories – you are putting them at risk. If you suggest that our democracy is so broken that change is impossible, you may find someone drawing the implication that it is acceptable to try and force change. And if you present ordinary political disputes as matters of extreme – perhaps existential – importance then maybe someone will take you at your word and react disproportionately.”

#7 Now What?

My ten step plan for dealing with the aftermath of the Brexit vote. I think it mostly holds up.

#6 Bernie Sanders: He’s not the Messiah, He’s a very muddled guy

Disparaging Senator Sanders’ run for the presidency became a recurring theme of mine. This was my most sustained and policy heavy go at the topic. It mostly centred on the revelation that the funding for his medicare for all proposal – the centrepiece of his policy platform  – relied on reducing the federal government’s spending on drugs to less than zero.

#5 Chinese stereotypes of Europe

This was essentially just me republishing an infographic from Foreign Policy. Autocomplete options from China’s largest search engine indicate that Bulgarian’s milk induced longevity is apparently a thing.

#4 Would Edmund Burke be for Leave or Remain?

“That makes Brexit an unjustified gamble, which in turn makes it a profoundly unconservative thing to do. It is therefore be surprising that so many members of the Conservative Party back it. And furthermore that they do it in such a thoroughly unconservative way. Rather than wisdom and caution they offer bravado. Rather than warning of the dangers, they ridicule those who do as “merchants of doom” who can be ignored because…uhh…Britain. You will search Burke and Oakeshott’s writings in vain for a passage explaining how exclamations of national machismo can substitute for the hard work of policy making and institution building. Yet that is what many self-proclaimed ‘conservatives’ are in fact doing.”

#3 He understood the darkness: on Leonard Cohen and depression

“When my attempts to explain my illness would fall flat, I’d often wish I could just get out my phone, open up Spotify and play them some Leonard Cohen. If you’ve heard any of his songs, that won’t necessarily come as surprise. He could dramatise misery like a master, hence his songs are exactly the kind of thing that in ordinary language we call ‘depressing’. But it’s more than that. He wasn’t just writing sad songs. He was writing about a specific kind of sadness I recognised.”

#2  My Iowa caucus predictions

I guessed that “the press will overreact to the result on the Democratic side” and that “whatever the outcome in Iowa the [Republican] race will remain turbulent”. The second one was clearly true, still unsure about the other.

#1 Leonard Cohen should have got Bob Dylan’s nobel prize

It is of course fate that the post the most people see is the one I begin by explaining why I shouldn’t be writing it. Nonetheless, I take it as a vindication of the argument that a lot of people were searching around online for someone to articulate it.

6 words my students consider Christmas words and what that tells you about Christmas in Korea (Cable from Korea #9)

Asking economists about gift-giving misses the point

If we just bought ourselves stuff that would probably be more efficient but efficiency isn’t the point

It is the time of year for writers at publications that major on economics, finance and policy to trot out the economic case against gift giving.

These articles largely recycle the intellectual labour of the economist Joel Waldfogel. He has argued that:

As an economist, I see gift giving as a method of resource allocation that is entirely free of all of the good disciplines that we usually attribute to economic decision-making.

Normally we only make purchases for ourselves if we see something that’s worth more than the price. If we see something that costs $100, we buy it only if it’s worth at least $100. So normally, spending actually creates satisfaction. In fact, in dollar terms, normally the satisfaction associated with any amount of spending exceeds the amount of spending that occurs.

With gift giving, I’m buying something for someone else, so I don’t impose that discipline — I can’t, really. I don’t know what you want. I don’t know what you need. So I can spend $100 on you, and I might turn out to be unlucky and buy something that’s worth, well, in the worst case, nothing to you.

You can pick holes in this as an economic theory. For example, you might know less about my preferences than I do but you are also familiar with a different range of good and services than I am. For example, my secret santa from a few years ago knew fewer details of my love of Star Wars than I did. However, she did know that I loved Star Wars and that she could buy a coffee mug that looked like R2D2! Routinely making purchases that someone prefers to what they would likely be impossible but doing it once or twice a year feels doable. To be fair, Professor Waldfogel has used survey evidence to get empirical evidence to support his theory, so I am prepared to accept that the effect he highlights predominates over the effect I just highlighted.

However, that is only a knockdown argument if what we do indeed “see gift giving as a method of resource allocation.” That this is how Professor Waldfogel thinks in these terms is unsurprising. He is a microeconomist and that discipline is essentially geared towards assessing the costs and benefits of commercial transactions in a marketplace. The test it uses for that is whether the greatest quantity and quality of stuff  has been got into the right hands at the lowest cost. But this perspective only deals with half of the issue at hand. Gifts may come from the commercial realm but they do not stay there. You may buy a gift from a commercial entity – creating a conventional buyer and seller relationship – but that gift then moves out of the marketplace and into the more personal domain of families and friendships.

At this point, it starts making more sense to listen to anthropologists than economists, and they have built an entire subfield exploring gift giving and how it fits into a broader pattern of social relationships. This confirms what your intuition probably suggests, that we give gifts not only to get people more stuff they want but also to reinforce social bonds. It is, therefore, a mistake to think of the benefits of gift giving as the combined value of individual gifts minus their costs. Rather it is that plus the sense of reciprocity and solidarity created by the ritual of gift giving.

For example, Professor Waldfogel worries that the most wasteful gifts are those giving out of a sense of obligation to people we don’t have much contact with. But isn’t part of the point of giving them a gift to say that ‘despite our limited contacted I still feel a bond with you from which obligations arise’

To be fair to Professor Waldfogel, he does acknowledge the wider social context of gift giving and says that:

It can make both givers and recipients happy in ways that buying for oneself might not. So jumping to the conclusion that people should stop giving gifts is by itself is not necessarily warranted.

As that last sentence indicates, despite the fact that his articles often get given the headlines like “the economic argument for never giving another gift” he does not appear to actually believe that gift-giving is bad per se. Rather, he advocates doing it better by, for example, buying people you don’t know that well gift cards or making a donation to charity.

So popular economics writers this season give economists the gift of not reinforcing the stereotype of them as a bunch of Scrooges and stop writing these irritating articles.