National Public Radio

Text from National Public Radio, Morning Edition

December 21, 2000

Is Holiday Spending Good for America?
by Russell Roberts

When I travel, I often find myself on an airplane chatting with a stranger and mentioning that I'm an economist. "That must be awfully handy around tax time," my seatmate will often reply. Or "I bet you're good at balancing your checkbook."

Truth is, I hate balancing my checkbook and I pay someone to do my taxes.

Economics isn't really about money. It's about the choices we make with our money and our time and our skills.

I often think about this during the holiday season when someone says that all this consumer shopping is good for the economy. It is good for business. At least the businesses that are racking up the sales. And business is part of the economy.

And that's the part most often measured by the government and the business section of the newspaper. What doesn't get quantified is the value of talking to our children or taking a walk in the snow. If we decide to enjoy more of those unmeasurable pleasures and less retail shopping, the measured economy may suffer. But we'll be the richer for it, though not in dollars-if those unmeasured, but very real pleasures, are what we prefer.

In that spirit, I'm encouraging all my friends to downsize the commercial part of the holidays this year. Let's spend less time shopping and wrapping presents and fighting the parking lot at the mall. Let's spend more time talking to our kids or marveling at the red cardinal against the white snow at the bird feeder or helping our elderly neighbors shovel snow.

My wife and I have called our brothers and sisters and told them no Hanukkah presents this year, please. We're not cruel-the grandparents are grandfathered in under this new policy. They can still buy the kids something. But we won't. We buy the kids plenty of stuff all year round.

So we'll have a Hanukkah with fewer presents and more latkes. Less time tearing open the wrapping paper and more time talking about what Hanukkah is really about-religious freedom and the possibility of miracles.

I know. You like this idea but you've already done a lot of your holiday shopping. That's OK. Put the presents in the garage and surprise your kid on a Tuesday night in March with a new bicycle. Or give it away to a kid who's never had a bicycle.

Our kids seem fine with the new Hanukkah. They seem to like the idea. And despite what you might hear on the news about consumer confidence and retail sales, it's even good for the economy, if we could measure the unmeasurable.