BEFORE you decide on all those last-minute Christmas presents, consider the warning of the economist Joel Waldfogel. Are you contributing to the “deadweight loss of Christmas”, comprising all those gazillions of unwanted presents — or, as the jargon would have it, “lost utility”? It is always better, the theory goes, to give cash: it is efficient both in terms of effort expended and utility of outcome.
Devotees of The Reith Lectures (Radio 4, Wednesdays) may be relieved to hear that Mark Carney’s attitude to price and value challenges this hard-nosed assessment, and that the ambition of the former Governor of the Bank of England is to set out a vision that distinguishes between economic value and societal values.
Presents are of value because of what they represent as much as what they cost. It is the difference, as Carney neatly coined it, between the Magi and the merchant. “The stigma over monetary gifts reflects norms worth honouring and encouraging, like attentiveness and thoughtfulness.”
Utility and value are questions naturally raised when pondering — as we were invited to do on Moving Pictures (Radio 4, Monday of last week) — an artefact as exquisite as the Sherborne Missal. Compiled in the early 15th century for the Benedictine monastery, it is a weighty tome whose pages are adorned with illuminations symbolic, decorative, and downright bizarre. With the aid of a high-resolution image on the programme website, we were guided around a page containing Easter liturgy.
The sheer effort and virtuosic craftsmanship on display here render the missal beyond price. As was explained by the many experts consulted for the programme, the calligraphy is of the highest order, and the artistic quality is outstanding. What was missing on this occasion was discussion of the utility of the book. How might the community’s worship be enhanced by the fact of having its rituals spoken or sung from such a marvel?
For political nerds and insomniacs, there is much in podcast-land to supplement the standard BBC formats. I cannot lie and say that The Good Fight (available each Saturday from Apple podcasts) is a riveting listen, but it does at least give space for interviews of a length and density rarely encountered on the BBC stations.
Led by a Professor of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Yascha Mounk, the viewpoint is decidedly if unsurprisingly liberal and Democrat. But, in that context, last week’s conversation with Thomas Wright, of the Brookings Institute, was significant; for it discussed the distinction between “Restorationists” and “Reformers” in the Joe Biden camp.
We may blandly have assumed over here that Barack Obama established a default for Democratic governance to which Biden’s administration will return. We could well be proved wrong.