Monday, January 01, 2007

Speaking of Harford... 

...I usually take the time on New Year's Eve to finally go through and read those little newsletters people include in their Christmas cards, wherein a family announces all the good stuff that happened to them and theirs in the last year. We do it too, though I've decided that there's a seriously diminishing return to additional information in them so that I print only a half-sheet. I'd like to know if someone got married or went on an exotic trip. I'm fine with hearing if a pet died. I do not need all the details on the new car you bought last summer. (I did not make that up.)

Harford's Dear Economist column at the Financial Times included this letter and answer:

Dear Economist,

Christmas cards are starting to drop through the letterbox and many contain infuriating round-robin newsletters from people I barely know. This is no substitute for real friendship. Why do people send junk mail instead of a proper letter?

Tom, Lancaster


Dear Tom,

You say that people send newsletters �instead of� a proper letter, but I wonder if this is true. Newsletters are subject to extreme economies of scale: the first copy is time-consuming to produce but the rest take just seconds. The likely result is that many people receive newsletters who might otherwise get nothing at all, or only a card reading �best wishes, Brian�, leaving you to wonder who on earth Brian might be.

We have a list of about 40-50 cards that go out each year, along with a tick sheet for cards received. We will get about a half-dozen cards each year from people not on the list, for whom a frenzied "oh God how did we forget them" ensues and a card and half-letter sent. Worst are the ones who have the "best wishes, Brian" and a last name that has Mrs. and I me scratching our heads. (Gad, that was awful English.)

That is no consolation if it is really preferable to receive nothing at all than to receive a newsletter. But that seems unlikely: economists talk of �free disposal�, a theoretically convenient assumption that would not apply to a half tonne of manure on the doorstep, but surely describes the marginal cost of throwing away Brian�s newsletter along with his card. If you are so certain that these newsletters contain nothing of interest, waste no time in reading them.

Which admittedly for some of them I do. If you're someone I've seen on campus weekly or more, chances are I know as much about your family as I care to. I get a couple of these each year. I do not send the half-sheet to my parents because they know what's on there already. Thus the newsletter has the most value in those cards from people I did not see last year,

You have evidently not discovered the work of economists Jess Gaspar and Ed Glaeser, who show that the new communication technologies - mobile phones, e-mail, word-processors - are not substitutes for traditional human interaction but complements to it. These newsletters, like e-mails and weblogs, help keep friendships alive and actually increase the number of old-style face-to-face meetings.

Thus, for instance, I have not seen Doc Palmer in person since the last time the ASSA meetings were in Anaheim, which I think was 1993. But we have known each other from the old Usenet days of chatting on, and managed to create a podcast (now gone, it appears) with Phil Miller on the economics of sports (and indeed, I'd've not met Phil either if not for the internet.) And yet Doc announces we are going for deep dish next weekend in Chicago, an event to which I am looking forward. (Yes, "Sparky". It's a baseball thing.)

Most of the Christmas cards I read will say "let's get together in the New Year." And certainly some of us made a resolution this year to reconnect with old friends. Isn't the newsletter in the Christmas card a useful instrument to start that conversation? Does it perhaps increase the number of old friendships rekindled?