Gift Economics (and Free Hugs)

I came across this intriguing essay on the gift economy.

Want to fix the economy?

Next time you buy coffee, purchase a cup for the person behind you. Or as you grind your way through the morning commute, pick up the tollbooth charge for the driver behind you, draped over his steering wheel and ranting at the long delay.

You’ve heard that famous Gandhian quote about being the change, well these are good measures to start with, packing more punch than you might imagine…

It makes some nice points, but (of course) a couple of things about it bother me:

1. It’s still so “bought into” the money culture.  Not just the “buy something for the person in line behind you” but what that something is and where the lines are:  toll booths and take-out coffee… arrrgh! It’s not just the money culture, it’s the car culture, the disposable culture, the drive-through convenience culture.

2.  I thought about what I might do that was a “gift” act while not being so beholden to the money culture and car culture.  What could I give someone that I know they would appreciate and use?  I envisioned making some muffins or somesuch, and taking them to the guys who hang out in front of the parking lot of the local big-box home repair place (and one for whoever took the prime panhandling spot today, at the island in the middle of the street at the nearby big intersection).  But I realized that this wouldn’t result in a pay-it-forward cycle.  Where there is genuine need, that ripple doesn’t actually spread.  The gift itself may be appreciated, but probably with that twinge of uncomfortableness that comes from being part of a culture that says begging is wrong, and getting charity is wrong.  But their means to pay-it-forward are limited.  Perhaps they’re friendlier or more helpful that day.  I suppose that should be enough, but I wonder.

And, along with that is the trust problem.  If I gave food that I made to some stranger less in need, it would probably be discarded, and not paid forward.  They would be too creeped-out to eat it, too suspicious that someone would just give them something of value. It’s like the inclination I have every Halloween, to bake something or give fresh fruit and thereby avoid pre-packaged crap.  Only, parents wouldn’t let their kids eat non-pre-packaged food… it’s not “safe” to take food that a stranger might have tampered with.  The toll-booth and the take-out coffee work because the gift is really just money,  just paying for something that they were about to pay for anyway.

How did we come to this level of craziness?  I suspect the Halloween issue is media-driven, and I don’t think it’s beyond the pale to imagine that packaged candy manufacturers put pressure on some media/advertising outlets to hype the razor-blade-in-the-apple or poisoned-cookies stories they might come across, just to ensure that only factory-processed, individually-wrapped treats will be considered acceptable.  Humans have offered food to other humans, even strangers, for millenia – probably since before we were recognizably Homo sapiens.  Only in the last few decades, inside the money culture, did this become a source of suspicion and mistrust.  Heck, even free hugs are met with skepticism, and were outright banned in some places.  And who wouldn’t want a FREE HUG!?!?!?!?!


And then, of course, there’s the getting off my butt and going out and doing something part of this equation.  Free hugs, homemade treats, whatever… making the time, garnering the ambition and courage… it all sounds highly unlikely.  But maybe, later today, or someday soon, it will come to me.  How about you?


  1. The trust issue with food is easy to overcome with people you know. It doesn’t have to be a stranger. You’re on a college faculty, right? Aren’t college students always hungry? Or does that bring up some odd rule or another?


    1. Good point. I do try to have one potluck each semester for many of my classes (I make it appropriate to the curriculum in Cultural Anthropology and my Sustainable Cultures class by talking about the importance of food sharing as a cross-cultural trait in humans that’s far more developed than in our closest primate kin). This semester I got a flat of local, organic strawberries (yay Dirty Girl Farm!) and some other munchies for my Biological Anthropology students for finals week. And I try to bring a big bag’o’trail-mix or somesuch when I meet with the Sustainability Council, or some grapes or carrot sticks to share with the Climate Initiative Task Force. So yeah… I suppose I’m in a good position in that regard. I know lots of people (some of my colleagues on the faculty, even) who regularly bring in some kind of treat to share with their co-workers on occasion, so in that sense, many folx could give at the office.


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