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Analysis, background reports and updates from the PBS NewsHour putting today's news in context.

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    JOHN LARSON: We turn now to a situation getting very little attention, the dangers facing journalists around the world. Just yesterday a freelance Syrian photographer working for Reuters was killed covering the civil war there. For more about the dangers of conflict reporting and the imprisonment of journalists we are joined now by Robert Mahoney. He is the deputy director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. Robert, thank you so much for joining us.

    ROBERT MAHONEY: Pleasure.

    JOHN LARSON: Every year you folks take a snapshot in the month of December, a picture of many things including the number of journalist in prison at that moment. What does the picture tell you this year?

    ROBERT MAHONEY: Well, this year is the second worst on record with more than 200 journalists in jail. So, governments are continuing to use imprisonment as a way of censoring journalist and silencing critics.

    JOHN LARSON: Now, I remember the worst year was last year, correct?

    ROBERT MAHONEY: Yes. I few journalists have been released and that is due in part to the advocacy of groups like the committee to protect journalists and other journalists; putting pressure on governments. But the trend is still, for ah very high.

    JOHN LARSON: Now I know anytime there is a list, who is number one on the list as imprisoning the most and why do you think that is?

    ROBERT MAHONEY: Well, the uh, top jailer of journalist is Turkey

    JOHN LARSON: Turkey?

    ROBERT MAHONEY: Yeah.  A lot of people are surprised by that. Turkey is a democracy, member of NATO, wants to join the European Union, but uh Turkey has a government that does not want to be criticized internally and so uses jailing of journalists to silence people, to intimidate them

    JOHN LARSON: Now, I remember last year China, I believe, and Iran were also in the top three. How do they fare this year.

    ROBERT MAHONEY: Oh, there still up there. The top three, they’re still in the top three. And between them, those three countries they account for nearly half of the total. So, there is a clear pattern here of authoritarian countries that want to put journalists behind bars rather than deal with the problems that the journalists are reporting on.

    JOHN LARSON: Now, especially China, we hear a number of things these days. Number one, abut some  American news agencies, some big ones, Bloomberg , the New York Times, maybe not getting visas to cover China for their correspondents, but as far as the correspondents and reporting in China, what type of sentences, what type of reasons, what type of reporting is the Chinese government targeting?

    ROBERT MAHONEY: Of Chinese journalist it’s those journalists that are criticizing the government, criticizing the communist party, doing investigative reporting, uncovering corruption or bad government, those are the kinds of stories that many Chinese officials don’t want published. And the picture’s very mixed. There are parts of China where there are some good journalists getting out some good information in the nation and then there are other parts of China were things are very repressive.

    JOHN LARSON: And now what about American reporters that are either missing or somehow being threatened overseas?

    ROBERT MAHONEY: Well the worst place to be a journalist at the moment is Syria and that’s been the case for the past couple of years because of the conflict and there are a number of American journalists who have been taken hostage, some of them for the last year and a half and we have absolutely no news about them. We know that they’re alive, or we think we know they’re alive, but this is a terribly distressing situation for their family and friends.

    JOHN LARSON: Robert Mahoney from the Committee to Protect Journalists thanks so much.

    ROBERT MAHONEY:  You’re welcome.

     


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    On this edition, American military aircraft come under fire in Africa. Later, in our signature segment, a look at one country's effort to protect children from sexual images in the media. And, on Broadway, making theater more accessible for children with autism.

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  • 12/22/13--05:10: What we're watching Sunday
  • Israeli officials call for end to US spying

    Following the revelation that former Israeli officials had been spied on by the National Security Agency, several Israeli cabinet members and lawyers demanded a halt to US spying in their country.

    The allegations, which became public Friday following the release of documents leaked by former NSA contractor, Edward Snowden, also renewed calls by Israeli officials for the release of Jonathan Pollard.

    Pollard is the former US intelligence analyst who has spent nearly 30 years in prison for spying on behalf of Israel.

    Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu echoed the call for Pollard's release, but emphasized that it was a matter that has been "discussed with every US President" and that Israel didn't need "any special occasion" to discuss it with Washington.

    Fighting in South Sudan

    Violence and ethnic tensions are on the rise in South Sudan, as the central government reported Sunday it had lost control of the capital of Unity, the country's key oil-producing state.

    Two sides are at the center of the conflict which began last week: supporters of President Salva Kiir, a member of the Dinka ethnic group, and supporters of former Vice President Riek Machar, an ethnic Nuer, who was ousted from his office earlier this year.

    The US and other foreign countries have been evacuating their citizens from South Sudan as the violence spreads and the fledgling country teeters on the brink of civil war.

    Saturday, three US military aircraft were hit with gunfire while trying to evacuate American citizens from the town of Bor. Four US service members were wounded.

    Colorado school-shooting victim dies

    A 17-year-old Colorado student died Saturday, more than a week after being shot at school.

    Claire Davis was sitting with a friend outside the Arapahoe High School library in suburban Denver on December 13, when she was shot in the head at point-blank range.

    The shooter was 18-year old senior, Karl Pierson, who legally purchased the shotgun one week earlier and who bought the ammunition on the day before the shooting.

    Authorities believe Pierson originally meant to target a librarian at the school who had disciplined him in September, but that the amount of arsenal on the teenager -- including Molotov cocktails and a machete -- suggests he may have intended to hurt many others.

    Pierson set off one of his explosives and fired five shots before killing himself just over one minute after entering the school. Davis was the only other person harmed in the attack.

    In a statement, the Davis family said, "The grace, laughter and light [Claire] brought to this world will not be extinguished by her death; to the contrary, it will only get stronger."

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    NEW YORK -- The Democratic Party claims to be the natural home for women.

    The numbers tell another story when it comes to the nation's governors.

    Republicans, four women: Jan Brewer in Arizona, Susana Martinez in New Mexico, Mary Fallin in Oklahoma and Nikki Haley in South Carolina. Democrats: Maggie Hassan in New Hampshire.

    For the GOP, often accused of waging a "war on women," this advantage offers a powerful tool in the competition for female voters.

    "We have to show the fact there is no war on women," said Nikki Haley, who's in her first term. "The more Republican women out there, the better our case is."

    Democratic leaders, backed by national women's groups, are trying to turn it around in gubernatorial elections next fall that feature no less than six high-profile female candidates. Their goal is to give Hassan, who faces re-election in 2014, some company.

    "My mother always used to say if you want something done, ask a busy woman," says Rhode Island's treasurer, Gina Raimondo, a 42-year-old mother of two young children who began her campaign last week. "People in Rhode Island want someone who's going to do something."

    Raimondo is a leading contender in the crowded Democratic primary to succeed Lincoln Chafee, the Democratic incumbent who's not running for a second term.

    In Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Texas, there also are strong female candidates.

    Gender is not a central issue in theses contests, but the Democratic women are using their backgrounds to help distinguish themselves.

    Several candidates interviewed by The Associated Press said that the real-world stresses of raising families help them connect with voters, while shaping their priorities on issues such as health care, education and jobs.

    In some cases, they're up against male incumbents who elevated women's issues by backing conservative social priorities on abortion, contraception and "equal pay" legislation.

    In Pennsylvania, Democratic U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz charges that Republican Gov. Tom Corbett has "almost been dismissive of women," particularly on issues such as "access to family planning and reproductive rights."

    Corbett has drawn criticism for cutting education, and like other Republican governors, supported legislation requiring women to get ultrasounds before having abortions. That idea never became law, but Corbett did say that women should close their eyes if they felt the procedure was too obtrusive.

    "It is important for us in Pennsylvania to see a new and different kind of leadership that will move the state forward. It may well take a woman to do that," Schwartz told a recent gathering of Pennsylvania politicians in New York City. She's considered the early front-runner in the primary.

    In state and national elections, women are a powerful voting bloc.

    In presidential races, a Republican candidate has not won a majority of women since 1984. In the 2010 congressional elections, however, exit polls found that women voted for Republicans and Democrats almost evenly, helping to propel the GOP to the U.S. House majority.

    Since then, Republicans have suffered from several self-inflicted wounds. For example, in 2012, Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin of Missouri suggested that women's bodies could prevent impregnation in cases of "legitimate rape."

    A report from the Republican National Committee this year detailed the scope of the problem. "Women are not a 'coalition.' They represent more than half the voting population in the country, and our inability to win their votes is losing us elections," it said.

    Republicans such as South Carolina's Haley are in a unique position to balance damage done from party leaders elsewhere.

    "Women can't help it when men say ignorant things," she said. "What we can do is try to make sure we continue to refocus people on what's important and back on the issues."

    Haley, Martinez and Fallin are running for re-election in 2014. Brewer hasn't decided whether she will challenge term limits set in the Arizona Constitution.

    Democrats lost two female governors in recent years when President Barack Obama appointed Arizona's Janet Napolitano and Kansas' Kathleen Sebelius to his Cabinet.

    None of the Democrats' 2014 female candidates are considered sure bets.

    In Republican-friendly Texas, Democratic strategists are skeptical about the chances of state Sen. Wendy Davis, who developed a national following after her filibuster of a Republican-backed abortion bill.

    Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley is trying to become the state's first female governor elected in a general election. Raimondo and Schwartz are trying to become their states' first female chief executive, as is Wisconsin businesswoman Mary Burke.

    Burke is the likely challenger for Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who has pursued social conservative priorities on women's issues as he weighs a 2016 presidential bid.

    "There are a lot of areas where women in the state aren't getting a fair shake," Burke said.

    Burke cited Walker's repeal of legislation designed to deter employers from wage discrimination based on age and gender. Walker also signed into law legislation that singled out abortion clinics in requiring their doctors to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals, which would reduce the number of abortion providers.

    This report was written by Associated Press reporter Steve Peoples. Associated Press Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta in Washington contributed to this report.

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    Experts say American credit and debit cards are especially vulnerable to hackers because these cards use an easily-duplicated magnetic strip to store information.

    Weak U.S. credit card security made Target a juicy target for hackers: http://t.co/NiuocFA2Ov

    — The Associated Press (@AP) December 22, 2013

    This assessment comes days after the retail giant Target said credit and debit cards of 40 million shoppers may have been compromised in a massive security breach.

    Target said Thursday customers who swiped their cards between Nov. 29 and Dec. 15 may have had data stolen, including credit card numbers and three-digit security codes.

    Concerned your personal or account information may be compromised? Check out NewsHour's guide on how to respond if you're the victim of credit card theft.

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    JOHN LARSON: As a correspondent, I’ve travelled more than 2 million miles on assignment, usually in a hurry, rushing to one story after another. But along the way, I noticed that the most powerful stories - often weren’t where I was heading to or coming from at all, but in between.  And usually, sitting right next to me.

    For example, I was flying American Airlines 2473, Boston to Dallas.  I was in 21C. Next to me In 21B: Normandy Villa.

    As we headed south across the skis above Pennsylvania and West Virginia, Normandy shared such a story with me, that when his family invited me to join them six weeks later near their home in New Jersey, I accepted.

    To understand what’s going on here, you should know two things: first, even though the family comes  from Colombia, Normandy is named after one of the more important moments in American history: 

    NORMANDY VILLA: The Battle of Normandy in France, in 1941 was the beginning of the liberation of Europe, and my grandfather saw that as such a powerful moment in history, that he wanted to have his family carry a name that referred to a new dawn.  And so, the first born in the family received the name Normandy.

    JOHN LARSON: That first born was this man, Normandy Sr.

    Which brings us to the second thing.  Senior would also hear something American that would inspire him.

    PRESIDENT KENNEDY: Ask not what your country can do for you ask what you can do for your country …

    NORMANDY VILLA:  It really was a call to service… to make your society better than it is and leave it better than it was after you’re gone, and he never really forgot that. He never really forgot that  It really stuck with him forever.

    JOHN LARSON: As we flew towards Texas, Normandy told me how his parents had been comfortably middle class in Colombia, when the drug Cartels began destroying what his parents valued most.... respect for public service, and education. JFK’s speech struck a nerve in his father, who that day decided to begin the long process of legally bringing the family to America.  Normandy’s oldest sister, Alba was a little girl when the family arrived in New Jersey.

    ALBA VILLA:  We slept on couches, living rooms, spare rooms depending on the family’s circumstances.

    JOHN LARSON: Because their Colombian credentials didn’t transfer, Normandy’s mother, a literature teacher would spend the next 25 years working at near minimum wage as a day care assistant . Here, she remembers saying goodbye to her mother. 

    NORMANDY’S MOTHER:   I remember her saying are you sure? Are you sure you can make it over there, are you sure you’re going to be okay?

    JOHN LARSON:    Normandy’s father, a college educated chemist and statistician, wound up laboring  25 years in America as a stock-boy, lifting boxes, until one box finally broke his back.

    ALBA VILLA: i think they really sacrificed their own dreams…

    MARCELLA VILLA:  Their lives their dreams their professional aspirations they put aside, for us, because they believed that we could do something better here.

    JOHN LARSON: So, in their small, two-room apartment in New Jersey, their mom emphasized literature.  Their Dad tutored them in math from his Colombian college textbooks.

    And what happened?  Alba, the oldest, went to the Ivy League’s Brown  University and on to law school.  Marcella also went to Brown, then medical school.  Third child David went to Harvard.  And, while I’d like to tell you that the youngest, my seat mate Normandy - went on to college  without incident, it didn’t happen that way. 

    As we flew the our last leg into Dallas International, I learned one month before his freshman year in college, Normandy was almost killed in a bicycle accident. 

    NORMANDY VILLA: That was a huge blow to me.

    JOHN LARSON:  He was in a coma for days, his brain so damaged that when he finally woke up, he couldn’t see very well, or think clearly. And yet he attacked his rehabilitation with such determination that his father, perhaps the strongest man he knew, began calling him ‘el trucador’, the fighter. He entered college on time, a full year before doctors thought he could do it.

    MARCELLA VILLA: He is one of the people i most admire in this world. He’s just something else,

    JOHN LARSON:   Five weeks after I met Normandy he graduated from HarvardUniversity, the fourth in his family to earn an Ivy League education. They’d done it with scholarships of course, but when I asked him how his parents could even afford this week-long trip to Boston for the graduation, he said “Oh, some guy sent us $3,000”  When I asked who, showed me the guy. 

    NORMANDY VILLA: Here is Bill Gates. He’s an honorary Colombian.

    JOHN LARSON: There’s Bill Gates, and Normandy wearing the tie.. Normandy is a Gates Millennium Scholar, one of 40 thousand academically gifted students who Gates will help put through college over several years.  Gates’ message to the scholars sounded almost identical to what Normandy’s grandfather and parents had said: live lives of service.

    BILL GATES: i hope you will judge yourselves not on your professional accomplishments alone, but also on how well you treated people a world away that have nothing in common with you but their humanity. Good luck. 

    JOHN LARSON: And so that’s what Normandy and his siblings will do: serve: in public health, medicine and the law.

    Oh, by the way, when his father went to Harvard for his son’s graduation, he visited the Kennedy School of Government there, and found the words that launched his American Dream so many years ago, written in stone.

    JFK SPEECH: ‘...but what you can do for your country.”

    JOHN LARSON:   So you can maybe understand why my seat mate’s graduation party was something not to be missed

    Before I left Normandy and his family, there was one more celebration, when they took me on a favorite field trip.

    NORMANDY VILLA:  For him its a symbol of liberty and symbol of opportunity.

    JOHN LARSON:   The Statue of Liberty, just a couple miles from their apartment, was a yearly destination for the family,  and its as good a place as any to end this story.  Normandy’s father said the promise that brought them to America had almost nothing to do with making more money, or having a big house -- remember, they had that.  It had more to do with what his father heard it in the guns of Normandy, and what he heard in JFK -- that Americans at their very core are people who serve others.

    When you meet the Villas, and understand their sacrifice, you can’t help but wonder if maybe the Great Lady’s gaze is not scanning the horizon for opportunity as many believe, but instead checking to see what we’ve done with ours.

    When we arrived in Dallas, I didn’t know Normandy would soon invite me to his Harvard graduation. But I knew his story was better than the one I was flying home from.  That’s the thing about flying coach.  You don’t really find great stories, they find you. Which I would learn again very soon, when I met Donna..... but she is an entirely different story.

     

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    HARI SREENIVASAN: Through symbolism and caricatures of people in power, Nicky Nodjoumi's artwork walks a fine line between art and politics.

    NICKY NODJOUMI: I don't have a clear idea. I play with ideas and put them together.

    There is there is some ambiguity in the arts.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: But that ambiguity didn't prevent him from facing sharp criticism in his homeland of Iran after the ousting of the Shah in 1979, the new Khomeini regime began strictly regulating artistic expression. Artwork like Nodjoumi's was considered off limits.

    NICKY NODJOUMI: The art in Iran died for ten years almost after revolution. A lot of people went out. A lot of people went underground. A lot of people didn't work at all.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: Nodjoumi was exiled from Iran after an exhibition of his works in the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art in 1980.

    NICKY NODJOUMI: They saw the show and they label me as anti-revolution, anti-Khomeini, and anti-regime. I had the call two days later. "Don't talk to anyone. Just stay away. If you can, get out of the country."

    HARI SREENIVASAN: And you left?

    NICKY NODJOUMI: And I left.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: And you left your paintings?

    NICKY NODJOUMI: I left the paintings-- all of them at the museum.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: Where are they now?

    NICKY NODJOUMI: -without any. Good question.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: Nodjoumi is not sure he'll ever be able to go back to Iran, let alone show his work there.

    But here in the U.S.A . He continues to paint and his work from before the revolution is garnering new attention for a time when art in Iran was not censored, but encouraged. Nodjoumi's work from that period is part of a new exhibit of 26 modern Iranian artists at New York's Asia Society. With more than 100 sculptures, paintings, and photographs, it is the largest exhibition of its kind outside of Iran.

    In the 1950's, 60's and 70's, modern art in Iran was thriving. It combined Persian artistic traditions with avant-garde style. Artists traveled freely to and from the west, exchanging techniques. The modern art scene was so significant that Tehran had its own biennale - a worldwide art fair every two years.

    MELISSA CHIU: It was when Iran, as a society, was modernizing. And so the artists were also modernizing their work in many different ways. And it became a real kind of cultural flowering of Iranian art during this time.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: Melissa Chiu is the Director of the Asia Society in New York. In the midst of increasing tensions between Iran and the West, she hopes the exhibit sheds a different light on Iran's history.

    MELISSA CHIU: The exhibition is about a period when actually Iran and the U.S. were quite close politically, and certainly culturally. So there was a lot more back and forth and closer communications-- than we have now, with the political situation.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: And Chiu notes that artists continue to face censorship in Iran. What is it about art that is so dangerous to regimes?

    MELISSA CHIU: Well, I think artists are often the voice of criticality. They critique-- issues of power. They critique things that they see around them. And I think that can sometimes make it difficult for those in power, because they're constantly questioning that.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: But art is almost impossible to suppress. The current art scene has been gaining strength in Iran in recent years particularly in film, animation and photography, artists from Iran have won world press photo awards and last year the Iranian film ''A Separation" won the Oscar for best foreign film -- the first win for an Iranian film

    And there are hopes that under the new government in Tehran, there will be some relaxation of Iran's international relationships. And, with it, relaxation of restrictions on artistic expression that could allow Nodjoumi's work to be seen in his homeland again.


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    JOHN LARSON: And now to a topic on the minds of many this time of year: charitable giving. Studies show that Americans are among the most generous in the world, but donations are partially fueled by tax deductions. And for some time now, there’s been talk about capping those deductions. For more about all of this, we are joined now by Ken Berger. He’s the CEO of Charity Navigator, which rates how effective charities are at actually getting donations to those in need. Ken, thanks so much for joining us.

    KEN BERGER: Thank you for having me.

    JOHN LARSON: First of all, that cap on deductions, it’s not the law of the land yet, but if it should become law, what do you anticipate the effect would be?

    KEN BERGER: Well, there’s some debate on that, but essentially, billions of dollars less will be given to charity, most likely. The percent of the overall is in question, but certainly billions of dollars less would be given to charity.

    JOHN LARSON: Now we were talking beforehand, you said about $300 billion a year Americans are giving to charity in one form or another.

    KEN BERGER: Right, through private contributions. That also includes foundations and corporations.

    JOHN LARSON: And a huge amount of that is happening this weekend or this month.

    KEN BERGER: Yes, by far, the most giving happens the last month of the year and even the last day of the year is by far the day where the most giving occurs, and that’s the last day before the taxes, uh, you know, the impact of the taxes occur. So, it indicates it taxes are certainly a factor.

    JOHN LARSON: So, if people are sitting down and trying to make a smart decision about – about where to give some of the resources, what do you advise them?

    KEN BERGER: We think there are three critical things to consider. One is the finances of the organization. Is it managed well financially? Second, the governance of the organization. Does it have an independent board that has the skills to really lead the organization? It’s not just the CEO, you need that board in charge. And thirdly, and most importantly, the results. Is it truly meeting its mission and does it have data to show, in a measurable way, that it’s really helping people?

    JOHN BERGER: All of that sounds like a difficult research project. How can people figure that out?

    KEN BERGER: Well, that’s why we were created, to – to try to succinctly, through a star ratings system, uh, reflect back that kind of information, ‘cause it’s true that most Americans only give about 15, 20 minutes to their decision-making, and so to try to have that information available from experts that cull the data, uh, is the way that we’re try to, uh, help with that.

    JOHN LARSON: I was saying in the introduction how Americans are among the most charitable. First of all, are we the most or aren’t we?

    KEN BERGER: Depends on how you look at it. If it’s just charitable dollars, absolutely, by far, two to three times more generous than any other country. But if you include also taxes that are used for social programs, like for the mentally ill, for the homeless, uh, there are countries in Europe that are more generous and, uh, so, when you include that, no, we’re not.

    JOHN LARSON: And the very wealthy in this country by far give the bulk of charitable giving, and yet you were saying earlier, um, when we were speaking before the interview, that the – that the poorest among us, uh, sort of pound for pound are actually more charitable.

    KEN BERGER: As a percent of income, the working poor are the most generous, far more than, uh, middle-class or upper-class. But for dollar value, the wealthy give about 70% of all the private contributions.

    JOHN LARSON: Ken Berger, CEO of Charity Navigator, thanks so much for joining us today.

    KEN BERGER: Thank you.


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    By Larry Kotlikoff

    After you reach full retirement age, you can suspend your benefits and restart them at a higher value any time through age 70. Photo courtesy of Jim McGuire via Getty Images.

    Larry Kotlikoff's Social Security original 34 "secrets", his additional secrets, his Social Security "mistakes" and his Social Security gotchas have prompted so many of you to write in that we now feature "Ask Larry" every Monday. We are determined to continue it until the queries stop or we run through the particular problems of all 78 million Baby Boomers, whichever comes first. Kotlikoff's state-of-the-art retirement software is available here, for free, in its "basic" version.

    Patricia Donnelly -- West Haven, Conn: I will be 66 at the end of this month. I will receive my first Social Security check in January. I'm single, never married. When I went to Social Security to sign up, I asked if I could suspend my payment in the next year. I was told that I could but that I would have to pay back all payments that I have received. This is never mentioned in your articles.

    Also, I was hired by the Veterans' Affairs Department one month before Medicare and Social Security were deducted, so I paid for Medicare but not Social Security for those years. Luckily, I also worked in Social Security-covered employment part time so I have some credit. These are my lowest years of earnings, however. They would be among the highest if Social Security had not been deducted.

    I will not get a Federal pension for this work since I've withdrawn my contributions. Is it possible for me to pay into Social Security what would have been paid if Social Security taxes had been deducted on my VA pay that was not covered by Social Security?

    Larry Kotlikoff: Let me focus first on your first question. I think the person at the Social Security Administration gave you the wrong answer.

    You asked to suspend your benefit, not withdraw it. The person at the Social Security Administration must have thought you were asking to withdraw it or didn't understand that you have the option to suspend it. If you go back to that person and he or she doesn't agree that you can suspend (not withdraw) your benefit once you reach full retirement age, ask to speak to his or her supervisor.

    After you reach full retirement age, you can suspend your benefit and start it up again at a higher value any time up through age 70. But the increment to your benefit, which is the result of the delayed retirement credit, will be applied to the benefit level that you were receiving at the time of suspension. So, for example, had you started taking your retirement benefit at age 62 (and not lost any benefits between 62 and now due to the earnings test), your age-62 benefit would have been reduced by 30 percent compared to your full retirement benefit. That means any delayed retirement credits from suspending your retirement benefit would be applied to your reduced, not to your full retirement benefit.

    MORE FROM LARRY KOTLIKOFF: Ask Larry: I Learn Something About Social Security's Arcane Provisions Every Day

    If you were to withdraw your application, which you can only do within one year of first filing for your retirement benefit, you would get to start from scratch but have to repay everything you received. In your case, we're talking about, I believe, only one month's benefits, so whether you repay that month's benefit or suspend it won't make a huge difference to the retirement benefit you'll receive when you restart it.

    Regarding your other question, my understanding is that you worked in non-covered employment and are wondering if you can voluntarily pay Social Security taxes on those earnings in order to qualify for higher benefits. The answer is no. However, since you withdrew your civil service contributions instead of receiving a federal pension, your Social Security benefits will not be reduced by the Windfall Elimination Provision.

    Robert Chester -- Palm Harbor, Fla.: If I collect Social Security at 65 (my full Social Security would be at 66) and get a job, can I stop these benefits and restart at 66 to collect full benefits?

    Larry Kotlikoff: No, you can't suspend your benefits until you reach full retirement age. But if you earn enough money to lose all your benefits via the earnings test, Social Security will treat you at age 66 and thereafter as if you had never applied for your retirement benefit when it comes to calculating your own retirement benefit down the road. But remember that the minute you file for your own retirement benefit, your option to file for a full spousal benefit (as opposed to an excess spousal benefit) disappears.

    Bob Hines -- Piqua, Ohio: My wife and I are 66 years old. She started collecting Social Security at age 62 but continues to work part time. I think she is allowed to earn $14,500 without penalty. I started collecting my Social Security at age 66 but continue to work full time mostly because my group health insurance pays the lion's share of my insulin pump and continuous glucose monitoring supplies.

    Despite having diabetes for 35 years, I'm still in good health. I tentatively plan to retire in April of 2014. In January 2014, my Social Security will be at $2,037 a month. My wife will get $858 per month Social Security in January 2014. I stumbled on your column, but I'm still confused about the spousal benefit.

    Friends have told me my wife would be eligible for half of mine. That would give her a $160.50 increase per month. We asked a lady at the Social Security office, and she said my wife wasn't eligible for half of mine. Could she be mistaken? We've been working for 48 years and would like a rest.

    Larry Kotlikoff: The lady at the Social Security office has it right. Because your wife filed for her own retirement benefit, her total benefit is her reduced retirement benefit plus her excess spousal benefit, not her full spousal benefit. Her excess spousal benefit is half your full-retirement-age benefit less 100 percent of her full-retirement-age benefit (i.e., the amount she would have received on her account if she had waited until age 66 to apply). If the excess spousal benefit is negative, it's set to zero. If this is your wife's case, her spousal benefit won't equal half of your retirement benefit; it will equal zero.

    Had she not filed for her own retirement benefit, she could, indeed, collect a full spousal benefit equal to half of your full retirement benefit starting at full retirement age, but only if she applied just for a spousal benefit. The minute one files for a retirement benefit, one's ability to get a full spousal benefit (half of one's partner's full retirement benefit) goes poof!

    As I discussed in a recent column, Social Security could not make this more confusing for people.

    Here may be the best thing for you and your wife to do. You, yourself, can repay all the benefits you've received and then apply just for a full spousal benefit on your wife's account. You can then wait until 70 to collect your highest possible retirement benefit. It will be 32 percent larger, after inflation, than it is now.

    For her part, your wife can suspend her retirement benefit and start it up again at 70 at a higher value. If she just turned 66 (her full retirement age), her benefit at 70 will also be 32 percent larger than what she is now collecting. If she is some months beyond her 66th birthday, the increase at 70 in her benefit will be less than 32 percent.

    If you are pressed for funds or are sure you will die at a fairly early age, this may not be the best strategy. Software programs whose calculations under the hood are highly accurate can help you consider other options. But they must properly value your remaining lifetime Social Security benefits and incorporate the option for current recipients to suspend their benefits between full retirement age and 70 to take advantage of the delayed retirement credit.

    Daniela -- Sacramento, Calif.: My question is simple, but I can not find an answer in any of the Social Security papers. I am 62, and next month, I will receive a spousal benefit check from Social Security. I do not have enough credit to get my own retirement. My husband is now 71 years old, and I am wondering if I will be a widow later on, can I still apply to get the widow benefit?

    Larry Kotlikoff: When your husband dies, you need to inform Social Security and then they will provide you with a survivor benefit, which should equal at least as much as what he is now receiving as a retirement benefit.

    Please realize that by taking your spousal benefit before full retirement age -- and, if your husband dies, taking your survivor benefit before full retirement age -- you will be permanently reducing your benefits. For example, your spousal benefit, were you to wait until full retirement age (66) to collect it, would be 43 percent higher, for as long as you husband survives.

    Susan -- Brooklyn, N.Y. At what age will I collect the most Social Security? I was born in March 1955.

    Larry Kotlikoff: If we are talking about your retirement benefit, it's age 70. If we are talking about your spousal benefit from your current spouse or, if you are not remarried, from an ex-spouse with whom you were married for 10 years, it's 66 and two months. But (there are always buts with Social Security) your current spouse would need to be at least 62 for you to collect a spousal benefit at 66 years and two months. And your ex would need to be at least 62, and you would have to have been divorced for at least two years.

    In regards to collecting a survivor benefit, the age at which you can get the highest survivor benefit is age 66 exactly. This is your survivor full retirement age. You might think the full retirement age for survivor benefits would be the same as the full retirement age for retirement and spousal benefits. For young'uns like you, the full retirement age for retirement and spousal benefits can be up to four months older than the full retirement age for survivor benefits.

    Ellen Lubell -- Saint James: I'm 63 and collecting Social Security. I had to get a job to support myself. Next year, I will make more money than they allow. Can I stop Social Security and collect when I reach the proper age? Do I have to pay back the money I already collected? And how does that work?

    Larry Kotlikoff: You can't suspend your benefit until you reach full retirement age. And you can't repay all the benefits you received and reapply if you have been receiving benefits for a year or more. But don't worry. When you reach full retirement age, Social Security will raise your retirement benefit (actually, undo the early retirement benefit reduction) to make up for any benefits you and your family members lose on your own earnings record via the earnings test between now and when you reach full retirement age.

    This entry is cross-posted on the Rundown -- NewsHour's blog of news and insight. Follow @paulsolman


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    Greece has started offering free electricity to many low-income families in an effort to curb the use of firewood, which officials say has caused "alarming levels" of air pollution.

    In recent weeks, pollution levels have soared in the capital and other major cities. In particular, the amount of particulate matter in the air over the northern suburbs of Athens was measured at twice its normal level. Officials are blaming the smog largely on an increase in the use of firewood to heat homes.

    For poorer communities, burning wood has become a cheaper alternative to buying fuel, the cost of which has increased over the last two years. Energy prices soared after new tax hikes were imposed on the country following the EU-IMF bailout.

    Now, under the new measure, families that qualify for "low-income" status will receive two days of free electricity for every one day smog levels reach "alarming levels," equivalent to 150 milligrams per cubic meter.

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    South Sudanese take shelter on Sunday at a camp for displaced people set up by the U.N. Photo by Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty Images.

    WASHINGTON -- Defense officials say the U.S. is moving additional Marines and aircraft from Spain to the Horn of Africa to provide embassy security and help with evacuations from violence-wracked South Sudan.

    Army Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, says the commander in Africa is getting the forces ready for any request that may come from the U.S. State Department.

    A defense official says the extra forces moving to Djibouti will bring the total U.S. troops there to 150, with 10 aircraft, including Osprey helicopters and C-130 transport planes. The official was not authorized to speak publicly so spoke on condition of anonymity.

    Troops deployed last week helped evacuate Americans and other foreign nationals and provided security at the U.S. Embassy in Juba. Another couple hundred Americans remain in the country.

    By Lolita C. Baldor, Associated Press

    "U.S. moving 150 Marines closer to South Sudan as fears of civil war in country increase, U.S. military officials say." via @cnnbrk

    — Jake Tapper (@jaketapper) December 23, 2013

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    On Monday the Obama administration announced another deadline extension for health care enrollment, giving consumer an extra day to sign up for coverage on HealthCare.gov. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

    Insurance companies selling through the health law's troubled online marketplaces are scrambling to provide coverage by Jan. 1 even as swarms of customers are still enrolling and making their first payments.

    Federal officials and state regulators have repeatedly altered rules to allow the Affordable Care Act's computers to enroll as many as possible before 2014 begins. In the latest deadline extension, the Obama administration on Monday announced that consumers can have one more day to sign up on HeathCare.gov, moving the deadline to Dec. 24. The combination of problem software, changing deadlines and shifting regulations over the last two months is unprecedented, insurers say.

    On Dec. 12, the Obama administration announced a series of changes to the health care law that included allowing individuals to pay their premiums, or even part of them, on the last day of the year for coverage starting the next day. PBS NewsHour's Jeffrey Brown talked with Alex Wayne of Bloomberg News about efforts to prevent coverage gaps and spur enrollment.

    "Going into this, knowing things weren't going to go swimmingly, we did a lot of scenario planning so the health plans could build out contingency plans," said Paul Lambdin of Deloitte Consulting, which advises insurers. "And thank goodness we did. But no one thought up the scenario we're living in."

    Medical plans, with potentially billions in revenue at stake in the health law's expansion of private coverage, have hired extra workers to run phone banks and tangle with paper applications that were supposed to be processed online.

    They've assigned staff to pore through electronic enrollments that might be inaccurate or incomplete, or to remind customers to pay. They're guiding applicants who were expected to sign up on the federal HealthCare.gov site or portals run by the states.

    "When you look at the problems associated with HealthCare.gov and how long it took to be fixed, it seems unfair to ask insurance companies to have their systems incorporate these changes within a few weeks," said Stephen Zaharuk, an insurance industry analyst for Moody's Investors Service, which rates bonds.

    Implementing the health law involved countless deadlines, but one that can't budge is coverage for Jan. 1.

    On Thursday the administration disclosed another change, exempting those whose policies have been cancelled from next year's coverage requirements and allowing them to buy high-deductible "catastrophic" plans. Fewer than 500,000 people face losing insurance because of cancellation, administration officials told reporters.

    Although marketplace enrollment for 2014 doesn't end until March 31, many consumers are counting on insurance in January to replace expiring 2013 plans. Others without coverage, many with existing illness, have been promised for years that Jan. 1 is when they can have affordable, subsidized, comprehensive coverage for the first time.

    "I can tell you they're going to have people working through New Year's Eve," Lambdin said of the insurers. "If someone wants to see how hard the health plans are working, they can join them at their party."

    The Congressional Budget Office projected that 7 million would buy policies in 2014 issued by private insurers through the subsidized marketplaces, or exchanges. (That's in addition to millions more low-income consumers expected to gain new Medicaid coverage in states that chose to expand it.)

    But thanks largely to computer problems that surfaced after the exchanges opened in October, fewer than half a million had signed up through November.

    The Phones Are Ringing

    Since then insurers and marketplace administrators have reported enrollment surges and substantially improved software.

    "We have definitely staffed up," said Jon Urbanek, a senior vice president at Florida Blue, the Blue Cross affiliate in that state. "We're looking at extremely high volumes coming in during the holidays."

    Call volume to Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota "sort of ebbs and flows with the wait times on MNsure," the Minnesota portal that sometimes keeps people waiting an hour or more, said Scott Keefer, the insurer's vice president of policy.

    Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan wrote a program to let applicants learn their eligibility for subsidies via phone text.

    Bowing to pressure, President Barack Obama in November announced changes to his health care law to give insurance companies the option to keep offering consumers plans that would otherwise be canceled.

    Health Care Service Corp. got a flood of calls related to President Barack Obama's request last month that insurers allow customers to renew 2013 plans that don't include required benefits under the Affordable Care Act, said Jeff Tikkanen, the company's president of retail markets. HCSC runs Blues plans in New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Illinois and Montana.

    That, too, required more staff, he said.

    The original signup deadline for January coverage was Dec. 15. In November, the Obama administration extended it to Dec. 23. On Monday, they moved it back one day. This month it ordered insurers to accept payment even later -- up to Dec. 31. Then insurers agreed to take payment until Jan. 10.

    Insurers have said little about the administration's request that they provide Jan. 1 coverage for those who sign up and pay after that.

    Taking Preventive Steps

    In any case, nobody expects everything to be done on time.

    The health maintenance organization Kaiser Permanente expects some new subscribers to walk into clinics without yet having received their membership cards.

    "We already have established mechanisms in place for handling people who show up at the medical centers but are not in our systems as members," said Kaiser spokesman Chris Stenrud. "We trust the member and provide any immediate care needs. If the person turns out not to be a member, we will bill them for those services."

    (Kaiser Health News is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.)

    Cigna, selling exchange plans in Florida, Texas and elsewhere, has set up 24-hour hotlines, and a team to deal with new members and "post-enrollment snafus," said spokesman Joe Mondy. New subscribers should expect a welcome package, but "if they don't get a binder within a week's time, they need to call us and make sure everything is in place," he said.

    Blue Cross Minnesota assigned people to double check electronic applications from MNsure.

    "Sometimes the addresses don't match. The date of birth may not match," Keefer said. "We've had cases showing the dependents are the parents, and the parents are actually the children. Weird stuff like that."

    Another concern is that insurers might not get any enrollment file, flawed or not, from the federal HealthCare.gov site run by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. Insurers have reported continuing failures in data handoffs.

    "That's the problem most of us are worried about -- people who have selected a health plan and we haven't heard from CMS on," said HCSC's Tikkanen. "If I don't have a record of them I don't know who they are."

    Florida Blue advises new customers to print a screen shot of the enrollment confirmation on healthcare.gov just in case related emails and data submissions don't get sent.

    "That gives them something to keep in hand," Urbanek said.

    Kaiser Health News is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan health policy research and communication organization not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente. Jay Hancock contributed to this report.

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  • 12/23/13--08:55: The bug that ate Christmas
  • The balsam wolly adelgid is an invasive species known to kill the Canaan and Fraser fir tree species. Image courtesy of the Forest Service of the United States Department of Agriculture.

    Populations of Canaan and Fraser firs -- some of the nation's most popular and iconic Christmas tree species -- are quickly deteriorating in the Appalachian Mountains. Known for their dark evergreen color and thick branches, these trees are slowly losing their needles and turning yellow in many parts of West Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina. The culprit? A tiny bug called the balsam wolly adelgid.

    The wolly adelgid covers the branches of these Christmas trees with fuzzy waxy balls that contain its eggs. They are about the size of a tick and feed on the branches and trunks of trees by puncturing the bark and secreting chemicals that cause them to deform. The bugs are all female and are able to reproduce without mating, making them extremely hard to remove.

    On contained commercial tree farms, expensive pesticides are used to thwart these harmful bugs. The use of pesticides in the wild, however, risks killing much more than the tiny wolly adelgid, and so the bug is destroying enormous quantities of hemlocks at an alarming rate. The loss of large quantities of the Christmas trees can have a huge effect on the ecosystem of forests. These trees play a crucial role in keeping the floor of forests cool by providing dense shade to forest floors.

    In the Great Smokey Mountains National Park, park rangers are trying to cut back on the invasion of the wolly adelgid by introducing a predator beetle who eats the eggs of the small pests. Trees like the Canaan and Fraser firs are very common from Canada through North Carolina but are especially at risk in areas where temperatures are rising, allowing insects like the wolly adelgid to proliferate.

    Randall Edwards, a spokesman for the Nature Conservancy of Ohio, says that the invasion of the wolly adelgid needs attention because it's an example of a larger problem that forests are facing in the U.S. "It could be that the only place you see the Canaan fir in the future is on tree farms," Edwards said. "And we think that would be unfortunate."

    H/T Jordan Vesey

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    Americans love their shrimp. We ate close to four pounds of it per person in 2012, according to the National Fisheries Institute. And if you're heading to a holiday party this season, you may even find yourself reaching for shrimp cocktail.

    But that shrimp you're eating likely isn't local. As much as 85 percent of the shrimp we eat is imported. Most of the imported shrimp comes from countries in Southeast Asia including Thailand, Indonesia and China. Some of it farmed and some of it caught wild.

    Even if eating local isn't a priority, you may still be concerned to learn that most imported shrimp is never inspected.

    According to a study published in 2011, by the John Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, less than 2 percent of seafood imports are inspected. In 2012, the number rose to 2.7 percent, according to Mother Jones.

    So, what is a holiday host to do when contemplating whether or not to serve scampi this year? Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch is a good resource for finding information on all types of seafood, including shrimp.

    H/T Bridget Shirvell

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    As a young man, Dick Davis fell in love with Iran and ever since he has dedicated his life to bringing its culture to the west. "Its been a wonderful odyssey." Here he reads his translations of a poem by Hafez, a renowned 14th century Persian poet.

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    (Photo by Rod Lamkey/Getty Images) Buying Christmas gifts is an economic waste if you don't know exactly what the recipient wants. Photo courtesy of Rod Lamkey/Getty Images.

    If you haven't yet finished buying Christmas gifts for your nieces and nephews and the neighbor across the street, maybe you shouldn't bother. That's right, don't buy them gifts this year -- or ever; it's an economic waste, says University of Minnesota economics professor Joel Waldfogel.

    Twenty years ago, Waldfogel coined the "deadweight loss of Christmas" theory in a small paper in the American Economic Review. His research, popular with the media this time of year, has gone on to have a life of its own. And Waldfogel followed it up with the 2009 book "Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn't Buy Gifts for the Holidays."

    On the NewsHour Monday, Paul Solman explores the meaning and limitations of the deadweight theory with the Scroogenomist himself. For more about the economics of gift-giving and its alternatives, here is the edited and condensed transcript of Paul's extended conversation with Waldfogel.

    Paul Solman: What is the deadweight loss of Christmas?

    Joel Waldfogel: Well the deadweight loss of Christmas is just the waste that arises from people making choices for other people. Normally I'll only buy myself something that costs $50 if it's worth at least $50 to me. When I go out and spend $50 on you though, cause I don't know what you like and what you need, I could spend $50 and buy something that would be worth nothing to you.

    Paul Solman: And why is it called the "deadweight loss"?

    Joel Waldfogel: Well that's just a jargon term in economics. It means waste; it's a loss to one party that's not offset as a gain to someone else. So for example, if I give you a dollar, that's a loss to me, but it's a gain to you, so that's not a deadweight loss.

    Paul Solman: How serious are you about this idea? Every time I talk to anybody else, including other economists, they say, wait a second, gift exchange, reciprocity, emotional value, that's what gift giving is about, not an economic exchange.

    Joel Waldfogel: Well yes and no. So first of all, I'm at least semi-serious about it and let me explain what I mean. The question is, are we in the U.S. getting $70 billion worth of satisfaction out of the items that we're choosing for others? My answer is no.

    The Rise of Gift Cards

    Paul Solman: Okay, so propose to me an alternative, a solution to the problem of the deadweight loss of Christmas.

    Joel Waldfogel: Sure, well so first of all, many givers who are in close contact with their recipients do quite well. Parents actually do pretty well for their kids. Friends do well for each other. Significant others do very well for each other, and so there's no problem to be solved in that case.

    The problem arises when people have an obligation to give but know nothing about what the recipient wants. And what's interesting is people's own behavior, you know since I wrote this paper 20 years ago, has shown the way toward a solution that they like (and not a solution necessarily that I propose) -- that is the enormous growth in gift cards, which are, from the standpoint of economic theory, like giving cash.

    MORE FROM THE BUSINESS DESK: Thanksgiving 2013: The Art of the Gift in the Era of the Market

    And what's so interesting about gift cards as a novel solution is that they seem to avoid the awkwardness of cash. They're enormously popular with recipients and givers and so they are a market solution, not my solution, but a market solution that account for something like a third of holiday gift-giving.

    Paul Solman: Yes, the ickiness of cash, why is cash icky? Isn't that saying something about the nature of gift-giving when it becomes purely or mainly economic?

    Joel Waldfogel: Cash is icky as a gift, but there's interesting evidence in the behavior of gift givers. ... When big dollars are at stake, people choose cash. ... I would interpret that as being precisely because with a lot of money at stake, given that I'm going to do a bad job choosing an item, I'd rather do a better job and accept the ickiness than just do a horrible job and destroy a lot of value.

    Paul Solman: When I bring a bottle of wine to someone, I always scratch off how much it costs, right? Why do we do that?

    Joel Waldfogel: Scratching off the price is related to the ickiness of cash, and we don't like when how much we spent is transparent. But the fact that people find gift cards so popular means that we seemed to have moved past that problem, at least with one category of gifts.

    Paul Solman: But don't a lot of gift cards not get used?

    Joel Waldfogel: We understand that something like 10 percent of gift cards never get redeemed. Now that means something like $8 billion a year in the U.S., not all of it around the holidays, but throughout the year. Now in some states, the unredeemed money goes to the state government, in other states it gets recognized as revenue by the retailer. Now that's not inefficient, but a gift to the shareholders of the retailer is probably not what the gift-giver had in mind.

    I would love to see gift cards that default to charity after 24 months; that way the buyer could buy it knowing that either his intended recipient or some other worthy cause would get the money.

    Is Santa Claus Just as Bad as Uncle Sam?

    Paul Solman: Your analysis of gift giving and Christmas is based on how important you and other economists think the notion of consumer preference is, yes?

    Joel Waldfogel: Yes, the way we think about how consumers make decisions is that...they have sets of items they would choose to purchase at the prevailing prices if it were up to them. ... We think of their decisions reflecting the best they could possibly do. We enshrine that in the whole theory of consumer choice. And of course the theory has limits. It doesn't work for little kids who change their preferences one minute to the next. ... Sometimes you know [about an item] that your recipient doesn't know and you can actually make a choice that's better than they would have done for themselves. So it's not that it's impossible, but normally, the way we think about choice and consumer behavior is that people do best when left to themselves.

    Paul Solman: In a sense, doesn't that underlie the whole concept of market economics that because people have preferences and express them by what they're willing to pay, we get as a society the optimal allocations of the resources at our disposal?

    Joel Waldfogel: The idea underlying "Scroogenomics" and "The Dead Weight Loss of Christmas" is just the most fundamental idea of economics that individuals are best suited to make their own decisions, and when others make their decisions for them, not always, but in general, those decisions are not well matched with the preferences of the ultimate consumers.

    In fact, one of the major criticisms that many people have of government is that when we do things through government, someone else is making choices for us. Sometimes that someone else might be a grandmother or aunt or uncle or Santa Claus. And Santa Claus can be as bad or worse than Uncle Sam.

    Paul Solman: Is this a kind of an anti-government position?

    Joel Waldfogel: I wouldn't think of this as being so much of an anti-government idea; it's more of an idea that we should have some humility about some of the foibles of our own private market activity as well.

    But Isn't Buying Gifts Good for the Economy?

    Paul Solman: By some estimates, consumer spending is 70 percent of our economy. If everyone follows your suggestion, isn't that going to put a damper on spending in an economy with 7 percent plus unemployment and a weak recovery, at a particularly touchy time of the year?

    Joel Waldfogel: I'm not against spending; I'm just against spending that doesn't produce the requisite amount of satisfaction.

    Now that I'm old enough to be an uncle myself, I can see why this happens. It's not that aunts and uncles or grandparents are bad gift-givers; it's just that they're not in close contact.

    So in my ideal world, people would go ahead and spend, but they'd buy things that would actually buy some satisfaction for their recipients as well as accomplishing whatever other goals gift giving might be meant to accomplish.

    Paul Solman: But what I don't understand is how would they know [when their spending is worth it]?

    Joel Waldfogel: Well, first of all, we know when we're at the store with no idea what to do -- those are situations that risk destroying value; those are the situations where one needs to find an alternative.

    There are many ways to spend money without destroying value: we could give gift cards, we could give gifts to charity in the name of the recipient. Those would preserve spending, but more importantly, from my standpoint, they would ensure that the spending produces some important kind of satisfaction for some ultimate recipient.

    Paul Solman: The cliché in gift-giving is it's the thought that counts. It's not the amount. It's, did I think about you, have I gone that extra mile to try to understand what you want and show you that that's what I'm doing?

    Joel Waldfogel: I think the thought is very important. The thought doesn't need to be communicated with a lot of money. ... When I think about favorite gifts I've received from people who are kind of at arms-length knowledge about what I actually need, well maybe my favorite is a photograph of my nephew sitting on my lap. It maybe costs what, a dollar, two dollars to give me this in a modest frame? Favorite gift ever, no value destroyed.

    Why Is This Economics?

    Paul Solman: So do you have anybody you need to be buying something for?

    Joel Waldfogel: Uh yeah, I do. My wife. ... Does this run before the gift exchange?

    Paul Solman: We'll get it surreptitiously. Let's go. So what is it?

    Joel Waldfogel: This is not a major gift. She wants some new oven mitts. The ones we got for our wedding presents are kind of wearing out...

    Paul Solman: But wait a second, that is then part of the mystery of gift-giving -- you don't want her to know. Aren't you reducing with your argument the whole point of gift-giving?

    Joel Waldfogel: Well, actually, this is something for which she specifically asked, so she does know, but if she doesn't hear about it immediately before getting it, it'll be easier for us to all pretend it's a surprise.

    Paul Solman: But then there's lots of pretense, so why should we reduce this to economics?

    Joel Waldfogel: The reasons why we give gifts have very little to do with economics and a lot to do with our sister social sciences, but it's the consequences of gift-giving that economics is good at analyzing.

    Paul Solman: For people outside your wife and your kids, are you known as the guy they can depend on to give them cash?

    Joel Waldfogel: I rarely give cash. Over the years, though, I have given a lot of gift cards and cards that have little economic diagrams in them.

    Paul Solman: Really?

    Joel Waldfogel: Yeah, it's illustrating the benefit of my approach. Mostly these are gifts to economists, so they get the bad joke.

    This entry is cross-posted on the Rundown -- NewsHour's blog of news and insight. Follow @paulsolman


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    GWEN IFILL: Uninsured Americans will get one more day to sign up for health coverage that kicks in New Year's Day. The Obama administration today pushed back the deadline to tomorrow. Officials said the move should help the healthcare.gov Web site cope with a last-minute surge of users. We will get more on the delay right after the news summary.

    The Russian government freed two punk band musicians today who had protested under -- against President Vladimir Putin.

    We have a report narrated by Martha Fairlie of Independent Television News.

    MARTHA FAIRLIE: Sixteen months in a Siberian prison has not softened the defiant stance of Nadezhda Tolokonnikova. "Russia without Putin," she said, as she walked out of the prison hospital gate. As a member of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot, she was jailed last year for performing this song in a Moscow cathedral criticizing the orthodox church and Russia's president.

    Today, she hit out at the Russia's new amnesty law, saying, "Putin blamed us for carrying out cynical acts, but in reality today's act is much more cynical. They just put on another show ahead of the Olympics. Such is their desire to stop the European countries boycotting the Russian Olympics."

    Her pardon came hours after fellow band member Maria Alekhina was freed from another prison thousands of miles away. She says they will now turn to human rights work, but insists the methods they use will remain the same.

    The amnesty law's widely regarded as a move to improve Russia's image before it hosts the Winter Olympics in Sochi in February. The country's new leniency towards protesters is being welcomed by the European Union. But they still want more change. Last Friday, former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky was pardoned and freed. He spent 10 years in prison after challenging Putin's power.

    But there is no news on the so-called Arctic 30. The Greenpeace activists, including six Britons, are awaiting trial after protesting over drilling for oil in the Arctic.

    GWEN IFILL: The crisis in South Sudan teetered today between all-out civil war and the prospect of negotiations. A former vice president now leading the rebels said he's ready for talks if his political allies are freed. Meanwhile, the U.N. and the U.S. considered sending more troops. We will hear more about South Sudan's turmoil from the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. later in the program.

    In Syria, government forces kept up an assault in the north and casualties kept climbing. Helicopters dropping barrel bombs hit a town near Aleppo, where rebels have been under an intense nine-day bombardment. A Syrian human rights group says more than 300 people have died since the offensive began.

    From Michigan to Maine, several hundred thousand homes and businesses spent another cold day without electricity. A wild mix of weekend weather knocked out power in a broad swath of states. Residents in rain-soaked areas of the Midwest faced swollen rivers, inundated homes, and flooded roadways. Meanwhile, repair crews in northern New York and New England raced to restore downed power lines that fell victim to freezing rain and ice-coated tree branches.

    MAN: The thing is, when they get one line repaired, now another branch is coming down, so it's just -- they're not really catching up. They're not getting any ground, you know. It's cold. We're struggling to get the sump pump kicked on. I got a generator going down there, keeping the basement unflooded.

    GWEN IFILL: At least nine deaths were blamed on the various storms.

    A federal judge in Utah refused today to block gay marriages in one of the nation's most conservative states. On Friday, U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby overturned the state ban on same-sex unions. More than 100 couples received licenses and were wed that same day, and hundreds more lined up today. The state had asked the courts to halt the marriages while it appeals the main ruling.

    On Wall Street, the Dow Jones industrial average gained 73 points to close at 16,294. The Nasdaq rose 44 points to close near 4,149.

    The man who created the world's most popular and most deadly firearm, the AK-47, died today. Mikhail Kalashnikov was a weapons designer for the Soviet Union when he invented the gun in 1947. It was rugged and simple and became the choice of soldiers, guerrillas and terrorists alike. Mikhail Kalashnikov was 94 years old.

     


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    GWEN IFILL: Tonight, we get the latest on the health care exchanges and why the Obama administration is giving people another day to sign up. The deadline for new coverage that would take effect on January 1 was supposed to be midnight tonight, but the administration quietly pushed it back. That decision came as White House officials announced President Obama has himself signed up for a health plan.

    Alex Wayne covers health care for Bloomberg News, and he joins us now.

    So, what is the real reason that this is being pushed back, Alex?

    ALEX WAYNE, Bloomberg News: Sure.

    Well, the website the federal government has to sell insurance to people who need it saw more than a million visitors just today. And a lot of those visitors probably ran into the same screen that I ran into when I tried it a few times throughout the day, which was basically a holding screen that said very politely, look, we have too much traffic right now. Please wait until there's less traffic. And if you would give us an e-mail address, we will send you an e-mail in a few hours and you can come back when traffic subsides and sign up.

    They don't want these people to go away without coverage. They want to make sure that all those people get the coverage they came to the website expecting to sign for. And so they are giving really everybody in the country another day, not just the folks who visit today.

    GWEN IFILL: So as long as you were there today and as long as you registered and got this -- signed up for this e-mail...

    ALEX WAYNE: Yes.

    GWEN IFILL: ... you get coverage -- you are covered? At least you are under the deadline?

    ALEX WAYNE: If you visited today and you signed up for this e-mail, you definitely will get coverage. If you wait until tomorrow to sign up, you might also still get coverage.

    The administration wouldn't rule out the possibility that people who show up tomorrow for the first time will have coverage starting January 1.

    GWEN IFILL: But they're trying to discourage the procrastinators who might just wait until tomorrow?

    (CROSSTALK)

    ALEX WAYNE: They would really like you to show up today. And I would suggest anybody who needs coverage on January 1, go to the site today just to make sure.

    GWEN IFILL: So it seems like there have been a lot of delays.

    ALEX WAYNE: Yes.

    GWEN IFILL: How many have there been?

    ALEX WAYNE: I was looking back at my coverage earlier today. And I have written at least nine or 10 pretty major provisions that have been delayed or extended, ranging from things like the requirement that all employers provide insurance to their workers. That's delayed for a year.

    Just last week, they said that people who have received letters from their insurers canceling their plans effective at the end of the year, those people will be exempt from the individual mandate, the requirement that you carry insurance starting in 2014. So there has been quite a few.

    GWEN IFILL: Now, theoretically, this is good for people trying to sign up late or who were caught up in the glitches or bigger than glitches on the website.

    ALEX WAYNE: Right.

    GWEN IFILL: But what about insurance companies? How are they taking this, because this involves changing the plans, doesn't it?

    ALEX WAYNE: Sure. I think they're just sort of hanging on tight and waiting for the ride to end right now.

    They have said that they will do a few things the administration has asked them to do. For example, they're letting people pay late. If you sign up now, you don't have to pay for your plan until January 10 with most companies and most parts of the country.

    But they have balked at doing a few things, including allowing people to sign up retroactively. Say you wait until January 10 and you get sick or you get in a car accident or something. They're not going to let you sign up for coverage that is effective that day or on January 1.

    GWEN IFILL: Now, the White House told us today that the president signed up for the health care exchange.

    ALEX WAYNE: Right.

    GWEN IFILL: Why did he need to do that?

    ALEX WAYNE: Yes, he doesn't need to do it. He's got very good health coverage through the military, actually. So, he had two choices.

    He could not sign up for a plan and be accused of staying out of the program that has come to carry his own name. Or he could sign up for one and take a little teasing, maybe, that he's buying coverage that he doesn't need. So he chose to do that. He's the president of the United States. I think can take a little teasing.

    GWEN IFILL: Does that mean that he personally went on the website and signed up?

    ALEX WAYNE: No, not at all. The president is in Hawaii. He's on vacation, I think, as has been reported. And so he had a White House staff person sign up for him.

    GWEN IFILL: In person, I read somewhere.

    ALEX WAYNE: Yes, that's what we reported as well.

    (LAUGHTER)

    GWEN IFILL: Well, tell me, if you're watching this and you are watching all of the stumbles and the stutter steps along the way, what -- what assurance do most Americans have that January 1, which is a little over a week away, even they have registered, they have done everything right, there is actually going to be coverage?

    ALEX WAYNE: Well, you should definitely call your insurer. If you signed up, call your insurer and make sure your coverage is effective. If you have gotten a bill from your insurer or, better yet, even, an insurance card, you definitely have coverage.

    But if you have gotten a bill, pay that bill and then you will definitely have coverage on January 1.

    (CROSSTALK)

    GWEN IFILL: Go ahead.

    ALEX WAYNE: If you look at this from the administration's perspective or from the perspective of their allies, it may look like a mess right now. There's a lot of negative news coverage about all these delays and extensions.

    From the administration's perspective, they're doing all these things because they want to do everything possible to make sure that January 1 proceeds smoothly, that people who need insurance have it, that people who need to see a doctor or go to a hospital are able to do that. They don't really care too much about the controversy over these delays and extensions as long as things work out when the coverage begins.

    GWEN IFILL: So that is the next deadline that you're watching?

    ALEX WAYNE: January 1. That's when people will be able to start using their new insurance cards.

    Now, I don't expect people to show up at doctor's offices on New Year's Day, but maybe at emergency rooms, pharmacies. And then, on January 2, certainly, people are going to start trying to use this -- new coverage.

    GWEN IFILL: And the real test kicks in.

    ALEX WAYNE: That's right.

    GWEN IFILL: Alex Wayne of Bloomberg News, thank you.

    ALEX WAYNE: Thank you.

     

     


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    GWEN IFILL: The Obama administration has released freshly declassified information on why the intelligence community began collecting phone and Internet records of American citizens after the 9/11 attacks.The release came after a panel of security and privacy experts raised new questions last week about the National Security Agency's activities.

    Jeffrey Brown has more.

    JEFFREY BROWN: The review was commissioned by President Obama after revelations by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

    And with me now are two of the five members of the panel: Geoffrey Stone, professor of law at the University of Chicago.He's written extensively about constitutional law and civil liberties.And Peter Swire, professor at the Scheller College of Business at Georgia Tech, he served as chief counselor for privacy during the Clinton administration.

    Well, Geoffrey Stone, let me start with you.

    You're not calling to end the program, but you are saying that, as a general rule, the U.S. should stop collecting and storing mass metadata.So how are we to understand that?How strong a critique is this?

    GEOFFREY STONE, University of Chicago:Well, basically, the critique says that there is potential value in collecting this type of information, but there are also serious potential dangers.

    And, therefore, the idea is to find a way to balance these two interests in a way that maximizes the net benefit.And so our conclusion is not that there should be no inquiry into the metadata, but that, rather, the data should be held by private parties, rather than by the government, to reduce the possibilities of abuse by government, and also to provide another set of eyes on the process, which is useful.

    And, also, we recommend that the government not be able to access the information without obtaining a judicial order, something that is not now required.So the idea is more than fine-tuning, but it recognizes that the program can have value, but that ideally we should find that value in a way that minimizes the potential risks to the nation and to our fundamental liberties.

    JEFFREY BROWN: Well, to push that just a little further, Peter Swire, in the report, you cite how at various times in U.S. history, the government has abused information that it collects on citizens.Do you think what's happening now amounts to an abuse?

    PETER SWIRE, Scheller College of Business, Georgia Tech University:Well, thank you.And glad to be here.

    In the 1970s, we really saw abuse.There was a book that came out during the Watergate period that was called "The Crimes of the Intelligence Agencies."And it had chapters about a lot of different agencies.I think, fortunately, as we did our review, we dug in and did our interviews and talked to people, we have not seen evidence of political targeting of people with the United States' tools.

    So that kind of abuse of the political process that we have seen in the past, we didn't find this time.And I think that's really comforting to the American people, that we have looked and we have dug under the covers and that's not what is happening.

    JEFFREY BROWN: Let me stay with you for a minute about something that Geoffrey Stone just brought up.One of the key recommendations is to have the government not hold on to the data, but to give it to -- to have the phone companies or a third party -- a third-party business, I guess, hold on to it.

    Why should Americans feel any more secure going that route?

    PETER SWIRE: Well, I think the first thing is that I think it was a surprise to a lot of people to have basically all domestic phone calls in a database held for foreign intelligence reasons.

    And as a society, we're trying to work through, how do we stay safe, how do we do our foreign intelligence, our national security and live our domestic lives where the Fourth Amendment applies and we have our liberties?

    So one thing that Geoffrey Stone said is -- and I agree with -- is we have a traditional way we have done it, wiretaps, which is you go to the holder of the records and they hold them in the regular course of business.And then if it turns out that the government is doing things that are surprising, that go outside what the law is, somebody outside the government sees it.And so having the traditional holders of records do this is what we said really is probably the way to go.

    JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Geoffrey Stone, the report says that there was no evidence that the metadata collection has ever helped prevent a terror attack.Now, we have heard -- we have heard otherwise, really, from many American officials.But were you surprised by what you found, or, rather, what you didn't find?

    GEOFFREY STONE: Frankly, I was a bit surprised.

    My expectation was that we would see proof of the sort that we did see with respect to other surveillance authorities of specific instances in which you could demonstrate that because of this particular intelligence method, specific terrorist attacks were thwarted.

    With respect to the 215 metadata program, one couldn't actually see that.But that is not to say that it is not in general useful and that it doesn't feed into other sorts of information which could be helpful.But there was nothing definitive of the sort that we have see with many other authorities that we examined.

    JEFFREY BROWN: But that's not -- so you wouldn't accept the -- you accept the need for the program in spite of the potential for abuses, and in spite of not really seeing any evidence that it's done much?

    GEOFFREY STONE: We think the program has a certain powerful logic to it.

    The idea basically is if you know or have reasonable grounds to believe that some foreign terrorist outside the United States might be contacting someone inside the United States, you would like to know that.And this program is designed to enable that.So it's a program that does have a good deal of common sense to it.And we think as a tool, it's not an inappropriate one, but it has got to be fine-tuned, and fine-tuned in important ways, so as to assure that it gives the benefit that it can provide, but without some of the costs that we think are -- right now, we think that are inappropriate.

    JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so, Peter Swire, coming back to the question of oversight, did you find that the FISA court up to now has been largely a rubber stamp in approving most of what it's been asked to do?And if that is the case, how do you strengthen it because some of your report requires even more on the FISA court?

    PETER SWIRE: Right.

    Well, the focus of our effort was on what policy should happen going forward.We were not doing an exhaustive history.I think that by talking to people, we talked to one of the FISA judges with the Department of Justice, with NSA.In my own research, I have written on FISA for quite a long time.

    Rubber stamp doesn't capture it.I think that the judges have clearly chastised the NSA in the past before they had as good a compliance program as they have now.And so -- but at the same time I think there's something in the FISA court we thought would be useful.One is more transparency, not having a secret court opinions as much, if we can avoid it.

    And the other thing we say is to have a public interest advocate.Having somebody whose job is to really push and really say, here's the questions and here is the worry, that is our adversary system.And we suggest ways to build that into the system so that there is a stronger presentation of the privacy and civil liberties approach.

    JEFFREY BROWN: Geoffrey Stone, there is just so much in this report, but I do want to ask you about the spying on non-Americans, because that is a big part of what you wrote about.

    You're also suggesting that the U.S. government has gone too far in that regard.But my reading is that you're less specific about exactly, precisely what you're calling for there.What do you think is the best approach?

    GEOFFREY STONE: Well, the basic framework of this is that there is a certain set of requirements that the United States has to abide by when it wants to, let's say, wiretap an American phone call.It needs probable cause and a warrant from a judge.

    In the international realm, when we're dealing with non-United States persons who are outside the United States, under existing law, we allow the NSA, for example, to intercept those phone calls if it has reasonable grounds to believe that the phone call was carrying information relevant to international terrorism, or cyber-warfare or nuclear proliferation.So it's not probable cause.It's reasonable grounds to believe, which is somewhat different.

    And there's not a judicial warrant requirement.There is after-the-fact review.Basically, what we recommend in addition to that is that there be certain specific requirements, that the government never use this program except for the purposes of national security, that it never use this program on the basis of the political beliefs or religious convictions of any person, that the United States not disseminate any information obtained through these processes, even with respect to non-United States persons, unless the information is directly relevant to legitimate foreign intelligence purposes.

    We also extend the Privacy Act to non-U.S. persons.And we suggest that there should be a high level review of any kind of foreign intelligence activities with respect to the leaders of foreign nations.So we make some significant recommendations that don't bring the same standards to non-U.S. persons who are outside the United States that we use for U.S. persons.

    But we basically say we think these are important human rights protections.

    JEFFREY BROWN: All right.

    GEOFFREY STONE: And we encourage all nations to join us in enforcing them.

    JEFFREY BROWN: OK, a lot to this.But we will leave it there for now and keep watching.

    Geoffrey Stone, Peter Swire, thank you both very much.

    PETER SWIRE: Thank you.

    GEOFFREY STONE: Thank you.

     


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    GWEN IFILL: After tonight, there is only one shopping day left until Christmas.

    And now Paul Solman tells us maybe gift-giving is not all it's cracked up to be. Paul's alternate perhaps Grinchy view is part of his continuing coverage Making Sense of financial news.

    MAN (singing): It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas everywhere you go.

    PAUL SOLMAN: The Roseland mall outside Minneapolis, setting for our annual holiday shopping story. But this year, it's not about consumer confidence or retail profits or the old reliable crass commercialization of Christmas.

    This year, we bring you the dismal science of economics at its Grinchiest.

    JOEL WALDFOGEL, University of Minnesota: We're spending $70 billion a year in the U.S., and probably twice that much around the world.

    PAUL SOLMAN: Yet much of that spending, says University of Minnesota economist Joel Waldfogel, is pure waste.

    JOEL WALDFOGEL: Are we in the U.S. getting $70 billion worth of satisfaction out of the items that we're choosing for others? My answer is no.

    PAUL SOLMAN: Waldfogel is the author of "Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn't Buy Presents for the Holidays." The reason, he says, is because of a decidedly unfestive economic principle which he named in a now famous academic paper 21 years ago.

    What is the dead weight loss of Christmas?

    JOEL WALDFOGEL: Well, the dead weight loss of Christmas is just the waste that arises from people making choices for other people.

    Normally, I will only buy myself something that costs $50 if it's worth at least $50 to me. When I go out and spend $50 on you, though, since I don't know you what like and what you need, I could spend $50 on you and buy something that would be worth nothing to you.

    PAUL SOLMAN: Now, a less-than-perfect gift isn't a total loss. The recipient's satisfaction equals some fraction of what you spent, and if you bought it at discount, maybe more than awe spent.

    But, seriously, who among us would choose the mall's twerking sweatpants, over $30 in cash, the genuine badger head gear made of a genuine badger head, instead of the $150 it costs, or even some of these T-shirts over a crisp 20-dollar bill?

    "Mac Miller Incredibly Dope Since '92," do you know what that means?

    (LAUGHTER)

    JOEL WALDFOGEL: I don't. I guess I'm not incredibly dope.

    PAUL SOLMAN: Nor, we should be clear, is Waldfogel a dope who opposes all gift-giving. He actually endorses gifts, so long as you think you really know the recipient's tastes, or she tells you, as his own wife does.

    JOEL WALDFOGEL: Sometimes, she drops hints. Same with my children. But with people who are more distant from me, I feel very uncomfortable choosing items for them.

    PAUL SOLMAN: But wait. If even you give gifts, then doesn't that sort of undermine your entire theory?

    JOEL WALDFOGEL: Well, not necessarily. First of all, I'm not against spending. I'm just against spending that doesn't produce the requisite amount of satisfaction.

    PAUL SOLMAN: To psychologist Dan ads, however, economic fundamentalists like Waldfogel miss the whole point of gift-giving.

    DAN ARIELY, psychologist: When we give gifts, the real issue is not an economic transfer. The real issue is friendship. If I want to you care about me, how much am I willing to sacrifice in terms of economic efficiency? And the truth is, I'm willing to sacrifice a lot.

    PAUL SOLMAN: But economics is premised on the rational maximization of satisfaction. Isn't it irrational to buy a badger hat for $150, when even University of Wisconsin zealots or "Frances" the kid's book badger fan would prefer the actual money?

    DAN ARIELY: So if you had a system in which everybody was perfectly rational, everybody was Mr. Spock from "Star Trek," giving money would have been a better solution.

    But if you are an economist in the world of normal human beings, and you go to dinner parties and you offered people cash, you're going to be treated very badly.

    PAUL SOLMAN: Why?

    DAN ARIELY: Because it would basically imply prostitution. When you give a gift to somebody, you basically are hiding the economic nature of the transaction. You pay the store, the store gives you something, you give them this something. You lose money in the exchange, but it doesn't look as direct money for favors or for loyalty or for something like that.

    PAUL SOLMAN: But it's maintaining a myth.

    DAN ARIELY: Absolutely. It is a myth, because the reality is that a lot of relationships, even marriage, has a lot of financial underpinnings to it. But we do a lot of work to try and hide it because, if we didn't hide it, love without not be able to flourish.

    PAUL SOLMAN: Avner Ben-Ner is a colleague of Joel Waldfogel's, but as a behavioral economist, he sides with Ariely.

    AVNER BEN-NER, University of Minnesota: Not only we don't know what others like and dislike. We don't know our own likes and dislikes.

    (LAUGHTER)

    AVNER BEN-NER: I don't know how -- about you, but my closets, my basement, my attic are full of things that I bought with good money, thoughtfully, I thought, and I discovered that I don't like this.

    (LAUGHTER)

    PAUL SOLMAN: So you are suggesting there is a considerable dead weight loss potential every time we go shopping even for ourselves?

    AVNER BEN-NER: Yes. But, with gift-giving, sometimes, you give a gift that costs you $10, but the recipient may value it at $12 because maybe the thing itself is worth $8 to them, but they get $4 of warm sentiment.

    PAUL SOLMAN: But wait a second, behavioralists. The world seems to be coming around to Waldfogel's position in the form of gift cards.

    JOEL WALDFOGEL: As this point, gift cards accounts for a third of holiday gift-giving, so they are immensely popular, and they are, from the standpoint of economic theory, like giving cash.

    PAUL SOLMAN: Even though 10 percent of gift cards don't even get redeemed.

    What's more, over half of all consumers in a recent survey said they prefer general purpose gift cards issued by credit card companies to cards that are store-specific. But that's just a short step from cash. So why not give the even more convenient green stuff itself, we asked the anti-Santa, Joel Waldfogel?

    JOEL WALDFOGEL: It's really socially awkward to give cash. Older people can give it to younger people, grandparents to their grandchildren and so forth. It's a very awkward gift, say, between significant others. But gift cards avoid all ickiness.

    PAUL SOLMAN: Right, says Dan Ariely. It's just because money is icky, impersonal, objectifying that he disapproves of giving gift cards or even wanting them.

    DAN ARIELY: When people ask for a gift certificate, they basically are undermining the friendship. Whatever gift they're going to get in this way is not going to help their friendship.

    PAUL SOLMAN: So what do you give people?

    DAN ARIELY: I try to give people gifts that they want, but feel guilty about buying for themselves. I also want a gift to remind a person of me. So if I buy them something, I want them to use it from time to time, and to keep on thinking about me.

    PAUL SOLMAN: Fancy pens, for example, or -- and we love this one.

    DAN ARIELY: Headphones, good, expensive things that people keep on using, and feel guilty about buying for themselves. And, by the way, I am feeling really guilty about buying a Porsche, if you are interested.

    PAUL SOLMAN: In other words, leaving the Porsche for another story, Ariely's key to gift-giving is just what your parents told you. It's the thought and the thinking that counts.

    Isn't that right, we asked dead weight Waldfogel?

    Sure, he said, but:

    JOEL WALDFOGEL: People are spending a lot of money buying things that are not valuable as items to their recipients. What I would love to see, I would love to see gift cards that default to charity after 24 months. Those would preserve spending, but, more importantly, from my standpoint, they would insure that the spending produces some important kind of satisfaction for some ultimate recipient.

    PAUL SOLMAN: And with, that Joel Waldfogel left to us buy -- and we're not making this up -- the oven mitts his wife had hinted she wanted for Christmas.

    GWEN IFILL: She didn't want those oven mitts.

     


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