Category Archives: gift economy

Mouse trap, or new developments in Siamese economics

Photo Molly, my cat, has had a really exciting summer.  First, the mice.  We live in an old house with lots of crevices and crannies, and mice whistle right in. 

As the nights have got a little cooler, there’s a new generation out there who’s experiencing "chilly" for the first time, and several have decided to relocate to that lovely big warm wooden box at the end of the garden.  Our house.

Molly waits for them just at their favorite entry point.  Right to the  side of the stove.  She sits there for hours, and when her patience is rewarded she comes up stairs to share her good fortune with Pam and me. 

She doesn’t mind that we’re sleeping.  She gives us plenty of time to rouse ourselves, hurling the poor wee mouse up in the air repeatedly till we do.  For the next 40 minutes or so, roughly the period 3:20 to 4:00 in the morning, it’s kinda like our pet has a pet. 

Molly follows the mouse.  She noses the mouse.  She exhorts the mouse.  But most of all she shares the mouse.  I think she feels Pam and I have been so generous with her, it’s only fair. 

The other big news this summer for Molly has been the introduction of canned food.  She used to eat dry food only but we decided that something meatier was called for.  Something, say, like Purina Pro Plan Selects Classic Adult Natural Turkey and Wild Rice Entree Plus Essential Vitamins and Minerals with  Real Turkey as the Number One Ingredient!  Huge hit.  I am the keeper of the can, the human who knows the art of opening.  And Molly takes new precautions, now marking me across the shins anytime I’m in the kitchen.  I mean, what if she had to find me in a crowd of balding, middle-aged anthropologists?  Better safe than sorry.  Mark him once.  Mark him twice. 

I feed Molly a couple of times a day, once in the morning, once in the evening.  I open the can.  I take out half a serving and place it in her dish.  I set the dish just in front of the stove in the kitchen.  Molly chows down with gusto.  (Dry food.  Girlfriend, please.)   

Here’s what’s odd.  I’ve noticed that the first serving disappears almost immediately.  The second, the evening serving, that often gets left.  There could be lots of explanations for this.  Molly is probably hungrier in the mornings than in the afternoon.  She’s breaking a bigger fast.

But I don’t think that’s it.  No, battling a cold the last few days as giving me a chance to see Molly in action.  Keeping her vigil by the stove through the night, and there sitting beside her always was her  half finished meal.  Finally, it hit me.   She isn’t neglecting that afternoon meal.  She’s using it as bait.  She uses it to send a message to those mice in the field.  That big wooden box isn’t just warm.  Good eats, too!   Peckish?  Perhaps you’d like some Purina Pro Plan Selects Classic Adult Natural Turkey and Wild Rice Entree Plus Essential Vitamins and Minerals. with Real Turkey as the Number One Ingredient!  Pull up a chair!  Come on down!

What a clever little creature.  Molly forgoes one meal to make another.  But mice are vastly more than meals for her.  They are opportunities to exercise her hunting skills, an entertaining nocturnal diversion, and, perhaps most important, a way to entertain Pam and Grant.  In Molly’s economy, mice have high value and diverse value.  When she treats her dinner as bait, she engages in a process of value conversion.  She turns mere food into real fun not to mention a lovely gift for Grant and Pam. 

Image: Molly and me about 3 years ago when she wasn’t many months old.  Boy was she tired. 


Lil Wayne: prince of the gift economy

Lil_wayne_i Since his last LP, Lil Wayne has been working the gift economy.  In the words of Jonah Weiner,

[T]he New Orleans MC struck upon a music-distribution model so radical it made Radiohead look like Thomas Edison shipping wax cylinders by Pony Express.

Step 1: Rap about whatever pops into your head, over any beat you please–copyright laws be damned. 

Step 2: Flood the Internet with material, compiled on mix tapes or leaked a la carte. 

Step 3: Say yes to anyone who invites you to guest star on a track (anyone: meaning Enrique Iglesias and Gym Class Heroes).

Step 4: Repeat at an inhuman clip, not merely keeping pace with the relentless blog cycle–in which MP3s ping from studios to iPods to trash cans in a matter of days, but leaving the blog cycle face down on the racetrack, turf in its teeth, gasping for air. 

The big question:

How can [Carter’s new album, Tha Carter III] be anything but arbitrary and incomplete next to the gigabytes of beat he’s been dropping?

Specifically: who’s going to buy this album when they have been so generously gifted with Carter’s work for free? 

There’s no question that Tha Carter III is good. Weiner says it’s "all but a lock for hip-hop album of the year."  But the industry couldn’t help wondering whether his fans might by Cartered out, or, at least, so well supplied with Carter’s genius that buying the new album was gratuitous. 

The good news: Tha Carter III sold 156,000 copies in the week ending July 6 which brought its first-month total to 1.68 million.  This allowed Lil Wayne to displace Coldplay at number one and surpass G-Unit, John Mayer, Usher, Rihanna, and Disturbed on the charts.

It may be that Lil Wayne has succeeded here because he is, in the opinion of Rolling Stone, the "best rapper alive."  If you are this good, ubiquity and generosity have no penalty.  Free for all or fee for all, it doesn’t matter.  We have to listen.  But intuitively this seems wrong.  Surely the incentive for "giveaways" should be more pressing for lesser talents. 

But that’s the problem, isn’t it?  The economics of the "gift economy" are still a little vague.  The general idea is that gift economies spring from acts of generosity.  We create value by releasing value.    The idea is not to engage in "tit for tat" exchange, but to gift the world with our best efforts.  Think of this as a benign variation on "what goes around comes around."  What we give freely will come back to us.

This is an idea in its first blush.  The romance is still strong.  No one seems to care that the gift economy detaches producers and consumers.  No one minds that it replaces the notion of "interest" with whim and self indulgence.  I think if we posit a "wisdom of crowds" emergence theory, we might take care of this problem.  What producers want to produce might be what consumers want to consume.  This certainly is the case in Lil Wayne.  On the other hand, I can’t help wondering who’s going to produce that aluminum siding I have my eye on.  (I believe it’s safe to say no one makes aluminum as a reckless act of generosity.)

How and why this economy runs depends on your point of view.  People with New Age proclivities have a very clear idea of the mechanics of the marketplace, the celestial scales that see to the return of acts of goodness.  Others, and this seems to apply especially, to new-media, new-economy, social-networks types, seem to suppose that it’s "just gonna happen." (Funny that the real-world types should be vague, when the romantically inclined should be specific.  More mysteries for the anthropology of contemporary culture.)

The key book for most people seems to be the one by Hyde (as below).  Henry Jenkins is doing some work in the area, and this is very good news.  We could use Marshall Sahlins’ idea of  "generalized exchange," I think, but this term is just not provocative enough as a title to take the day. The virtue of Sahlins’ approach is that it encourages us to replace mystery with an appreciation for new and more circular acts of exchanges that see to the movement of  new and more various kinds of value. 

Prince or no, Lil Wayne is a wonder.  He is fantastically gifted, fabulously inventive, a veritable Shakespeare who comes to us from a New Orleans that no longer exists dripping in tats and attitude.  This is a guy who styles himself a Martian and threatens with his relentless creativity and productivity to make good on the metaphor.

And this makes Carter a cultural actor who has taken his leave of the usual grammars.  As Weiner puts it,

There’s an exhilarating, disorienting sense of freedom to the album, the rush of rules being ignored. 

And here anthropology, the economics aside, really has its work cut out for it. 

Two videos from Lil Wayne:

Wayne, Lil.  2008.  Lollipop.  here

Wayne, Lil.  2008.  A milli.  here.

[There is no grasping Lil Wayne from two tracks.  Listen to Tha Carter III in its entirety to see the wealth and vastness of this talent.]


Cheal, David J. 1988. The gift economy. London. New York: Routledge.

Hasty, Katie.  2008.  Lil Wayne knocks Coldplay from top of U.S. chart.  UK  July 9, 2008.  here.

Hermann, Gretchen M. 1997. Gift or commodity: what changes hands in the U.S. garage sale. American Ethnologist. 24. 2. pp. 910-930.

Hyde, Lewis.  1983. The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property.  New York: Vintage Books. Available from Amazon here.

Mauss, Marcel. 1925. The Gift: Forms and functions of exchange in archaic societies.  translator Ian Cunnison. London: Cohen and West.

Pollard, Dave.  2005.  The Gift Economy. How to save the world.  April 17, 2005.  here.

Sahlins, Marshall.  2003.  Stone Age Economics.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Available from Amazon here.

Weiner, Jonah.  2008.  Makeit Wayne.  Blender.  August.  pp. 79-80.