If you could give a homeless person a gift card, would you? Would it make you feel better?
I know - giving money directly to homeless people is likely to feed their addiction to booze, drugs, or warm shelter. It takes a lot of courage to do what a friend's father did, which was buy a homeless man lunch. The father didn't hand the man food, which some homeless people and advocates consider insulting, but sat down and ate lunch with the man and made him feel like another human being.
I don't know that I would have the courage to sit down with a homeless person and listen to their life story. I take the practices of writing a check to food shelters and giving money to people who ask. I buy newspapers from the street vendors who sell them as part of homeless advocacy groups like The Street Spirit. Until this year, I donated my time to community service, and I am looking to return to that practice.
I guess I could buy a card to feed a family, or give a gift card instead of buying a gift, and not think about the fact that its a piece of plastic that goes into a landfill. My paper check probably goes into storage for years, occupying space and resources. My electronic payment requires computers that contain toxic metals, not to mention constant electricity, the production of which may not be environmentally friendly. The old woman on the street probably takes my cash to buy a bottle of wine, or give to her drug addicted children.
Gift cards are used for other purposes, of course. They are available to buy meals for the hungry, to fund environmental something or other, to promote social justice and peace. And they're right next to the Altoids. You don't need to care more than a moment or two before you slip back into apathy toward the world and concern about your day.
There is something deeply ironic about buying a piece of plastic to save the environment, or to buy anything. Stores have racks of gift cards, waiting to be purchased, but gift cards aren't the only amusing piece of plastic.
Recently, I spotted an add in a local magazine touting a new form of irony, the Enlightenment Card, "for people like me." Where people "like me" supposedly not only recycle and buy organic, but practice yoga, read, and sport a credit card with either the Om symbol or a squiggly symbol that is either a broken infinity symbol or a tribute to the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Apparently, there are requirements for enlightenment that exclude people who don't have a piece of plastic.
Marketing is about pandering to consumer interests, and marketers are not known to be shameful creatures.
Enlightenment cannot be charged on credit, no matter what they tell you.
To be clear, I have benefited from gift cards. Our slow cooker was purchased with wedding gift cards provided by relatives I hadn't seen for a quarter century. My friends, S. and M. in Portland, who gave me a Powells gift card for my birthday, are excluded from this harangue. S. and M. have an ulterior motive of luring the Butter Bitch and me down to Portland - where Powells is located - for a long-overdue visit, a bit of chicanery that makes us love them even more. Yes, I could use the card online, but they were explicit about their intentions. Here's a card. Come visit us. Sneaky them.
But I was ranting about gift cards, those plastic pieces of joy that have a redeemable monetary value and then go right into a landfill. According to a recent news report, gift cards have lost their social stigma. It is common and acceptable to give gift cards to reward employees for extra work (Starbucks cards are common at my company), as an extra holiday bonus or only holiday bonus, or to give a present to a friend or relative you don't know that well.
You don't need to find out about someone's interests, just as you don't need to take an active part in your community. Commerce frees you to let someone else choose what they want, without your input, and frees you not to worry about what they might want. Here's a gift, the gift of consumption and waste.
Giving a gift is like giving a part of yourself, because it shows what you think of the person. Choosing a gift, or choosing to devote time to a cause, shows that you think a person or cause is important enough to give a part of yourself - your consideration and time.
The final irony is that the plastic card system operates not on the idea of gift-giving, but by the rule of commerce. The purest form of commerce, or capitalism, may be viewed as piracy. I'm not saying this because of the reference to FSM above. Certainly, piracy is an antisocial practice of commerce that is apathetic or openly hostile towards the interests of others. I use strength to prey on the weak, or my wits to prey on the foolish, and take from them.
As NPR reported, people record the serial numbers and activation phone numbers from gift cards, while the cards are still at the store. These people, who are acting criminally, then check to see whether the cards have a balance and may be activated. Once the cards are activated, the cards are taken to the store and drained. You may not care enough to give a gift directly, but someone out there cares enough to exploit that apathy and steal the gift.
There are ways to avoid to avoid theft of gift card funds, and some merchants now keep "empty" cards behind. That frees the customer of responsibility, until someone figures out a new way to manipulate the system. Another way to avoid the problem is to buy an actual gift. I hear that some people like lunch.