In 1971, the most popular field of study at colleges and universities in the United States was education. Social sciences and history came in a fairly close second, with all other fields falling far behind. But by the turn of the millennium, those patterns were a distant memory. Business had become king on campus. It now awards twice as many degrees as any other field. As a corollary development, the famed “dismal science” is also surging. Ask undergraduates at Harvard what they are studying and their most likely answer will be “Econ.”
In this age of bailouts and bonuses, when the high priests of finance lord over public policy, the words of Oscar Wilde seem hauntingly relevant: “Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.”
This, at least, is the premise of Raj Patel’s new book, which draws its title from the quote. A writer, academic, and former analyst for the Oakland-based Institute for Food and Development Policy, Patel traces the origins of the dominant market-based worldview, examines its negative impact on the planet, and finally maps an escape route.
He writes, “The dazzle of free markets has blinded us to other ways of seeing the world.” The appropriate remedy, he later argues, “is not a democracy run by experts, but the democratization of expertise and resources.”
In his investigation, Patel goes back to the eighteenth century—to the enclosure of the English countryside described in Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation—and then works his way to the present. Along the way, he shows how the type of thinking that views social relationships as commodities can lead to some very scary places.
In a notorious 1991 memo, Larry Summers, now director of President Obama’s National Economic Council, contended that African countries are “vastly under-polluted”—that “the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable.” Using the same kind of reasoning, one can come to the conclusion that the poor are overly possessed of kidneys and should be allowed to sell their organs to the needy rich. Indeed, Patel tells us that this argument was already made by University of Chicago economist Gary Becker, whose neoliberal views have become all too prevalent in Washington.
The market is not just amoral; it is shortsighted. Patel’s most eye-catching claim is that a Big Mac, while commonly available for under $4, would properly go for $200 if its true costs to society were factored in. This is not an entirely novel concept; Patel cites a study from the Center for Science and the Environment in India, which in turn was the subject of a 1994 Financial Times article. Still, he uses the catchy example to give a skilled explanation of “externalities”—all those societal costs that are not reflected on the price tag of an item.
In the case of the burger, the high cost owes something to the fact that a significant portion of the beef grown worldwide comes from pastures that are clear-cut from ecologically precious forests. Add that fast food chains often pay workers so little that employees’ “poverty-line wages are supplemented by Medicare, food stamps… and other government services.” Lastly, consider the vast public health costs associated with a rising crisis in diabetes and childhood obesity. After we pick up the tab for all these things, that burger no longer looks like such a great deal.
The Value of Nothing does not draw on the kind of weighty archival research that might give a book door-propping heft, and it contains too few reported scenes to qualify as a journalist’s exposé. Rather, at a slight 194 pages plus notes, Patel’s essayistic narrative is half a critique of the market’s penetration into our collective consciousness and half a showcase of bottom-up social movement responses. A good portion of the work consists of introductory lectures on the likes of Polanyi, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Karl Marx—with some bits of Malcolm Gladwellian social psychology and neuroscience thrown in.
In other words, it is left-wing political economy in a contemporary, user-friendly format. To the extent that our era of economic crisis cries out for such mainstream repackaging of venerable but too-often-ignored ideas, it is a fine and noble contribution to today’s political debate, if not an altogether groundbreaking one.
Patel is a witty writer, capable of some fun turns of phrase. Yet he too often reaches for tired references. He cites Eisenhower warning America about the military industrial complex, as well as FDR (in a story that is popular but, Patel neglects to mention, probably apocryphal) telling activists “Okay, you’ve convinced me. Now go on out and bring pressure on me!” He gives us Hobbes calling life in the state of nature “nasty, brutish, and short.” And he reminds us that the first rule of Fight Club is that “you don’t talk about Fight Club.”
One of the more humorous passages in the book is a paragraph about Ayn Rand. It goes: “There are two novels that can transform a bookish fourteen-year-old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish daydream that can lead to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood in which large parts of the day are spent inventing ways to make real life more like a fantasy novel. The other is a book about orcs.”
Unfortunately, although it is presented as original in Patel’s book, this quip was circulating on the Internet in the spring of 2009 and was first composed by Los Angeles-based writer and comedian John Rogers. (When I alerted the author of this fact through his publicist, Patel indicated that he was embarrassed by his inadvertent error and issued an on-line apology.)
When he turns to discuss solutions to market madness, Patel effectively uses—and properly acknowledges—a different joke, one about activists’ penchant for long meetings:
Q: How many Zapatistas does it take to change a light bulb?
A: Come back in two weeks.
So frequently are the masked rebels from Southern Mexico lauded by international admirers that one would not expect Patel to come up with fresh insights about them. But he does. All joking aside, he argues that just as environment- and health-conscious eaters are rejecting McDonald’s and opting instead for Slow Food, “What the Zapatistas are practicing is slow politics.” In the autonomous communities that they control, they use village-wide assemblies and rotating governing councils to bring all community members into decisions about local governance.
“It doesn’t feel efficient, and NGOs get frustrated at being made to wait,” Patel writes, but the deliberate process pays off. Slow Food and the Zapatistas share “the notion that everyone has the right to participate in, and enjoy, the world around them, and that genuine democracy takes time.”
Of course, this brings to mind another one-liner frequently attributed to Wilde: “The trouble with socialism is that it takes up too many evenings.” Other than participatory process, what “slow politics” would entail remains a bit unclear. Patel approves of the organizing efforts of dissident Chinese workers, Florida campesinos, South African shack-dwellers, and free software developers. However, he does not wrestle with the hard questions of whether “small ‘d’ democrats” should engage with political parties, how influential but ossifying labor unions in many countries might still make a difference, or what lessons can be drawn from the intricate interactions between social movements and newly elected progressive governments in South America.
Yet, if sometimes vague in its positive program, The Value of Nothing makes a forceful case that our reliance on the market to solve public problems must end. After poking numerous holes in pro-business plans for a cap-and-trade system to address global climate change, Patel casually observes, “it seems unwise to use the same tools that have hewn [the trillion-dollar economic meltdown] to solve the most pressing problem facing the planet.”
It is a beautifully understated conclusion. Business majors take note.