Open a book this minute and start reading. Don’t move until you’ve reached page fifty. Until you’ve buried your thoughts in print. Cover yourself with words. Wash yourself away. Dissolve. Carol Shields Republic of Love

Raj Patel’s The Value of Nothing (2009)

Raj Patel’s The Value of Nothing
HarperCollins, 2009

“Examining everything from free lunches to military spending, from love to television, The Value of Nothing reveals the hidden social consequences of our global culture of ‘freedom’ and explains why prices are always at odds with the true value of what matters most to us.”

I never studied economics in school. If I had discovered books like E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered earlier, I might have gone down that road.

But even when I was a teenager, something felt wrong about the way that value was traditionally measured, rigidly (and seemingly randomly) in dollars and cents. Concepts like cost and price and value were supposed to be very simple, but I struggled with them. So does Raj Patel.

Take, say, the price of a burger. Say it’s $4. Cheap food, hunh?

Go to the gourmet shop, add a side of onion rings and you’re still sitting around the $10 mark.

Good value, some might say. But not so. The actual price of that burger? More than $200.

How do you figure? It’s all in the bigger picture. Don’t just look at the burger on the plate. Don’t just look at your receipt. Look at the cost of that $4 price tag.

Consider the environmental impact (like water use and soil degradation) of industrial agriculture. Consider the greenhouse gas footprint and the contribution to climate change. Consider the hidden health costs (treating diet-related illnesses, like diabetes and heart disease). Consider the agricultural subsidies (particularly corn). Consider the cost of social subsidies (of low wages and taxpayer funded healthcare).

When I was a student, I would have said that I didn’t study economics because it was complicated. But now, looking back, I think it wasn’t complicated enough. The contradictions and complexities in the way in which Raj Patel considers the concept of value make sense to me.

Perhaps it’s because he’s bookish. He writes: “There are two novels that can transform a bookish fourteen-year-old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged.” Perhaps it’s this kind of spirit that pulled me through the text.

Honestly, I don’t think I got as much out of it as I would have if I’d had more solid training in traditional economics. (The whole “you need to know the rules to be able to break them” thing?) But I did get something out of it. It was a worth + while read. Indeed.

Naomi Klein writes: “This is Raj Patel’s great gift: he makes even the most radical ideas seem not only reasonable, but inevitable.”

If that’s radical, sign me up for that class.

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