The Value of Nothing
examines how we value goods, why prices are what they are and presses the reader to consider our market system. It was written by the intelligent, academic and widely experience Raj Patel, highly endorsed by Naomi Klein, and personally anticipated through my watching and listening to interviews… Yet, it was, in a word, disappointing. (Heck, the title is based from an Oscar Wilde line, which raised expectations even more… And I think I’m even slightly disappointed by the disappointment.)
Patel discusses how most goods that we buy are so cheap because the corporations and manufacturers externalize various costs (i.e., they treat the environment poorly). If we had fairer wages, fairer trade and environmental responsibility, then things like hamburgers might cost $200. Patel then questions what exactly we mean by value and how we come to value goods, arguing that prices are not equivalent to value. The second half of the book attempts to call into question our market system and provides reasons for why we need to change it.
That all sounds good, but the execution was not what I’d hoped – and I generally agree with him. I don’t know if I was seeking something more academic, but I was definitely looking for something more sophisticated. Using the aforementioned descriptions as examples: the externalized costs could have had a much fuller examination, with greater detail at every step; the exploration of how we define value was one of the highlights, but it seemed cursory in nature; and, finally, the last part about how we need to change our market system seemed a bit disjointed and could have had more rigour.
A problematic general theme is that Patel has some interesting ideas and some interesting facts but he presents them only superficially before moving on to the next topic and one feels that it might all be leading up to something greater… but it isn’t.
Going (somewhat) chronologically:
The initial chapters are a review of the recent financial collapse, some basic economic principles and a brief exploration of behavioural economics (which indicates orthodox economic thinking is flawed).
Subsequently, Patel does a decent exploration of the idea of the “commons” and argues for a reversal of the popular interpretation, stating that people are generally fine managing their usage of resources with others, the problem being the large corporations that know no such boundaries. I hadn’t heard that stance before so I would have liked more details. Additionally, it did seem like Patel was buying into the spurious notion of the Nobel Savage.
Some of the people, communities and actions he describes are worthwhile and sufficiently angering that one cannot help but think the world unjust (Patel’s goal I imagine). For example, tomato pickers in Florida work long hours for little wages and they had to lobby for 4 years just to get an increase of a penny per pound. Of course, they couldn’t lobby their actual employers because they are private companies so they do not care about shareholders and public image the same way a public company would. Consequently, they targeted McDonald’s and Taco Bell and others and eventually won the minor concession. More absurd is that some of the workers are treated like slaves with drugs supplied to keep them under the power of the owners.
It often does seem like there are two worlds: the comfy one in which you read this off your laptop and the absurd one that involves daily physical toil, poor health and near criminal injustice.
Another highlight was the thought experiment on page 112 (from philosopher Jerry Cohen) so I shall paraphrase it: Imagine you live in a world where tickets are distributed randomly. On the tickets are rights – the right to visit a sick friend, the right to live somewhere, the right to eat a steak. You don’t have to do these things; they simply limit what you can do. If you try to go beyond the constraints of your tickets, the law would intervene. The more tickets you have the freer you are. The point? Money is just like the tickets. Money constrains what you can and cannot do. Those without money are as unfree as those without tickets. “In other words, under capitalism, money is the right to have rights
The final chapters seem like a collection of thoughts and wishes for the world, and while I’m very sympathetic to his mission as I tend towards idealism, I did not find such conjectures overtly inspiring and anecdotal tales, though interesting and stirring, are not that convincing.
A good book raised questions, but I think a better book answers and raises questions. Problematically, this book supplies more questions than answers.
This would be a decent book for someone who has had little exposure to the ideas of behavioural economics, the problematic nature of corporations or the injustices of the world trade and food systems, but for those with some exposure there isn’t too much here.