What Do We Value?

Raj Patel & Cedric Brown

Raj Patel & Cedric Brown

Over the course of the last couple of weeks, particularly in the midst of the holiday shopping madness, I’ve spent some thinking about how and what we value. I keep coming back to this question: Do Americans value consumption over citizenship? Believe me, these are not my random thoughts.

It all started with this story on National Public Radio about a 3-D television that would make the Super Bowl a ‘greater’ experience for sport fans. I turned to my husband and was outraged that advances in technology could allow us to watch football practically live in our living rooms, but that we, as a society, did not prioritize preventing voter fraud or providing all people with accessible quality organic food over this experience. It all seemed crazy.

Thankfully, there are people like Raj Patel in the world who are thoughtful about these contradictions and are able to offer some insight on how we can transform this madness. Raj Patel is what my graduate school adviser would call a ‘double-agent’. He worked at the World Bank and International Monetary Fund and is now at the forefront of battling these institutions by calling into question how we come to value goods in our current economic and political configuration. In the ‘The Value of Nothing: How to reshape market society and redefine democracy,’ he asks a simple question: Do we really know what goods and services cost in our society? His response is no and that we really need to wake-up and smell the impact of not knowing this cost soon or we’re going to be in serious trouble.

In his recent talks and interviews throughout the Bay Area, he gives the example of knowing the cost of how and what we eat. One in five health care dollars in the United States is spent treating someone who has diabetes. We know that there are food choices that can transform the impact of diabetes, but we do not place a value on trying to eat well nor in staying away from processed sugars or fats. On the contrary, it actually costs more to eat better. He offers the solution of having a tax on goods that we know have less value on our health. Just imagine a soda tax or a juice benefit!  The world is already a little better.

P.S.  from Cedric: I’ve known Raj for about four years through his wife/partner Mini Kahlon, one of my former colleagues at the Level Playing Field Institute.  Lots of brainy pizazz in that family! I’m so proud of him!