STEVE INSKEEP, host:
If you make it out in the cold weather to shop, and you buy a bag of potato chips or a chocolate bar, think for a moment, if you would, about the cost -not just the price you're paying at the moment, but the cost of picking up the garbage after you throw out the wrapper, or the cost of that litter on the environment - or the cost to your health.
Mr. RAJ PATEL (University of California at Berkeley Center for African Studies; Author, "The Value of Nothing"): The way we set up markets in our economy at the moment is a way of avoiding the consequences of our actions.
INSKEEP: Raj Patel would like people to think more about the price we pay, and how we can better value the goods that we buy. He once worked at the World Bank. Now he's an academic at the University of California at Berkeley Center for African Studies, and he has a new book out.
Mr. PATEL: The title of the book, "The Value of Nothing," comes from Oscar Wilde's quote that people today know the price of everything and the value of nothing. The idea that we value things through markets and that there are no other ways of valuing things, well, that's an international problem. And it's one that we're suffering the consequences of right now through the financial crisis and the recession.
INSKEEP: You seem really concerned about the social damage that we do with what appear to be cheap goods in the United States.
Mr. PATEL: I'm concerned that the way that we get reeled in to behaving like consumers involves a sort of a bait-and-switch around the price of goods. I mean, we don't pay the full social costs, for example, for the way we eat today. For example, one in five health-care dollars in this country is spent treating someone who has diabetes. Now a big component of that diabetes is to do with the way that we eat. And we don't pay those costs when we get our cheap food.
INSKEEP: I don't mean to be flip here, but would you rather see a - I don't know - a diabetes tax on a Snickers bar so the cost is right there for us to see?
Mr. PATEL: There's a lot of talk at the moment around things like a soda tax where, you know, you can whack a tax on the amount of sugar in a can of soda. There's no one thing that we can do to equalize the full social cost and the price, but I do think that something like a soda tax is the first step in a comprehensive public health strategy that does align the full social and environmental cost with the price of something like a Snickers bar.
INSKEEP: So just so I understand this, it sounds like you do not trust the free market to set a reasonable value for things, at least the way the market is set up now. Is that right?
Mr. PATEL: Well yes. But, of course, it's not just me. I mean, Alan Greenspan, of all people, admitted that there was a flaw in his philosophy of the way the free market worked in - when he went in front of the House Oversight Committee in October 2008. You know, Adam Smith didn't think that the free market was perfect, either.
I think that what we're seeing is a chorus of people from left and right, from every discipline, recognizing that there are problems with the free market. I think the good news is is that there's an efflorescence of ideas about alternatives to the free market, not simply about sort of patching it up with regulation, but actually going much deeper to figuring out ways in which we can value things, and in which we can corral markets and figure out other ways of valuing resources in common.
INSKEEP: The way that the debate is frequently framed in the United States is either you're for the free market or you're for more government intervention. It doesn't sound like you necessarily trust the government, either.
Mr. PATEL: No. And again, you know, I think that the way that our democracy works is a bit of a sham. I mean, if you go back to the original democracy, I mean, if you look at Greek democracy, with all its problems - with its slavery, with its exclusion of women - there's something very interesting amid the problematics of Greek democracy, which is that Greek democracy and Athenian democracy never had elections.
Instead, citizens were chosen at random at the beginning of every year, and 6,000 citizens would take political responsibility for the city for a year, and after that year, their term would expire and then another 6,000 would be chosen at random.
INSKEEP: Like jury selection.
Mr. PATEL: Well, exactly like jury selection. I mean, that's the vestige that we have of citizens taking responsibility for one another. But I think that we've been rather inured to the possibilities of taking responsibility for ourselves in terms of bigger government. We've been deskilled by our transformation into consumers rather than citizens, and I think that we do need to reclaim the possibilities of actually being responsible not just in what we buy but in how we govern ourselves.
INSKEEP: Is that practical given that this is a country and an economy far vaster than anything that ancient Athens had to deal with?
Mr. PATEL: Oh, absolutely. I mean, I think that we, you know - I mean, it's certainly practical at a local level, and I think that that's a great place to start.
INSKEEP: Raj Patel is the author of "The Value of Nothing: How to Reshape Market Society and Redefine Democracy." Thanks very much.
Mr. PATEL: Thanks very much, Steve.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.