Why Big Macs should cost $200

The best thing about taking no lab courses is that you find yourself with something you’ve never had before: a free afternoon. So I spent the first two hours of it delving into Raj Patel’s The Value of Nothing: How to Reshape Market Society and Redefine Democracy.

What’s the cost of a Big Mac at McDonald’s these days? About $3.50? Not a bad deal (especially when you add on that value meal). But Patel points out a number of costs we haven’t considered:

  • The production of Big Macs in the U.S. every year results in a greenhouse gas footprint of 2.66 billion pounds of CO2 ($297 million)
  • Costs of corn feed subsidies, courtesy of the common taxpayer ($4.6 billion)
  • Costs from “social subsidy” in the form of welfare offered to minimum wage fast-food workers ($273 million)
  • Public health costs due to diet-related diseases from excessive meat consumption ($30-60 billion)

When all is said and done, the cost of a Big Mac should really be around $200.

Reading this jolts me out of my complacency but I know I’m not going to stop buying that hamburger. And in the end I don’t think that making an individual protest in the face of systemic injustices, directing your anger toward the perfectly friendly vendor at the local burger place, is the most effective way to confront this. Systemic injustices call for systemic solutions: revised prices that truly reflect the cost of that hamburger, for example, because that’s what people nowadays understand the most.

However, perhaps embracing these kinds of solutions means giving up the luxuries we’ve become accustomed to. It’s painful to say it, but a revised pricing system that forces us to pay real costs in the name of social justice may not go over so well with the general public. But then I realize, perhaps these real costs won’t go that much higher at all, at least not for the common citizen. After all, who is currently profiting the most from these cost-cutting practices?

Patel hasn’t yet confronted a key argument of big business, which is that profits motivate. Perhaps allowing a few people to get ridiculously rich at the expense of others is something we simply have to accept, in order to give people the drive to create value in the first place.

He does, however, pose a striking and urgent point: there is something dangerously wrong with the oft-embraced idea that market prices reflect real value.

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