Anthropology, Global Studies, and 
Public Policy: 
A Proposal Regarding the Real Cost of Things

Paper given at a Session on
The Interface of Anthropology and Global Studies
at the
Annual Meeting of the Society for Applied Anthropology

Richard H. Robbins
SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor
Department of Anthropology
Plattsburgh State University
Plattsburgh, NY


  March 19-23, 2003
Marriott Portland Downtown on the Waterfront
1401 SW Naito Parkway, Portland, Oregon


The goal of this paper is to examine how anthropology can gain a more active role in the discussion and formulation of public policy.  The paper suggests that anthropology, because of its cultural sensitivity and ethnographic capabilities is uniquely equipped to focus on what economists call market externalities.  These externalities, largely dismissed in most economic analysis, comprise already the subject matter of most work in applied anthropology in general and the study of culture change and globalization in particular.  In fact, an argument can be made that contemporary cultural forms and  patterns of social relations are dictated by market factors and are, in effect, externalities of the market .  Anthropologists can achieve status as a policy science by devising means to better articulate the cost of externalities, by focusing on the stuff of everyday life, and by conveying to the public the real cost of things.



One of the questions posed by James Loucky for the participants of this session is what are the main difficulties encountered in challenging students, the discipline, and others to tackle the huge issues?”   One answer, of course, is the scale of the problems.  How does one “end poverty,” or “eliminate disease,” or “stop hunger.”  Another reason is that anthropology is not considered a “policy science” and, consequently lacks a ready forum for policy discussion.  In fact, of all the social sciences, anthropology has probably played the least significant role in public policy debates.  This has not been for a lack of trying.  On issues such as race, poverty, indigenous rights and war anthropologists, going back to the era of Franz Boas and his students, have formally and informally contributed to public policy debates, although it is sometimes difficult to see any long-lasting effects of such participation.  In this regard anthropologists are much like the rest of the citizenry who are, as Susan Wright and Chris Shore[1] point out, equally alienated from the policy making process[2].   Nowhere is this clearer, of course, than in the current situation with Iraq.  Yet public policy, as Wright and Shore also point out, is now the central concept and instrument in the organization of contemporary society.  Like the modern state it touches on every area of modern life and how subjects construct and perceive themselves.  From the cradle to the grave, they say,

people are classified, shaped, and ordered according to policies, but they may have little consciousness of or control over the process at work.  The study of policy, therefore, leads straight into issues at the heart of anthropology: norms and institutions; ideology and consciousness; knowledge and power; rhetoric and discourse; meaning and interpretation; the global and the local--to mention just a few.[3]

Anthropology is well situated to deconstruct policy, as it often does, and point out that the policy process is highly politicized; that through the use of neutral, legal-rational idioms, policies are portrayed as value-free instruments for promoting efficiency and effectiveness and that policy functions to disguise the identity of decision-makers and can serve as an “ideological cloak” for highly subjective and perhaps irrational goals.[4]   But that, I suggest, is not enough.  For anthropology to become a policy science, it must do more than serve as anthropological critique, as valuable as that may be.

Assuming, then, that anthropology’s role in addressing the big issues depends on the discipline’s role as policy science, and recognizing the highly political nature of the policy process, I will, in this discussion pose and suggest answers to three questions: first, is there a policy area that anthropologists can establish as their very own? Second, what are some of the policy recommendations that can be constructed from that position?  And third, how can anthropology help to democratize policy and empower citizens as policy actors?

Market Externalities

Of all the social sciences, economics is clearly the ruler of the public policy roost.  In fact, economics has become virtually synonymous with policy.  But economics has claimed only a small area of the social domain, explicitly casting aside what it calls “externalities,” or factors that do not affect directly the price or cost of things.  When the actions of one agent affect the interests of another agent other than by affecting prices, say economists, this is an externality. For economists, in other words, externalities are the residues of market interactions.

From an anthropological, perspective, however, the “externalities” are the meaty stuff of analysis, the things that most affect the lives of citizens.  As we look at such global issues as the weakening of labor rights, environmental destruction, increased poverty, newly emerging diseases, and civil conflict, we are, I believe, examining externalities of the market.[5]  The weakening of labor rights is an externality of seeking the lowest wage workers; environmental destruction is an externality of unbridled economic growth and the massive increase in foreign debt of poor countries, and so on.  One can plausibly and convincingly argue that the culture formed by the capitalist world economy as well as the process of globalization itself are formed by market externalities.  Our tastes, values, social forms, patterns of social relations and the pace of our lives have become residues of the market.

The fact that our lives are dictated by market externalities is carefully masked by the operation of public policy that defines economic growth as the prime directive thereby legitimizing low wage labor, the dismantling of environmental and social laws, and the use of armed force to impose economic order.  For these, and other reasons, the general public is neither aware of the nature of market externalities nor the impact that they have on their lives.   And it is here, I believe, that anthropology can make a significant difference in the formulation of policy.

Awareness of Externalities

In an ingenious piece of work called Stuff: The Secret Lives of Everyday Things,[6] John C. Ryan and Alan Thein Durning describe what happens in the rest of the world to support a day in the life of an average North American.  To illustrate they examine the lives of such everyday and common items as a cup of coffee, a newspaper, a T-shirt, shoes, a car, a hamburger, French fries, and a glass of cola.  As they point out in a warning to readers, the facts can lead to feelings of despair and depression. 

The coffee, for example, required around 100 beans from a coffee tree grown, perhaps, on a small farm in Colombia; the area was cleared by ranchers for cattle and the less productive hillside used by poor farmers for coffee and fruit trees.  Prior to the 1980s, dense trees covered the coffee plants and harbored numerous birds and other wildlife.  However in the 1980s, these trees were cut down while farmers planted high yielding varieties of coffee, in the process increasing soil erosion and decimating the bird population.  With the absence of birds and other insect eaters, pests increased thus requiring the use of more pesticides by workers clothed in T-shirts and shorts who unavoidably inhaled residues of pesticides into their lungs.  Since coffee is the second most traded commodity in the world, prices are low, as are the less-than-a-dollar-a-day wages paid to the workers that relegate them to crowded shanty towns.  After picking the berries for our cup of coffee, workers hand fed the berries into a diesel-powered crusher, and the pulp dumped into the river.  Dried by the sun, the remains of the beans (one pound of beans to two pounds of pulp) were shipped to New Orleans on a freighter made in Japan of Korean steel mined on the lands of indigenous peoples in western Australia and powered by Venezuelan oil. 

Once in New Orleans the beans were roasted for 13 minutes at 400 degrees in ovens fueled by natural gas from Texas.  Packed in bags constructed of polyethylene, nylon, aluminum foil and polyester, the coffee was shipped in an 18-wheeler getting six miles to a gallon to a local warehouse and then taken by a smaller truck to our local grocery.  From there, we brought it home in a large, brown paper sack made in paper mills in Oregon, traveling by car and using about a one-fifth of a gallon of gasoline.  Once home we measured out the beans in a plastic scoop molded in New Jersey and spooned them into our Chinese-made grinder made of aluminum, copper, and plastic parts.  We poured the coffee into an unbleached paper filter and into our plastic and steel drip coffee maker.  The water came by pipe from our local reservoir via a water processing plant and was then heated to some 200 degrees, the electricity coming from our local gas, coal, oil, or nuclear powered utility.  We drank from a cup made in Taiwan, added sugar from the cane fields that had once been sawgrass marshes south of Lake Okeechoobee, denuded of some 75 to 95% of its animal life largely by the growth of sugar cane fields. 

That, of course, is only a partial story of our cup of coffee, but it should serve as an idea of the secret life or, as Igor Kopytoff calls it[7] biography of things. Many of the items that went into the making of the coffee are market externalities that are not calculated in the coffee price, as the real costs of things are rarely calculated, and, consequently, never directly paid. In fact, the economy could not function as it does should we need to pay directly for the externalities.[8]   Let me suggest that this leaves an important policy area virtually untouched, specifically the placing of a price tag on those externalities dismissed as unimportant by economists.  (See Table 1) 

Table 1: Market Factors and Externalities

Market Factors

Market Externality

Residual Externality Costs
( the real price of things)

Labor Costs

Low wages, slavery, poverty, disease, hunger, alienation,


Extraction of Raw Materials

Habitat devastation, pollution, military expansion


Transportation and Distribution

Infrastructure creation and environmental consequences, pollution, etc.


Energy Costs

(see gasoline below)


Disposal Costs

Pollution, disease, habitat destruction


Manufacturing and Production Costs

Environmental pollution, resource depletion


Advertisement and Market Expansion

Exploitation of children, conversion of relations of reciprocity into market relations, etc.


Maintaining market friendly laws and regulations

Corruption, distortion of the political process, etc.




The Real Cost of Things

To calculate the real cost of things requires doing exactly what Ryan and Durning have done; tracing the biography of things and doing at least a rough cost analysis of items that, for one reason or another, are not calculated in the price we pay.  For example, let’s look at the price of gasoline.[9]  North Americans are heavily dependent on oil, and its price reverberates throughout the economy.  North Americans pay among the lowest oil and gasoline prices in the world.  Consequently, even as gasoline prices climb to $2.00 a gallon, we are paying only a fraction of the real price.  What, then, are the real costs of gasoline? (see Table 2 for summary)

The International Center for Technology Assessment examined this question.  They concluded that to arrive at the real cost we have to examine other price outlays that contribute to the delivery of a gallon of gas to a local pump.  First, we have to add in the government’s tax subsidization of the oil Industry.  This includes the Percentage Depletion Allowance (a subsidy of $784 million to $1 billion per year), the Nonconventional Fuel Production Credit ($769 to $900 million), exploration and development costs ($200 to $255 million), the Enhanced Oil Recovery Credit ($26.3 to $100 million), foreign tax credits ($1.11 to $3.4 billion), foreign income deferrals ($183 to $318 million), and accelerated depreciation allowances ($1.0 to $4.5 billion). Tax subsidies do not end at the federal level. The Federal undertaxation of oil costs states some $125 to $323 million per year. Many states also impose fuel taxes that are lower than regular sales taxes, amounting to a subsidy of $4.8 billion per year to gasoline retailers and users.[10]  In all annual tax breaks to support gasoline production and use amount to $9.1 to $17.8 billion.

Second, there are government program subsidies that support the extraction, production, and use of petroleum and petroleum fuel products.  These  total $38 to $114.6 billion each year, the largest portion being some $36 to $112 billion spent on the transportation infrastructure, such as the construction, maintenance, and repair of roads and bridges.

Third, there are the protection costs in oil shipment and motor vehicle services.  U.S. Defense Department expenses for safeguarding the world’s petroleum resources total some $55 to $96.3 billion per year. The Strategic Petroleum Reserve that supplements regular oil supplies in the event of disruptions due to military conflict or natural disaster, costs taxpayers an additional $5.7 billion per year. The Coast Guard and the Department of Transportation’s Maritime Administration costs $566.3 million per year. Local and state government costs for protection services for oil industry companies and gasoline users add up to $27.2 to $38.2 billion annually.[11]

The largest part of externalized costs that we pay for gasoline come from the environmental, health, and social costs of gasoline usage.  For example, while difficult to quantify, estimates of the cost of local air pollution range from $39 billion to $600 billion.  Estimates range from $29.3 to $542.4 billion for the annual uncompensated health costs associated with auto emissions.  Automobiles decrease agricultural yields by some $2.1 to $4.2 billion and reduce visibility to the tune of $6.1 to $44.5 billion.   Damage to buildings and materials cost $1.2 to $9.6 billion, while global warming costs range from $3 to $27.5 billion.  Water pollution costs $8.4 to $36.8 billion, and air pollution $6 to $12 billion.  The improper disposal of batteries, tires, engine fluids, and junked cars costs some $4.4 billion.  To these costs we need to add the cost of urban sprawl; these costs include up to $58.4 billion for additional environmental degradation, social degradation of some $58.4 billion, transportation costs of up to $145 billion, and additional municipal costs of up to $53.8 billion.   In sum, environmental, social and health costs range from $231.7 to $942.9 billion every year.

Finally there are miscellaneous externalized costs that include such things as travel delays due to road congestion ($46.5 to $174.6 billion), uninsured damages caused by car accidents ($18.3 to $77.2 billion), and subsidized parking ($108.7 to $199.3 billion. 

The grand total for externalized costs comes to any where from $558.7 billion to $1.69 trillion per year, which, when added to the retail price of gasoline, results in a per gallon price of $5.60 to $15.14.  And according, to the International Center for Technology Assessment, this is a conservative figure (see Table 2).

Table 2: Market Factors, Externalities and Residual Costs of the Price of Oil and Gasoline*

Market Factors

Market Externality

Residual Externality Cost

Maintaining market friendly laws and regulations

Government tax subsidies and supports along with the corrupting of the political process

$9.1 to $17.8 Billion

Necessary Transportation, Distribution, and Storage Facilities

Government program subsidies for the extraction, production, and use of Petroleum products and the associated pollution and environmental damage.

$36 to $112 Billion

Maintaining business or corporate friendly regimes and safeguarding products and facilities from fire, environmental hazards, etc.

Government protection costs

$55 to 96.3 Billion

Externalization of the environmental, health, and social costs of gasoline usage

Funded and unfunded remediation for environmental, health, and social consequences of gasoline usage

$231.7 to $942.9 Billion

Miscellaneous Externalities

Travel delays due to traffic congestion, subsidized parking, uninsured damage, etc.

$173.5 to $451.1 Billion

Market Price of Gasoline = $2.00: Real Price of Gasoline = $5.60 to $15.14 a gallon


* Data from The Real Price of Gasoline: Report No. 3, An Analysis of the Hidden External Costs Consumers Pay to Fuel Their Automobiles.  International Center for Technology Assessment, (


We might ask, of course, who pays for these externalized costs?  The easy answer is “All of us,” but that would be misleading.  Many of the costs are passed on to future generations, while other externalized costs are paid by marginalized populations—such as underpaid workers, poor residents of environmentally devastated areas, people without health insurance, children who are most susceptible to environmental hazards and so on.

The Role of Anthropology in the Policy Debate

Ryan and Durning candidly acknowledged that reading their book was depressing.  Anyone who has taught about global problems knows the truth of that.  And herein lies a problem.  The issues regarding the environment, poverty, hunger, newly emerging disease, violent conflict seem daunting, at the very least.  Students, as well as citizens, react often with helplessness, asking either “What can I do about it?” or dismissing the problems as “unavoidable,” an expression of “human nature,” or simply “the price of progress.” 

However, if we view most or all of the global issues commonly addressed by anthropologists as market externalities, as I’ve suggested, then the door is opened to more systematically calculating those hidden costs, ensuring that they no longer remain masked from either policy makers or the public, and providing a foundation for public action. 

First, it places global problems in the context that I believe they require—an economic context.  Most of the problems of market externalities are the result of the need for perpetual capital accumulation and economic growth.  That needs to be recognized.  Second, it highlights the fact that most of the problems are the result, not of what other people do, but what we do.  The problems and issues such as poverty, hunger, environmental devastation, and civil conflict are embedded in and written on virtually every object of everyday life--the cup of coffee, the gallon of gasoline, the candy bar, and so on.  Third, the approach of externalities contains a singular policy prescription—device policy to reduce the real cost of things as readily as we work to reduce the market price of things.  Finally, it presents a workable strategy for citizens to directly affect global change through the modification of their everyday behavior.  Many, of course, are already doing that through fair trade campaigns, sweatshop protests, the targeting of multilateral organizations such as the WTO and World Bank, and multilateral agreements, such as NAFTA and FTAA.  These organizations and agreements, of course, function largely to institutionalize the very externalities that we would seek to eliminate. 

Some Policy Actions

What are some of the concrete contributions that anthropologists can make to policy debates regarding market externalization?  Let me just suggest a few for future discussion.

First, we need to somehow systematize the calculation of market externalities.  This is already a considerable body of work from which to draw, including that of environmental economists, regional planners[12], and others involved in various kinds of commodity chain[13] or cost-benefit analysis.  However, I believe that such work can, to everyone’s benefit, be given an anthropological stamp.  Anthropology, because of its cultural sensitivity and ethnographic capabilities is uniquely equipped, I believe, to perform this task. 

Second, through symposia such as this one, anthropologists can develop frameworks for examining and calculating the real cost of things.  I would be happy to help organize such gatherings, and those that are interested, please let me know.

Third, we can work towards or better publicize the establishment of or involvement in policy centers or institutes dealing with problems of market externalization.  Some of these include the Center for a New American Dream,[14] Redefining Progress[15] and World Policy Institute.[16]

Fourth, we can propose legislation to label all consumer items with their real price by including all externalized costs on the label.  While this might not pass legislative scrutiny at either the state or Federal level, the debate would at least increase public awareness of the cost of “stuff.”

Finally, failing legislative approval, compile a list of items with their real cost, and distribute the list as widely as possible, preferably, the law allowing, in or near places where they are sold.  The list should include a statement that the goal is not to prevent people from consuming (the economic, political and social consequences of that are far too uncertain), but, rather, to work at reducing or removing, where possible, the negative market externalities.

I believe that such actions would serve as a beginning to turning anthropology into a policy science.

[1] Shore, Chris and Susan Wright, Anthropology of Policy: Critical Perspectives on Governance and Power.  London: Routledge. 1997

[2] It is widely recognized that policy input comes from a very small and select portion of the population.  Commenting on the present administration, and the role of the President’s advisor Karl Rove, Thomas B. Edsall and Dana Milbank in the Washington Post (Monday, March 10, 2003; Page A01) say that “policy advice comes from some 150 politicians, lobbyists, strategists, academics and executives consulted by Rove.”  Add to this the influence of money in the policy and electoral process, and most would concede that the so-called average citizen has little say on the forces that influence her or his life either directly through public debate or through the electoral system.

[3] Shore and Wright, p. 4

[4] ibid, p. 11

[5] See Richard H. Robbins, Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism (2nd edition).  Allyn & Bacon Publishers. 2001

[6] Stuff: The Secret Lives of Everyday Things.  John C. Ryan and Alan Thein Durning.  NEW Report No. 4, January 1997.  Northwest Environmental Watch, Seattle, Washington

[7] The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as Process, in Arjun Appadurai, edited The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective.  Cambridge University Press, 1988

[8] For an excellent discussion of this point see Immanuel Wallerstein, "Ecology and Capitalist Costs of Production: No Exit."  Keynote address at PEWS XXI, "The Global Environment and the World-System," Univ. of California, Santa Cruz, Apr. 3-5. 1997.

[9] For an additional analysis of the real cost of things see Richard H. Robbins, The Political Economy of Twinkies: An Inquiry into the Real Cost of Things. Keynote Address delivered at a Conference on Globalization and Community sponsored by the Society for Applied Anthropology of Manitoba, March 11, 2000. Winnipeg, Canada (

[10] The Real Price of Gasoline: Report No. 3, An Analysis of the Hidden External Costs Consumers Pay to Fuel Their Automobiles.  International Center for Technology Assessment, (  p. 6

[11] ibid, p. 6

[12] See especially, the work of Mathis Wackernagel and William Rees, Our Ecological Footprint: Reducing Human Impact on Earth.  1996: New Society Publishers

[13] See Commodity Chains and Global Capitalism by Gary Gereffi and Miguel Korzeniewicz Praeger Publishers,  1994




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