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During the pandemic people were so grateful to healthcare workers they started clapping for them on the streets. But somehow that gratitude doesn’t translate to their pay, says researcher Andrea Leiter. She will spend the next 3 years studying new ways of valuing on a Veni grant. How could law support changes on a bigger scale?
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Why do we need to change the way we value things?

‘Because right now we are not valuing what we want to value. The problem is that there is a mismatch between the economic value and the values of a large part of society. Take the pandemic as an example. Healthcare workers are structurally underpaid and underfunded, but their work mattered so much that people wanted to express their gratitude by clapping for them and singing songs. They were saying “Thank you. It is so valuable what you’re doing.” And yet that doesn’t translate to their pay.’

You state that a different way of valuing could also lead to more environmental justice. How so?

‘The way we value things is at the root of many ecological problems: when the economic value of logging a rainforest is high it will lead to deforestation of large areas – even though everyone in their right mind knows that this will have devastating consequences on a local, but also on a global scale. The current economic incentives are not enough to turn it around. I want to research other ways of looking at economic values, beyond the price mechanisms and what someone is willing to pay for something.’

They are rewarding the invisible because it best reflects the values of their community

How do you wrap your head around such a large topic as a researcher?

‘It is an enormous topic. To get inspiration for our current system, I will look at 20 grassroot organizations that are experimenting with different ways of valuing. These are the so called “Decentralizes Autonomous Organizations” (DAO’s) which utilize blockchain technology for devising new systems of valuing. They work with community generated tokens, that enable them to tie social values, or whatever people in this community hold dear, to economic value. If there is something interesting happening there that could help society at large then why not rely on it?

What do these experiments look like?

‘One example is the “Dada Dao”. This artist collective came up with a new way of redistributing profits and achievements in what they call the “invisible economy”. They distribute money that they collectively hold in a way which is decoupled from the individual success of artists. This acknowledges the diverse contributions made by each individual to the overall collective, leading to a fairer allocation of rewards for all community members. The idea is: it takes a lot of work to build a community, but it’s not always visible labor. They are rewarding the invisible because it best reflects the values of their community.’

So could we then soon all be rewarded for invisible labor?

‘I will be looking at what works and what doesn’t in these experimental organizations. Sometimes the idea looks amazing, but in everyday practice it doesn’t do the trick. But these grassroot organizations are interesting precisely because they are so experimental. As soon as you think you already know something you often kill the potential for improvements.’

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As soon as you think you already know something you often kill the potential for improvements

How can law and regulation tie into this?

‘I don’t just look at what works in these experiments, but also at what kind of legal concept could enable change. There is a huge law component in this story: you can sell a house only because there are laws that determine it’s your house to sell. Different ways of valuing go hand in hand with different outlooks on law and regulation. The DAO’s are very much “do it yourself”organizations though. Blockchain is basically saying “we don’t need law or the stamp of approval from banks because we have created our own system”.’

Do you then actually need law to change the way we value things?

‘Ultimately, on a larger scale, you will have to engage with law. That’s not a bad thing. Laws have been fought for with blood and tears and it has many useful progressive components. But other parts of law make it hard to change low wages for care workers or stop deforestation. That’s where there is room for improvement.’