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Discovering Price in All the Wrong Places: The Work of Commodity Definition and Price under Neoliberal Environmental Policy

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Price plays a unique role in neoliberal economic theory, quantifying value and providing markets with the information needed to produce equilibrium conditions and optimal social welfare. While the role of price is clear, the mechanisms by which prices are discovered, and by which the commodities they value are defined, are left obscure in neoliberal theory. Automatic price discovery, and self-evident commodity identities, are assumed. Observation of newly created markets in ecosystem services suggests that this is a moment of significant tension within neoliberal practice, as potential market participants seek guidance from the state on appropriate commodity measures and pricing practices. Bureaucrats and economists, following the neoliberal preference for governance over government, turn the task back onto civil society. The invocation of abstract rules, instead of the formulation of practical guidance, by policymakers means that the neoliberal marketization of non-market public goods is a contingent and sometimes rudderless task for those who must make markets work on the ground. This presents many opportunities for constructive engagement on the part of geographers and other critics of neoliberal strategy.
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Keywords: Ecosystem services; commodification of nature; neoliberal economics; price discovery; water quality trading; wetland banking

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: US Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Water, Wetlands Division, Washington, DC, USA;, Email: [email protected]

Publication date: 2007-06-01

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