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The Surprising Design of Market Economies (Constructs Series) Hardcover – September 1, 2012

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Product Details

  • Series: Constructs Series
  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: University of Texas Press (September 1, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0292717776
  • ISBN-13: 978-0292717770
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 6.1 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #692,056 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews


Marshall’s thoughtful critique accounts for social dynamics often ignored by modern economists and is grounded in a multitude of fascinating examples, underscoring his thesis that we can, and should, debate the powers allotted to our creations, rather than let them, falsely, set the terms of their own existence. (Publishers Weekly 2012-07-06)

Offers keen insights into urban planning, public works, and even the history of New York’s onetime ambivalence toward a professional police force. (New York Times)

Conventional economics wittingly or unwittingly provides cover for the One Percent, by professing that ‘the market’ operates benevolently on its own. Alex Marshall gives us an entertaining, thoughtful, and well-written antidote to this dangerous abstraction. (Huffington Post)


This book debunks the free market orthodoxy that markets are ‘natural’ things that should not be meddled with. Taking us through history from the Athenian ‘owl’ coin to the Founding Fathers, from the American Civil War to Korean economic development, from Gone with the Wind to the Sundance Film Festival, the book shows how all markets are actually built upon carefully designed ‘artificial’ structures. Having read the book, you will not be able to spread Land O’Lakes butter on your bread or drive along Route 66 in the same way as you used to. An eye-opener. (Ha-Joon Chang, University of Cambridge, author of Bad Samaritans and 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism)

More About the Author

A long time ago now, I was driving past some old shacks in rural Virginia, in the western part of the state, and I wondered how the people in them were living. And suddenly it hit me. I wanted to find out, and I wanted to write about it. I wanted to be a writer. So starting in that moment, I took steps to do just that. I started freelance writing, and eventually went to Columbia Journalism School, and then I became a newspaper reporter. I became a journalist, a profession that suits me because my inquiring nature is an asset rather than a liability, which it had been before then.

I'm still a journalist, still a writer, though I don't work for a daily newspaper anymore. I still am trying to figure out how the world works, and tell about it. I have a perhaps a naive belief that if people understand how the world works, they will seek to use that information to make it better.

Some basic bio information about me. I'm the author of three books, the latest being The Surprising Design of Market Economies, which is my opus of sorts. I'm a native of Norfolk, Virginia, being born there on May 7, 1959. I live in Brooklyn now. Before addressing economies, I wrote a lot about urban planning, which explains why I'm a Senior Fellow at the Regional Plan Association, an esteemed urban planning group in New York City. I still write a lot about urban planning.

Customer Reviews

4.3 out of 5 stars
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He makes something complex a surprisingly easy read.
Curtis Johnson
Marshall's book is a real step outside the standard two sided American political/economic argument, and into the broader field of what an economy could be.
It's never too late to do what we can to educate ourselves, and get involved with making good government- and healthy markets.
J Doyle

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Shepherd Siegel on August 25, 2012
Format: Hardcover
Alex Marshall has written an important book that comes at a critical time, a time when Americans are developing--finally--a more sophisticated and deeper sense of economics, class, and politics. Nothing like a bad economy to make us all a little wiser. Marshall's basic premise is all too true: that the `market economy' is a complex concept that has multiple interpretations, manifestations, and designs. He reminds us of the fact that corporations and private enterprise operate with the permission of government, and thus that permission can be withdrawn, can be neglected, and most importantly, can be designed with rules and regulations that draw a market into service of the common good. So that if--and admittedly a big if--a government is a democratic one, that is exactly what should happen, once the will of the people prevail over the influence of lobbies and special interests. It is precisely this kind of thinking that can foster solutions that reach across the political divide and bring Americans to a more broadly held common intention. By providing multiple examples of working cooperatives like Land O' Lakes, Ocean Spray, Borden, and energy and communication cooperatives; European models of more democratic governance of corporations; Madison's proposal of a National Companies Act; and many others, we can, as Marshall states, discover that "Our hands are on the steering wheel, more than we usually recognize."
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Robert H. Clark on September 12, 2012
Format: Hardcover
After reading "The Surprising Design of Market Economies", I was reminded of the saying (whose author escapes me at the moment) to the effect that the primary role of wise men is to remind the rest of us of the obvious. I don't see how an intellectually honest person can read this book and not have the way they think about economics shift in significant ways. For me it cleared some major conceptual clouds that I think are at the root of a lot of the ineffectual economic thinking, especially on the Right. We tend to think and talk about the economy as if it is a separate entity onto itself; that if you peeled away all the government regulation that is artificially imposed on it, you could see it in its ideal, pristine form, the way God or Human Nature intended it to be, ie "The Free Market".

What this book makes abundantly clear, through interesting every day and historical examples, is that in reality if you peeled away all the government regulation and looked, there would be nothing left to see. Well maybe 2 guys in animal skins trading potatoes and hoping the other isn't hiding a bigger knife than he is.

In essence there are as many "Free Markets" possible as there are variations in the laws that define everything involved in human interaction, and in the government entities that enforce these laws. The devil is in the details. Economies are designed and constructed by governments (hopefully through democratic process), there is no alternative. This is obvious once you think about it but has been completely obscured by the way we frame our thinking about the topic. And it is a profoundly important idea because it reveals that somebody is always writing these laws and designing our economy.
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Format: Hardcover
When the US Army blasted into Baghdad in 2003, expelling Saddam's Baathist regime, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld expected "free markets" to pop up all over. Instead, he got looting, murder, and chaos. So much for the neocon myth that markets are "natural," requiring only the absence of "government interference."

In The Surprising Design of Market Economies, urban journalist Alex Marshall shows how in fact it always takes government--even bad government--to create and maintain markets. The idealized "free market" we meet in Ec. 1, with its large numbers of well-informed competing buyers and sellers--that kind of market would not exist without intensive government support and regulation. I provided an example in my post on Public Meat Markets in Old New York.

From the earliest times, government--at first perhaps just the local warlord--has at least provided a safe physical space for trade. Before 2000 BC, Chinese, Egyptian, and Babylonian governments not only established market places; they also built roads and canals to them. They created and enforced systems of weights and measures, and even forms of money. They also drew up sets of rules, such as the Code of Hammurabi, and provided courts to resolve disputes. Later, under the Roman Empire, of course Christ found money-changers in the temple courtyard, along with all sorts of other merchants--because that was a nice, safe, central location for a market.

As Marshall points out, government creates and enforces titles or "rights" to property. If we don't have the right to own something, we can't trade it.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By J Doyle on January 10, 2013
Format: Hardcover
I have to say, I haven't read much in the arena of markets and economics in general, and picked this book up with only mild interest. At first. I quickly found the book to be a really fascinating foray into the whole myth of the 'free' market. I suppose that I've always assumed that markets were, in the U.S. anyway, pretty-sorta-kinda- free, but Mr. Marshall eloquently disabused me of that notion in a hurry. What I found, much to my shock, was that markets are actually largely controlled by laws and regulations that favor large corporations and the rich. I suppose, now that I look at it, I shouldn't have been surprised! But I had no idea that markets were so manufactured, so contrived- and not so much a matter of if, but how, and by whom.

Marshall shows us that we don't really have a choice in all this- markets are inherently in need of good design and intelligent regulation- and that despite libertarian ideals and hopeful illusions, our economy and it's markets are designed and set up from the get-go. There's no way around it- the best we can do is to do it consciously and skillfully. But by whom and for what ends? There is no getting around the reality that we, as a democracy, have an obligation to educate ourselves in the mechanics of how our markets are manipulated and tweaked to favor the powers that be. There's a lot of good story-telling here- real life examples of how companies, such as Ocean Spray ( I thought this section especially telling) are affected, and in turn affect, the markets they are part of.

We need to get involved- all of us- in taking a look at the regulations, or the lack thereof, that have allowed Big Business to take advantage of the myth of the 'free market'.
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