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

4.4 out of 5 stars 10 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


"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)

"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)

"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)

"Marshall is asking the right questions by focusing on the structure of the market. Unfortunately, most economic policy discussions treat market structure as a given and then ask whether the market in its existing structure should be left alone or subject to some form of regulation. The right question is whether the market could be structured better in the first place." (Dean Baker, Center for Economic and Policy Research)

"We make the rules and the rules make us. So argues Alex Marshall in this brilliant and fascinating exploration of the nature and human design of markets. A must read." (David Morris, Cofounder, Institute for Local Self-Reliance)

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Product Details

  • Series: Constructs
  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: University of Texas Press (September 1, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0292717776
  • ISBN-13: 978-0292717770
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,573,128 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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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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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Format: Paperback
This book performs a valuable service by emphasizing government's crucial role in both directly and indirectly structuring markets. Sad to say, ever since some point after the Nixon Administration all too many Americans have forgotten that role. The author (AM) presents his thesis with many examples ranging from political philosophy to the design of water systems and typewriter keyboards, in clear and jargon-free prose.

The solutions he proposes aren't always persuasive: e.g., he advocates a National Companies Act as an antidote to state laws like Delaware's that are very favorable to corporate management, but doesn't consider that, given that 60% of the Fortune 500 are incorporated in Delaware (@113), a federal corporations law is likely to look very much like Delaware's, or even more pro-management. And the connection between markets and some topics wasn't always so clear, e.g. in the discussion of prisons (@174-175; Bernard Harcourt's "The Illusion of Free Markets" (Harvard 2011) might have helped to put a finer point on this). Still, the range of topics is very imaginative, and should open the minds of many readers.

I'm very much in sympathy with AM's broad purpose, so I don't want to be too negative about this book. Because of that sympathy, though, I was really hoping for a tight argument that would be hard to attack -- and was all the more disappointed by the frequent slackness I found instead. Here are a few examples of inaccuracies and semi-accuracies I was able to catch:

(a) First, the book's neatest sound-bite: "'There is no difference between Google and San Francisco,' said Harvard Law prof Gerald Frug]. They are both corporations -- 'bodies, empowered by government to do stuff.' [¶] Let's say that again.
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