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Winnipeg Free Press, July 30, 2006.
– A different take on consumer power –

Reviewed by Lindsey Wiebe

“We make choices every day,” writes Ontario author Tom Slee. “We choose the clothes we wear, the way we travel, the movies we watch, and the places we shop.”

But even with all this choice, Slee says, the rich are getting richer, while the middle class and poor are losing ground.

“What has gone wrong?” he asks in this thought-provoking mix of academic and social critique.

“Why is it that with more choices than any in society in history, we do not get what we want?”

These basic questions form the underpinnings of this first book by the Waterloo software professional and researcher.

In it, Slee explores the pitfalls of a free-market economy; in particular, what he refers to as “MarketThink,” the idea that consumers control the market, and can hold corporations accountable.

Slee does his best to debunk this mindset, arguing that even the most reasonable of individual decisions can produce negative results for the general public.

Much of the book revolves around the fictional foibles of Jack and Jill, who live in the made-up town of Whimsley.

Slee uses the characters to illustrate the routine conflicts between personal and public gain.

Should Jack support a downtown department store, or visit a newly opened big-box development? And does it really matter if Jill leaves litter in a public park, when surely others will be more environmentally conscious?

No One Makes You Shop at Wal-Mart also draws on real-world examples of difficult choices, tackling everything from the issue of herd mentality to the problem of “free-riders,” those who act in their own best interests while assuming, often mistakenly, that others will work for the public good.

Slee’s reasoning is persuasive, and his examples numerous and far-reaching: the contentious subject of international pollution credits, for one, or the perennial public vs. private school debate.

But although No One Makes You Shop at Wal-Mart is more accessible than the average academic text, it still falls short of mass-market appeal, and those unfamiliar with game theory might find some sections slower than others.

Slee’s pacing is often sluggish, and the overall arrangement of material feels unfocused. The sheer number of examples to deconstruct is also a little daunting, an ironic flaw in a book about the dilemmas of choice.

Slee may have been better off focusing on fewer but more detailed examples to plead his case.

On the positive side, Slee’s in-text citations are clear and easy to follow, and readers hoping to learn more about the complexities of decision-making will come out with a solid list of followup books.

No One Makes You Shop at Wal-Mart doesn’t qualify as light summer reading. However, the book does offer an intriguing critique of dominant ideas on consumer power, and puts forward a valid argument for the benefits of collective decision-making and regulation.

– Lindsey Wiebe is a Free Press reporter.

This Magazine, July/August 2006.

In our free society, even socially and economically progressive outlooks buy into the notion of personal consumer choice. Don’t like Wal-Mart’s labour practices? If that’s the case, they say, vote with your feet and shop somewhere else. But, ironically, this belief reinforces the unrealistically simplified world view Tom Slee calls MarketThink—the philosophical bedrock of capitalism—which claims that rational choices will always lead to good outcomes. By examining the complications arising from the choices we make, Slee shows that free choice is actually a deception, and that instead of consistently achieving the best results, a society based on individual choice will often collectively experience negative outcomes, such as, ironically, a limit to the amount of choice we are offered. The solution? In framing the ideas of social philosophers and economists in an accessible way that brings the philosophical to the realm of the practical, Slee makes a solid case for collective action in a world of choice that is inherently interconnected, putting to shame the simplistic assumptions of the free market world view. – Vladi Ivanov

Quill & Quire, June 2006, p. 51.

Anyone who has tried to shepherd a child through the endless rows of toys in a department store with the proviso that only one item may be purchased knows the emotional devastation that can be wrought from the dilemma of too many choices. It’s the deceptive nature of choice in our society that provides the focal point for Tom Slee’s philosophical inquiry into how and why we do certain things, even when our decisions conflict with our moral compass.

Slee, a research scientist and software professional, is intrigued by the notion that a society marketing itself as full of wondrous choices is nonetheless marked by a happiness quotient that’s in continual decline.

We do have choices, from whether or not to smoke, drive vehicles with poor safety records, eat foods high in trans fats, or buy certain brands of shoes and clothing. But Slee wonders whether those choices are determined by free will or are driven by a hidden hand, a cultural subtext that provides only the illusion of freedom.

To illustrate his points, Slee creates a number of scenarios in the fictitious community of Whimsley, where Jack and Jill deal with issues such as the conflict between shopping in a suburban big box or supporting downtown independent stores, or the pros and cons of using lawyers during a divorce. All of these things, Slee argues, involve different levels of choice, and in some situations, a lack of choice actually results in a better outcome. He also explores the world of game theory with respect to choice, and analyzes the role of what he calls MarketThink — the logic of the so-called free market that has driven economics for the past few decades (also known as globalization or corporate control).

Unfortunately, Slee’s approach is often difficult to follow as he tries to piece together these various strands. It’s almost as if Slee falls nvictim to having too many choices with regard to settling on a writing style, making for an uneven text that could have benefited from more coherence and continuity. Slee also makes numerous references to the notion of collective action as an alternative to MarketThink, but this thesis is never really developed, leaving the reader wondering why Slee chose not to explore what seems like a logical conclusion to the book’s central issue. – Matthew Behrens, a writer and editor in Toronto.

Individual Reviews

Marginal Revolution

Alex Tabarrok, associate professor of economics in the department of economics at George Mason University:

Slee’s book is the best of the anti-market books: it is well written, serious, and knowledgeable about economics. In fact, I regard Slee’s book as an excellent primer on asymmetric information, free riding, externalities, herding, coordination problems and identity – Economics 301 for all those budding young Ezra Klein’s of the world who think that Economics 101 isn’t quite right.

The complete review can be found at Marginal Revolution.

Grasping Reality with Both Hands

Brad DeLong, professor of economics at the University of California at Berkeley, and sometime Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Economic Policy:

Alex Tabarrok’s reading Tom Slee’s No One Makes Your Shop at Wal-Mart and consequent throwing the book against the wall and desiring to kick Tom Slee in the shins has boosted Tom’s book’s amazon.com sales rank by a factor of ten.

If it will boost the book’s ranking further, I will promise to throw one of my two copies out my sixth-floor office window and to trap Tom Slee in the Evans Hall middle south elevator for no less than thirty minutes–it is a very nice book. Almost as nice as Bryan Caplan’s The Myth of the Rational Voter.) And good anti-market books defending social democracy in this neoliberal age are scarce (bad books are plentiful).

There is a little more here.

Stumbling and Mumbling

Chris Dillow, economist at Investor’s Chronicle, on his personal weblog.

In No-one Makes You Shop at Wal-Mart Tom Slee takes on a big job – to challenge the view that free markets invariably make us better off.

He does this not by claiming that people are stupid, or by whining about unfairness, or by mumbo-jumbo calls for a new economic paradigm of the sort that pollute the Guardian. Instead, he applies orthodox economic principles in beautifully clear terms. For example:

The prisoner’s dilemma causes a “race for status” in which each individual works harder than he’d like.

Co-ordination games create monopolies and superstars based upon little merit – everyone buys Microsoft not because it’s best but because everyone else does.

Asymmetric information means that predictability trumps quality. This leads to diverse problems such as the unemployed being unable to price themselves into jobs; to old-boy networks; to the failure of quality local restaurants or art-house films.

Some things – a town of diverse small shops, or an unpolluted environment – just cannot be chosen by individuals. So the market cannot fulfill our preferences for them.

These failings – and Tom gives many more – provide an argument for government intervention, and for scepticism about whether we should introduce market forces into the public services.

There are, however, three issues Tom is vague about. One is: just how widespread or important are these market failures? For example, the market for used cars works better than Akerlof’s theory of asymmetric information predicts. Is this just an isolated example of how markets work better in practice than in theory, or does it show that Tom is too pessimistic?

Second, the strongest case for free markets is not that they maximize well-being. It’s that markets are a way of processing countless dispersed pieces of information on people’s tastes and technologies. Sadly, Tom never addresses this Hayekian argument.

Third, market failure is only part of the story. There’s also government failure. The choice we have is often not between badly functioning free markets and well-regulated markets, but between badly functioning free markets and badly regulated markets.

These, though, are quibbles, for our purposes. No-one Makes You Shop at Wal-Mart is a good counterweight to the “MarketThink” view that markets work perfectly. It’s a valuable reminder that scepticism about markets can be compatible with clear thinking and economic literacy. And it’s wholly accessible to non-economists too. Opponents of the market could do a lot worse than to use this as their inspiration.

The original of this review can be found at Stumbling and Mumbling.

Raw Thought

Aaron Swartz, a founder of Reddit among several other achievements, and writesthis

There is a theory (quite an elegant one, actually) that says that because we live in a marketplace of free choices we end up getting basically what we want — our dollars are like votes for the society we wish to live in. Many have challenged this view, from a variety of perspectives, but Tom Slee (who calls this notion MarketThink) has chosen to focus on just one: the economic subfield of “game theory”.

In his elegant little book, the poorly-titled No One Makes You Shop At Wal-Mart, Slee walks through the major discoveries of game theory, explains them in simple language with reference to a fictional town of Whimsley, and discusses how they refute standard economic conclusions while still playing by basic economic assumptions with effects that appear to show up in the real world.

Take the problem of littering, for example. The town of Whimsley has a large park between its coffee shop and its office building. Residents can toss their empty coffee cups on the ground in the park, thereby saving themselves the trouble of carrying it but minutely spoiling the park, or they can carry it to the trash at the office, saving the park but bothering their hands. In the absence of anyone else, each resident is better off tossing their cup — the bother of carrying it is much more than the small amount of spoilage. But if everyone does this, the park is quickly full of litter. Each individual, acting perfectly rationally, creates a situation that none of them want.

A similar problem gives the book its title. Imagine you get some utility from having a vibrant downtown of independent shops. Then a Wal-Mart opens up on the outskirts of town. You begin shopping at the Wal-Mart because the prices are cheaper and you can still walk through the vibrant downtown when you like. But with everyone buying things at Wal-Mart, the downtown stores can no longer afford to stay open and the center of your city turns into an empty husk. You’d prefer to have the vibrant downtown to the Wal-Mart, but nobody ever gave you that choice.

The book is full of dozens of examples like this, each with careful analysis and clear writing. Perhaps the most odd feature of the book is its politics. On the one hand, Slee is plainly a committed leftist, with positive references to Naomi Klein and other capitalist critics. But on the other hand, he never gives up on the rational actor and methodological individualist assumptions of modern economics, and shows little patience for those (typically his political allies) who have more thorough-going critiques. Nonetheless, the book is a recommended read for anyone interested in these questions.

Jim Stanford

Jim Stanford is Economist at the Canadian Auto Workers, and a regular columnist with the Globe and Mail.

Conservatives dress up their destructive policy prescriptions in the language of ‘individual choice.’ Tom Slee’s paradigm-busting book shows there are other, better ways for society to make choices. Marvelous and timely.

Daniel Harper

At Yet Another Unitarian Universalist, Daniel Harper writes (July 7, 2006):

In No One Makes You Shop at Wal-Mart: The Surprising Deceptions of Individual Choice, Tom Slee looks at how games theory and the theory of freedom of choice underlie most current economic thinking. Slee gives examples of how both liberal and conservative politicians in the English-speaking world hold up freedom of choice as an ideal to strive towards. But, says Slee, freedom of choice has some unrecognized effects, and he offers a wealth of entertaining examples of how freedom of choice in fact do not give us what we want.

In one example at the beginning of the book, Slee shows how the freedom to choose to shop at Wal-Mart is good for consumers at first, but then leads to less happiness for the consumer. Before Wal-Mart opens, a hypothetical person named Jack enjoys shopping at two downtown department stores: Jack gets reasonable selection and price, the variety of shopping at two stores, and the pleasure of a thriving downtown neighborhood that he gets to walk through every day on his way to work.

Read the complete review here

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