I've long been a fan of Marina Mazzucato's work, so I was pleased to see a profile of her in Sunday's New York Times business section. She has important and interesting ideas on economic growth that everyone should be familiar with--particularly, I might add, on the left where the issue of growth tends to get short shrift.
"Dr. Mazzucato, an economist based at University College London, is trying to change something fundamental: the way society thinks about economic value. While many of her colleagues have been scolding capitalism lately, she has been reimagining its basic premises. Where does growth come from? What is the source of innovation? How can the state and private sector work together to create the dynamic economies we want? She asks questions about capitalism we long ago stopped asking. Her answers might rise to the most difficult challenges of our time.
In two books of modern political economic theory — “The Entrepreneurial State” (2013) and “The Value of Everything” (2018) — Dr. Mazzucato argues against the long-accepted binary of an agile private sector and a lumbering, inefficient state. Citing markets and technologies like the internet, the iPhone and clean energy — all of which were funded at crucial stages by public dollars — she says the state has been an underappreciated driver of growth and innovation. “Personally, I think the left is losing around the world,” she said in an interview, “because they focus too much on redistribution and not enough on the creation of wealth.
Her message has appealed to an array of American politicians. Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts and a presidential contender, has incorporated Dr. Mazzucato’s thinking into several policy rollouts, including one that would use “federal R & D to create domestic jobs and sustainable investments in the future” and another that would authorize the government to receive a return on its investments in the pharmaceutical industry. Dr. Mazzucato has also consulted with Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York, and her team on the ways a more active industrial policy might catalyze a Green New Deal."
To provide a bit more detail on Mazzucato's analysis:
Mazzucato argues that the role of the state is not just to supply public goods the private sector ignores but needs (though this is very important) but also to be an entrepreneurial agent investing in areas that are far off the private sector’s radar screen because of extreme uncertainty in economic returns. This is particularly the case with fundamental knowledge generation and very early investments in new technological sectors. Current theories of economic growth assign such innovation a key role in economic growth and it is the “entrepreneurial state” in Mazzucato’s phrase who can afford—and is willing--to bear the inherently immeasurable risks of such innovation.
This has been the case in the United States where pretty much all research underlying the internet and modern computing was funded and initially capitalized by the US state. For example, the immensely profitable Apple corporation’s signature products, like the iphone and ipad, rest on fundamental innovations developed by government funding . This includes everything from the internet to GPS to touch screens to Siri voice recognition. In other words, no entrepreneurial state, no Apple.
More generally, a Brookings Institution study found that 18 of the 25 most important breakthroughs in computer technology in the seminal 1946-65 period were underwritten by the federal government . And it’s not just information technology where the role of the state has been critical: between 1971 and 2006, 77 out of the 88 most important innovations outside of computing/communications , as rated by R&D Magazine, were heavily dependent on government support, especially in their earliest developmental stages.
The role of the entrepreneurial state has been critical to growth in the past and there is no reason to think it will not be critical in the future. Progress in such emerging fields as biotechnology, nanotechnology and, of paramount importance, green technology will continue to depend on the entrepreneurial state being willing to provide support in areas where the private sector sees only unknowable risks. And without such progress economic growth will fall well short of potential.