“This is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered – with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” That quip sprang readily to mind this week – it was coined in 1962 by President John F. Kennedy, when he welcomed a group of Nobel laureates to the White House – at a paradigm-shifting, synapse-snapping seminar featuring Prof. Mariana Mazzucato and other leading economics scholars, who convened for a think-tank symposium on innovation policy and competitiveness strategy.
The ideal of innovative, inclusive, green and sustainable economic growth is achievable, Mazzucato explained to the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation – if policymakers and private-sector firms recognize that a dynamic economy requires a “mission-oriented” approach to driving technological innovation. An acclaimed economist at the University of Sussex – and the author of, among other works,“The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Sector Myths” – Mazzucato is inspiring an increasingly wide-ranging debate over how to create higher-quality jobs in higher-value industries by sharpening economies’ competitiveness.
An essential driver of creativity is “the innovative state,” as Mazzucato recently detailed in an essay in the journal Foreign Affairs – through disciplined, deliberate public-sector investment, not just in basic research, but in risk-taking ventures as a key stimulant to economy-wide growth. That requires a forthright embrace of the public sector’s ability – and responsibility – to “actively shape and create markets, not just fix market failures.”
With a frisson of what one panelist called “the goosebump factor” enlivening the ITIF seminar – which was moderated by another top scholar of innovation and competitiveness, ITIF’s Rob Atkinson – the think-tank crowd heard Mazzucato outline the need for public-sector agencies to be, not just an occasional partner of private-sector firms, but a persistent driver of investment in leading-edge industries.
“Industrial policy is finally back on the agenda,” Mazzucato asserted at the start of her ITIF remarks. Yet her vision of a competitiveness-minded public sector promoting a modernized version of industrial policy goes far beyond the long-ago experiments in heavy-handed planning that many free-market fundamentalists – forever in thrall to Thatcherism – still enjoy deriding as doomed attempts to “pick winners and losers.” Political Washington’s stale bickering over such a frozen-in-time caricature of industrial policy has long since been eclipsed, among economics scholars and practitioners, by the imaginative approaches of Mazzucato and others to energizing “the entrepreneurial state.”
Focusing the debate on the many pro-active instruments that the public sector can assert to help channel investment into innovation, Mazzucato hurled the defeatist “picking winners and losers” accusation back at the laissez-faire fatalists: “The question is not whether we should ‘pick’ but how.”
“The ‘entrepreneurial’ state, to me, means the state being willing and able to take on risk, to take on real fundamental uncertainty,” Mazzucato recently told The Financial Times. An enterprising public sector has often proven far more venturesome than short-term-focused private-sector firms, which often shy away from higher-risk, higher-reward investments that might diminish their next quarter's profits.
“Venture capitalists themselves often enter [the innovation process] late in the game. In biotechnology, they actually came in after the state had made some of the most radical, revolutionary investments – which, after all, will often fail,” said Mazzucato. “And this is a very important point. Innovation is uncertain. It will often fail. So you need to make sure that the government budget can also fund some of the failures, cover the losses, as well as reap the return from some of the successes to fund the next round” of investments in innovation.
In his enthusiastic review of Mazzucato’s book, economics sage Martin Wolf of the Financial Times noted that energetic public-sector investment in innovation – and the abdication by private-sector firms of their oft-bragged-about, seldom-fulfilled role as bold risk-takers – has led to a “free-rider” problem that distorts incentives.
“Government has increasingly accepted that it funds the risks, while the private sector reaps the rewards,” wrote Wolf. “What is emerging, then, is not a truly symbiotic ecosystem of innovation, but a parasitic one, in which the most loss-making elements are socialised, while the profitmaking ones are largely privatised.” Neoclassical purists' continued scorn for the positive role of innovation-minded public-sector investment, Wolf reasoned, may be “the greatest threat to rising prosperity” in austerity-pinched Western economies.
Mazzucato’s analysis at ITIF reminded economy-watchers of how far the innovation-policy discussion has advanced, even as laissez-faire dogmatists belabor their weary bromides about the supposed taboo against “picking winners and losers.” Propelling a more nuanced vision of competitiveness strategy, as an improvement on earlier approaches to industrial policy, this week’s ITIF seminar advanced an enterprising agenda that Washington should weigh more often – analyzing not whether, but how, the public sector and the private sector can share the responsibility of crafting pro-growth policies and pro-jobs initiatives sans frontières. Meeting that challenge will require a paradigm-changing determination to champion an entrepreneurial public sector as a positive catalyst for creativity.