Building the entrepreneurial state

How the state can create markets as well as fix them.

Industrial policy is back on the agenda, not least due to the leaked letter this week by Vince Cable to the Prime Minister asking for a growth policy with a more "compelling vision" of the future. This is good news so long as the discussion moves beyond the fear about "picking winners". There is no point in talking about innovation, if economic policies focused on austerity prevent key investments which can increase productivity and human capital.

There are five strategies that could drive a visionary industrial growth policy for the UK.

1. Do something different

As Keynes wrote in 1926 in The End of Laissez Faire, "The important thing for government is not to do things which individuals are doing already, and to do them a little better or a little worse; but to do those things which at present are not done at all."

His key insight was that private business investment is volatile and pro-cyclical: too much during booms and too little during busts. To avoid recessions turning into depressions, government needs to focus on counter-cyclical policies -- the opposite of what is happening today. But the focus on "doing something different" is not just about counter-cyclical measures. It is also about the need for government to focus on policies that cause types of economic activity that would not have happened otherwise. Industrial policy is about making this happen in the areas of productivity enhancing investments that lead to growth and innovation.

2. Transform animal spirits into investment

Since investment is driven by "animal spirits" (the gut expectations that investors have on the future state of the economy), a key role of government is to get that investment moving. Large reductions in corporate tax rates did not increase investment in the 80s nor will they today (they simply change income distribution). Government-led investments that open up new technological and market opportunities will. This includes not only properly funding education and research infrastructures but also providing early financing for innovative firms, and new key technologies, which private venture capital has proven too risk averse to fund. Without the state there would have been no internet revolution, biotech revolution or nanotech revolution. Without the state, the green-tech revolution is still-born.

One of the failures of current UK policy is the assumption that firms want to grow, and all they need is a "nudge" in the right direction. While the Green Investment Bank is surely a positive development, it assumes that the willingness to invest is there and all that is needed is some co-financing. But "green" investment is currently confined to incremental areas, and the government is not stepping in to fill the gap. The UK's investment of £12.6 billion in this area in 2009/10 is, according to PIRC, "under 1 per cent of UK Gross Domestic Product; half of what South Korea currently invests in green technologies annually; and less than what the UK presently spend on furniture in a year".

3. Market making not market fixing

What I have called the "entrepreneurial state" is not about fixing markets but creating them. The state has acted in the past as catalyst, lead investor and creator (not just facilitator) of the knowledge economy. This requires far-sighted investments in technologies that are too risky for the private sector, such as offshore wind and carbon capture and storage. It also involves the creation of clear policy signals that increase business confidence in areas that are otherwise seen to be too high risk, such as feed-in tariffs for solar energy (recently cancelled in the UK causing even more uncertainty and less investment).

A more entrepreneurial role for government extends beyond procuring innovative products to making them directly in public labs when the private sector is reluctant to step in. Indeed, 75 per cent of the New Molecular Entities with priority rating in the pharmaceutical industry have originated in public sector labs, because private pharma is more interested in the low risk "me too" drugs. It is the large amounts of US public funds for life-sciences research (via the National Institutes of Health) that has enticed Pfizer and GSK to leave the UK for the US. From 1978 through 2004, NIH spending on life sciences research totalled $365 billion.

4. Rebalancing indicators of performance

Creating markets is also about shaping the indicators that are used to measure economic performance so they reward rather than penalise the most innovative companies. In this sense, "rebalancing" is not necessarily about sectors. It is more about redirecting "indicators of performance" away from short run financial towards long run "real economy" measures. Firms investing in expensive R&D and human capital will have a higher risk profile, since innovation is so costly and uncertain. The most innovative companies have suffered the largest increases in the cost of credit. . Furthermore, the focus on boosting stock prices through share buybacks (Fortune 500 companies have spent $3 trillion on buybacks over the last decade) has been shown to be directly related to lower investments of these companies in human capital and R&D. These are tradeoffs which industrial policy must combat.

Battling against these problems includes devising policies that nurture "patient capital" that can protect the flow of credit to the most innovative companies. In Germany this occurs through the state-backed investment bank - KfW, which works alongside the regional Landesbanken as well as the large network of savings banks. Innovation in Brazil, which has surpassed the UK as the world's fifth largest economy, has been directly funded by the Brazilian Development Bank. In the UK, a National Investment Bank could today be formed relatively quickly out of the nationalised RBS (an idea included in Cable's leaked letter). Selling it off would be a wasted opportunity.

5. Being first matters

China recently announced that it is spending $1.5 trillion over the next five years in seven new key industries (including environmentally friendly technologies and new generation IT). Its industrial policy is its growth policy -- its economic strategy. Similarly, after the crisis hit in 2008, Germany increased its government funded R&D spending by 10 per cent, while the UK has since cut it by the same amount, signalling very different visions of what will drive post-crisis recovery.

In the UK, outside of the eurozone, such investments should be even easier. The money can be created through quantitative easing(already happening), but instead of ending up hoarded in bank coffers it can be directed through a National Investment Bank into productive investment in key new sectors. The time is now not only because it is the right way out of the crisis (fiscal stimulus has been shown to be stronger when directed to new technologies rather than "shovel ready" projects), but also because the history of innovation tells us that being first matters. The US is still the leader today in IT as Germany is still the leader in machine tools. Leaders in green technology today include China, South Korea, Germany and Finland. Not making a mark today in what promises to be the "next internet" - green technology will mean the UK stays behind for years to come.

Mariana Mazzucato is Professor of Economics and RM Phillips Chair in Science and Technology Policy at the University of Sussex. She is the author of The Entrepreneurial State.

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UnHerd's rejection of the new isn't as groundbreaking as it seems to think

Tim Montgomerie's new venture has some promise, but it's trying to solve an old problem.

Information overload is oft-cited as one of the main drawbacks of the modern age. There is simply too much to take in, especially when it comes to news. Hourly radio bulletins, rolling news channels and the constant stream of updates available from the internet – there is just more than any one person can consume. 

Luckily Tim Montgomerie, the founder of ConservativeHome and former Times comment editor, is here to help. Montgomerie is launching UnHerd, a new media venture that promises to pull back and focus on "the important things rather than the latest things". 

According to Montgomerie the site has a "package of investment", at least some of which comes from Paul Marshall. He is co-founder of one of Europe's largest hedge funds, Marshall Wace, formerly a longstanding Lib Dem, and also one of the main backers and chair of Ark Schools, an academy chain. The money behind the project is on display in UnHerd's swish (if slightly overwhelming) site, Google ads promoting the homepage, and article commissions worth up to $5,000. The selection of articles at launch includes an entertaining piece by Lionel Shriver on being a "news-aholic", though currently most of the bylines belong to Montgomerie himself. 

Guidelines for contributors, also meant to reflect the site's "values", contain some sensible advice. This includes breaking down ideas into bullet points, thinking about who is likely to read and promote articles, and footnoting facts. 

The guidelines also suggest focusing on what people will "still want to read in six, 12 or 24 months" and that will "be of interest to someone in Cincinnati or Perth as well as Vancouver or St Petersburg and Cape Town and Edinburgh" – though it's not quite clear how one of Montgomerie's early contributions, a defence of George Osborne's editorship of the Evening Standard, quite fits that global criteria. I'm sure it has nothing to do with the full page comment piece Montgomerie got in Osborne's paper to bemoan the deficiencies of modern media on the day UnHerd launched. 

UnHerd's mascot  – a cow – has also created some confusion, compounded by another line in the writing tips describing it as "a cow, who like our target readers, tends to avoid herds and behave in unmissable ways as a result". At least Montgomerie only picked the second-most famous poster animal for herding behaviour. It could have been a sheep. In any case, the line has since disappeared from the post – suggesting the zoological inadequacy of the metaphor may have been recognised. 

There is one way in which UnHerd perfectly embodies its stated aim of avoiding the new – the idea that we need to address the frenetic nature of modern news has been around for years.

"Slow news" – a more considered approach to what's going on in the world that takes in the bigger picture – has been talked about since at least the beginning of this decade.

In fact, it's been around so long that it has become positively mainstream. That pusher of rolling coverage the BBC has been talking about using slow news to counteract fake news, and Montgomerie's old employers, the Times decided last year to move to publishing digital editions at set points during the day, rather than constantly updating as stories break. Even the Guardian – which has most enthusiastically embraced the crack-cocaine of rolling web coverage, the live blog – also publishes regular long reads taking a deep dive into a weighty subject. 

UnHerd may well find an audience particularly attuned to its approach and values. It intends to introduce paid services – an especially good idea given the perverse incentives to chase traffic that come with relying on digital advertising. The ethos it is pitching may well help persuade people to pay, and I don't doubt Montgomerie will be able to find good writers who will deal with big ideas in interesting ways. 

But the idea UnHerd is offering a groundbreaking solution to information overload is faintly ludicrous. There are plenty of ways for people to disengage from the news cycle – and plenty of sources of information and good writing that allow people to do it while staying informed. It's just that given so many opportunities to stay up to date with what has just happened, few people decide they would rather not know.