Mariana Mazzucato, professor in the economics of innovation at Sussex University.
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Public risks, private rewards: how an innovative state can tackle inequality

The winner of the inaugural New Statesman/Speri Prize in political economy on how an innovative state can tackle inequality.

This autumn, the inaugural NS/­Speri Prize was awarded to Mariana Mazzucato of the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex. It rewards “the scholar who has succeeded most effectively over the preceding two or three years in disseminating original and critical ideas in political economy to a wider public audience” and includes the invitation to deliver a lecture. This is an edited extract from that speech.

What makes the iPhone so smart? Was it only the genius of Steve Jobs and his team and the visionary finance supplied from risk-loving venture capitalists? No. In my book The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public v Private Sector Myths, I tell the missing part of that story by analysing the public funds that allowed the smartphone to be created. The research programmes that made the internet, touch-screen displays, GPS and the Siri voice control possible all had government backing.

The point is not to belittle the work of Jobs and his team, which was both essential and transformational. But we must be more balanced in the historiography of Apple and its founders, where not a word is mentioned of the collective effort behind Silicon Valley. The question is this: who benefits from such a narrow description of the wealth-creation process in the hi-tech sector today?

Over the past year, inequality has risen up the political agenda, with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development documenting just how bad inequality is for growth. But the current debate is often focused only on redistribution. If policymakers want to get serious about tackling inequality, they need to rethink not only areas such as the wealth tax that Thomas Piketty is calling for but the received wisdom on how to generate value and wealth creation in the first place. When we have a narrow theory of who creates value and wealth, we allow a greater share of that value to be captured by a small group of actors who call themselves wealth creators. This is our current predicament and the reason why progressive parties on both sides of the Atlantic are struggling to provide a clear story of what has gone wrong in recent decades and what to do about it.

Let’s start with some definitions. First, the market. The path-breaking work of the historian Karl Polanyi teaches us that talk of “state intervention” in “free markets” is a historical fallacy. In his 1944 book The Great Transformation, Polanyi argued: “The road to the free market was opened and kept open by an enormous increase in continuous, centrally organised and controlled interventionism . . . Administrators had to be constantly on the watch to ensure the free working of the system.”

The public sector’s active role in shaping and creating markets is even more relevant in today’s “knowledge economy”. Traditional economic theory, which guides policymaking worldwide, justifies state intervention only to solve market failures. But what the state has done in the few countries that have succeeded in producing innovation-led growth has been to create new markets. Sectors such as the internet, biotechnology, nanotechnology and the emerging green economy have depended on direct, “mission-oriented” public investments, creating a new technological landscape – not only facilitating existing ones – with business following only after returns were clearly in sight. So why have we accepted such a biased story of the state’s role when, as the story of Apple shows, it has done so much more than “fix” market failures? What is the relationship between this false narrative of who the real risk-takers are and increasing inequality? Here are three areas we need to look at.

 

Socialising risks and rewards

The pretence that government only spends, regulates, administers and, at best, “de-risks” or “fixes” market failures prevents us from seeing that it has been a lead risk-taker and investor. As a result, government has socialised the risks but not the rewards. Some economists argue that the reward for the state comes through taxation. This, in theory, is right. Innovation-led growth should lead to an increase in tax revenue – but not if the companies that benefit the most from innovations don’t pay much tax compared to the income they generate, not only as a result of loopholes but also because of their continual lobbying for tax incentives and tax cuts that they say they need to foster innovation. It’s not a coincidence that groups such as the National Venture Capital Association helped convince the US government to reduce capital gains tax by 50 per cent in only five years in the late 1970s – an “innovation policy” later copied by Tony Blair’s government. (A policy that even Warren Buffett has admitted has had no effect on investment but lots on inequality.)

Similarly, in the name of promoting innovation, different types of tax “incentives” are constantly introduced – such as the “patent box” system, which allows companies to pay virtually no tax on profits generated from patented goods and services. By targeting the income generated from patents (which are, in effect, state-granted monopolies for 20 years), rather than the research that leads to them, such measures have little to no effect on innovation.

 

More symbiotic innovation ecosystems

Sharing risks and rewards also requires making sure that private-sector commitment on innovation increases. Of course businesses invest in research and development (R&D) but the emphasis is increasingly on the D, building on earlier public-sector investment in R.

As Bill Lazonick and I have argued in our recent work, in areas as different as pharma, IT and energy, large companies are spending an increasing proportion of profits on share buy-backs, to boost stock options and executive pay. Fortune 500 companies have spent a record $3trn in the past decade on share buy-backs – greatly outpacing R&D. Thus, a serious “life-sciences” strategy should not only be about government increasing its financing of pharma’s knowledge base but should involve government being confident enough to ask Big Pharma to invest more of its profits in research and human resources to address skills shortages.

When countries ask Google, Apple and Amazon to pay more tax, this should not only be because they use public roads and infrastructure but also because a significant part of the technologies that drive their record profits was publicly funded.

We hear a lot about how new technology hurts those without the skills required by the modern economy and that this is the key link between innovation and inequality. But where do skills come from? They are the result of investment – and today we have a massive crisis of investment.

 

A New Deal . . . and a more serious deal

What we need to kick-start investment is not only a new Keynesian deal, investing in areas such as infrastructure, but also more serious “deals” between business and government that benefit both sides. For example, how could the patent system better reflect the collective public-private contribution to innovations? In the US in 1980, the Bayh-Dole Act aimed to increase the commercialisation of science by allowing publicly funded research to be patented. Lawmakers were rightly wary that this could lead to taxpayers stumping up twice: first for the research (the US National Institutes of Health spends $32bn a year) and then for high prices of drugs. So they suggested that government put a cap on the prices of drugs that were publicly funded. Yet the US government has never exercised this right.

We should also reform the tax system to reward long-run value creation over value extraction, opening up the debate about risks and rewards: are there other tools that might offer a better deal for publicly funded investments and innovations? This might come in the form of keeping a “golden share” of the patents, or retaining some equity in companies that receive early-stage financing from government, or giving businesses loans with income-contingent repayments just as we do to students.

My point is not to argue for or against any one of these mechanisms but to start a broader discussion that begins with the view of the state as a market-maker, not only a fixer. There should be a recognition of the huge risks that this involves: for every successful government investment in areas such as the internet, there are failures in areas such as Concorde.

Some, including the think tank Nesta in the UK, have argued that any direct non-tax-based mechanisms for the state to reap back rewards for its risk-taking are “problematic” and suggest that corporate taxes are sufficient. This defence of the status quo, particularly in these times of austerity, seems unsustainable when what is at stake is the ability of business to capture a disproportionate share of value that was created collectively. In a world of big data – so celebrated by the innovation enthusiasts – surely we can create better “contracts” and deals between the public and private sectors, even if this means putting a dent in the profit-wage ratio that is rising at record levels (no, profits are not related to managerial performance).

So how can we change the narrative of the left from one of “redistribution” to one that champions value creation, in which both risks and rewards are shared more equally? Let’s first agree that the market is not a bogeyman forcing short-termism but a result of interactions and choices made by different types of public and private actors. We need to stop talking about the public sector “de-risking” and facilitating “partnerships” and talk more about the kind of public risk-taking that led to all the general-purpose technologies and great transformations of the past, a change of language from general “partnerships” to more detailed commitment about the kinds of partnerships that will lead to greater, not lower, private investment in long-run areas such as research and development and human capital formation.

Changing our understanding of how wealth is created, not only distributed, is the first step in building a more confident mission-oriented government – one that both fuels innovation, and builds the right kind of “deal” with business that gives the word “partnership” real meaning again. 

Mariana Mazzucato is RM Phillips Professor in the Economics of Innovation at SPRU, The University of Sussex, and author of The Entrepreneurial State: debunking public vs. private sector myths. You can watch the full 2014 New Statesman SPERI Prize Lecture here.

This article first appeared in the 19 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Issue 2014

Chris Ball/UNP
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The fish-eaters and the fasters

With a population split between whites and Asian Muslims, in some ways Nelson in Lancashire feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication.

In the late afternoon of local election day this month, the chairman of Nelson Town Council was working the terraces of old cotton weavers’ houses on his patch. Sajid Ali was wearing a red rosette and a navy blue cardigan over his capacious white shalwar kameez, and what looked like his dancing shoes.

This was not the forlorn ritual of unanswered doors, blank looks and curt responses habitually experienced by Labour canvassers even in more promising political times. Along these streets Sajid is a figure of some consequence: a jolly fellow and, as one opponent put it, an “interesting character”.

Almost everyone was in; Sajid knew almost all of them; and they in turn understood what was required. Sometimes a quick burst of Lancy Punjabi did the job: “Salaam alaykum, yoong maan, how yer doing? What time yer coomin’ to vote?” To older voters his spiel would be entirely in Punjabi and the response would often be a head-wobble, that characteristic south Asian gesture, which, when given to Westerners, can be baffling, but in these cases clearly signified solid intention.

The Labour candidate in the Brierfield and Nelson West division of Lancashire County Council, Mohammed Iqbal, held his seat comfortably on the day his party lost control of the county. And he did so on a poll of 58 per cent: a far higher turnout than in any of the other, whiter areas of Pendle; the highest in Lancashire; and higher than wards with these demographics would usually expect even at a general election. The average across Lancashire on 4 May was 37 per cent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the votes from those of ­Pakistani heritage, marshalled by Sajid, were wholly responsible.

Nelson is a strange, sad, divided, forgotten old cotton town, not without beauty. The weavers’ houses are stone not brick, which, elsewhere, might make them rather chic. A few minutes from town is wonderful Pennine countryside, and to the north the view is dominated by Pendle Hill itself, brooding like some sleeping sea monster.

Pendle is both the borough council and the constituency, where the mix of urban and rural has delivered it to the winning side in seven of the eight general elections since its creation 34 years ago. (Labour took it, five years prematurely, in 1992.) No one seriously believes the 5,400 Tory majority is in play. Nonetheless, Nelson can explain a lot about British politics in 2017.

“This was a cracking town,” said John Bramwell (“John the Fish”), who has been purveying cod, haddock and non-stop banter to Nelson for 41 years, first on the market, now from one of the last white-run, independent shops in the town centre. Nelson had a football team that played fleetingly (1923-24) in the old Second Division, what is now called the Championship. And in 1929 the Lancashire League cricket team, flashing cash in a manner that baffled the national press, signed Learie Constantine, the most gifted and thrilling West Indian all-rounder of his generation.

“When he arrived, no one in Nelson had ever seen a black man close-to,” said Derek Metcalfe, the club’s historian. “People would cross the road when he passed by. But he grew into their affections. He was a highly intelligent man as well as a great player.” Constantine, after a post-cricket career in the law, Trinidadian politics and diplomacy, finished life in the House of Lords as Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, Britain’s first black peer. In July 1943 the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury accepted his booking but not his presence, and he promptly sued. His victory at the high court the following year was an early landmark in the fight against racial discrimination.

It was the 1950s before Nelson would get used to seeing non-white faces again, when the mill owners, battling labour shortages and overseas competition, turned to Pakistan to find biddable and affordable workers. They found them in Gujrat District, which is not one of the more worldly places, even in the rural Punjab.

“The first group were young men who in many ways integrated better than they do now. There were no mosques. They went to the pubs with their workmates and knocked around with local women. Then they had to go to the airport to collect the intended wives they hadn’t met yet,” recalled Tony Greaves, the Liberal Democrat peer who is deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council.

The mills disappeared, gradually but inexorably, but the Pakistani community kept growing and has now reached its fourth generation. The young men do not normally spend time in pubs; indeed, in a town of 30,000 people, there are only two left, plus a couple on the outskirts. It is hard to imagine anywhere that size in Britain with fewer. There are, however, at least a dozen mosques. The 2011 census recorded 40 per cent of the population as Asian, but on market day in the town centre the proportion seems much higher. The most prominent retail outlets are two bazaars: the Nelson (the
old Poundstretcher) and the Suraj opposite (the old Woolworths). Few white faces are seen in either: the saris and hijabs are beautiful but of little interest. They are all imported to this textile town from south Asia.

The white people have retreated, either out of the town altogether or to the semis of Marsden, on the hill. In the visible life of Nelson, they are clearly a minority. Population change on this scale can be accommodated, if not always easily, in large cities. It is a different proposition in a small town that was once tight-knit and, despite its closeness to larger places such as Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley, largely self-contained.

Even after 60 years, hardly anything has melted in the pot. The early migrants were villagers who placed little value on education. Recent history has led Muslims all over the world to turn inwards, to their own religion and culture. This is being exacerbated by white flight and by the advent of religious free schools, a disaster for anywhere in search of cohesion. The old Nelsonians have turned away. “Nelson is not multiracial or multicultural. It is biracial and bicultural,” says Greaves. “I would love to tell you that I go round to Abbas’s house to have chicken jalfrezi and he comes to mine for steak pudding and chips,” says John the Fish. “It’s just not like that.”

Unemployment is high at 18 per cent; there is no shortage of taxis. Educational attainment is patchy. Teachers at the two high schools fear their best pupils will be creamed off further by the promised grammar-school boom.

The vicar of Nelson, Guy Jamieson, and at least some of the local imams do their utmost to make connections between the communities. In certain respects Nelson feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication. In other ways, this description is unfair. When Burnley, just four miles away, suffered riots in 2001, Nelson stayed quiet. I could sense no threat, no active tension, merely resigned indifference on both sides. “There’s a poverty of confidence,” Jamieson said. “They don’t know how to sit down and engage.”

***

A modern English town council, subordinate to Brussels, Westminster, county and district, is an improbable power base, but Sajid Ali seems to be making Nelson’s work. Its precept is only £330,000 a year but this is not capped, so it suits both district and town if Pendle offloads smaller assets: parks, play areas, community centres. It is a minimalist form of devolution, but harks back to the days when Nelson was a borough in its own right, and looks forward to an improbable future when our towns might again be allowed to take their own decisions as they do in more grown-up countries.

But the council votes on party lines, Labour’s 16 councillors trumping the Tories’ eight. “They won’t work with us,” Sajid says flatly. “They don’t run it fairly for the town itself,” says the Conservative Neil McGowan. “If we put something forward for Marsden, we are always outvoted. One council official told me they’d never come across a town like it.” In Tony Greaves’s words, “The
politics in Nelson were always sour.” In the 1930s it was known as Little Moscow.

When I first met Sajid, however, he was outside a polling station doing a stint as a teller and laughing merrily along with his blue-rosetted counterpart, Arshad Mahmood. Yet things were not quite as they seemed. Mahmood was part of a mass defection of Pakistani Lib Dems to the Conservatives which appears to have nothing to do with Brexit, extra taxes for the NHS or Maymania. What it does have to do with remains elusive even to local politicians: “clan politics” and “personal ambition” were mentioned. It may be even more complicated than that. “So you’ll be voting for Theresa May next month?” I asked Mahmood. “Oh, no, I like Jeremy Corbyn. Very good policies.”

Perhaps this helped Sajid maintain some enthusiasm for the bigger campaign ahead, though he was daunted by one fact: the general election coincides with Ramadan, and dawn-to-dusk fasting comes hard in these latitudes when it falls in summertime. Still, he was impressed by all the new members Corbyn had brought to Labour: “The way I see it is that each new member has five, ten, 15, 20 people they can sell the message to.”

This seemed a bit strange: it implied he thought politics in the rest of Britain worked as it did in these streets. He had boasted earlier that he knew everyone. “All over Nelson?” “Oh, no,” he had backtracked. “In the English community nobody knows their next-door neighbour.” Which was an exaggeration, but perhaps not much of one.

There were no posters along Sajid Ali’s streets – not one. The information about which house to choose was on the canvass return and, more significantly, in his head. Just once he got it wrong. A little white girl opened the door and then a tattooed, muscular figure in a singlet barrelled towards the door. He wasn’t aggressive, just brisk. “Naaw. I doan’t vote.” End of. It was a sudden reminder of the norms of modern British politics.

***

Another norm is that, at any local count, no one ever thinks much of the big picture. The rise and fall of prime ministers, earthquakes and landslides are no more than distant rumours, of surprisingly little interest to the principals; what matters is the here and now. Where did that ballot box come from? How big is the postal vote? Any chance of a recount? When the five seats for Pendle were counted the next day at the leisure centre in Colne, one stop further up the clanking branch line from Nelson, no one was talking about the Tory takeover at County Hall.

Here there was something for everyone: Mohammed Iqbal won, just as Sajid predicted. Azhar Ali took the other Nelson seat even more easily for Labour. Both results were greeted with more effusive male hugs than would be considered seemly in Berkshire. In Pendle Central the Tories knocked out the sitting Lib Dem, but – heroically, in their eyes – one of the Lib Dem candidates grabbed a seat in the rural division.

But the most interesting result came in the most trifling contest: a twinned by-election for two vacancies in Nelson Town Council’s lily-white ward of Marsden, so electors had two votes each. The seats were won by a Conservative married couple, the Pearson-Ashers, who got 426 and 401; the single BNP candidate had 359 votes, with one Labour candidate on 333 and the other on 190. The first of these was called Laura Blackburn; the second Ghulam Ullah. This suggests a good deal of vote-splitting that Labour might find rather unpalatable.

In fact, Marsden already has one far-right relic: Brian Parker, who sits on Pendle Borough Council, is the last survivor in the top two tiers of local government of the BNP mini-surge that took them to 55 council seats across the country by 2009. Of Parker, two opposing councillors told me: “He’s actually a very good ward councillor.”

Curiously, Ukip has made little impact in Nelson or in Pendle as a whole. So there is not much scope for the party to fulfil what appears to be its immediate destiny: as a way station for Labour’s historic core voters to catch their breath on the arduous journey into Theresa May’s arms. According to John the Fish, whose shop functions as a kind of confessional for white opinion, they may no longer need a stopover: “I’m getting plenty of people, staunch Labourites, telling me they can’t stand Corbyn.”

I asked him how many Pakistani regulars he had. He broke off from chopping hake and held up five fingers. On 8 June the fish-eaters of Marsden can be expected to rouse themselves more energetically than the Ramadan fasters across town.

***

Seedhill, the cricket ground graced by Constantine, is pretty Nelson rather than gritty Nelson, even though a chunk of it, including the old pavilion, was lopped off years ago to form an embankment carrying the M65. Upstairs in the pavilion is a wonderful picture of the great man, eyes ablaze, down on one knee for a full-blooded cover-drive. It would have made a better monument in the town centre than the 40-foot weaving shuttle that has dominated Market Street since 2011. I thought it was a torpedo; children think it’s a giant pencil.

The packed houses that watched Constantine lead Nelson to seven league titles in nine years have dwindled now: there were only a couple of dozen to watch his successors play Accrington recently. But it was a drab day with a chilly breeze and Burnley were at home to West Brom in the winter game down the road.

And generally the club thrives better than the town. Given the lack of hotels and pubs, the pavilion is much in demand for functions, and the team remains competitive. Nelson fielded four local Asians for the Accrington match, which suggests that, in one activity at least, integration is just about where it should be.

It seems unlikely that a similar situation would apply at the crown green bowls or the brass band, or any other of the long-standing recreations in Nelson (though small but growing numbers of Pakistanis are now taking allotments). The knee-jerk liberal reaction might be that this is somehow the fault of the white Nelsonians. I think this attitude is a grave oversimplification that has done much damage.

In one respect the incomers have re-created the old life of Nelson. In the hugger-mugger stone-built terraces, the neighbourliness, the power of extended families, the external patriarchy and the internal matriarchy, the vibrancy, the sense of communal struggle . . . that is exactly what this cotton town must have been like a century ago. 

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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