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21 April 2021

The moonshot delusion

Why the left is too starry-eyed on economics.

By Aditya Chakrabortty

The year after men first walked on the moon, a skinny 20-year-old responded with a record. Back in 1970 Gil Scott-Heron was no legend. He was not known by many or for much. He’d experimented with writing novels, dropped out of his degree – he had vast promise but achieved ­little, and even today his debut LP strikes an intriguing chord of bravado and diffidence. The cover trumpets “A New Black Poet” over a portrait of the artist as a man-child, all cheekbones and defiance. On the second side comes a track called “Whitey on the Moon”.

A rat done bit my sister Nell,
With whitey on the moon
Her face and arms began to swell
And whitey’s on the moon.

Houston and Washington were busy turning those small steps taken by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin into the gold of myth, but recording in a Harlem nightclub, Scott-Heron told the facts of his life.

The man just upped my rent
Cause whitey’s on the moon
No hot water, no toilets, no lights
But whitey’s on the moon.

Into a mere two minutes and 200 words Scott-Heron packed years of civil anger against the moon landing and the Cold War posturing that drove it. Apollo began after the Soviet Union launched Yuri Gagarin into outer space, making a communist the first human to orbit the Earth. It was the middle of April 1961. A few days later, a CIA-schooled guerrilla army tried to invade Cuba, only to be crushed at the Bay of Pigs within two days by Fidel Castro’s men.

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Not only was Washington runner-up in the space race, it had just been humiliated by a Caribbean island that is smaller than Florida. The very next month, John F Kennedy urged Americans to wage “the battle that is now going on around the world between freedom and tyranny”. They had to adopt the goal “of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind… and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.” Amen to that: over its few years, the Apollo programme burned through the equivalent of $260bn (£190bn) in today’s money.

Was all that money I made last year
For whitey on the moon?
How come I ain’t got no money here?
Hmm! Whitey’s on the moon.

Scott-Heron pops up just once in this book. For Mariana Mazzucato, he demonstrates that “vision and purpose cannot be forced. They require charisma on the part of leaders, but also real engagement with society.” Coming midway through a book that  exults in the Apollo Mission it is a small caveat. What she really wants is governments across the rich world to bring back “moonshot thinking”.

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If the very heartland of 1960s capitalism could spend big and direct private businesses to pursue a grand objective, why can’t rich countries do the same today – to tackle climate change, say, or get everyone on the internet? For politicians this is heady counsel: be more JFK! It’s also well-timed, for so many governments have intervened ­heavily in the banking crash and during the Covid crisis that the always-thin curtain dividing “the state” from “the market” has now been ripped off its rails. To ram home this book’s relevance, Mazzucato regales readers with her connections with Nicola Sturgeon, Cyril Ramaphosa, European commissioners and other officials with groovy lanyards.

Yet amid all the name-dropping and Camelot-ing, what goes unanswered is Scott-Heron’s big question. Namely, when Armstrong and Aldrin leave a plaque on the moon claiming “We came in peace for all mankind”, who is that “we”? Is it the suits clustered in the Oval Office, taking a quick break from napalming Vietnam? Does it include those Americans who only a few years before were being perfectly legally discriminated against on the grounds of their skin colour, or those ill people who can’t get better for worrying about their medical bills?

***

This book acknowledges that question and nods at its importance – but ultimately ducks answering it. Instead, it describes a letter written to a rocket scientist in 1970 by a nun in Zambia. After spending billions to go to the moon, she asks, why spend even more to head to Mars when children on Earth are starving? Sister, replies the man from Nasa, think how science has helped fight poverty, even if indirectly. And Mazzucato lists some of the spin-off innovations from the billions shovelled into space research: freeze-dried food, baby formula, ear thermometers, Nike Air Max. Yet by 1978, the number of unemployed black men had doubled within a decade while there remained as many poor black families as in 1967. Still, let them eat trainers.

Mazzucato assures us “citizens were inspired” by the space race, despite nearly every opinion poll showing the opposite. ­Nasa’s former chief historian, Roger ­Launius, has written: “The public was ­never enthusiastic about human lunar exploration, and especially about the costs associated with it.”

So this was a mission launched by the world’s most powerful politician for ­reasons of narrow jingoism at huge cost with zero consultation on to a doubtful public whose poorest and most marginalised it did nothing to help. Don’t get me wrong: I enjoyed Star Wars as much as the next boy, but primary schools don’t teach you about democratic deficits.

From her office at University College London, Mazzucato sketches out how an active state can follow Kennedy’s example and lift “the gaze of humans to glimpse what outcomes they can achieve”. It all sounds marvellous, yet the closest her model of moonshot government gets to meaningful democracy is to leave a seat at the table so “citizen or civil-society organisations can be represented in evaluating proposals… and generally making sure that the mission’s outcomes are aligned with the needs, values and expectations of society”.

The “established researchers, businesses and policy experts” determine the needs and the solutions in some well-catered colloquium of vice-chancellors, chief executives and special advisers, before the tracksuited masses are wheeled in to check they’ve got it right. Generally, that is.

It’s not as if Mazzucato is blind to issues of equality and democracy. She just puts her trust – far too much trust – in the will and the ability of the state to deal with them. And it is here that her arguments reveal a wider problem in current left-wing thinking.

Although her book is careful to nod to ­Tories such as David Willetts, Mazzucato hails from the left. The era of David Cameron and George Osborne was notably short on laughs, but among its most reliable entertainments was switching on Newsnight or Channel 4 News to watch some double-breasted beet-complexioned Tory backbencher debate with Mazzucato. Faced with a fast-talking Italian-American unafraid to show her economic expertise, they would get ten-pinned.

[see also: Mark Carney’s Value(s) is a guide to saving the planet for the 0.1 per cent]

While her 2013 book The Entrepreneurial State laid out how government can shape markets rather than merely clean up their messes, the follow-up, The Value of Everything, charted the malfunctioning of the finance sector. This new volume is a how-to guide for politicians and advisers – and it sometimes reads like prep reading for a technocrats’ away day, complete with headache-inducing flowcharts. But the bigger problem is that she conflates big with bold, and big spending with radicalism.

Both equations underpin any number of left-wing policies, from the Green New Deal to nationalising the railways, yet neither is necessarily true. This is a political microclimate in which Universal Basic ­Income counts as bold and radical, while raising the level of social security is small beer. Similarly, billions spent on infrastructure can easily end up in the same old pockets – just ask the partners at Deloitte or the shareholders of Serco.

If big government has come to seem an inherently left-wing project, that is thanks to the vows of Margaret Thatcher and ­Ronald Reagan to roll back the state. But for all her tax cuts and privatisations, Thatcher never shrank the state at all. According to a recent paper in the Cambridge Journal of ­Economics, the “total value of central ­government receipts was 30.4 per cent of GDP in 1979; by 1990, this ­proportion had risen to 30.9 per cent… Neither did Thatcher’s policies reduce government spending. In real terms, the total managed expenditure rose by 7.7 per cent from 1979 to 1990.”

On these two key measures, supposedly big government got larger still under Thatcher. But it didn’t get any fairer, because the size of the state alone is no guarantee of progressiveness. What ultimately counts is whose interests any government serves and how. This is why Scott-Heron’s critique still resonates 50 years later, and why it matters that Mazzucato doesn’t face it square on.

The front pages of the papers force the rest of us to ­confront it on a regular basis. A former prime minister texts old chums still in Downing Street to help out the company that now employs him. At dinner, a ­housing minister sits next to a big property developer who donates to his party and just wants a word about a planning application… And on the other end of the scale, I have spent much of the past decade talking to people for whom the state is now a punitive instrument.

***

A couple of years ago, I did a series for the Guardian that looked at the economic and social alternatives people were constructing for themselves. In Liverpool I met a group of activists who’d stopped their streets from being demolished and had formed a community land trust to build genuinely affordable and beautiful housing.

In Oldham, one of the most deprived towns in England, the head of the school-dinner service had decided to offer pupils better fare than Turkey Twizzlers and so forced her suppliers to buy organic and local. These projects and others were about food and housing and keeping children fed in the holidays – basic things, because there are still large tranches of 21st-century Britain struggling with 19th-century problems.

Around the same time, some polling was published by the right-wing think tank Legatum Institute looking for once at what people want from an economy. The top five demands were: food and water; emergency services; free universal healthcare; “a good house to live in”; and “a decent well-paying job”. Right at the bottom of the hierarchy of needs were social media; cheap air travel; the arts; smartphones and tablets; and subsidised public transport.

One can imagine where a moonshot, a Green New Deal or other swoonsome innovations would land on that pile. The Legatum Institute commented: ­“Significant portions of the country – especially cosmopolitan critics and left behind – are vehemently anti capitalist.”

Perhaps in its own modest way the public is more radical than the self-styled radicals think. Perhaps starting from what people actually want and need is what real radicalism looks like.

Mission Economy: A Moonshot Guide to Changing Capitalism 
Mariana Mazzucato
Allen Lane, 272pp, £20

This article appears in the 21 Apr 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The unlikely radical