Wednesday, 10 April 2019

Mariana Mazzucato’s “mission-oriented” clap trap.

Mariana Mazzucato (economics prof at University College London) advocates what she calls “mission oriented” projects (like President Kennedy’s moon shot) since the latter can allegedly bring greater benefits in the form of technological progress etc than conventional methods of research. That’s in her book “The Value of Everything”.

Now any normal person (never mind a university professor) when trying to show that X is better than Y would try at least in a rough and ready way to estimate the costs and benefits of X and Y and try to show that the cost/benefit ratio for X is better than for Y. After all, we’re living in the 21st century, not the 13th century: we do try to measure things nowadays. But MM says absolutely nothing about the total costs of the moon shot, nor does she try to estimate the total benefits of technological spin offs from it.

She does exude a lot of impressive and flowery language in connection with the alleged benefits of moon shots and similar “missions”. But there is no actual measurement or even an attempt at measurement.

But it gets worse: she seems to claim that as long as something amounts to a “mission” it just has to be better value for money that boring old stuff like infrastructure improvement. That’s in this passage which I’ve put in green.

“The epigraph opening this chapter, in which Keynes argues the need for governments to think big – to do what is not being done – shows that he believed that government needs to be bold, with a sense of mission, not merely to replicate the private sector but to achieve something fundamentally different from it. It is wrong to interpret him as believing that what is needed from policy is to simply fix what the private sector does not do, or does badly, or at best invest ‘counter-cyclically’ (i.e. increase investments during the downside of the business cycle). After the Great Depression, he claimed that even paying men simply to dig ditches and fill them up again could revive the economy – but his work inspired Roosevelt to be more ambitious than just advocating what today would be called ‘shovel-ready projects’ (easy infrastructure). The New Deal included creative activities under the Works Progress Administration, the Civilian Conservation Corps and the National Youth Administration. Equally, it is not enough to create money in the economy through quantitative easing; what is needed is the creation of new opportunities for investment and growth – infrastructure and finance must be embedded within the greater systemic plans for change. President John F. Kennedy, who hoped to send the first US astronaut to the moon, used bold language when talking about the need for government to be mission-oriented. In a 1962 speech to Rice University he said:

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.””

I can’t be totally sure what Mazzucato means by “creative activities” above. She doesn’t elaborate. But presumably she’s referring to the fact that under the Work Progress Administration hundreds of people were employed paint pictures and do other forms of artistic work.

So there you have it. Instead of filling potholes in roads and repairing or renewing bridges, Mazzucato would spend tens of billions sending people to Mars and having unemployed artists paint pictures.

Is there an enormous demand for more pictures to adorn the walls of supermarkets, offices and public buildings etc near where you live? Can’t say there’s much demand in my neighbourhood. As for expeditions to the Moon and Mars, well I’d rather see the money (and we’re talking tens of billions) spent on infrastructure improvements.

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