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Lessons from the Moonshot for fixing global problems

from Jayati Ghosh

The World Health Organization appointed economist Mariana Mazzucato to head its Council on the Economics of Health for All in 2020. She is one of the architects of the biggest international research-funding scheme in the world, Horizon Europe, which launched this month. Her book Mission Economy is a timely and optimistic vision of how to fix the world’s “wicked problems” through directed public and private investment.

In two brilliant and accessible books published over the past decade, Mazzucato has established herself as a pre-eminent thinker, debunking myths about how markets function and offering options for more equitable economies. In 2013’s The Entrepreneurial State, she demolished the perception of governments as bureaucratic, corrupt and unwieldy when compared with the supposedly dynamic, nimble and innovative private sector. All that makes a smartphone ‘smart’ was the result of government-funded research, she pointed out; private agents invest in new areas only after governments have made the risky long-term investments. In 2017’s The Value of Everything, Mazzucato challenged how we consider benefit. Corporations trading financial instruments, data, food or oil might present themselves as value creators but, in reality, many are extractors destroyers, even of true value.

A year ago, some found such ideas controversial. But the global experience of 2020 has shown just how much we have undervalued care and privileged finance, and how vulnerable this makes our economies and societies to pandemics and other disasters.

Now, Mazzucato brings these strands together to advocate a ‘mission’ approach to address society’s complex challenges and to transform capitalism, enabling a more just and sustainable trajectory. Mission Economy is a bold and persuasive call to action, reflecting an influence already felt in many policy areas. For example, the 95.5-billion (US$117-billion) Horizon Europe programme targets five missions: adaptation to climate change; climate-neutral and smart cities; soil health and food systems; healthy oceans and other waters; and cancer.

To the Moon and back

The template for Mazzucato’s vision is the US Apollo astronaut programme of the 1960s, which resulted from president John F. Kennedy’s desire to outdo the Soviet Union in the race to space during the cold war. Apollo had the clearly defined goal of landing humans on the Moon within a decade. It required massive expenditure US$26 billion between 1960 and 1973, equivalent to more than $200 billion in 2020. (Many Americans questioned this use of public resources for the space race rather than for addressing the needs of poor citizens back home.) It involved large numbers of people (around 400,000 workers) with various skills from different organizations. It was fraught with risk, physical as well as financial: three astronauts died in one early test. It required unprecedented coordination across government departments in a range of policy fields, as well as private actors; silos had to be broken and chains of command reorganized.

All of this was achieved because of political support from the top and because the goal captured the public imagination. Despite hiccups, the agencies involved gained sustained financial support, relative autonomy and organizational flexibility. The mission was successful not just in achieving its stated goal of landing men on the Moon. It also generated many spillover technologies, including camera phones, magnetic resonance imaging, solar panels and water-purification systems.

Missions inspire because of their wider societal relevance, and they catalyse collaboration between sectors. Apollo demonstrated the need to encourage multiple solutions instead of focusing on one development path or technology. Today, many challenges would fit the mission approach. Think of those identified in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (which come with 159 specific targets). Others include the digital divide, access to health care and, most of all, climate change.

These ‘Earthshots’ are much harder to accomplish than literal Moonshots (see Nature 571, 145; 2019). Why? Because their goals are harder to define; they involve global commons such as air and water; and they are affected by social and political complexities within nations and in international collaboration, as well as competing interests and concerns about inequality and justice. These offer different kinds of hurdles, not all of which are considered in the book. Therefore, they require even greater public ambition and commitment.

Missions need a new approach to governance, Mazzucato argues. “It is not about fixing markets but creating markets,” she writes. Public–private partnerships have focused on de-risking investment through guarantees, subsidies and assistance. Instead, they should emphasize sharing both risks and rewards. For example, the US government’s investment in Elon Musk’s aerospace company SpaceX should get it a slice of the profits, to be used for the welfare of its citizens. This would link creation of value to its distribution what Mazzucato calls “predistribution” rather than redistribution. Successful examples include efforts in Sweden and the United Kingdom to make vibrant and healthy common urban spaces, and the Sustainable Europe Investment Plan that is part of the European Green Deal.

Consider how a mission approach would have changed global public-health interventions for COVID-19 vaccines and drugs. Could products developed by pharmaceutical companies with government financial assistance have been freely available to all, rather than paid for again by taxpayers and restricted by profit-making considerations? The public research and development subsidies provided to US companies Pfizer and Moderna could have resulted in lower prices for their vaccines, as with the AstraZeneca shot developed in collaboration with the University of Oxford, UK. And all vaccines could have been subject to compulsory patent licensing, enhancing production and making distribution easier across the world.

Power imbalances can determine the viability and success of the mission approach, and this requires explicit recognition at the national level. International cooperation must ensure that the global legal and institutional architecture (such as the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund and treaties and agreements) do not continue to shrink the national policy space and privilege the rights of corporations over people. This is implicit in Mission Economy, but it would need another book to unpack.

Mazzucato presents her arguments so simply and clearly that they can seem obvious. In fact, they are revolutionary. Rethinking the role of government nationally and in the international economy to put public purpose first and solve the problems that matter to people are now the central questions for humanity.

  1. Benjamin
    January 21, 2021 at 5:28 pm

    I kind of grew up with the extraordinary sickness that can be identified as neoliberalism. It took away almost everything if not all which i i could identify with in a modern society and bright future along with some necessary advancements in health, social security, political freedoms, friendship with other countries, education and other humanistic progress. Most if not all has been destroyed under the agenda of neoliberalism and this artificially enforced almost pathological competition between and for everything. There is in todays societies and politicc and often not even science no top down approach for humanistic values left. It has been eradicated from almost all aspects of public life because social sciences as the main standard for all our understanding has been exchanged for economics as the main standard for everything.

  2. Meta Capitalism
    January 22, 2021 at 12:20 am

    I look forward to reading/listening to Mariana’s book.

  3. January 25, 2021 at 12:33 am

    Thank you Jayati Ghosh ! I have reviewed Mariana Mazzucato’s earlier books, “The Enterprising State ” and The Value of Everything” on our page ” Books & Reviews at ethicalmarkets.com
    Looking forward to helping promote her forward -thinking policies in this latest book !.

  4. Ken Zimmerman
    February 7, 2021 at 6:11 pm

    It is all ‘hogwash.’ So contend Deirdre Nansen McCloskey and Alberto Mingardi in ‘The Myth of the Entrepreneurial State.’

    The first few paragraphs of their book spells out the contempt in which they hold Mariana Mazzucato and her ‘theory.’


    The “entrepreneurial state” has an economic theory behind it. As the lawyer-president Obama put it, “You didn’t build that.” In other words, outside the office of Google in Mountain View, California the public road, built by the state, is said to be necessary for cars to drive into Google’s parking lot. Clearly. Likewise, a literate workforce was built by schools said to be naturally supplied by the state. Obviously. Civil peace is said to depend on state police. Certainly.

    [no longer quoting Obama] And so forth. It is a supply-chain economics. In other words, a piece of “infrastructure” (a favored word) comes into existence only because of the state’s “investment” (another favored word) chosen by the state’s “planning” (the most favored word of all). The state’s piece, such as the road, Obama said, is necessary for private action. Therefore, your private action depends on the state. Stop complaining. Get used to it. Be thankful. Pay your taxes with joy. And accept that your masters spending your taxes are wise and necessary and even, yes, themselves entrepreneurial in their planning. The state is the creative element in the economy.

    What then is the practical significance of such an entrepreneurial state? Again, its partisans have a theory, this time political. Any state, of course, likes to make promises it can’t keep. Jam today, jam tomorrow. A leading promise is that the state can easily “drive” (a favorite word) economic development, turning the economy’s sheering wheel in a good direction. Economic growth can therefore quite easily be driven to be green or just or glorious, according to political tastes. The state will wisely choose winners in the economic race. Of course.

    The unsatisfactory alternative is the horrible nonsense from the “neoliberals” (another favored word), the crazy claim that a business succeeds or fails depending on what consumers choose to buy or not. Oh, no. Unlike the state, a business works “imperfectly” (a favored word again, and notably lacking a quantitative standard of imperfection), because consumers and businesspeople are selfish, ignorant, and childishly heedless of the future. The state’s masters, by contrast, can like Joseph of Egypt foretell the future of seven abundant years followed by seven lean years, and like Joseph are wise and just. Let us do it, laissez nous faire—except that the “us” are not the businesspeople of Paris rejecting in 1681 the French Controller-General of Finances Jean-Baptiste Colbert’s kindly inquiry as to what the state could do to help them, but the Colbertian masters themselves.

    Such a statist politico-economic philosophy is of course as ancient as Colbert’s mercantilism, or Joseph’s foretelling. Its partisans nowadays mostly reject the label of socialists. Few are calling for a full-fledged nationalization of the means of production, as statists of left and right did with enthusiasm in the 1930s. The argument now is more sweet, along the lines of the social engineering recommended by the British New Liberals of the 1870s and the American Progressives of the 1910s. A product devised and successfully marketed by a private company arises not from the creativity and the risk-taking and even the luck of a single entrepreneur. It arises from steering by the state. You didn’t build that. If so, more steering will not crowd out private entrepreneurship, but is its natural complement. We’re from the government and we’re here to help you. What the state does is mostly right and good. Politicians of both left and right, of course, favor such a view. After all, they are the wise and good masters assumed in the theory. And most of the media goes along. If something bad happens, the journalist asks, where was our fatherly master protecting us children? Let’s give Daddy more power.

    The most fervent recent partisan of statism and the entrepreneurial state is Mariana Mazzucato.


    I look forward to hearing your thoughts on McCloskey’s and Mingardi’s postulates. As for myself, I view them as nonsense. And ill-informed and ignorant nonsense, at that. The worst kind of strawman attack. Massucato’s ‘State’ in not daddy. Neither is it necessarily a master elite or groups of Platonic planners unconcerned with society’s wellbeing. Neither is it necessarily an unerring dictator. Of course, it can be all these things. And this takes us to the nature of Massucato’s State. In the sense she uses the term State it is the community, the neighborhood and all the neighborhoods that make up a society. It is the polity, the will of the voters. Some of whom are consumers, some of whom are not. Economics is part of this community, this society. But only part. The decisions of that community are what it is politically, religiously, ethnically, racially, and economically. Members of governments in such a state at all levels are ultimately held accountable by this community. That fact escapes McCloskey and Mingardi entirely. As it they want to pretend it is not there at all. The basic mistake of McCloskey and Mingardi and one they share with some economists and all ‘neoliberals’ is theorizing economic life as the center of society. Empirically speaking that error should be obvious to McCloskey and Mingardi. But they seem to have no interest in history or ethnography. The great teachers of the actual actions and beliefs of people living ‘in the wild.’ That is outside the theories of both McCloskey and Mingardi, and Massucato. Once more ‘armchair’ economists want to ‘dictate’ our loves, our hates, and our desires.

  5. February 8, 2021 at 12:31 pm

    Jayati Ghosh concludes: “Rethinking the role of government nationally and in the international economy to put public purpose first and solve the problems that matter to people are now the central questions for humanity”.

    I’ve read Mariana Massucato’s book but not the reaction to it Ken quotes. I could leave the book as Jayati has done (as stating the mission but not how to achieve it) though I think Mariana has done more than that: she’s saying the US government at the time of Apollo wasn’t telling people what to do, it was telling them what needed to be done.

    Likewise, I don’t want to disagree with Ken, whose summary I found admirable, though his conclusion is at cross-purposes with my own, telling us more about Ken than the role of governments. “The basic mistake of McCloskey and Mingardi”, he says, “and one they share with some economists and all ‘neoliberals’, is theorizing economic life as the center of society. …They seem to have no interest in history or ethnography: the great teachers of the actual actions and beliefs of people living ‘in the wild.’ That is outside the theories of both McCloskey and Mingardi, and Massucato. Once more ‘armchair’ economists want to ‘dictate’ our loves, our hates, and our desires”.

    My take on that is that history and ethnography tend to focus on what is different rather than what is the same, so they don’t see that we are all not only human but animals, for whom economics is all about creating homes in which to reproduce, feed and educate our kids. That even applies to grandparents and great-grandparents, whose primary interest is so often helping and advising their children in that primary “mission”; the same can often be said of maiden aunts and bachelor uncles. Ken is being too literal. Just because Capitalism says Economics on the label it is using doesn’t mean entreprenurial profit-seeking isn’t actually about money-making, the interaction of which with the economy forces those of us without an inherited nest to have to borrow or accumulate to acquire a home or a workplace.

    Ill-health kept me from reacting to Jonathan Nitzan on the dominance of capital, but gave me the opportunity to read an intriguing bit of fiction, Yanis Varoufakis’s “Another New”, looking through a worm-hole in time at how we could have more sensibly reacted to the crash of 2008. My reaction was that most people need to be shown what needs doing and how to do it, and are not likely to be persuaded by having to translate complex arguments into action. A pity. Nevertheless there was one gaping gap in the argument itself, where it suggested the answer was love but completely ignored the fact that sex is about reproducing ourselves.

    This anyway comes back to what should be the role of government, and the gaping gap in the arguments about that are that we are all different temperamentally, and live in different circumstances, so we all have our own agendas to follow. Together, though, we can get a wider perspective on what needs doing. Figuratively speaking, we can see what needs doing in our own village, but footloose aunts, uncles and elder statesfolk can acquire wider views. I’ve already outlined the hereditary part of personality tending to determine how we have to learn to use the four parts of our brain, and how we interpret the world differently depending on our stage of life, e.g couples at the child-bearing age often having family goals which take precedence over the development of their own capabilities, which they become freer to pursue in their maturity. What those personal missions will become (they are almost infinitely diverse) is of course irrelevant, except that in Ken’s words they should not be dictated by armchair economists, and in my words we need conventions about giving way to each other at cross-roads. Rather, Governments should be doing what Mariana saw happening in the Apollo mission: proposing missions as worthwhile or even necessary (being open about the dangers), and facilitating communication between those willing and able to get involved Not all fathers (or mothers for that matter, thinking Thatcher) have themselves grown up good, but the number consciously seeking privilege as the “the chosen race” is not large and is not a racial or religious issue but a personality and educational one. I could give examples, but perhaps “least said, soonest mended”, and the mending is what is needed.

    • February 8, 2021 at 12:40 pm

      Apologies. I proof-read the above very carefully but still miss-spelt the title of Varoufakis’s book, which is “Another Now”, not “Another New”.

    • Ken Zimmerman
      February 8, 2021 at 3:26 pm

      Dave, my take on ethnography and history is different from yours. The study of history is focused on gaining a sense of the process through which ways of life come into existence. Ethnography focuses on gaining a sense of that process as specified points in time from the past. Usually, the immediate past. All the provisioning, reproduction, etc. you refer to is, of course part of this process. As for economics, it is an invented term used by humans for varied purposes to pursue varied results. Including making money, slavery, war, etc.

      As to the invention and role of government, these too are variable. Government, like economics is a process. With history and current arrangements. Social scientists examine the process. Ethnographically and historically. Today, economists, of varied types play a large role in the process that is revealed in ethnography and history. Armchair economists, armchair social scientists of any focus should not be allowed to dominant the process. Their status as ‘armchairs’ for me means they lack the experience and understanding to carry off this role. I make the same judgment about armchair theologians, armchair politicians, armchair philosophers, etc. The primary teacher for humans is experience. Thus, the need to examine it via ethnography and history.

      • February 9, 2021 at 11:39 am

        Ken, our points of view both seem to me helpful so long as both are allowed a hearing. Whereas my focus is on ontology (what things are for and what they do) yours as stated seems to be about epistemology. Whereas I am looking at what happens in family life, from the dictionary definition it seems ethnology has its focus on the every-changing state of states, which is not an observable but a generalisation. (Useful, I agree, for “gaining a sense of the situation”). Living in a landscape littered with Iron Age forts, Roman roads, medieval monasteries, Norman castles and relics of the more recent Steam Age past, here archeology is a popular pastime, which however shows just how much imagination is needed when attempting to reconstruct the past from what remains in the present. While the discovery of hoardes of coins and jewelry may well indicate historic events like invasions or migrations, the actual objects themselves are telling a very different and more personal story, of trade providing for family life not least by attracting or keeping ladies happy with beautiful ornaments.

      • Ken Zimmerman
        February 10, 2021 at 4:58 pm

        Dave, I consider history first. When humans reflect on, turn their attention to the process I described earlier, this is the study of history. This is History. What Historians, of all sort do. According to Francesca Morphakis, PhD Candidate in History at the University of Leeds, “History is narratives. From chaos comes order. We seek to understand the past by determining and ordering ‘facts’; and from these narratives we hope to explain the decisions and processes which shape our existence. Perhaps we might even distill patterns and lessons to guide – but never to determine – our responses to the challenges faced today. History is the study of people, actions, decisions, interactions and behaviours. It is so compelling a subject because it encapsulates themes which expose the human condition in all of its guises and that resonate throughout time: power, weakness, corruption, tragedy, triumph … Nowhere are these themes clearer than in political history, still the necessary core of the field and the most meaningful of the myriad approaches to the study of history. Yet political history has fallen out of fashion and subsequently into disrepute, wrongly demonised as stale and irrelevant. The result has been to significantly erode the utility of ordering, explaining and distilling lessons from the past.

        History’s primary purpose is to stand at the centre of diverse, tolerant, intellectually rigorous debate about our existence: our political systems, leadership, society, economy and culture. However, open and free debate – as in so many areas of life – is too often lacking and it is not difficult to locate the cause of this intolerance…. History should never be a weapon at the heart of culture wars. Sadly, once again, it is: clumsily wielded by those who deliberately seek to impose a clear ideological agenda. History is becoming the handmaiden of identity politics and self-flagellation. This only promotes poor, one-dimensional understandings of the past and continually diminishes the utility of the field. History stands at a crossroads; it must refuse to follow the trend of the times.”

        But as Marcus Colla, Departmental Lecturer in European History at Christ Church, Oxford points out History is also fundamentally a problem-solving discipline. “[E. H.] Carr’s ideas clearly resonate more with our contemporary sensibilities than do those of his detractors, who remained wedded to the idea of an objective historian unfettered from all current assumptions. By contrast, Carr saw history as fundamentally a problem-solving discipline. Not only should historians divest themselves of the illusion that they could somehow stand outside the world in which they live, he argued. They should in fact embrace the fact that the study of the past could be oriented to the needs of the present.

        One can immediately see the appeal of such an argument today. In an academic world where the humanities are under greater pressure to justify their significance than ever before, studying ‘the past for the past’s sake’ no longer cuts it. But I don’t think this is the whole story. Rather, I sense that the enduring fascination with Carr reflects something much more fundamental in how we view the relationship between past and present. For instance, we are surely less inclined than previous generations to demand rigid dichotomies between ‘history’ on the one hand and ‘memory’ or ‘heritage’ on the other. Furthermore, we’re more democratic in who we believe history belongs to: who from the past it includes, and who in the present can benefit from it.

        Each historian will view the relationship between past and present differently. But it was Carr’s great achievement to identify the tensions of this relationship as the very engine of the discipline itself.”

        Finally, we must consider that ‘Histories are useful for telling us how we got ‘here’”, says Faridah Zaman, Associate Professor of History, University of Oxford. One way to attempt to answer the question, what is history is to ask ourselves what and who are histories for? “A common starting point might be that histories are useful for telling us how we got ‘here’. Such histories might take the form of origin stories, of relatively linear and perhaps teleological accounts – how did we come to organise our societies and political systems in the ways that we have now, for instance – or, as the apocryphal saying goes, a series of lessons to learn from in order to avoid the ignominy of repetition.

        Such an understanding of history conceals within itself a more exciting and fraught – though not necessarily antithetical – possibility. Just as we might look to the past to better understand the myriad, complicated ways in which our present world came to exist, historians might also set themselves the task of illuminating worlds unrealised and of other presents that might have existed. [How we did not get ‘there.’] Such histories, counter-intuitively, help us understand our own times better either by underscoring the contingency of the world around us or, depending on your perspective, the enduring power of the structures responsible for foreclosing those other paths. These kinds of histories require attending to – and often recovering and reconstructing – narratives and perspectives that have been lost in dominant historical accounts. My own work has focused on unsuccessful revolutions and failed political visions in the early 20th century. More broadly, we might consider it a fundamental task of history to reveal the complexity and plurality that people lived with in the past. Such histories can demonstrate how differently people have thought about and related to the world around them, including other ways of recording their ideas and experiences. Much of this terrain used to be marginal to ‘History’ proper; M.K. Gandhi noted as much in 1909 when he dismissed conventional history as simply a record of war. In recovering what has been subsumed and forgotten – for instance, radical dissenting traditions that were drowned out, or anticolonial resistance movements that were defeated – history might instead serve much more emancipatory ends and open up spaces of critical and imaginative possibility for our own times.”

        Ethnography (descriptive study of a particular human society or the process of making such a study. Contemporary ethnography is based almost entirely on fieldwork and requires the complete immersion of the anthropologist in the culture and everyday life of the people who are the subject of the anthropologist’s study) is clearly a complement to the discipline of History. Only more narrowly focused in terms of time and space. And focused on more detailed description for the limited period and space. While prior to the 20th century, History and Anthropology were generally maintained as separate and non-coalescing disciplines, in the last 100 years Historians and Anthropologists have often coordinated their work and nourished one another’s methods and research agendas.

      • Craig
        February 10, 2021 at 6:43 pm

        It is good that the insights of anthropology and history be integrated into economics. It is even better that philosophy with its consideration of ontology, epistemology and ethics and paradigm-ology as the focusing study of the essence and overall character of any particular pattern….also be included in the analysis. That raises it to the level of wisdom.

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