Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Labour seeks a 'smart State' route to voters' hearts

By Paul Coleman

Professor Mariana Mazzacuto, with Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell (© Paul Coleman, 2016)
Humiliated at the 2015 General Election, how does an opposition party seek a viable new economic policy?
A clue emerges on a rainy night in central London’s Mayfair (Tuesday, 26 January). The steeply banked seats of the Royal Institution's atmospheric Faraday Theatre are almost full.  An audience of about 300 people glare down at the speakers' lectern.  
This famous science amphitheatre is named after south London-born scientist Michael Faraday (1791-1867). Faraday's discovery of electromagnetic induction helped to - pardon-the-pun - transform electricity into a powerful technology.

Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the UK's main opposition Labour Party, doesn't look particularly electrified. A casually dressed Corbyn looks comfortable to simply be a member of tonight's audience. Corbyn allows his colleague, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, to enthusiastically introduce Mariana Mazzacuto, Professor of Innovative Economics at the University of Sussex.
As Professor Mazzacuto speaks, Corbyn starts to scribble notes into a small notepad - and finds he needs to write quickly.
"I know I talk way too much and too fast," says Mazzacuto, after a breathless 15-minute prelude to the core of her main argument. "It's because I'm an Italian from New York."

Mazzacuto tries to debunk 40 years of perceived wisdom. She rejects the "cartoon image" of the State as "a necessary but boring, lethargic, bureaucratic and inert dinosaur" - and dismisses the idea that only businesses can be "dynamic, creative and able to think out of the box".
Mazzacuto contends that, far from being a "free market paradise", the United States is in fact a successful "entrepreneurial state" with an interventionist public sector that has invested billions of dollars in shaping economic innovation and growth

For instance, she reminds the audience that a nascent Apple received loans from the US government in 1978. 
The US Defense (sic) Department created the Internet.
Global Positioning Satellites began as a US military project.
A publicly funded professor at Delaware University "made our smart phones smart and not stupid" by creating touchscreen technology.
'Siri', the iPhone voice-recognition tool, started as a US state-led artificial intelligence programme.
"No private companies were trying to put a man on the Moon when NASA undertook the Apollo project," adds Mazzacuto.

Professor Mazzacuto acknowledges that Apple's Steve Jobs and other entrepreneurs of his ilk brilliantly harnessed these technologies. But her point is that publicly-funded, State-led research and development fuelled these beneficial developments - and others more recently in clean energy, biotechnology and nanotechnology.
Historically, says Mazzacuto, the State in countries like the United States and China does  "create markets". 
But since the financial meltdown of 2007-09, State-led research and development has diminished. Politicians target public sector debt, even though careless private sector greed caused the meltdown and taxpayers resuscitated private banks.
Mazzacuto argues the State should act like venture capitalists again, investing long-term in cutting edge industries and companies.
"We need a tense, symbiotic public-private eco-system," says Mazzacuto. "We need growth that is smart and innovation-led. We want growth that is inclusive and sustainable - that produces less and not more inequality."

Is Mazzacuto's position a signpost to Labour's own deal? To a 'smart State' economic policy direction that a Corbyn/McDonnell Labour Party might take?
Mazzacuto's lecture is the first in a year-long series of Labour's nationwide ‘New Economics’ seminars that McDonnell says will "raise the level of discussion about our economy". 
The seminars follow on from Labour setting up an economics advisory council peopled, says McDonnell, by "some of the globe's most prominent economists", including Mazzacuto.
McDonnell also promises a 'State of the Economy' summit next May.

Mariana Mazzacuto is Professor of the Economics of Innovation in the Science Policy Unit at the University of Sussex. She is the author of The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Sector Myths, (Anthem Press, London, 2015). 
Mazzacuto lectured an audience attending 'Economic Policy: from market fixing to market shaping and creating', hosted at the Faraday Theatre at the Royal Institution, Albemarle Street, London W1, on 26 January 2016.

© Paul Coleman, London Intelligence, January 2016

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