Rethinking Growth, Revisiting the Entrepreneurial State

Sep 2 , 2023
By Mariana Mazzucato

Anxiety about economic growth is everywhere, from high-level policy debates and political manifestos to everyday news coverage. The government's latest budget in Germany identifies stronger growth as a top priority. In India, national leaders are eager to reclaim their country's place as the world's fastest-growing economy. In China, where the prospect of deflation looms, the government is undoubtedly worried about hitting its five percent growth target for the year.

In the United Kingdom (UK), Keir Starmer, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, has vowed to secure the highest sustained growth in the G7 if given power, and the ruling Conservatives express similar ambitions (recall former Prime Minister Liz Truss's now-infamous mantra: "growth, growth, and growth").

But putting growth at the centre of economic policymaking is a mistake. While important, growth in the abstract is not a coherent goal or mission. Governments should focus on the economy's direction before committing to particular targets (be it GDP growth, overall output, and so forth). After all, what good is a high growth rate if achieving it requires poor working conditions or an expanding fossil-fuel industry?

Governments have been most successful in catalyzing growth when they have been pursuing other goals – not treating growth itself as the objective. NASA's mission to land a man on the moon (and bring him back) yielded innovations in aerospace, materials, electronics, nutrition, and software that would later add significant economic and commercial value. But NASA did not set out to create these technologies for that reason, and it probably never would have developed them if its mission had been to boost output.

Similarly, the internet emerged from the need to get satellites to communicate with one another. Due to its widespread adoption, digital GDP has grown 2.5 times faster than physical GDP for the past decade, and now the digital economy is on track to be worth an estimated 20.8 trillion dollars by 2025. Again, such growth figures result from active engagement with the opportunities that digitalization presents; growth itself was not the goal.

Rather than focusing on accelerating digital GDP growth, governments should aim to close the digital divide and ensure that current and future growth is not based on Big Tech's abuse of market power. Given how rapidly artificial intelligence is advancing, we urgently need governments that can shape the next technological revolution in the public's interest.

More broadly, pushing growth in a more inclusive direction means departing from the financialization of economic activity and recommitting to investment in the real economy. Far too many nonfinancial companies (including manufacturers) are spending more on share buybacks and dividend payouts than on human capital, machinery, and research and development. While such activities can boost firms' stock prices in the short term, they reduce the resources available for reinvesting in workers, widening the divide between those who control capital and those who do not.

Financialization is more often than not about value extraction and short-term profit maximisation, rather than value creation for the sake of society as a whole. To achieve inclusive growth, we must recognize that workers are the real value creators, and their interests should feature prominently in discussions about income and wealth distribution.

In this stance, the UK Labour Party's new stance on workers' rights is worrying.

In a knee-jerk attempt to appeal to corporate leaders and counter claims that it is "anti-business," Labour has softened its previously stated commitment to stronger protections for gig workers. Yet investment-led growth and workers' rights should not be regarded as competing priorities. Balancing corporate engagement with a commitment to workers is not only essential to achieving inclusive growth; it has already been proven to boost productivity and growth over the long term.

The economy will not grow in a socially desirable direction on its own. As I stressed 10 years ago, the state has an essential entrepreneurial role to play. After governments' recent attempts to kick-start their economies following the pandemic, it is clear that we still need new thinking about achieving growth that is not only "smart" but also green and inclusive.

Governments need economic-policy roadmaps with clear goals based on what matters most to people and the planet. Public support for businesses should be conditional on new investments that will "build forward better" toward a greener, more inclusive real economy. Consider the United States' CHIPS & Science Act, which aims to boost the domestic semiconductor industry. The law prohibits funds from being used for share buybacks, and one could easily imagine additional provisions requiring that future profits be reinvested in workforce training.

But to help steer growth in the right direction, governments also must make goal-oriented investments in their capabilities, tools, and institutions. The outsourcing of core capacities has undermined their ability to respond to changing needs and demands, ultimately reducing their potential to create purposeful growth and public value over time. Worse, as the public sector's capabilities and expertise have been hollowed out, it has become more susceptible to capture by vested interests.

Only with the right capacities and competencies can governments successfully mobilize resources and coordinate efforts with businesses willing to work toward shared goals. A mission-oriented industrial strategy requires the public and private sectors to work together symbiotically. Done right, such an approach can maximize long-term public benefits and stakeholder value: Innovation-led growth becomes synonymous with inclusive growth.

We should be asking not how much growth we can achieve, but what kind. To achieve greater economic output that is also inclusive and sustainable, governments will need to embrace their potential to be value creators and powerful forces shaping the economy. Reorienting public organizations around ambitious missions – instead of obsessing over narrow growth targets – will allow us to tackle the grand challenges of the 21st Century and ensure that the economy grows in the right direction.

PUBLISHED ON Sep 02,2023 [ VOL 24 , NO 1218]

is professor in the Economics of Innovation & Public Value at University College London. 

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