Review: Mariana Mazzucato, Mission Economy (2021)

Economic inequality is soaring, the climate crisis is getting worse, the pandemic has exposed a ‘digital divide’ (with many people unable to access the technology to work and learn remotely), and more. Why is it so difficult for anything to be done about this? Can the government not step in and help?

Alas, argues Mariana Mazzucato, Western governments have been relegated to the role of market-fixer — to make small tweaks to the rules, and not make any big or proactive interventions. Yet in adopting this position it has left the responsibility of solving these problems to a private sector that is too short-termist, and too financialised. The government has outsourced all its capabilities to inefficient contractors and consultancy firms. Profits from business have been privatised, with the money used to boost share prices and reward shareholders, instead of going towards research and development. Despite profits going private, losses from companies ‘too big to fail’ have been borne by the public.

What is the solution? In Mission Economy, Mazzucato argues that the government should learn from the lessons of the Apollo missions — the missions that led to the first man setting foot on the moon. These missions show how good leadership, the willingness to take risks, a nimble bureaucracy, goal-oriented financing, and mutually beneficial public-private partnerships can have broad, beneficial outcomes for society and the economy. Rather than worrying about boosting productivity, or ensuring that potential projects score well on (deeply flawed) cost—benefit analyses, the government should focus on key missions built around bold and realistic goals that society can work towards.

Such mission-based thinking sits at the heart of Mission Economy. Mazzucato talks through the idea, offering it as an alternative to the present system. She discusses first the flaws in our current expectations of government’s role in the economy, and outlines five myths that underpin our understanding: businesses create value, rather than governments; governments exist only to fix markets; governments must be run like businesses; outsourcing saves money; and governments shouldn’t pick winners. Mazzucato then goes on to analyse the transferable variables that contributed to the success of the Apollo mission, before offering a more positive view of the government’s role in the economy that can be modelled on Apollo. She discusses the goals that government should focus on (which can form the basis of the missions), and then outlines the seven principles that she believes should underpin the new economy, built as it would be around the mission-focused, market-making state.

The key strength of this book is its central idea. The idea has value and is well-formulated. It is also intuitive — it makes sense that public-private partnerships should be “less about handouts, guarantees and assistance, and more about co-investment, sharing risks and sharing rewards”, for example. Its main weakness is that it has little more to offer beyond this idea. It isn’t really a guide (a grave sin for a book that styles itself as such). While the section on choosing a mission also has short sections on how to implement it and how to engage citizens, there is no central example or step-by-step explanation of how to perform or engage in mission-based thinking. Moreover, these are really important topics that warranted whole chapters themselves, rather than thirteen (relatively small) pages.

Mazzucato does introduce some examples of her own work with governments and the EU, but she doesn’t go into much detail. They serve to reinforce her point that such thinking is possible, rather than help you understand or replicate such thinking. It isn’t a theoretical work, or at least not a strong one. Other theories are introduced and summarised, rather than explained — and introduced with a dose of management jargon. There are tables that summarise these summaries. The most fully fleshed out analysis is the exploration of why the Apollo mission was a success — and this was the one section that I felt was far too long. It’s a fascinating story — and of the whole book it’s one of the sections I enjoyed the most — but in a book about changing the economy a lot of it seemed like filler. That section itself doesn’t read like a guide or case study — after all, it’s not Mazzucato’s framework in practice.

I wish I had something more positive to say about the book because I love the idea that sits at its heart. But it’s an idea that can be expressed in an essay. It’s not that I don’t think you should read it — I think you should. Only I felt that the book needs more concrete examples of the idea in action, and more explanation of important ideas throughout. In the end, it feels like a book that is too short in many places, and too long in others.

Mariana Mazzucato, Mission Economy: A Moonshot Guide to Changing Capitalism (UK: Allen Lane, 2021), pp. 272.

P.S. After writing this review, I read other reviews on the book (something I avoid doing before reading it) just to see if I was missing something. Other reviewers (for example in the Guardian, with the LSE, and on Amazon) have judged the book principally or solely upon its central thesis, which is fair. It is a great idea that, if implemented, would probably help with many of the problems we face. Basing a review on that alone, this would be a five-star read. My misgivings about Mission Economy, then, have been an opportunity to reflect on what it is I want from a book as a reader. As you can probably tell, I like examples and case studies, and I really like to see how things will work in the real world to be properly persuaded about the validity of an idea. It seems that I’m a sucker for detail. Do with that information what you will.

What did you think of Mission Economy? Is there something I’ve missed? Let me know.


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2 thoughts on “Review: Mariana Mazzucato, Mission Economy (2021)

  1. Really engaging review and I appreciate your attention towards detail and having solid case studies. It does seem that the book has a solid thesis. I think the point of how to engage citizens is very important too, especially where governments are losing their trustworthiness rating. Have you read any other books which help to address the issue of citizen engagement?


    • That’s a really good question – off the top of my head I can’t recall any books that really tackle the issue of public engagement in political/economic issues head on. There’s some good examples for things like climate change (how to make positive changes etc). Have you come across anything that really gets into that issue?


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