Mariana Mazzucato Has Reinvigorated The Most Important Battle In Economics

Ash Milton:

The book is a tour de force of economics, history, and policy. Such breadth is arguably necessary for Mazzucato’s fundamental goal: reopening the debate about economic value, what it includes, and who has the power to define it. What should count as real economic wealth? Who truly creates it, who merely assists the process, and who might be actively impeding it? The answers to that question have directed how economies develop, how governments direct or impede production, and what forms of economic power come to dominate human life.

Once, the question of value dominated economic discourse. The French physiocrats argued that wealth was produced from the land. Conversely, Adam Smith tended to see landlords as a rentier class. Marx famously defined labor itself as the source of value. But this debate about value, once core to economic discourse, has long been de-emphasized in the discipline. As Mazzucato demonstrates, the marginal revolution in economics heralded a subjective, utility-focused approach that effectively sidestepped the historic debate about value—a sidestep that, in Mazzucato’s telling, drastically impoverished the discipline. An undergrad student today is likely to hear the above names once or twice in the opening lecture of an introductory course, and then only as a one-off primer. How did this happen?

Following a historical primer on how the question of value was obscured, the book takes the reader through the successive results. Chief among these are the rise of financial power and its cannibalization of large parts of economic life, the extractive institutions in technological and medical innovation, and the gutting of a once-innovative and bold public sector, which had produced immense value across fields from consumer technology to medical products.