Time to change tack?

Staying In

Two books encourage us to reimagine our economies and societies

Bríd Conroy

I think all of us would be familiar with the futility of doing the same thing and expecting to get a different result. Perhaps the perennial problems we face in our society – inequality, corruption, monopolies, poverty, congestion, pollution, under-resourced health care, uneven education access, and more – could all be tackled by changing tack.
‘Mission Economy: a Moonshot Guide to Changing Capitalism’, written by Mariana Mazzucato and published by Allen Lane, sets out the case for reimagining the way we govern our economy.
In the main, our economy is operated by a capitalist system of private ownership, driving the means of production, distribution and the exchange of goods and services. Operators are free to make profit in competitive conditions. Our government then seeks to stabilise that economy on behalf of its citizens by maintaining a competitive marketplace, a legal framework, a monetary policy to control the supply of money, a fiscal policy to collect taxes and by providing for public goods and services.
That all sounds great in theory, but what about when those markets ‘fail’ or bring unforeseen consequences, like the devastating effects of pollution on our climate, the creation of monopolies that push out smaller firms unable to compete, and the perpetuation of societal inequality. The 2020 Credit Suisse Global Wealth report revealed that the top 1 percent of households own 43 percent of all the world’s personal wealth while the bottom 50 percent own only 1 percent. Governments are the ones quite often left to ‘fix’ those markets when they ‘fail’.
However, Mazzucato makes the compelling case for governments to stop being the fixers of failed markets. Instead, she advocates that they become the ‘shapers’ of those markets. “What if government, instead of being viewed as cumbersome while the private sector takes the risks, bears the greatest level of uncertainty and reforms its internal organisation to take such risks?” she writes. “Imagine the transformation: from a bureaucratic top-down administration to a goal-oriented stimulator of new ideas from the ground up. Imagine government transformed across the board, from how procurement operates, to how research grants are made, to how public loans are structured and costs and budgeting are understood, all to fulfill public purpose… a new vision for sustainable cities or to inspire business investment in social infrastructure and health-care innovations.”
Mazzacuto is a professor in the Economics of Innovation and Public Value at University College London. She has advised policymakers around the world on innovation-led inclusive and sustainable growth. This book draws parallels with the Apollo Space Programme envisioned by JF Kennedy in 1962 and reveals how they achieved their mission, to land a man on the moon against all the odds. This is compelling reading and a fabulous book.
‘Thought Economics’, written by Vikas Shah and published by Michael O’Mara Books, invites us to engage with the conversations Shah himself has had with ‘remarkable people, shaping our century’ – people who are doing something different in order to get a different result.
The book is divided into conversations about identity, culture, the ability of leadership in the world to bring humanity together, entrepreneurship, them and us, war, peace, justice and democracy. He talks to entrepreneurs, philanthropists, actors, investors, social entrepreneurs, professors, writers, activists, computer scientists, refugees, Nobel-pPize winners… the list goes on.
A central theme running throughout the book is that with our thoughts we make the world, so let’s make it a better world, let’s listen to people’s concerns and not sneer at them, even if we don’t agree. Be your own entrepreneur, Shah daringly suggests, and ponder new ways of forming parliaments, governments and structures. A man after my own heart, this book is fascinating and beautifully compiled.
Our Covid experience has shown us that we can change direction when needed, let’s keep going and see where it takes us.

Bríd Conroy and her husband Neil Paul run Tertulia – A Bookshop Like No Other at The Quay, Westport.