Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Myths by Mariana Mazzucato

From start to finish of this superb book, I want Mariana Mazzucato to be right. In The Entrepreneurial State, Mazzucato suggests that the state has had a much more powerful role in stimulating innovation that the dominant narrative admits. The state pushes the key breakthroughs; private firms enter the game quite late (though they often capture an inordinate amount of the social gains from innovation).

Mazzucato’s book is timely (indeed, it has had a considerable impact in Brussels), as countries shift away from austerity policies and look towards Keynesian-style spending to get their economies moving. Keynes famously suggested burying a treasure in an abandoned mine as a make-work project (his point, of course, was not to endorse pointless exercise; rather, he meant to show that pure make-work could act as a stimulus). Mazzucato argues countries can improve on Keynes by spending on state entrepreneurship. In a best-case outcome, state-sponsored innovation will shock the economy back to expansion and will lead to frontier-shifting welfare gains.

And maybe it would - if the political class could be convinced by Mazzucato’s account of the hidden state-centric nature of innovation. Her recent historic examples involve pharmaceuticals and information technologies. The private drug development narrative is deliberately cultivated by Big Pharma: bold firms undertake massive R&D in their laboratories, to be rewarded (in the event of success) by patent monopolies. Big Pharma asks to be ‘left alone’ by the State: no tort liability and quick market approvals are the best policies. In fact, Mazzucato observes, it is the state that undertakes the greatest risks in developing new approaches and active agents, through public funding (such as NIH grants in the United States) of medical research. Left to their own devices, Big Pharma would undertake little research; indeed, the current trend among large pharmaceutical firms is to reduce R&D expenditure and to look to smaller, research-oriented firms to do later-stage development work, then in-licensing or acquiring fairly proven projects. But without the substrate of state-funded science, even this system would grind to a half.

Monday, July 15, 2013

The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die by Niall Ferguson

The civilized world is falling apart in Niall Ferguson’s view. The world of Ferguson’s concern comprises the United Kingdom and the United States, which (in sequence) have enjoyed long periods at the top. In The Great Degeneration, Ferguson signals the decay afflicting our central and defining institutions. Ferguson mixes nostalgia with alarm: nothing is as it was. Unlike Acemoglu and Robinson, who give an institutional account of why poor countries remain poor in Why Nations Fail (reviewed here), Ferguson tells us why great nations decay, why ours is degenerating.

Although Ferguson distances himself from those who give a purely cultural account for the rise of British and American prominence, he celebrates the particular constellation of democracy, capitalism, rule-of-law and voluntarism found nowhere else. A sequence of accidents may have created our cheerful and wealthy societies. The reduction in the Great Divergence seems to concern Ferguson most: the ratio of our well-being to that enjoyed by the rest of the world (as if a more equitable distribution were a bad thing).

If great (though quirky) institutions served us in the past, their present ‘degeneration’ is a cause for concern. Ferguson divides The Great Degeneration into four short essays, each devoted to an institutional category displaying distinctly Anglo-American characteristics. These are democracy, capitalism, rule-of-law and a civil society marked by voluntarism. The book is a write-up of a series of lectures Ferguson presented on the BBC, summarizing and synthesizing his earlier work. Ferguson’s argues that institutions and not culture were the central determinants of the Great Divergence. Yet he also sees the ‘intergenerational partnership,’ the awareness and the willingness to act publicly on behalf of future generations, as foundational. The better democracy we practiced in the past was wiser; perhaps we didn’t think about our neighbor, but we certainly thought about our grandchildren. (Fear not - the last thing Ferguson will address is climate change - he supposedly believes it a hoax.)

Monday, July 1, 2013

The Buy Side: A Wall Street Trader’s Tale of Spectacular Excess by Turney Duff

The Buy Side is part tell-all, part movie treatment and part self-therapy. Turney Duff presents the rise and fall of a Wall Street trader (Duff himself, or a character resembling him) in the years leading up to the 2007/2008 financial crisis. Duff is well on the way to crashing long before the crisis hits; The Buy Side is a story of self-absorption, addiction and perhaps (though it does not arrive by book end) redemption.

Duff would have us believe that he was one of those Masters of the Universe - magically in touch with the hidden rhythms of the markets, knowing just when to hit the buy or sell button. And his sure-footed ascent is predictable. He deftly passes from sales to the Buy Side - the trading firms who engage the fawning brokers to execute their transactions. The Buy Side may or may not be where the big compensation is - but it’s certainly where the perks lie. And Duff relishes the Buy Side life: imagine buying six extra Yankees tickets in order to take out-of-park smoke breaks.

Duff claims no special savvy; he’s just a party guy who attracts other party guys (and party gals). Somehow this leads to universal admiration and a seven-figure bonus check. I wonder if Duff is calculating in his modesty: it makes a better film. Still he must have had some knowledge of the health-care sector (he was heralded as an expert).