Illustration by Michael Rea

Mariana Mazzucato: ‘The biggest problem we have today is inertia’

The economist and author argues that good seeds are being planted in the fight against climate change
March 1, 2023

What is the first news event you can recall?

Not sure it’s the first, but it’s the clearest: the death of archbishop Oscar Romero in 1980. He was a revolutionary in the Catholic Church, murdered for his lifelong work of helping the poorest in and around El Salvador. He fought against the most powerful Salvadoran families who had killed protesters to maintain the dominant social and economic order. I was 12 when this happened. I attended a virtual memorial service at Princeton University, in the town where I was living (we moved from Italy when I was five as my father worked at the university). It was that event, alongside the death of Chilean president Salvador Allende, that got me interested in politics and political economy.

What is the biggest problem?

The biggest problem we have today is inertia. Unless we move quickly and with decisive action—across all parts of society and led by government—global warming will finish us. As Greta Thunberg says: no more blah blah blah.

If you could spend a day in one city or place at one moment in history, what would that be?

Among the women strikers in Petrograd in 1917! The Russian Revolution was sparked by women textile workers striking because of shortages of bread—not male workers.

What is your favourite quote?

Rosa Luxemburg: “Those who do not move, do not notice their chains”—back to my inertia point!

Which of your ancestors or relatives are you most proud of?

My mother. She passed away in 2011, much before her time. She was the most empathetic person I have ever met, able to put herself in others’ shoes before judging. I am grateful that my kids not only met her but are blessed with her character.

What have you changed your mind about?

I used to think that all ESG (environmental, social and governance) metrics were just green- and social-washing. But now I think that if we can make them rigorous and accountable, they can really change business (unlike the old “corporate social responsibility”, which is pure blah blah blah).

What’s the worst, ignored dysfunction of developed economies?

Financialisation. In the last decade, US companies have spent over $5 trillion—$1 trillion in the last year alone—on share buybacks. All to boost stock prices, stock options and executive pay. It’s not a surprise that the labour share of global income is at one of its lowest levels ever. More should be said about this dysfunctional form of corporate governance that increases inequality and prevents reinvestment in the real economy.

What businesses, countries or individuals are getting it right?

I don’t think any country is perfect, but there are good seeds being planted. Sweden’s challenge of having a fossil-free welfare state led them to initiate a programme to create healthy, tasty and sustainable school meals—affecting the entire supply chain of food production and getting kids involved too. Germany’s conditionalities on loans provided to the steel sector meant that the sector couldn’t just get a handout but had to lower its material content—creating one of the greenest steel-production processes. In general, I find it inspiring when governments invest in their in-house capacities instead of outsourcing.

What would people be surprised to know about you?

I draw—mainly women from my imagination—to relax… with charcoal and using my hands to smudge the shades almost like it was a sculpture. Even though my four kids are teenagers now, on Sundays we sometimes just sit and all draw on the floor. 

What do you most regret?

My mother died a month after I had visited her from London (she lived in Princeton). I had been working in New York and was missing my kids, so decided to leave a day earlier to get back to them. I regret I had not spent an extra 24 hours with her.

Mariana Mazzucato is a professor at University College London and author, with Rosie Collington, of “The Big Con: How the Consulting Industry Weakens our Businesses, Infantilizes our Governments and Warps our Economies” (Allen Lane, £25). It is reviewed by Lionel Barber here