The pope’s economist

pope's economist

Australia’s treasurer, Jim Chalmers is not the only one looking to Mariana Mazzucato for ideas about reforming our global economic system, so is Pope Francis.

The pope commends Mazzucato’s thinking for offering a compelling analysis of problems in the global economy and what can be done to build a more sustainable and fairer world.

This coincides with his own hopes, including reframing economics on the basis of universal human values.

In November 2022 he appointed Mazzucato, a “great economist”, to the Pontifical Academy for Life to “give it a little more humanity” and broaden its scope.

Both Francis and Mazzucato are highly critical of neoliberal forms of capitalism that have concentrated wealth in the hands of a few at the expense of the great majority of people.

Both urge reforms in global economic systems to eradicate hunger, gross poverty and inequality, as well as averting, in the pope’s words, the looming climate “catastrophe”.

Both have been strong supporters of the UN Sustainable Development Goals as the most promising program to promote a more just and inclusive order, yet they are alarmed that the SDGs are nor achieving their targets.

Many people are aware of the pope’s call to action to remedy climate change and keep fossil fuels in the ground, but not so many know of his advocacy for reform of the international economy.

Francis embraced the UN SDGs as an historic effort to create a more humane and equitable world, and wrote Laudato si’ in collaboration with some of the key architects of the SDGs.

The encyclical of May 2015 did not explicitly name the SDGs, since they were not approved until the UN delegates voted for them on 25 September 2015, immediately after the pope had addressed the UN General Assembly.

Active in economic and policy circles, and an advisor to many governments

Writing in “Financing the Common Good” in the Project Syndicate on 1 May 2023, Mazzucato insisted that “to create a truly inclusive economy… deep structural change is needed”.

She echoed UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres in calling for a “Common Agenda” for global cooperation with decisive action.

Guterres warned that “the defining principle of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is a shared promise by every country to work together to secure the rights and well-being of everyone on a healthy, thriving planet. But halfway to 2030, that promise is in peril”.

Mazzucato is particularly critical of how rich countries during the COVID-19 crisis, “aided by a flawed system of intellectual-property rights, hoarded vaccines”.

She writes that “more than a million lives could have been saved” if accessibility and equity had been made explicit objectives in distributing vaccines.

Mazzucato is very active in economic and policy circles, advising many governments.

A dynamic speaker, she frequently addresses international conferences and has published widely.

Many of her talks are posted on the internet, including several TED presentations.

In 2020 she was appointed chair of the World Health Organisation’s Council on the Economics of Health for All.

She has also served on the UN’s High Level Advisory Board on Economic and Social Affairs, the UN’s Sustainable Development Solutions Network Leadership Council, and the UN’s Committee for Development Policy.

An Italian-American, she completed her PhD in economics at the New School of Social Research in New York in 1999, and lectured in US and overseas universities, including the University of Technology in Sydney in 2014.

In 2017 she became Professor in the Economics of Innovation and Public Value at University College London, and founded its Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose. She is married with four children.

Pope Francis has been reading Mazzucato for some years

In a recent book, The Big Con: How the Consulting Industry Weakens our Businesses, Infantilizes our Governments and Warps our Economies, Mazzucato and her colleague Rosie Collington expose the astonishing fraud and malpractice in the international financial services sector. The current situation of PwC in Australia illustrates the problem precisely.

Mazzucato and Collington in “Consultants and the Crisis of Capitalism” in Project Syndicate on 2 March 2023 pointed to “deeper structural problems with contemporary capitalism.

The consulting industry may not be wholly responsible for the financialization of the economy, corporate ‘short-termism’, or the gutting of the public sector, but it certainly thrives on them”.

They “profited massively from the push toward privatization, management reform, private financing, outsourcing, digitalization, and austerity”.

Pope Francis has been reading Mazzucato for some years.

Writing to a committee of judges about social inequality and the cost of COVID-19 vaccines in 2020, he urged people to read her book, The Value of Everything: Making and Taking in the Global Economy, saying that the world had lost sight of the true meaning of value. “I believe [her vision] can help to think about the future,” he commented.

Mazzucato tweeted back: “Deeply honoured that the pope has read my book… and that he agrees that the future – especially post-COVID-19 – has to see a re-prioritization of ‘value’ over ‘price’.”

Advocating the State’s role in promoting and protecting the common good

Mazzucato is well known for her 2013 book The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Sector Myths.

She highlighted the role that governments played in developing radical new innovations, like the internet, where government took the risks but private companies reaped the financial rewards.

Her 2018 book, The Value of Everything, critiqued neoclassical economics and argued that many large private firms have become rent-seekers, drawing excess profits from products that contribute no real value.

Against neoliberal policies of small government, she argued that the state has to shape the market so that it is not captured by powerful special interests and instead works for the common good.

Her Mission Economy: A Moonshot Guide to Changing Capitalism (2021) argued that when the United States decided to land men on the moon, the government put all its available resources into achieving this goal, in cooperation with private firms.

Mazzucato urged the international community likewise to prioritize critical social goals, as in the SDGs, and to mobilize resources needed to achieve them.

Francis does not claim to be an economist, but he is appealing to Mazzucato, other economists and people of goodwill everywhere to work collaboratively in shaping a world where everyone has the opportunity and resources to lead a more fulfilling life.

  • Bruce Duncan is a Redemptorist priest and an emeritus lecturer in areas of social justice at Yarra Theological Union in Melbourne (Australia). He is a former editor of Social Policy Connections.
  • Republished with permission from La Croix International.
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