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The best work on political economy in 2018

Presenting the 10th annual Albies for the best writing on political economy.

Renowned social scientist Albert O. Hirschman. (Courtesy of Shelby White and Leon Levy Archives Center, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, N.J.) (???)
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It’s the last day of the calendar year, which means that it is time for Spoiler Alerts to award its annual Albies for the best work on global political economy.

The Albies are named for the late, great political economist Albert O. Hirschman. Past winners have varied from prestigious university-press books to snarky Twitter feeds. The important thing about an Albie-winning piece of work is that it forces the reader to think about the past, present or future politics of the global economy in a way that can’t be un-thought.

This is the 10th anniversary of the Albies, which I did not realize until writing this column. Ten years is a long time, and you’d think by now that I would have institutionalized this award *COUGH* farmed this out to graduate students *COUGH* a bit more. Nope, it’s still my own idiosyncratic opinion.

In no particular order, here are the 10 Albie winners for the year 2018:

1) Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, “How Democracies Die,” Crown Library. A long-standing, implicit assumption in the global political economy literature has been that advanced industrialized democracies “lock in” to their system of government, representing an exemplar of political stability and respect for the rule of law. The wave of populism that has emerged over the past five years has caused that faith to be justifiably questioned. Building on earlier scholarship, Levitsky and Ziblatt explain clearly and concisely how democracies can degrade over time. Academics, take note: this book is also a master class in how to write about important concepts for a mass audience.

2) Lilach Gilady, “The Price of Prestige: Conspicuous Consumption in International Relations,” University of Chicago Press. Global political economy scholars have little problem assuming that actors seek to increase their power and wealth. Prestige is also an important goal, however, and Gilady’s book examines how and why states might expend significant resources and pursue economically dubious projects. In an age in which a lot of states seem to be acting in a lot of odd ways, Gilady’s book offers an intriguing way to think about these actions.

3) Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony before the United States Congress, April 2018/Amy Zegart and Kevin Childs, “The Divide Between Silicon Valley and Washington Is a National-Security Threat,” The Atlantic, Dec. 13, 2018. Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook should be ripe pickings for congressional hearings in which showboating politicians dance all over the company’s colossal screw-ups. Instead ... well, let me just leave this here:

At this moment in time, Congress has minimal capability to understand anything happening in Silicon Valley, and it’s a problem. Read Zegart’s and Childs’s essay to see a further exploration of the cultural divide between tech and the state, as well as some extremely useful suggestions for how to repair that breach.

4) Jay R. Corrigan, Saleem Alhabash, Matthew Rousu, and Sean Cash, “How much is social media worth? Estimating the value of Facebook by paying users to stop using it,” PlosOne, Dec. 19, 2018. Yep, Facebook merits two entries this year. As Colbert noted at the opening of his bit, by now most users are fully aware that the company has exploited and abused personal data in just about every way imaginable. This article, however, strongly suggests that consumers will be a weak-to-nonexistent check on Silicon Valley corporate abuses. Through survey research involving actual monetary incentives, the authors found that “the average Facebook user would require more than $1000 to deactivate their account for one year.” The idea that network externalities turn market forces on their head is not a new one, but the policy implications need much further debate.

5) Adam Tooze, “Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Shaped the World,” Viking. Finally, the big book on the 2008 Financial Crisis and What It All Means has been written — and I say this having written a smaller book on the 2008 financial crisis. Tooze, whose Twitter feed is a must-follow for those interested in political economy, connects what happened in 2008 to the euro zone crisis that began in 2010 and the populist backlash that started a few years later. It is an unsparing book, and rightly so.

6) Andrew Small, “The Backlash to Belt and Road,” Foreign Affairs, Feb. 16, 2018. Policy debates in the United States often depict China’s Belt and Road Initiative as an unstoppable behemoth of canny state-directed investment designed to induce debt traps. Parts of this narrative might be true, but any close observer of the program immediately notices the disorganization and pushback that BRI is currently experiencing even in the countries most reliant on Chinese investment. At the beginning of the year, Small’s informative essay describes how BRI has not enhanced Chinese influence in South Asia — if anything, it has triggered an Indian response that sharpens divisions in the region. China will likely move down the learning curve as BRI progresses, but make no mistake: the idea that it represents a complete or even incomplete success for Xi Jinping is absurd.

7) Brink Lindsey, Steven Teles, Will Wilkinson, and Samuel Hammond, “The Center Can Hold: Public Policy for an Age of Extremes,” Niskanen Center, December 2018. Full disclosure: I an on the Board of Directors at Niskanen, and so I feel that I cannot in good conscience plump this essay too much. Let me suggest, however, that any article that earns praise from both Dani Rodrik and David Brooks might be worth reading. Maybe, just maybe, there is a hopeful path forward on public policy in a post-Trump world.

8) Zsófia Barta and Alison Johnston, “Rating Politics? Partisan Discrimination in Credit Ratings in Developed Economies,” Comparative Political Studies, Vol. 51(5) 587—620/Ben White, “Why Isn’t Wall Street Freaking Out About Trump?” Politico, March 2018. Some scholars believe that markets are an objective, dispassionate measure of political risk. These two articles, in their own way, gently suggest that this is nonsense. Barta and Johnston show that credit-rating agencies, particularly Standard & Poor’s, “have systematically discriminated against left governments in the past two decades.” The paradoxical effect of this is that right-leaning governments have more leeway to act in a fiscally profligate manner than left-leaning governments. White’s Politico essay shows this kind of bias is hardly limited to ratings agencies. If you want to know why stock markets are gyrating now, go back and read White’s story to marvel that they were not gyrating before.

9) Bentley B. Allan, Srdjan Vucetic and Ted Hopf, “The Distribution of Identity and the Future of International Order: China’s Hegemonic Prospects,” International Organization, Fall 2018. There has been so much written about the liberal international order this past year. Its critics are piling on, and even its most enthusiastic cheerleaders have doubts. This article, however, suggests that the current hegemonic order is likely to be far more resilient than the pessimists believe. This is because the core ideas animating the current order — democracy and free markets — have far more popular support across the globe than elites tend to assume. Any Chinese effort to challenge or supplant the current order is therefore unlikely to gain many adherents.

10) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “The Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C,” October 2018. That climate change will have serious effects on the world is so uncontested that even really bad sci-fi reboots will find a way to work in that premise. The IPCC report, along with the U.S. government’s Fourth Climate Assessment, adds far more urgency to the problem, while highlighting the Trump administration’s continued rhetoric of reaction in response.