2020 is not an ordinary year. The depth of disjuncture is so great that it is hard not to think more about work that explains what is happening right now.
This is the 12th anniversary of the Albies, which began when I first started blogging at Foreign Policy. One constant is that this list still represents my own idiosyncratic opinions. So blame me and whatever biases I bring to the table if I missed something.
The Albies are named in honor of the late, great political economist Albert O. Hirschman. The important thing about an Albie-winning piece of work is that it forces the reader to think about the past, present or future of the global political economy in a way that can’t be unthought.
Here are, in no particular order, the 10 Albie winners for 2020:
• The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, “Covid-19: A Global Perspective,” September. Trying to assess the entire literature on the coronavirus pandemic and its effects would be an overwhelming task for a battalion of scholars, much less the tiny but hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts. As a global take, however, this Gates Foundation report lays bare the massive short-term costs wrought by this pandemic. The world will be healing from 2020 for quite some time.
• Tyler Cowen, “What libertarianism has become and will become — State Capacity Libertarianism,” Marginal Revolution, Jan. 1. Cowen is one of the most usefully provocative thinkers around, and this New Year’s Day 2020 post about trends in libertarian thought during a wave of populist nationalism proved remarkably prescient about the challenges that governments would confront over the next 12 months.
• Elizabeth Saunders and Susan Hyde, “Recapturing Regime Type in International Relations: Leaders, Institutions, and Agency Space,” International Organization, January. For decades, international relations scholars believed that democracies had attributes that gave them certain advantages in world politics. The past two decades of scholarly research has challenged some of these presumptions, as has the past decade or so of real life. In their review essay, Saunders and Hyde do an excellent job of stocktaking. They further offer up a useful framework to explain why regime type retains more explanatory power than many scholars and pundits believe.
• Sebastian Mallaby, “The Age of Magic Money,” Foreign Affairs, July/August; Ore Koren and Kindred Winecoff, “Food Price Spikes and Social Unrest: The Dark Side of the Fed’s Crisis-Fighting,” Foreign Policy, May 20. The pandemic triggered a wave of monetary and fiscal stimulus that makes the response to the 2008 financial crisis look like a pittance. Mallaby’s essay highlights the extraordinary fact that the United States has been able to unleash two trillion dollars of monetary easing and another two trillion dollars of fiscal stimulus with almost zero short-term costs whatsoever.
Almost no short-term costs to the United States, that is. Koren and Winecoff’s essay points out that the Fed’s interventions have had unintended effects on the developing world.
• Gianluca Benigno, Luca Fornaro, and Martin Wolf, “The Global Financial Resource Curse,” Federal Reserve Bank of New York Staff Reports, no. 915, February. Mallaby highlighted the significant benefits of issuing the reserve currency to the United States. This paper offers some insight into the costs both for the U.S. and the world economy. A commodity boom can have a “resource curse” effect on extractive economies, rendering other sectors uncompetitive. Benigno, Fornaro, and Wolf suggest that the dollar has a similar effect on the U.S. economy, reducing investment into innovations that would contribute to greater domestic and global economic growth.
• Daniel Fuchs and Sarah Eaton, “How China and Germany became partners on technical standardization,” The Washington Post, Nov. 16. There has been a lot of hand-wringing in Washington as the European Union and China finalize negotiations on a bilateral investment deal. This essay by Fuchs and Eaton, which is based on their longer working paper, should garner even more attention. Fuchs and Eaton do an excellent job of explaining the confluence of interests that led Berlin and Beijing to work together in standard-setting bodies. If Germany and China form an alliance on standard-setting, the United States will find itself on the outside looking in as other actors write the rules of the global political economy.
• Erin Lockwood, “The international political economy of global inequality,” Review of International Political Economy, June. What should scholars of the global political economy study? For decades, the answer to this question was pretty straightforward: variations in the rules of the global game and the patterns of economic exchange. Over the past 50 years, global economic inequality has widened and persisted. Lockwood’s paper reminds us that this phenomenon is important — and inherently political in its causes and effects — and therefore should be an important research program.
• Philip Lipscy, “COVID-19 and the Politics of Crisis,” International Organization, September. Lipscy uses the pandemic to expose an oddity about political economy research in contrast to security studies: the latter focuses on crises such as war whereas the former focuses on more routinized economic exchange. The result, according to Lipscy, is that scholars of global political economy treat crises with similar theoretical tools, when we have every reason to believe that crises are a different phenomena with different political dynamics. A lot of great international relations scholarship about covid-19 has been produced in very short order, but this article will stick with me the longest.
• James Kynge and Jonathan Wheatley, “China curtails overseas lending in face of geopolitical backlash,” Financial Times, Dec. 11/Tristan Kenderdine and Niva Yau, “China’s Policy Banks Are Lending Differently, Not Less,” The Diplomat, Dec. 12. For the past decade, many observers have warned about China’s foreign lending practices. Mention “Belt and Road” inside the Beltway and a China hawk gets its wings. Kynge and Wheatley’s FT story, drawing in part from Boston University’s Global Development Policy Center data, concludes that Belt and Road lending “has fallen off a cliff..” For Kynge and Wheatley, this highlights China’s new “dual circulation” approach to economic development, which prioritizes China’s domestic market over global markets.
Kenderdine and Yau offer a partial rejoinder on this thesis in their response, suggesting that in Central Asia at least, China has not scaled back lending so much as altered the flow of funds. They also conclude, however, that even in Beijing’s backyard, “there are … serious political and financial risks to China’s policy lending in the region that go beyond the single dimensionality of the debt-trap diplomacy analysis.”
• Caleb Watney, “Cracks in the Great Stagnation,” Agglomerations, Nov. 23/Matthew Yglesias, “The CARES superdole was a huge success,” Slow Boring, Dec. 29. 2020 was so bad that both Netflix and Amazon Prime put together comedy specials to celebrate its ending. A lot of awful stuff happened in the so-called developed world, and much of it comes on top of fears about ominous long-standing trends such as secular stagnation, productivity slowdowns, etc. Little wonder that nostalgia is on the rise.
It is worth noting, however, that 2020 also provided hints of tremendous promise. Watney’s essay summarizes many promising trends, including the record pace of vaccine development and the persistent drop in alternative energy prices. It pairs nicely with Yglesias’s essay on the dangers of “progressive catastrophism,” which causes many on the left to ignore or belittle positive trends or pretty-good policy interventions.