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 rough chronological order of appearance, the 10 Albie winners for 2021:
1. Jeff Colgan, Jessica Green and Thomas Hale, “Asset Revaluation and the Existential Politics of Climate Change.” International Organization, Spring. Tackling climate change is an exceedingly hard international bargaining problem, as the November COP summit in Glasgow, Scotland, demonstrated. There are a lot of reasons this is so, but Colgan, Green and Hale offer an excellent explainer about how different assets rise and fall in value depending on both climate change regulation and the effects of climate change itself: “Climate politics can be understood as a contest between owners of assets that accelerate climate change, such as fossil fuel plants, and owners of assets vulnerable to climate change, such as coastal property.” I am not quite as pessimistic about the future as they are — they omit the prospect of climate-saving assets — but this is an excellent conceptual frame to grasp the problem.
2. Michael Osterholm and Mark Olshaker, “The Pandemic That Won’t End,” Foreign Affairs, March 8. It is maddening to reread this essay now because almost everything that Osterholm and Olshaker warned about how the coronavirus pandemic would evolve has come to pass over the past 10 months. They cautioned that unless and until large swaths of the globe were vaccinated, mutations and variants would emerge. They wrote: “Neither the United States nor any other global power can defeat a pandemic by thinking in national terms. Coronavirus vaccines are now a central component of the United States’ national security and defense. But unlike other spheres of defense, this one involves protecting — not fighting — foreigners.” It was all in this essay — and yet that had very little effect on the vaccine nationalism that dominated 2021.
3. Robert Blair and Philip Roessler, “Foreign Aid and State Legitimacy: Evidence on Chinese and US Aid to Africa from Surveys, Survey Experiments, and Behavioral Games.” World Politics, April; Blair, Robert Marty and Roessler, “Foreign Aid and Soft Power: Great Power Competition in Africa in the Early Twenty-first Century.” British Journal of Political Science, July. “Receiving foreign aid undercuts state legitimacy” is a truism in some quarters of political science, as is the notion that dispersing foreign aid is a soft-power multiplier. Are these statements actually true? In their World Politics paper, Blair and Roessler find the answer in Liberia is no. Neither Chinese nor U.S. aid undercuts the recipient government’s legitimacy in the eyes of its citizens; if anything, the opposite is true. On the other hand, this does not mean that U.S. and Chinese aid are perfectly equivalent. In their BJPS paper, Blair, Marty and Roessler find that U.S. aid increases support for the United States but that Chinese aid does not have the same effect.
4. Eric Martin and James Mayger, “US-China Trade Booms as if Virus, Tariffs Never Happened,” Bloomberg, July 21. Between the pandemic, global supply chain stresses and geopolitics, there was a lot of talk about decoupling between China and the United States this year. You know what there was not a lot of? Actual decoupling! As Martin and Mayger’s story demonstrates, policy is not the only thing that affects bilateral exchange. Maybe both governments will be able to force a true economic divorce — but like any high-powered marriage, it will take years and be extremely nasty and expensive.
5. Roy Kent’s departure from Sky Sports News, “Ted Lasso,” Apple+ TV, August. Yes, this is a fictional program, and yes, most observers did not think that Season 2 lived up to Season 1, and yes, Roy Kent’s exclamation that, “We don’t know. Of course we don’t know … we’re just on the outside, looking in, judging them” is written to propel him from sports commentary back to getting involved with his old club AFC Richmond as a coach. I don’t care. Kent’s speech, summed up as “all we do is sit around and guess” hit home for this writer. Not because it’s always true or fair, but all too often it is. For my money, Kent’s meta-commentary about commentary was more pointed and concise than all of the media satire dished out in Adam McKay’s “Don’t Look Up.”
6. Ronald Machen, Matthew Jones, George Varghese and Emily Stark, “Investigation of Data Irregularities in Doing Business 2018 and Doing Business 2020.” WilmerHale, Sept. 15. You can read my September column on this report and how it implicates former World Bank CEO (and current IMF president) Kristalina Georgieva in a pretty blatant attempt to muck around with the World Bank’s Doing Business index to help China look better. Georgieva has weathered the storm and is staying at the IMF. But the WilmerHale report demonstrates the sausage-making that lies beneath the surface of many global performance indicators and what institutions will do to stay in the good graces of their donors. It also put the kibosh on the Doing Business index for now.
7. Zeke Hausfather, “Global CO2 emissions have been flat for a decade, new data reveals,” ClimateBrief, Nov. 4. The past year did not contain a lot of good news, particularly on climate change, but this report has some good news in it. More accurate estimates of land usage over the past decade suggest that carbon-dioxide emissions have not increased over the past decade, as was widely believed. None of this negates the need for more urgent action on this issue, but after a year that seemed to dash a lot of hopes and expectations, this suggests that sometimes shocks can be positive.
8. James Traub, “Even Sweden Doesn’t Want Migrants Anymore.” Foreign Policy, Nov. 17. You want to say that the rise of populism is due to the brutal nature of neoliberal capitalism in the 21st century. Go ahead, you might even find some evidence supporting such an effect. But let’s not kid ourselves; an awful lot of the growth in populist nationalism is due to the surge in cross-border migration, as global refugee flows have skyrocketed. Traub’s essay captures the evolution of attitudes in Sweden, the heart of the Nordic model. You can’t say the country did not try. In 2015 Sweden accepted 163,000 refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere; in 2016, Sweden spent more than 5 percent of its state budget on those refugees. The result? Support for increased migration dropped from 58 percent in 2015 to 40 percent today. As Traub observes, “Sweden is no longer a welcoming country and does not wish to be seen as one.” He concludes, soberly: “Sweden is Europe writ large.”
9. Liza Lin and Chun Han Wong, “China Increasingly Obscures True State of Its Economy to Outsiders,” Wall Street Journal, Dec. 6; Lingling Wei, “Beijing Reins In China’s Central Bank,” Wall Street Journal, Dec. 8. For decades, China had been able to straddle the line between authoritarianism and something that kinda, sorta resembled a market economy. As China’s political system has turned more personalist and autocratic, however, those moves have started to impinge on the country’s ability to present itself as a market-friendly state. These two stories — one about China’s growing lack of data transparency, the other about the erosion of central bank independence — clarify just how far President Xi Jinping will go to preserve his hold on power. It exemplifies a series of self-defeating economic actions that the Chinese Communist Party has taken in 2021.
10. Stuart Lau and Barbara Moens, “China’s trade attack on Lithuania exposes EU’s powerlessness,” Politico EU, Dec. 16. To paraphrase Stefon, this story has everything: Chinese economic sanctions, Chinese passive-aggressive behavior regarding said sanctions, global supply chain complexities, global economic governance dysfunction and the inability of the European Union to adapt to a world in which geopolitics cannot be ignored. As Lau and Moens write, “For the world’s biggest trade bloc, its usual trade defense instruments such as safeguards or anti-dumping measures do not cover [this] gray economic zone.” Consider this story a harbinger of what the rest of this decade might look like even if war does not break out over Ukraine or Taiwan.
Honorable mentions: Colin Kahl and Thomas Wright, “Aftershocks”; Eric Helleiner, “The Return of National Self-Sufficiency? Excavating Autarkic Thought in a De-Globalizing Era.” International Studies Review, September; Ed Power, “Netflix’s Red Notice has turned the ‘event movie’ into a nonevent.” Daily Telegraph, Dec. 1.