In no particular order, here are the 10 2015 Albie winners:
1. Judith Kelley and Beth Simmons, “Politics by Number: Indicators as Social Pressure in International Relations,” American Journal of Political Science, January. There has been a proliferation of state-sponsored and NGO-sponsored “ranking” systems of countries on a variety of dimensions, including prosperity and corruption. Most of them carry no punishment or reward beyond the publicity of the ranking itself. Beyond how the Nordic countries seem to do really well in most of them, do they matter? Kelley and Simmons offer an answer in the affirmative by looking at how states react to the U.S. State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report. They conclude that, “performance indicators can influence state policy outputs, especially when they are based on systematic monitoring, are comparative (and especially quantitative), are wielded by a respected actor or group/organization of actors, and are widely disseminated.” In other words, ranking systems have real-world effects in international relations.
2. Alexander Cooley and Jack Snyder, “Rank has its Privileges,” Foreign Affairs (November/December). Cooley and Snyder’s essay is a trenchant counterpoint to the rise of ranking systems. They agree with Kelley and Simmons on the potency of ranking and indicator systems. But they go on to point out that many of these rankings often have a dark side: questionable methodologies, obvious and not-so-obvious normative biases and poor indicators that countries can manipulate to artificially inflate their standing. If you like this essay, be sure to check out their edited volume “Ranking the World,” which Cambridge University Press also published this year.
3. Tomáš Hellebrandt and Paolo Mauro, “The Future of Worldwide Income Distribution,” Peter G. Peterson Institute for International Economics working paper WP 15-7, April. Last year, Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the 21st Century” kicked off a rollicking debate about the rise of economic inequality in the world and whether it is an inexorable fact of life in this century. But inequality trends depend crucially on one’s unit of analysis. There is no denying that within most countries, inequality is increasing. But as Hellenbrandt and Mauro show in this paper, if one erases borders and uses individuals as the unit of analysis, “the Gini coefficient of global inequality declined from 69 in 2003 to 65 in 2013, and we project that it will decline further to 61 in 2035, largely owing to rapid economic growth in the emerging-market economies.” Even if emerging markets hit a middle income trap, inequality falls. This doesn’t mean that inequality will cease to be a pressing domestic policy issue, but this paper points out that the growth of international plutocrats can occur along with the slow end of extreme poverty.
4. Anne Case and Angus Deaton, “Rising morbidity and mortality in midlife among white non-Hispanic Americans in the 21st century,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Sept. 17. The rise of Donald Trump in U.S. politics has flummoxed and frustrated many people around the world. I’m not saying that Case and Deaton explain Trump’s rise — their paper documents symptoms more than causes — but the results are eye-opening. The paper documents a “marked increase in the all-cause mortality of middle-aged, white, non-Hispanic men and women in the United States between 1999 and 2013.” Their proximate explanation? “[I]ncreasing death rates from drug and alcohol poisonings, suicide, and chronic liver diseases and cirrhosis.” In the short term, one could argue that this trend helps explain the rise of 2016 protest candidates such as Trump and Bernie Sanders. In the long run, hopefully, this will prompt a serious public policy debate about why non-Hispanic, middle-aged whites are behaving this way. And props to Case for drawing on her own experience with chronic pain to hit upon the proximate cause.
5. The Sept. 17 Federal Open Market Committee news release. You might think that a news release from the Federal Reserve saying that there would be no change in its policy wouldn’t be terribly eventful. But as I noted at the time, the sentence “Recent global economic and financial developments may restrain economic activity somewhat and are likely to put further downward pressure on inflation in the near term” was an addition to that news release, and it mattered, because it showed that the Fed was aware and sensitive to changes beyond its borders. You might think this would be a given, but central banks have often focused like a laser beam only on domestic factors. This pause before the Fed raised interest rates (in December), probably did help to soothe rattled markets in China and Europe.
Side note: Between No. 4 and No. 5, Sept. 17 turned out to be a really important day for political economy.
6. Blake Clayton and Michael Levi, “Fiscal Breakeven Oil Prices: Uses, Abuses, and Opportunities for Improvement,” Council on Foreign Relations discussion paper, November. As energy prices plummeted in 2014, they fell below the “break-even price” at which oil exporters of various stripes could run a balanced budget. This led to a lot of doomsaying about the fiscal future and even the political future of energy exporters. And some of this concern is warranted. But in their paper, Clayton and Levi point out that “oil exporters have, however, proven resilient to sub-breakeven oil prices. They often have substantial savings, and they often can adapt.” Indeed, Saudi Arabia’s recent budget-cutting is further evidence of this adaptability, painful as it may be. Clayton and Levi do an excellent job of detailing the uses and abuses of the fiscal breakeven price and the myriad ways in which oil exporters can adapt to low oil prices over time.
7. Andrew King and Baljir Baatartogtokh, “How Useful Is the Theory of Disruptive Innovation?” MIT Sloan Management Review, Fall. Last year in the New Yorker, Jill Lepore fired a shot across the bow of Clayton Christensen’s oft-cited theory of disruptive innovation. Lepore’s critique sparked a wide-ranging debate in the business press about just how applicable Christensen’s theory was. Christensen himself tried to clarify things in a Harvard Business Review article earlier this month. King and Baatartogtokh’s paper, however, applies a shiv to the theory of disruptive innovation. They looked closely at the 77 cases of disruptive innovation that Christensen and his co-author cited in their books and interviewed industry experts to see whether these cases matched the theory. Their findings: “Many of the theory’s exemplary cases did not fit four of its key conditions and predictions well. A handful corresponded well with all four elements. However, a majority of the 77 cases were found to include different motivating forces or displayed unpredicted outcomes.” Disruptive innovation clearly exists, but it is not nearly as prevalent as Christensen and his acolytes have posited. Given the degree to which disruption has permeated our civic discourse, the sooner people realize this the better.
8. Timothy Aeppel, “Silicon Valley Doesn’t Believe U.S. Productivity Is Down,” Wall Street Journal, July 16. The aggregate data shows that productivity in the United States shrank in the first quarter of this year. At the same time there is nonstop chatter in Silicon Valley about all the innovation going on there. Google’s Hal Varian told Aeppel that “there is a lack of appreciation for what’s happening in Silicon Valley because we don’t have a good way to measure it.” How can these two stories be reconciled? It’s not obvious that they can (although Greg Ip made a decent effort at it in his follow-on WSJ article “Beyond the Internet, Innovation Struggles”), but Aeppel’s story does an excellent job of presenting the pros and cons of both sides.
9. David Shambaugh, “The Coming Chinese Crackup,” Wall Street Journal, March 6/Evan Osnos, “Born Red,” The New Yorker, April 6. For all of Trump’s bluster about how China was winning at everything, this seemed to be the year that astute China-watchers turned more bearish on the People’s Republic. In their own way, Shambaugh and Osnos wrote essays explaining the myriad stresses that Chinese President Xi Jinping and the Chinese political leadership are confronting as the middle income trap hits China hard. Both of these essays presaged China’s stock market gyrations over the summer.
10. Open Science Collaboration, “Estimating the reproducibility of psychological science,” Science magazine, Aug. 28. To say that 2015 was not a great year for the social sciences would be a massive understatement. There were accusations of ideological homogeneity, cases of outright fraud, and your garden-variety plagiarism. But this article might be the most disturbing of the bunch. The authors examined a hundred “experimental and correlational studies published in three psychology journals” and conducted replication efforts in cooperation with the original authors. The results? Only 36 percent of the replication efforts were statistically significant. In other words, little more than 1-in-3 top-tier research findings in psychology were robust to repeated testing. The authors conclude, “there is still more work to do to verify whether we know what we think we know.” If they had any more hubris, they would have titled this paper “WHERE IS YOUR SOCIAL SCIENCE GOD NOW?!”
Congratulations to the 2015 winners!