Presenting the Albies of 2013

The best global political economy writing of the year -- tweets included.

As 2013 draws to a close, I am pleased to announce the 5th annual winners of the Albies, awarded for the best writing in global political economy for the past calendar year. The Albies are named for the late great political economist Albert O. Hirschman. I take great pride in choosing these 10 awards at the end of the calendar year, in no small part because, as you'll see, the winners vary from prestigious university press books to snarky blog posts. The important thing is that these 10 contributions forced the reader to think about the way the global economy works in a way that can't be un-thought. 

2013 was a particularly rich year for the political economy field. In no particular order, here are the 10 Albie winners:

  1. 1. Mark Blyth, Austerity: History of a Dangerous Idea. Blyth pulls no punches in this jeremiad against the single-most destructive macroeconomic policy idea of the last five years. He patiently explains why austerity-based policies are a bad idea during a recession, and then goes on to burrow deep into the intellectual roots of the austerity idea. I don't agree with his argument for why austerity has been advocated, but there is no denying the force of his argument for why it's an ill-conceived policy.
  2. 2. Sarah Kendzior's Twitter feed (@sarahkendzior). Kendzior writes about the role that fear and contingency play in the global workplace. I don't agree with many of her points -- in fact, there are times where I find her intellectually infuriating -- but she's never boring nor bombastic, and she's caused me to contemplate what it means to be privileged in the current economy. She's a scholar, a blogger, and an Al Jazeera columnist, but I think it's really on her Twitter feed that the "full Kendzior" is on display. I'm glad to see her acknowledge in this interview the care she devotes to crafting her tweets -- because very few others do it as well as her.
  3. 3. Nina Munk, The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty. Writing accessibly about development economics is a high-wire act, but Munk accomplishes it brilliantly. She shadows Sachs as he cajoles world leaders to fund his Millennium projects, and also visits those places to tell the whole story. The final chapter, in which Munk interviews a chastened Sachs (usually an oxymoron), is particularly devastating.
  4. 4. Hélène Rey, "Dilemma not Trilemma: The Global Financial Cycle and Monetary Policy Independence," Jackson Hole Symposium, August 2013. Think that the rest of the world has decoupled from the U.S. economy? Think again. Rey's provocative essay suggests that the global financial cycle has been simplified into capital rushing into the developing world during times of stability, and rushing into the United States during times of crisis. Domestic policies are almost immaterial. Rey's argument has its critics, but at a minimum, it offers a cautionary note on the utility of open capital accounts
  5. 5. Neil Irwin, The Alchemists: Three Central Bankers and a World on Fire. A rip-roaring narrative of how the central bank heads in the United States, Britain, and the Eurozone reacted to the subprime mortgage bubble, the 2008 financial crisis, and the ensuing sovereign debt crisis in Europe. Irwin is particularly good on the hidden role that the U.S. Federal Reserve played in bailing out European banks, and the G-7/G-20's role in shifting the macroeconomic policy consensus in early 2010 and late 2011.
  6. 6. Thomas Herndon, Michael Ash, and Robert Pollin, "Does High Public Debt Consistently Stifle Economic Growth? A Critique of Reinhart and Rogoff," PERI Working Paper Series, April 2013. There are very few moments when an academic paper can really alter the expert consensus about a particular policy. This paper, however, shredded Reinhart and Rogoff's argument that countries should try really, really hard to avoid having their government debt-to-GDP ratio climb over 90 percent. The discovery of an Excel error made this paper permeate the public consciousness, and weakened the intellectual force of pro-austerity arguments in the developed world.
  7. 7. Noah Smith, "What is ‘derp'? The answer is technical." Noahopinion, June 4, 2013. As debates about the merits of quantitative easing have persisted since the crisis, a certain group of economists and foreign policy folk have consistently warned about the incipient dangers of inflation and foreign indebtedness. Why have these warnings persisted despite very little evidence that either concern is really, well, disconcerting? Smith's blog post uses simple Bayesian statistical theory to explain the persistence of such beliefs in the face of massive evidence to the contrary -- or, as Internet slang refers to it, "derp."
  8. 8. World Bank staff and the Development Research Center of China's State Council, China 2030: Building a Modern, Harmonious, and Creative Society. Now this might seem like an odd choice, since the draft version of this document came out in 2012, and the Third Plenum document came out last month and will have a more significant effect on Chinese economic policy. But the final version of the China 2030 report did come out in 2013, and one can argue that it functioned as something of a template for the Third Plenum decisions. That intellectual link strongly suggests -- though it's hardly conclusive -- that Chinese economic reforms will trend away from the "Beijing Consensus" or "China model" that gets so much play in Washington.
  9. 9. (tie) Thomas Oatley, W. Kindred Winecoff, Andrew Pennock and Sarah Bauerle Danzman, "The Political Economy of Global Finance: A Network Model." Perspectives on Politics 11, no. 1: pp. 133-153; Sean Starrs, "American Economic Power Hasn't Declined-It Globalized! Summoning the Data and Taking Globalization Seriously." International Studies Quarterly 57, no. 4: pp. 817-830. One of the biggest mistakes foreign affairs commentators have made in recent years is to assume state-controlled wealth is the ne plus ultra of economic power. These two papers, by looking and private capital flows and asset ownership, offer a different perspective. Oatley et al use some nifty network analysis to show that U.S. capital markets have become more, not less central, since the 2008 financial crisis. Starrs looks at corporate ownership data to point out that U.S. private-sector control over key portions of the global economy have increased over the past decade.
  10. 10. Hiau Looi Kee, Cristina Neagu, and Alessandro Nicita. "Is protectionism on the rise? Assessing national trade policies during the crisis of 2008." Review of Economics and Statistics 95, no. 1: pp. 342-346. Hey, remember how Global Trade Alert keeps warning people of a tsunami of protectionism that has yet to happen? This paper is just one of many to point out an unsung story of the past few years: the failure of trade protectionism to explode in the wake of the worst economic downturn since the 1930s. This is one of the great "dog that did not bark" events that merits further investigation.

Honorable mentions: The Economist, "Bitcoin Under Pressure"; Larry Summers's IMF speech on secular stagnation; David Shambaugh, China Goes Global; Thomas Hale, David Held, and Kevin Young, Gridlock; and, finally and most appropriately, Jeremy Adelman's magisterial biography, Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman.


Words of Unwisdom

The year’s best worst quotes.

Once again, I spent too many hours watching press conferences, congressional hearings, congressionally-mandated reports, answers to reporters' questions, and reading news articles last year. Most of them reveal nothing, but occasionally one comes across something unusually puzzling, hypocritical, depressing, or inspiring that stands out.  In chronological order, here are this year's top 20 notable foreign policy comments from the U.S. government. Some of them stand alone, while others require context and elucidation. See here for the top quotes from 2011 and 2012.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand: "A nuclear Iran is an existential threat to the United States as well as Israel." (Senate Armed Services, confirmation hearing for Chuck Hagel to become the Secretary of Defense, Jan. 31, 2013.)

Sorry, Sen. Gillibrand. While a nuclear Iran could pose an existential threat to Israel, it simply is not to the United States -- which is an ocean or two away, and has an estimated 4,650 nuclear warheads. 

Sen. Dianne Feinstein: "In some respects [a drone is] a perfect assassination weapon. It can see from 17,000 to 20,000 feet up in the air, it is very precise, it can knock out a room in a building if it's armed, it's a very dangerous weapon. Right now we have a problem, there are all these nations that want to buy these armed drones. I'm strongly opposed to that." (Breanna Edwards, "Dianne Feinstein: Time to Set Drone Rules," Politico, March 7, 2013.)

For Sen. Feinstein, the staunchest champion of U.S. drones strikes, the only concern with armed drones is their proliferation beyond America's borders.

Gen. Keith Alexander, director of the NSA: "We are already developing the [offensive cyber] teams that we need, the tactics, techniques, procedures and the doctrine for how these teams would be employed with a focus on defending the nation in cyberspace. I would like to be clear that this team, this defend the nation team, is not a defensive team. This is an offensive team that the Defense Department would use to defend the nation if it were attacked in cyberspace. Thirteen of the teams that we're creating are for that mission set alone." (Hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, U.S. Strategic Command and U.S. Cyber Command and the Defense Authorization Request for Fiscal Year 2014 and the Future Years Defense Program, March 12, 2013.)

Only in the defense planning world are offensive cyber operations considered defensive.

Sen. James Inhofe: "I cannot imagine a time in my life when the world has been more dangerous." (Hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Hearing on U.S. Pacific Command and U.S. Forces Korea for FY2014, April 9, 2013.)

Seriously? In case readers can't remember, Sen. Inhofe was born in 1934. Try re-imagining Hitler or the Cuban Missile Crisis, senator.

Rear Adm. Richard Breckenridge: "We operate forward inside [China's] 20-yard line, inside their red zone, so that they rarely come out into midfield and very, very rarely operate off the East or West Coast of the United States of America. I think the fact that we enjoy that advantage, where we don't have to go to bed at night wondering if there's going to be a land attack from sea, is something Americans have grown accustomed to and don't realize that it hasn't happened because we're out there." (Jennifer McDermott, "Admiral: Many Unaware Sub Service Keeps Enemies from Our Shores," The Day, April 15, 2013.)

When Pentagon officials claim that the United States is not containing China, refer them to this appropriate sports metaphor.

Sen. Ron Wyden: "You cannot have strong oversight if intelligence officials don't give you straight answers." (Ruth Marcus, "James Clapper's ‘Least Truthful' Answer," Washington Post, June 13, 2013.)

All I can offer in response is this:

Wyden: Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper: No sir.

Wyden: It does not?

Clapper: Not wittingly. There are cases where they could, inadvertently perhaps, collect -- but not wittingly.

(Hearing of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, March 12, 2013.)

President Barack Obama: "When it comes to drones I gave an entire speech on this and what I have said -- and this is absolutely true -- is that we have put in place a whole series of measures that are unprecedented and we will continue to do so." (PBS, "Interview with President Barack Obama," Charlie Rose, June 17, 2013.)

This May 15 speech actually focused very little on drone strikes. Moreover, while it was meant to provide clarification on U.S. drone strike policies, it revealed nothing more than what was already known. The speech primarily provided a new reference that government officials could refer to when asked about U.S. targeted killing policies. Previously, whenever they were asked about drone strikes, officials -- including Brennan himself -- would refer to an April 2012 speech by then-White House counterterrorism czar John Brennan.

President Barack Obama: "You know, we remain the one indispensable nation. There's a reason why, when you listen to what's happened around Egypt and Syria, that everybody asks what the U.S. is doing. It's because the United States continues to be the one country that people expect can do more than just simply protect their borders." (CNN, "Transcript of President Obama's Interview on ‘New Day,'" Aug. 23, 2013.)

While Obama might want the rest of the world to perceive the United States in this manner, his foreign policy choices in 2013 regarding Egypt and Syria certainly made it seem more and more dispensable.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel: "I think the world has had enough war. And I think one of the things that we have learned over the years, regardless of the region of the world, is that wars can't resolve differences, and not in the world that we live in today, especially, that is so interconnected and so interdependent." (Department of Defense, Remarks at Malaysia's Institute of Defence and Security, Aug. 25, 2013.)

This was Hagel's Kumbaya moment.

Secretary of State John Kerry: "President Obama believes there must be accountability for those who would use the world's most heinous weapon against the world's most vulnerable people. Nothing today is more serious, and nothing is receiving more serious scrutiny."(Department of State, "Remarks on Syria," Aug. 26, 2013.)

Chemical weapons are not "the most heinous weapon" by any measurement of destructive power, lethality, or extent of human suffering. Read the classic 1979 Office of Technology Assessment primer on the effects of nuclear weapons to learn more.

Sen. Lindsay Graham: "The last place in the world you want nuclear weapons is the Mideast. Why? People over there are crazy." ("Sen. Lindsay Graham Warns of Iran-Israel War and Iranian Nuclear Attacks if U.S. does not Attack Syria," video, Sept. 4, 2013.)

That's a slanderous characterization of all Israelis in particular, but also everyone else in the region.

Rep. Trent Franks: "It just seems that everything the president touches in foreign policy, he injects it with chaos and death." (Joel Achenbach, "Obama's Syria Push Scrambles Hill Alliances," Washington Post, Sept. 10, 2013.)

In an apparent effort to assure "chaos and death" was furthered in the Middle East, in October, Rep. Franks introduced legislation that would have authorized Obama to undertake "the necessary and appropriate use of force against legitimate targets in Iran."

Adm. James Winnefeld: "Then there are the highly insecure authoritarian states, such as Iran, North Korea, and of course, Syria, including those who murder their own people on a large scale and those who have concluded that obtaining deliverable nuclear weapons are the best insurance policy for their regime." (Admiral Winnefeld, Remarks at the AUSA General Bernard Rogers Lecture Series, Arlington, Virginia, Sept. 18, 2013.)

Indeed, rogue states do not all have crazy, irrational leaders. As Muammar al-Qaddafi's daughter Aisha predicted, there's a lesson every dictator should take from her father's fall: "Every country that has weapons of mass destruction to keep them or make more so they will not meet the same fate as Libya."

Rep. Marlin Stutzman: "We're not going to be disrespected. We have to get something out of this. And I don't know what that even is." (David M. Drucker, "GOP stands firm against funding bill, will link to debt ceiling fight," Washington Examiner, Oct. 3, 2013.)

A precise summary of the Tea Party's objective for the 16-day federal government shutdown.

Michael Lumpkin, nominee to be principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations/low intensity conflict: "We're not going to be able to kill our way to victory. One at a time, doing one-eaches..."  (Hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Hearing to consider the nominations of Mr. Michael D. Lumpkin, Honorable Jamie M. Morin, and Honorable Jo Ann Rooney, Oct. 10, 2013.)

Note that Lumpkin replaced Michael Sheehan, who championed the eliminationist counterterrorism approach: "Whack-a-Mole, in my view, works -- because terrorists aren't plastic things that pop up again. When you kill them, they don't come back."

George Little, Pentagon press secretary: "One of the reasons that we in the Department of Defense, the U.S. military, have a very high approval rating with the American people is because we are transparent. Even when it's bad news, quite frankly, we tend to come forward quickly and own up to it and talk about the measures we're taking to ensure that the problem doesn't occur again." (Department of Defense, "Department of Defense Press Briefing with George Little from the Pentagon," Nov. 12, 2013.)

The notion that the Pentagon is both forthcoming and speedy with bad news would be too absurd for The Onion.

Gen. Mark A. Welsh, chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force: "What pops up when you type somebody's name into Google? It might be worth knowing that before you nominate somebody for a key job. Some of this is common sense." ("Air Force to ‘Add More Rigor' to Screening of Candidates for Nuclear Commander Jobs," Associated Press, Nov. 13, 2013.)

Gen. Welsh was announcing that the Air Force would more rigorously pre-screen nuclear commanders by Googling them, as of November 2013. No word yet on Facebook accounts.

Gen. Martin Dempsey: "There is hubris in the belief that war can be controlled. War punishes hubris and that is worth remembering." (Jim Garamone, "Dempsey: Military Battles Against Fiscal Uncertainty," American Forces Press Service, Nov. 16, 2013.)

Just a good line, here, and worth remembering.

Secretary of State John Kerry: "Believe it or not, notwithstanding the prominence of these events and the way that they do exactly what they're meant to do, send terror down the spines of people everywhere, the fact remains we lose far less lives today to conflict and there is far less loss of life in war or violence anywhere in the world today than there was in the last century, even in the last half century. That's a fact." (Department of State, "Remarks at the Overseas Security Advisory Council's 28th Annual Briefing," Nov. 20, 2013.)

This was perhaps Secretary Kerry's most bold act of 2013: Describing the world as it is, and not as one of inflated threats. An exceedingly rare and laudable act by a U.S. official.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel: "Our interests, the United States of America's interests, are the world's interests." (Karen Parrish, "Hagel Arrives in Bahrain for Speech at Dialogue," American Forces Press Service, Dec. 5, 2013.)

If any other country made such a claim, U.S. officials would correctly dismiss it as a myopic and as a desperate example of projection bias.

Alex Wong/Getty Images