The Best Work on Political Economy in 2022
Presenting the 14th annual Albies
It’s the last day of 2022, which means it is time for Drezner’s World to award its annual Albies for the most important work on global political economy published in the past calendar year.
This is the 14th year of the Albies. I started them while blogging at Foreign Policy. I brought with me to the Washington Post and now here at Drezner’s World. The overriding constant about these lists over the years — and I cannot stress this enough — is that they represent my own idiosyncratic opinions. So blame me for the biases I bring to the table if something important was missed. The rest of the hard-working (and super-fictional) staff here at Drezner’s World are innocent bystanders!
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, the 10 Albie winners for 2022:
Nicholas Mulder, The Economic Weapon: The Rise of Sanctions as a Tool of Modern War (New Haven: Yale University Press). It is fitting that the Albies start with a work on the origins of modern economic coercion. 2022 was a year in which economic sanctions were everywhere. Mulder’s history of early 20th century economic statecraft served as a useful reminder that sanctions, as practiced today, have their origins during the embargoes of the First World War. Mulder’s extremely readable history shines a light of the administration of those sanctions and those of the League of Nations, and their underexplored role in the origins of the Second World War.
“Joint Statement of the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China on the International Relations Entering a New Era and the Global Sustainable Development,” February 4th. In retrospect, this statement was the last chess piece that Putin wanted to put in place before launching his invasion of Ukraine. The codification of the Sino-Russian strategic entente is not the only reason it makes this list, however. The other reason is the Potemkin-like quality of the arrangement. In the statement Russia and China “reaffirm that the new inter-State relations between Russia and China are superior to political and military alliances of the Cold War era. Friendship between the two States has no limits, there are no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation.” Say what you will about China’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but it ain’t that. The rest of 2022 put the lie to this document’s claim, and suggests the limits to authoritarian institution-building in this century.
Jeffrey Sonnenfield et al, “Business Retreats and Sanctions Are Crippling the Russian Economy,” working paper, Yale University, August/International Energy Agency, “World Energy Outlook 2022,” October. There has been an ongoing debate about whether the sanctions against Russia are working. What “working” means is also a matter of considerable debate. In terms of the modern Russian economy, however, it seems increasingly clear that things are not looking good in either the short or long term. In their working paper, Sonnenfield and his team at the Yale School of Management do a fine job of parsing through the available data to examine the immediate impact of the sanctions; the IEA report, which concludes, “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is prompting a wholesale reorientation of global energy trade, leaving Russia with a much-diminished position,” offers a cautionary warning about Russia’s medium-to-long term economic outlook. Russia has always bounced back from its economic and military calamities. If it does so in the future, it will require a wholesale change in its economic orientation.
Jake Sullivan, “Remarks at the Special Competitive Studies Project Global Emerging Technologies Summit,” September 16th. The Biden administration broadcasted its particular brand of economic nationalism across a wide array of speeches and actions this year, ranging from launching regional integration agreements without any trade component to USTR temper tantrums at unfavorable WTO rulings. In retrospect, however, Sullivan’s speech fleshed out the load-bearing ideas undergirding the current U.S. approach. He warned that, “preserving our edge in science and technology is not a ‘domestic issue’ or ‘national security’ issue. It’s both.” He went on to announce that, “on export controls, we have to revisit the longstanding premise of maintaining ‘relative’ advantages over competitors in certain key technologies. We previously maintained a ‘sliding scale’ approach that said we need to stay only a couple of generations ahead. That is not the strategic environment we are in today. Given the foundational nature of certain technologies, such as advanced logic and memory chips, we must maintain as large of a lead as possible.” Sullivan’s speech presaged the October executive order on semiconductors and a new, uncertain era in Sino-American economic relations.
Christopher Miller, Chip War: The Fight for the World's Most Critical Technology (New York: Scribner). It would be easy for readers to accuse me of bias here: Miller is my colleague at Tufts and we are co-directors of the Fletcher School’s Russia and Eurasia Program. However, given that Chip War won the Financial Times’ Book of the Year and was also named one of the best books by the Economist, the hard-working staff here at Drezner’s World is convinced I am on safe ground. Miller’s fourth book is a popular history of the semiconductor and its role in geopolitics, from its origins to the current era of weaponized interdependence. If you want to know why Jake Sullivan gave the speech he did, read this book.
Lee Harris, “U.S. Declines to Blunt Pain as It Exports Inflation to Poor Countries,” The American Prospect, October 4th. The Biden White House was not the only U.S. actor to take drastic unilateral action triggering policy spillovers across the glove. Harris’ story, which is emblematic of a raft of stories on this topic, covers the Federal Reserve’s decision to squeeze inflation out of the U.S. economy by raising interest rates very, very quickly. Because the United States is at the epicenter of global capital markets, however, this decision has had ripple effects across the global economy. My only quibble is that the title of the story is inaccurate: what the U.S. is doing — and has been doing for decades now — is displacing the adjustment costs of correcting its macroeconomic errors. The lack of any apparent global coordination is this move is emblematic of whether macroeconomic policy cooperation is headed for the rest of this decade.
The Economist, “Liz Truss has made Britain a riskier bet for bond investors,” October 11th. October was a busy month in the global political economy! As the Truss government tried to implement macroeconomic policies that neither the Bank of England nor financial markets were buying, the Economist provided the coup de grace. Whoever wrote this leader penned Liz Truss’ real-time political obituary: “Ms Truss entered Downing Street on September 6th. She blew up her own government with a package of unfunded tax cuts and energy-price guarantees on September 23rd. Take away the ten days of mourning after the death of the queen, and she had seven days in control. That is the shelf-life of a lettuce.” As the memeification of communication continues apace, that lettuce analogy proved to be damning.
FTX Bankruptcy Filing By John J. Ray III, November 17th/Elon Musk’s “My pronouns are Prosecute/Fauci” tweet, December 11th. 2022 was the year of rich and powerful people either revealing themselves to be frauds or engaging in acts of self-destruction because no one could speak truth to money. FTX founder Bankman-Fried embodies the first story. In the bankruptcy filing, Ray — brought in to clean up SBF’s mess — stipulated about FTX: “Never in my career have I seen such a complete failure of corporate controls and such a complete absence of trustworthy financial information as occurred here. From compromised systems integrity and faulty regulatory oversight abroad, to the concentration of control in the hands of a very small group of inexperienced, unsophisticated and potentially compromised individuals, this situation is unprecedented.” Coming from the guy who took over Enron, that’s not a flattering sentence. As for Musk, that tweet was merely the ne plus ultra of a series of reckless, impulsive, immature decisions. In the process Musk irreparably harmed his own brand, eviscerated a problematic-but-useful social media site, and lost $200 billion over the past year.
Chris Giles, “The Globalization Elephant Has Left the Room,” Financial Times, November 24th. Almost a decade ago, Christoph Lakner and Branko Milanovic’s “elephant graph” defined what a lot of people thought about the first two decades of the neoliberal era: the rise of the Chinese and Indian middle classes, the meteoric rise of the One Percent, and the relative decline of the working class in the OECD economies. That stylized fact was never entirely accurate but it contained enough of truth to convince many that globalization exacerbated inequality. Giles’ column distills Milanovic’s updated data covering 2008-2018 and the most important takeaway is that the elephant is no longer there: “Since the 2008 financial crisis, the incomes of the poorest families have risen the fastest, with annual real income growth of the poorest tenth of the world’s population at about 7 per cent…. There is no doubt that this data shows a large reduction in global inequality over the past decade.” As Milanovic points out, that decade also contained a lot of churn within the income distribution. Still, the updated data has buried a stylized fact that has dominated much of the IPE discourse for the past decade.
ChatGPT. As Drezner’s World noted previously, it is unlikely that this kind of artificial intelligence will lead to massive cheating or other radical effects anytime soon. When I asked ChatGPT about its influence, it agreed, telling me, “as an AI language model, I do not have any direct influence on the global economy or political systems. I am simply a tool that can be used to generate human-like text based on the input provided to me.” When I followed up, however, ChatGPT acknowledged that, “it is possible that AI and machine learning technologies, including language models like myself, could be considered disruptive innovations in some cases.” It will be interesting to see whether and how AI like ChatGPT will disrupt heretofore resilient sectors over the next decade or so — and the political effects that will trigger.
Congratulations to all the winners!