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Newsletter 4-30-2021

Colin Powers
Colin Powers

Hi everyone. Thanks for subscribing. If you have the means, please consider becoming a paying member. If you have the inclination, please pass this newsletter around to others who might enjoy the read. Now onto this week's edition of No Craic, Mad Craic, and Great Craic.

No Craic

(1) Ruslan Trad has recently published a deep dive into the origins and contemporary function of Russian private military companies (PMCs), honing in on the Wagner Group in particular. (The article derives from Russian Invisible Armies, a book Trad and Kirill Avramov co-authored).

As Trad details, firms like the Wagner Group--which is financed by Yevgeny Prigozhin, an oligarch that made his fortune through catering contracts with the Russian military before becoming a media mogul--tidily epitomize how political economy and foreign policy coalesce in Putin's Russia. In furnishing security for the oil and natural gas operations of Russian firms in Syria and Libya, training local proxies on the behalf of the Russian state, and directly engaging various theaters as a subcontracted battalion which the Russian military can diplomatically distance itself from when necessary, Wagner et alia illuminate the deep co-imbrication of governance and profit-seeking that Moscow gives host to, and the destructive energies that this coming together passes on to others.  

(2) Speaking of cruddy imperial conceits and their beneficiaries, per Mark Thompson of the Project on Government Oversight's Center for Defense Information, the vaunted F-35--a plane that the Pentagon intends to purchase $400 billion worth of and spend $1.3 trillion on servicing over the next fifty years--is, at the mo, having a hard time getting off the ground. As revealed on April 22 by the Government Accountability Office, only 7% of the existing stock of F-35's were mission capable as of 2020. This figure leaves the Pentagon just a bit shy of its 72% target.

Alas, if the F-35 has lent little utility to Uncle Sam's military capacity, it has done a great deal for Lockheed Martin's bottom line. Largely by dint of orders for the plane, the arms' dealer has again come in as the United States' largest government contractor in 2020, and by a fairly healthy margin. Bringing in nearly $77 billion in revenues from DoD business alone--about $50 billion more than its closest competitor, Raytheon Technologies--the servicing of the American war machine remains an exceedingly profitable line of business to be in.

(3) As COVID-19 continues to ravage the Palestinian people of the West Bank and Gaza, the sovereign power, Israel, is sitting on a vaccine surplus that includes 10 million doses of AstraZeneca.

Cruel, vindictive, and unforgivable as Israel's hoarding is, one ought note that the United States looks set to have as many as 300 million vaccine doses wasting away in inventory as of July, according to the Duke Global Health Innovation Center.

(As a quick aside, for those who may have missed it, Human Rights Watch just put out a report accusing the Israeli state of the crime of apartheid. The civil society organization's endorsement of this position follows B'Tselem's this past January, and reflects the discomfort increasingly afflicting legacy-liberal institutions in the US and Israel vis-a-vis the only democracy in the Middle East. While we are a long way from any of this being politically meaningful, the terms and parameters of contestation are clearly changing.)

(4) The industry controlling academic publishing is almost farcically exploitative. It largely works as follows: first, scholars and editors put in hours and hours of labor producing manuscripts and prepping all the contents of journals for no pay*. Then, the oligopoly which ultimately publishes and sells these journals to universities and other buyers proceeds to extract profits in the hundreds of millions despite doing nothing beyond providing what today amounts to a digital printing press.

Evidence of this, Taylor & Francis, one of the leading firms in the academic publishing cartel, has just posted annual adjusted operating profits of $373 million for 2020, after taking home $1.3 billion in 2019.

*Tenured faculty at universities are salaried. This being the case, one could argue that publishing/editing is part of the purview of their job, and that it therefore does not constitute unpaid labor. For the rest, though...  

(5) The contemporary iteration of the Democratic party has been aggressive in seeking to frame the progressive aspects of its agenda around a narrative of racial justice. In making the case for student debt relief, or state-subsidized childcare, or Medicaid/Medicare expansion, for instance, leadership and associated spinmen/women regularly work to foreground how such policies will explicitly and specifically benefit black people.

Whether such a communications' strategy is informed by good intentions or not, it appears to be bad politics. As explored in a new study from Joshua Kalla and Micah English, race-centered frames achieve very little in boosting support for progressive public policies. Class-centered frames, alternatively, do generate a statistically significant increase in support for said policies. What is more, the effect of class-centered frames on policy preferences are more effiacious than racial ones even when the respondent pool is restricted to black people.

These results are surely informed by the racism of non-Hispanic whites to some degree. Nevertheless, if the ultimate goal is to institute policies which will disproportionately help minority communities, then it would seem wise to embrace more universal and inclusive appeals.      

Mad Craic

(6) After endless starts and fits and after committing a comedy of political errors (the largest of which was its backroom dealing with the Kurdistan Regional Government), ExxonMobil is set to exit the West Qurna 1 oilfield of Iraq with its tail between its legs.

Leaving behind a field from which 6.275 million barrels of oil can be extracted daily, those halcyon days of 2004--back when Viceroy Paul Bremer was arranging for Memoranda of Understanding/Cooperation granting drilling rights worth billions--can now be nothing more than a fragment of a painful memory for the inheritors of Rockefeller's Standard Oil.  

(7) The bin Laden family, long presiding over a construction empire gluttonously fed by the capital flows steered into Saudi Arabia's built environment, is falling on tough times under the new Crown Prince.

Having survived one of their heirs, ya know, venture capital'ing and then personally directing what may be history's most infamous terrorist group, the bin Laden's have found themselves swept up into Muhammad bin Salman's anti-corruption dragnet. Usama's half brother and one-time Company Chairman of the Bin Laden Group (BLG) Bakr bin Laden has been in detention since November of 2017, when he and a bunch of other oligarchs were brought in for a shakedown at the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton. What is more, the Agence France-Presse has revealed that Bakr and two of his brothers have also been forced to sell more than a third of their firm's equity to the Saudi government.

The bin Laden's troubles likely derive from their perceived closeness to one-time MbS rival Muhammed bin Nayef. (The fact that a BLG cranes fell on Mecca's Grand Mosque and killed 100 people in 2015 likely didn't help the family's cause, either). With MbS' policymakers now embracing public-private-partnerships (PPP) for infrastructure development rather than the traditional public procurement processes through which the BLG and similar contracting firms once grew so wealthy--and with MBS attempting to position a more youthful fraction of capital at the top of the country's social order--, the road ahead for these old rentiers looks no less precarious than the one they've just traveled.

Great Craic

(8) Natan Last has a wonderful piece in the LA Review of Books where he argues that a low carbon job guarantee can be built around care work, and with it, a slightly more humane America. It is a well-written, historically-minded analysis, so check it out if you have a spare few minutes.

(9) Biden's proposed American Families Plan contains a great deal to be excited about. For a comprehensive review of the child care, public education, paid leave, and nutrition provisions included in the prospective legislation, as well as the factors most likely to impede its passage, see this write-up from David Dayen.  

(10) At the link below, you can see some guy play a magic trick on Harrison Ford, and elicit the precise response that you would hope to see.

Have a great weekend.


Colin Powers

Colin received his PhD from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in 2020. He is a two-time Fulbright Fellow.