Working Papers

“Who Cares? Measuring Preference Intensity in a Polarized Environment,” with Daniel L.Chen (TSE-IAST) and Karine Van Der Straeten (TSE-IAST). [Under Review]

Many questions in political science require knowing not only what voters want (preference orientation) but also how much they want it (preference intensity). In this paper, we assess two methods for measuring individual differences in preference intensity. One method — issue importance items — asks respondents to self-report how important a given set of policy proposals is to them personally. Another —  Quadratic Voting for Survey Research (QVSR) — gives respondents a fixed budget to `buy’ votes in favor of (against) these policy proposals, with the price for each vote increasing quadratically. We provide theoretical arguments explaining why, in a polarized environment where some respondents may feel pressured to pay lip service to the party norms, one should expect QVSR to offer a better measure of preference intensity. Using Likert items as the benchmark, we find that QVSR more consistently differentiates between intense and weak preferences, as proxied by respondents’ behavior on simplified real-world tasks. Revisiting debates on the determinants of policy preferences, or the congruence between mass opinions and the policy status quo, we show that conclusions reached when using Likert items alone change once differences in preference intensity are better accounted for.


Willingness to Say? Optimal Survey Design for Prediction.” with Daniel L.Chen (TSE-IAST), Ritesh Das, and Karine Van Der Straeten (TSE-IAST).

Survey design often approximates a prediction problem: the goal is to select instruments that best predict an unobserved construct or future outcome. We demonstrate how advances in machine learning techniques can help choose among competing instruments. First, we randomly assign respondents to one of four survey instruments to predict a behavior defined by our validation strategy. Next, we assess the optimal instrument in two stages. A machine learning model first predicts the behavior using individual covariates and survey responses. Then, using doubly robust welfare maximization and prediction error from the first stage, we learn the optimal survey method and examine how it varies across education levels.


Much Ado About Debt: Understanding How People Reason About Debt (Un)Sustainability,” with Bjorn Bremer (Max Plank), Lisanne de Blok (U of Amersterdam), Catherine de Vries (Bocconi)

Existing evidence that majorities support debt reduction suggests that voters can tilt the balance in favor of fiscal consolidation. This paper revisits this evidence, focusing on quantities of interests beyond majority preferences as traditionally measured in surveys. First, we investigate the existence of issue-specific subconstituencies, i.e., people who prioritize fiscal discipline over other issues. Second, we turn to framing asymmetry and examine whether voters tend to resist narratives describing high debt levels as sustainable while more willingly embracing narratives describing them as unsustainable. Third, we test for the existence of simple mental models that exist independently of partisan messaging and predispose voters to favor fiscal discipline. Using novel observational and experimental data from Great Britain, we find limited evidence that the public introduces a conservative bias to fiscal policy in these three ways. We discuss implications for future research on the fiscal politics of high-debt Western democracies.


“Explaining Differences in Free Riding Beliefs: A Review and Preliminary Theory”

People who oppose generous social benefits for the poor and the unemployed often believe that recipients are free riding, i.e., abusing society’s generosity by failing to act to improve their plight. People who support more generous social benefits express the opposite concern: the moral wrong is on the side of society, which does too little to help people who cannot be blamed for their economic conditions. What explains these differences in welfare attitudes and free riding beliefs? To answer this question, this paper focuses on the well-documented, yet puzzling, correlation between 1) free riding beliefs on the one hand and 2) liberal-authoritarian values on the other. Underpin- ning this correlation, I hypothesize, is a disagreement over how to best address social dilemmas, i.e. how to maximize pro-social behavior and minimize free riding. I provide preliminary evidence for this line of inquiry and conclude by discussing implications for future research.


“Why Some Care More About Free Riding Than Others and Why It Matters.”

People support policies that increase their own expected income. They also support policies that move the status quo closer to what is prescribed by agreed-upon norms of fairness. How do these two motives combine? In most circumstances, I argue, people reason as moral agents trying to do the “fair” thing. Only when status quo changing policies have large and certain material consequences will they deviate from saying what is fair and choose to express a self- serving position instead. I apply this simple framework to a form of fairness reasoning that ties social policy preferences to beliefs about the prevalence of free riders among net beneficiaries of social spending. I show that income level and the institutional context affect the extent to which pocketbook concerns overrun free riding ones. I flesh out the implications for the politics of social policy reform in mature welfare states.


“Fiscal Stress and the Erosion of Institutionalized Social Solidarity.” [Part of the book manuscript]

To address income inequality, governments rely on predistribution policies, progressive taxation and institutionalized social solidarity (ISS). ISS describes not only means-tested programs but also the design features that make some social benefits accessible to all, irrespective of past contributions. This paper argues that fiscal stress can undermine mass support for ISS, something overlooked by existing work on austerity politics. A key mechanism is the reversion to self-interest among `altruistic’ voters who do not benefit from ISS but are generally supportive because it is the `fair thing to do.’ Observational and experimental evidence from France provide support for this argument, with no evidence that migration shocks and parochial altruism are driving the observed decline in support for ISS. With the pandemic and soaring deficits, the erosion dynamics documented in this paper are unlikely to abate.