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.

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)

For low risk countries with cheap borrowing costs, crafting politically feasible responses to rising public debt is often more difficult than simply putting deficit concerns aside. This does not necessarily imply that deficit-friendly policymakers face no constraints from voters. In this paper, we identify and test for the existence of three such constraints. One is the extent to which a mainstream party is faced with a plurality of voters who have a strong preference for lower deficits and debt. Another is voters’ tendency to resist narratives describing high debt levels as sustainable and more willingly embrace narratives describing them as unsustainable. A third constraint are expectation spillovers, including more pessimistic tax or inflation expectations in response to rising debt. Using novel observational and experimental evidence from Great Britain, we find no evidence for such constraints. Instead, our results suggests that the public, unable to think through the long-term consequences of high debt levels, rarely has well-formed opinions on this topic. Those who do are a minority with limited political influence. Despite survey evidence showing that voters worry about high debt and support fiscally conservative policies, the constraints faced by deficit-friendly policymakers are more likely to come from bond markets than from voters. 

Free Riders There, Free Riders Everywhere? The Moral Foundations of Free Riding Beliefs.” First version September 2020. [Part of the book manuscript]

People who oppose generous social benefits for the poor and the unemployed often believe that recipients are free riding, i.e. failing to take the available steps that would improve their plight and consequently abusing society’s generosity. The latter beliefs — free riding beliefs for short — are correlated with authoritarian-liberal (in the philosophical sense) attitudes, explaining why a large segment of low-income (high-income) individuals often oppose (support) generous social transfers. This paper argues that the correlation between cul- tural attitudes and free riding beliefs is rooted in moral reasoning. Authoritarians and liberals differ in how they reason about the monitoring of free riding: authoritarians seek to punish free riders even if it means sometimes unfairly punishing pro-social actors, liberals seek to minimize the latter even if it means letting some free riders get away with their behavior. Under the right conditions, these differences in error preference can results in large differences in error beliefs, i.e. in perceptions of the prevalence of anti-social behavior. I provide a tentative test of this argument using survey data collected in Great Britain. The results show that people do indeed differ in terms of their error preference and that this difference correlates with cultural attitudes. Differences in error preference, in turn, help identify individuals who, when faced with information about the financial situation of the National Health Service, become less supportive of universal access to the NHS. Instead, they chose to exclude not only immigrants but also smokers. Traditional left-right economic attitudes, in contrast, have no predictive power. In a context of resource scarcity, smokers’ lifestyle decisions make them free riders, which, in line with differences in error preference, triggers a different reaction among cultural authoritarians and cultural libertarians.

“The Consequences of Moral Reasoning: Why Some Care More about Free Riding than Others and Why It Matters.” First version September 2015. [Current version here (May 2017), Part of the book manuscript]

A common assumption in political economy is that voters are self-regarding maximizers of material goods, choosing their preferred level of social spending accordingly. In contrast, students of American politics have emphasized the role of an other-regarding motive that ties social policy preferences to beliefs about recipients’ propensity to free ride. The two motives often conflict as large portions of the poor (rich) believe free riding to be ubiquitous (rare). Under what conditions might one motive trump the other? I argue that material self-interest overruns beliefs about free-riding when the share of income affected by social transfers is high. Using European data, I show that low (high) income individuals are less (more) likely to be driven by free riding considerations. This framework has important macro-level implications: the more working-age benefits are evenly spread across income groups, the less likely beliefs about the ubiquity of free-riding will permeate public debates on welfare state reform.

“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.