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Monday, November 7, 2011

The Unintended Consequences of Elections

Election season is upon us (and will be with us for the next year), and a recent Freaknomics podcast ("Wildfires, Cops, and Keggers") highlighted some of what you might call the unintended consequences of elections. For example, in mayoral and gubernatorial election years, police forces tend to grow and crime tends to fall. Why? Because incumbents’ incentives change when they run for re-election, and they often try perform better (or at least give the appearance that they are), so they do things like hire more police. This effect isn't limited to the US, either. Arkadipta Ghosh, a researcher with Mathematica Policy Research, found that crime rates (especially property crime rates) drop in India the year before an election and spike the year after.

Here's another one. Jeffrey Kubik of Syracuse University and John Moran of Penn State found that taxes on beer is more likely to go up in the year after election but cigarette taxes are not. Why. It appears that legislators up for re-election might raise cigarette taxes to avoid raising taxes on other, more important constituencies (like beer drinkers), but they will wait until after an election, once they've won another term, before they raise taxes on beer.

Here's another sobering fact: Executions are 25 percent more likely in gubernatorial election years. I guess if you want to be a governor in the US, you otta show you're tough on crime.

Here's a weird one. Spyros Skouras and Nicos Christodoulakis, professors at the Athens University, analyzed cycles of forest fires in Greece found that in election years, wildfires burn 2.5 times the area than they do in non-election years. They hypothesize that this could be a possible byproduct of building-permit regulations that forbid development on forest land unless it has been burned by a wildfire.

Sarah Anzia, a political science Ph.D. candidate at Stanford, looked at teacher pay and school-board elections and found that experienced teachers get paid more in districts that hold off-cycle elections. That’s because off-cycle elections generally have low voter turnout elections, which means that interest groups. such as teachers’ unions, can make a bigger impact at the polls.

The full transcript of the podcast can be found here: ("Wildfires, Cops, and Keggers: Full Transcript")

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