When it comes to how the United States government spends tax dollars, most American voters think an enormous amount of money doesn’t reach its intended goal due to waste, fraud, and abuse. Voters believe that between 20 and 60 cents out of every new tax dollar spent by the government won’t actually make it back to citizens. This belief has an impact on voters’ preferences for redistribution of tax money, says Vivekinan L. Ashok, Cornell Presidential Postdoctoral Fellow.
“While economic inequality in the U.S. has risen by almost every measure in the last 40 years, the public’s preferences for redistribution has stayed flat for the same period,” he says. “This is counter intuitive. You’d expect these two things to move together.”
Ashok joined the Cornell University community in the summer of 2018 as part of the inaugural group of Cornell Presidential Postdoctoral Fellows. Working with Peter K. Enns, Government, and other researchers at Cornell, he is expanding his dissertation work, investigating how Americans form preferences for economic policy in the United States in light of rising inequality.
Challenging the Meltzer-Richard Model—Public Funds Redistribution
In his dissertation, Ashok looked at citizens’ preferences regarding economic policy over the last four decades. In particular, he focused on a trend in public opinion that challenged a seminal theory in political economy known as the Meltzer-Richard model. The model says that in a democracy, as the mean and median incomes diverge, the median voter, who is the decisive voter, will demand more redistribution of public funds, and the size of government will expand.
“The Meltzer and Richard paper is one you read early in graduate school,” says Ashok. “It gets cited all the time. I wanted to figure out why we aren’t seeing the theory holding up in practice.” Ashok argued that voters understand the economic incentive for demanding more redistribution from the government, but that their beliefs about the government and the process of government expenditure of tax revenues enters into their decision-making, regarding redistribution and policy setting. “This is the important missing piece,” he says. “People have deep-seated views that new spending will be diverted away due to waste, fraud, and abuse. There are no large partisan differences in this belief. It’s salient for Democrats, Republicans and independents, and it depresses the demand for redistribution.”
What Is Government Waste, Fraud, and Abuse?
What do voters mean when they talk of government waste, fraud, and abuse? Ashok is evaluating the survey responses of 6,000 voters collected over three years to find out. Using techniques recently developed for machine learning, he is analyzing the open-ended responses people typed in to the survey in an effort to pinpoint the topics most salient to them. Already, he’s noticed something he didn’t expect.
“I went into this thinking maybe when people speak of waste, fraud, and abuse, they are referring to citizens or special groups of citizens receiving money from the government that they don’t qualify for or deserve,” he says. “But it turns out, corruption and misuse by politicians is dominating survey respondents’ concerns. They are more concerned about that than about citizen misuse or the cost of bureaucracy. That’s really interesting. It seems that the legislative process that’s necessary to spend money is affecting people’s demands for government spending.”
“It seems that the legislative process that’s necessary to spend money is affecting peoples’ demands for government spending.”
The Mixup: Voter Preference versus a Politician’s Position
Ashok has plans for a second, broader, project during his time at Cornell as well, looking at how politicians make their economic appeals to the electorate. “There’s a big space between a voter’s individual preference for an economic policy and what they actually make a decision on, which is usually a politician’s position on a particular economic policy,” he says.
For example, voters might think the government should do more to equalize incomes. They would then express that opinion by voting in the context of an election where one candidate might champion expanding Medicare for all, while another pushes for free tuition at state universities, and a third talks of growing the economy so more jobs are available. Throw in additional issues, such as nuclear proliferation and immigration, and now voters have to assess a wide range of concerns and political messages when choosing which candidate to back. “I’m still fleshing out this second project,” Ashok says. “But I see it focusing on how people’s perceptions of inequality affect not just their attitudes and demands for redistribution of government spending in the abstract but also their decision making when it comes to picking candidates in elections.”
Another Way of Thinking—Connecting with Cornell’s Innovative Scholarship
Working with Enns, whose expertise focuses on public opinion, representation, and inequality, Ashok will be learning some new techniques for thinking about these issues. “Peter is an expert on analyzing and learning from trends in public opinion,” Ashok says. “That’s not in my tool kit yet, so it’s very exciting to be here conversing and collaborating with him. In my preliminary thinking about my next potential research project—which theories to draw from, where the project would fit—I have already benefitted from Peter’s unique voice.”
Ashok’s road to Cornell unfolded over time. He first met Enns some years ago when Ashok and two co-authors presented a paper at a conference, and Enns was the discussant. “His comments and discussion were illuminating and motivating,” Ashok says. “I realized there was another way of thinking about inequality and public opinion.” A few years later, Ashok discovered the work of Suzanne Mettler, Government. Mettler’s research into policy feedback and voter response to the experience of government policies also had an impact on Ashok’s work. Then came the announcement of a new Cornell Presidential Postdoctoral Fellowship. “Everything came together when I applied,” Ashok says.
“The area of inequality is a big topic,” he continues. “People from many different disciplines are concerned about it. One thing I find awesome about Cornell are the built-in forums where people from multiple disciplines can come to talk about these big problems and to collaborate with each other—places like the Center for the Study of Inequality, Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, and Cornell Population Center. Everyone wants to be interdisciplinary, but that’s something that has to be spearheaded by the institution, and Cornell is a leader at that. That’s one of the things that made me extremely excited to come here.”