When State Building Backfires: Elite Coordination and Popular Grievance in Rebellion
(with Emily A. Sellars
) American Journal of Political Science,
ahead of print, 20 July 2021.
Abstract: We examine the complementary influence of elite politics, popular grievances, and central government weakness on rebellion. Efforts to strengthen the central state often come at the expense of the elite intermediaries charged with maintaining local political control. By driving a wedge between local elites and the central government, centralizing reforms can reduce intermediaries' willingness to repress mobilization, providing an opening for popular rebellion during both localized and national crises. For a given level of commoner grievance, revolts from below are thus more likely to be attempted and more likely to spread where elites' incentives to enforce order have been diminished. We formalize these ideas and provide supportive evidence using subnational data on rebellion, tax centralization, and drought in colonial Mexico from the late 17th-century to the War of Independence.
The Politics of Property Taxation: Fiscal Infrastructure and Electoral Incentives in Brazil
(with Darin Christensen
) The Journal of Politics,
Vol. 83, No. 4, 2021, pp. 1399-1416.
Abstract: Property titling enables tax collection and encourages private investment. Yet, governments across the developing world often fail to invest in land registration systems, such as cadastral maps that record land ownership and values. In this paper, we describe and estimate the fiscal benefits and political costs that elected officials face when deciding whether to invest in this critical fiscal infrastructure. Focusing on Brazilian municipalities, we find that property tax revenue increases by over 10 percent following cadaster updates. Officials covet this revenue, but they simultaneously seek to secure their reelection, and investing in the cadaster can generate political costs by angering tax-averse voters or undermining clientelism. When these political costs are large, officials who do not face reelection pressures have greater incentives to invest in the cadaster. Using a close-election regression discontinuity, we find that term-limited incumbents are around 15 percentage points more likely to update the cadaster.
From Conquest to Centralization: Domestic Conflict and the Transition to Direct Rule
(with Emily A. Sellars
) The Journal of Politics,
Vol. 83, No. 3, 2021, pp. 992-1009.
Abstract: Why do governments centralize control over regions? We present a theory of the transition from indirect to direct rule, focusing on the strategic interaction between a ruler and local potentates who provide civil order in exchange of a share of tax revenue. When the threat of rebellion from below falls and elites become less crucial intermediaries, the ruler is able to centralize power, replacing local potentates with direct agents of the state and investing in a fiscal bureaucracy for future state development. We assess the theory using subnational data from 16th- and 17th-century Mexico around the time of a dramatic demographic collapse, which undermined the threat of domestic conflict. Using a difference-in-differences approach and an instrumental-variables empirical strategy based on the climate shocks associated with a virulent series of epidemics, we show that state centralization occurred faster in areas experiencing a more dramatic decline in population.
Epidemics, Rent Extraction, and the Value of Holding Office
(with Emily A. Sellars
) Journal of Political Institutions and Political Economy,
Vol. 1, No. 4, 2020, pp. 559-583.
Abstract: Public officials who control access to scarce resources may profit by extracting extraordinary rents during the economic disruptions that follow epidemics. This can increase the value of holding office during these crises. Using data on the sales of public offices in colonial Mexico, we show that while the negative effects of epidemics limited the value of office in most areas, in districts with a public granary --- an institution that regulated grain markets in times of food scarcity --- aspiring officeholders were willing to pay more for positions following disease outbreaks. Historical evidence suggests that the differential increase in office prices in areas with a granary can be traced to officials' ability to manipulate food prices and supply for personal gain during crises. This highlights the important roles of economic monopoly and political corruption in determining the consequences of epidemics.
Elite Coalitions, Limited Government, and Fiscal Capacity Development: Evidence from Bourbon Mexico
The Journal of Politics,
Vol. 81, No. 1, 2019, pp. 94-111.
-- Michael Wallerstein Best Article Award, APSA Political Economy Section..
-- Best Article Award, APSA Democracy and Autocracy Section.
Abstract: Limited government supported by elite coalitions can facilitate the development of fiscal capacity by tying rulers' hands and enhancing their credibility. This paper presents evidence of the effect of the Mining Tribunal, an institution for the mining elite in late colonial Mexico that credibly constrained the Spanish Crown, on the development of fiscal capacity. The mining elite resisted the development of a strong fiscal state that was controlled by unconstrained Crown authorities. However, when mine owners were granted the ability to organize and protect their economic interests through a corporation, they ceased resisting. This enabled the Crown to invest in strengthening its fiscal capacity and raise more taxes from sectors other than mining. Difference-in-differences estimates using detailed fiscal data from regional royal treasuries indicate that this institution led to a substantial increase in the resources assigned to civil administration, as well as in revenues from nonmining production and trade.
Elite Competition and State Capacity Development:
Theory and Evidence from Post-Revolutionary Mexico
American Political Science Review,
Vol. 112, No. 2, 2018, pp. 339-357.
-- Fiona McGillivray Best Paper Award, APSA Political Economy Section.
Abstract: International wars and inter-state rivalry have been at the center of our understanding of the origin and expansion of state capacity. This paper describes an alternative path to the development of state capacity rooted in domestic political conflict. Under conditions of intra-elite conflict, political rulers seize upon the temporary weakness of their rivals, expropriate their assets, and consolidate authority. Because this political consolidation increases rulers' chances of surviving an economic elite's challenge, it enhances their incentives to develop state capacity. These ideas are tested in post-revolutionary Mexico, where commodity price shocks induced by the Great Depression affected the local economic elite differentially. Negative shocks lead to increased asset expropriation and substantially higher investments in state capacity, which persist to the present.
Can You Hear Me Now?: How Communication Technology Affects Protest and Repression
(with Darin Christensen
) Quarterly Journal of Political Science,
Vol. 13, No. 1, 2018, pp. 89-117.
Abstract: Commentators covering recent social movements, such as the Arab Spring, commonly claim that cell phones enable protests. Yet, existing empirical work does not conclusively support this contention: some studies find that these technologies actually reduce collective action; many others struggle to overcome the selection problems that dog observational research. We propose two mechanisms through which cell phones affect protests: (1) by enabling communication among would-be protesters, cell phones lower coordination costs; and (2) these technologies broadcast information about whether a protest is repressed. Knowing that a larger audience now witnesses and may be angered by repression, governments refrain from squashing demonstrations, further lowering the cost of protesting. We evaluate these mechanisms using high-resolution global data on the expansion of cell phone coverage and incidence of protest from 2007 to 2014. Our difference-in-differences estimates indicate that cell phone coverage increases the probability of protest by over half the mean. Consistent with our second mechanism, we also find that gaining coverage has a larger effect when it connects a locality to a large proportion of other citizens.
Revealed Corruption, Taxation, and Fiscal Accountability: Evidence from Brazil
(with Jeffrey F. Timmons
) World Development,
Vol. 70, June 2015, pp. 13-27.
Abstract: Fiscal contract theories hypothesize that government performance affects tax collection and that institutions that foster representation and accountability link taxes and services. We use randomly generated municipal audit reports with objective measures of corruption from Brazil to assess whether new information about corruption affects municipal property tax collection and the structure of fiscal institutions. We find short-run effects consistent with this theory: property tax revenue rises with clean audit reports and falls as revealed corruption increases; furthermore revealed corruption increases the probability that a municipality adopts participatory budgeting. Our results indicate modest demand-side constraints on taxation and budgetary institutions.
State Building in Historical Political Economy
(with Emily A. Sellars
) in The Oxford Handbook of Historical Political Economy
Ed. Jeffery A. Jenkins and Jared Rubin. Oxford University Press.
Abstract: Under what conditions do strong states under a centralized political authority emerge? This chapter presents a theoretical framework that summarizes and synthesizes insights from recent research in Historical Political Economy on state building. We examine the decision of a central authority who weighs the costs and benefits of state-building by taxing the population to defend against a threat. Our analysis illustrates prominent arguments in the literature, including the role of external conflict, military technology, non-tax revenue, societal wealth, the technology of taxation, and fiscal legibility in state building. We then consider how powerful local elites, whose interests may not align with the central authority, can shift a ruler's willingness and ability to centralize power, drawing a connection with the literatures on intra-elite conflict and limited government. Finally, we expand our framework to incorporate non-elite citizens, who can pressure elites and central authorities through the threat of rebellion from below, to discuss the role of elite-mass relations in state building.
WORKING PAPERS AND WORK IN PROGRESS
Fiscal Contracts?: A Six-country Randomized Experiment on Transaction Costs, Public Services, and Taxation in Developing Countries
(Working Paper, with Ana De La O et al.)
Abstract: We present results from six randomized controlled trials jointly designed to promote formalization and tax payments in low- and middle-income countries. Each randomized intervention used in-person visits, during which citizens received information about the government benefits that come with formalization and assistance in undertaking one of three types of formalization (business registration, property regularization, and access to public services). A meta-analysis shows that the average effect of these interventions on citizens' intent to formalize, on formalization, and on tax payment is indistinguishable from zero. Still, we find substantial heterogeneity across sites. A reduction in up-front transaction costs increases citizens' intention to formalize when governments offer tangible individual benefits in exchange for formalization but not when benefits are of uncertain relevance or collective. Bureaucratic barriers thwarted willing citizens' formalization efforts, and only a fraction of those who formalized ultimately paid more taxes. The results underscore the difficulty of regularizing taxation and service provision in low- and middle-income countries.
Fiscal Legibility and State Development: Theory and Evidence from Colonial Mexico
(Working Paper, with Emily A. Sellars
Abstract: We examine how fiscal legibility, the ability of a central government to observe local economic conditions for the purposes of taxation, shapes political centralization. When a ruler is unable to observe economic conditions, it can be preferable to grant autonomy to local intermediaries in charge of tax collection to encourage better performance. As a ruler's ability to observe local conditions improves, so does his ability to accurately monitor and sanction underperforming intermediaries. This enables the ruler to tighten control over tax collection, retain more revenue, and establish a more direct state presence. It also encourages investment in further enhancing fiscal legibility. We present a dynamic principal-agent model to illustrate this argument and provide empirical support for the theory using subnational panel data on local political institutions in colonial Mexico around the time of a technological innovation that drastically improved the Spanish Crown's ability to observe local economic production: the introduction of the patio process to refine silver. We show that the transition to direct rule differentially increased in mining districts following this technological innovation and that these areas saw greater investments to improve fiscal legibility over the long term.
Taking to the Streets: Theory and Evidence on Protests under Repressive Regimes
(Working paper, with Ruth Kricheli, Yair Livne, and Beatriz Magaloni
Abstract: In recent decades, citizens all over the world took to the streets to oppose predatory autocracies. We examine the conditions that facilitate civil uprisings against autocratic regimes and the determinants of their success. We develop a signaling model of protest where citizens face the critical challenge of knowing their fellow citizens' preferences and, hence, the size of the potential opposition. In this setting, citizens use costly protest to overcome the information problems they face regarding other citizens' preferences. This suggests a model of endogenous information revelation in authoritarian regimes. We generate two testable hypotheses from our theory: more repressive autocratic regimes are, in principle, more stable since they are better able to deter civil opposition. When protest does take place in a repressive regime, however, more ''valuable'' information is revealed, facilitating a cascade of successful protest. We provide evidence in support of these two hypotheses using data from contemporary regimes from 1950-2011.
Promoting Business Formalization: Experimental Evidence from Colombia
(Working Paper, with Darin Christensen)
Infrastructure for Votes? Experimental and Quasi-experimental Evidence from Mexico
(Working Paper, with Bruno Lopez-Videla and Wayne Aaron Sandholtz)
When Does Education Promote Democracy? Evidence from Curriculum Reforms in Mexico
(Working Paper, with Agustina Paglayan and Enique Seira)
Property Rights and Violent Crime: Evidence from Mexico
(In progress, with Dorothy Kronick)