There is growing concern that democratic institutions in Eastern Europe are fragile. This brief compares two perspectives on the state of democracy: expert assessments and surveys of the general population. We show that while experts’ perception of some countries’ institutions has worsened in recent years, voters are increasingly satisfied with their own democracies. This trend is broad-based, encompassing almost all new EU member states and all age groups. We provide evidence that over time, survey respondents’ assessment of democracy has become more closely tied to the outcome of elections rather than actual institutional change. Where governments have imposed restrictions on media freedom or judicial independence, their supporters continue to report high levels of satisfaction with the way democracy works.
“Across the world, democracy is backsliding”
UN’s Secretary-General António Guterres, 2022
In recent years, the prevailing narrative around democracy in Eastern Europe has been negative. The reform momentum that propelled countries towards EU membership has not been sustained after accession. Discussions of global democratic backsliding frequently cite countries from the region as examples (Grillo and Prato, 2023; Chiopris et al., 2021; Mechkova et al., 2017). Following restrictions on judicial independence and media freedom, some new EU members have seen their ratings slide on indices that measure the quality of democratic institutions based on expert opinions. This brief contrasts these expert assessments with a different perspective on the state of democracy: that of the voters themselves.
Data from Eurobarometer surveys show that satisfaction with ‘the way democracy works in our country’ has been increasing in the new EU member states. This upward trend is visible for all age groups and in almost all countries – including those where experts’ assessment of democracy has worsened. We document patterns in the data that may help to explain this divergence. Survey responses increasingly reflect an instrumentalist view of democracy; respondents who are aligned politically with the winning party are more likely to feel that democracy is working well. This trend can be observed across the EU, but it is most pronounced in the new EU member states where the governing parties are right-of-centre.
Perceptions of Democracy
The quality of democracy is hard to measure. A range of indices classify countries by regime type or provide numerical ratings of institutional quality (the Polity, V-Dem, and Freedom House measures are among the most prominent). These indices have somewhat different objectives and methodologies, but they all rely on subjective judgements by expert coders.
Some academic research casts doubt on the prevailing narrative of a global phenomenon of democratic backsliding. For instance, Treisman (2023) and Lueders and Lust (2018) show that there is little consensus across indices, both in terms of individual countries and the global trend. A recent paper by Little and Meng (2023) contrasts subjective indices with more objective indicators of democratic health (e.g. the rate at which incumbents lose elections). The authors find no evidence for global democratic backsliding using the objective measures and suggest that the pessimistic narratives around democracy may have biased coders’ assessment.
There is less disagreement about the development of democracy in Eastern Europe. Treisman (2023) cites Hungary as the only example of a country that has recently been downgraded both from the status of “liberal democracy” by V-Dem and “free state“ by Freedom House. Little and Meng (2023) highlight three cases where both objective and subjective measures indicate backsliding: Hungary and Poland (as well as Venezuela). Further, Becker (2019) shows that downgrades to V-Dem democracy scores in Bulgaria, Czechia, Hungary, Poland, and Romania are relatively broad-based, driven by declines across multiple sub-categories including freedom of expression and constraints on the executive.
Surveys of Public Opinion
We use individual-level data from the Eurobarometer – a survey of public opinion in the EU Member States and candidate countries conducted by the European Commission. The surveys are conducted at an approximately monthly frequency and comprise of a representative sample (about 1000 face-to-face interviews) for each state. We combine data from 42 surveys, spanning 20 years (2002 to 2022), with a total of 1.3 million respondents. The main question we are interested in is: “On the whole are you very satisfied, rather satisfied, not very satisfied or not at all satisfied with the way democracy works in [our country]?”
At the beginning of the sample period in 2002, around a third of respondents in Eastern European EU countries were satisfied with their respective democracies compared to close to twice as many respondents in Western Europe (Figure 1). Over the past 20 years, the share of Eastern Europeans satisfied with their democracy has grown to around 50 percent, narrowing the gap with Western Europe. Figure 2 shows that this pattern is broad based across age groups. All cohorts of Eastern Europeans are more satisfied with democracy than earlier generations and among the youngest respondents, satisfaction is almost as high as in Western Europe.
Figure 1. Satisfaction with Democracy vs V-Dem Score.
Figure 2. Satisfaction with Democracy by Age Group.
Figure 1 also shows a stark divergence in expert assessment of the state of democracy in Eastern Europe compared to public opinion in the same countries. While the V-Dem democracy scores for Eastern Europe have declined rapidly since the mid-2010s, average satisfaction with the own country’s democracy has increased. A much smaller gap between these two measures has also started to open up in Western Europe over the past couple of years.
In Figure 3, we show the same patterns of satisfaction with democracy and expert opinions for individual countries. Satisfaction with one’s own democracy has increased in almost all Eastern European countries, including in Poland and Hungary which at the same time showed the largest declines in democracy scores.
Figure 3. Satisfaction with Democracy vs V-Dem Score by Country.
This divergence in individual survey responses and expert assessments is not altogether surprising. First, the Eurobarometer surveys a sample of the population in each country, while V-Dem (and most other similar democracy indices) relies on country experts. Another likely explanation for the difference is the interpretation of the question. Democracy ratings tend to emphasise institutional aspects of a democracy, for instance, the V-Dem liberal democracy index is designed to capture rule of law and checks on executive power (see, e.g., Becker, 2019). In contrast, the survey responses are likely to reflect both satisfaction with the state of democracy in a country, as well as the outcomes of that democracy.
Satisfaction with Democracy and Political Alignment
In this section, we investigate whether stated satisfaction with democracy depends on the outcomes of elections and the political ideology of the respondents. A common way of measuring political ideology is the placement on a right-left scale, where the right favours a free-market economy and traditional values while the left favours economic redistribution and socially progressive policies. We compare the right-left placement of each country’s governing party as coded by the Chapel Hill Expert Survey (CHES), with the self-identified right-left placement of Eurobarometer respondents. We calculate the ideological distance from the government as the absolute difference between these two scores.
Figure 4. Relationship Between Ideological Distance from Government and Satisfaction with Democracy.
We find that people are on average less satisfied with their country’s democracy when they are ideologically further from the parties in government (Figure 4). This is consistent with prior evidence (Anderson and Guillory, 1997; Ezrow and Xezonakis, 2011). The alignment effect has become stronger over time – even when taking into account average satisfaction levels for each country and demographic characteristics of the respondents, such as their age and gender. In the past three years, political alignment with the government has become a major factor in explaining satisfaction with democracy, especially in Eastern Europe. Svolik (2019) suggests that voters trade off democratic principles and partisan interests. As political polarisation increases, voters become more willing to accept a government that undermines democratic institutions, as long as it is on ‘their side’ ideologically.
Figure 5. Satisfaction with Democracy and Political Ideology. Western Europe in the Left Panel and Eastern Europe in the Right Panel.
In Figure 5, we break down the effect of political alignment on satisfaction with democracy according to individuals’ political leanings. On the x-axis is the respondents’ left-right placement and on the y-axis there are two series of dots showing satisfaction with democracy depending on whether the government is left of centre (lighter coloured dots) or right of centre (darker coloured dots). As before, being politically aligned with the government increases satisfaction, that is, to the left of the chart, the lighter coloured dots are placed higher than the darker coloured dots and vice versa for the right of the chart. The further from centre a person’s political leanings, the less satisfied they are with a government of the opposite ideology. There is also some evidence of asymmetry across the political spectrum in Eastern Europe, with respondents on the political right reporting much higher levels of satisfaction with right-wing governments compared to voters on the left under a left-wing government.
Over the past decade, there has been increasing concern over democratic backsliding in some of the Eastern European countries that are members of the EU. This is reflected in commonly used democracy indices whose country experts note the worrying trends in countries’ institutions – such as the reduction of freedom of expression, the strengthening of rule of law and constraints on the executive, all hallmarks of a liberal democracy. In this policy brief, we investigate whether this erosion of institutional safeguards affects people’s stated satisfaction with democracy in one’s respective country. We find a broad-based increase in satisfaction with democracy in the Eastern European EU countries, including in the countries that have seen some of the largest declines in liberal democracy ratings. We show that stated satisfaction with democracy reflects less the institutional changes in countries, but more the outcome of democratic elections. Voters who are politically aligned with their government are systematically more likely to report that they are satisfied with the state of democracy in their country. And this effect has become stronger in the most recent years, particularly in the Eastern European EU countries. We also find that this effect is not symmetric across the political spectrum. In the Eastern European EU countries, respondents on the political right are more satisfied with right-wing governments than those on the left are with left-wing governments.
The descriptive patterns outlined in this policy brief illustrate a worrying disconnect in the minds of many voters between institutions and outcomes of the democratic process. The threat of democratic backsliding in Europe and across the globe is predominantly not due to electoral democracies being replaced by autocratic regimes. Rather, genuinely popular (and often populist) governments are democratically elected and, once in power, proceed to undermine and dismantle liberal democratic institutions, such as a free press, an independent judiciary, and a fair electoral system. This process in turn makes it more difficult for opposition parties to win future elections, further cementing the power of the rulers of these illiberal democracies. While the electorate might support these governments now, voters need to be aware that these liberal institutions are designed to safeguard their democratic future.
- Anderson, C. J. and Guillory, C. A. (1997). Political institutions and satisfaction with democracy: A cross-national analysis of consensus and majoritarian systems. American Political Science Review, 91(1), pp.66-81.
- Becker, T. (2019). Liberal Democracy in Transition – The First 30 Years. FREE Policy Brief.
- Chiopris, C., Nalepa, M. and Vanberg, G. (2021). A wolf in sheep’s clothing: Citizen uncertainty and democratic backsliding. Working Paper.
- Döring, H., Huber, C. and Manow, P. (2022). ParlGov 2022 Release. Harvard Dataverse. https://doi.org/10.7910/DVN/UKILBE
- Eurobarometer (multiple waves: 2002-2022), European Commission. Brussels
- Ezrow, L. and Xezonakis, G. (2011). Citizen satisfaction with democracy and parties’ policy offerings. Comparative Political Studies, 44(9), pp.1152-1178.
- Grillo, E. and Prato, C. (2023). Reference points and democratic backsliding. American Journal of Political Science, 67(1), pp.71-88.
- Little, A. and Meng, A. (2023). Subjective and Objective Measurement of Democratic Backsliding. Available at SSRN 4327307.
- Lueders, H. and Lust, E. (2018). Multiple measurements, elusive agreement, and unstable outcomes in the study of regime change. The Journal of Politics, 80(2), pp.736-741.
- Mechkova, V., Luhrmann, A. and Lindberg, S. I. (2017). How much democratic backsliding?. Journal of. Democracy, 28, pp.162-169.
- Svolik, M. W. (2019). Polarization versus democracy. Journal of Democracy, 30(3), pp.20-32.
- Treisman, D. (2023). How great is the current danger to democracy? assessing the risk with historical data. Comparative Political Studies, https://doi.org/10.1177/00104140231168363.
Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in policy briefs and other publications are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the FREE Network and its research institutes.
The subjects of political discourse are important but hard to quantify. This brief uses data from 30 years of party manifestos to study how the dominant topics in politics have evolved across Europe. Transition countries have seen the most significant shift in the content of political discourse. In the early 1990s, party manifestos in Eastern Europe focused on a distinct set of topics related to transition; by recent elections they had converged to those in Western Europe, with a heavy emphasis on the welfare state, education, infrastructure and technology. Political discourse can change rapidly in times of crisis as shown by the example of Ukraine.
“It’s the economy, stupid!”
James Carville, Bill Clinton’s strategist for the 1992 election.
The dominant topics in politics are not always as apparent as when Bill Clinton was elected US president in the midst of a recession. While it is easy to track winners across election cycles, it is much harder to know what got them elected and what they will do (or at least, promise to do) once in power. The key issues and topics that political parties and candidates talk about form as important a part in our democracies as vote shares.
In this brief, we use data collected by the Manifesto Project (Lehmann et al., 2022) to describe the development of political discourse across Europe, with a particular focus on the differences and similarities between western European countries and transition economies in Eastern Europe.
Political Manifestos as Data
In most countries, voters mainly participate in the democratic process by voting for candidates put forward by political parties. Political parties advertise themselves to voters and distinguish themselves from each other by issuing party programmes or party manifestos where they lay down their ideological and policy positions.
The Manifesto Project provides a publicly available dataset on parties’ policy platforms. The data are based on the manifestos of parties that have won at least one (Western Europe) or two seats (transition countries) in a national election. Coders manually analyse the content of the manifestos and provide the percentage of each party’s manifesto that falls into one of 56 content categories. These content categories summarise a party’s policy position on given issues, for instance, whether they favour environmental protection or an expansion of the welfare state or oppose protectionism or multiculturalism.
The Manifesto Project is an example of “text as data“. Quantitative analysis based on text is becoming increasingly important across the social sciences (Gentzkow et al., 2019) but it is particularly useful in political economy and political science given that “language is the medium of politics“ and objective numerical data are often limited (Grimmer and Stewart, 2013). Unlike many recent approaches which process data using automated text analysis tools, the Manifesto Project relies on the judgement of coders from over 50 countries who read the original text. The resultant dataset has limitations: the subjective choices made by individual coders, the to-some-extent arbitrary determination of content categories to summarise the most relevant issues across different contexts and time periods and the difficulty of imposing consistent classifications for texts written in over 40 languages. Despite these caveats, it is a unique resource for analysing the evolution of countries’ political discourse over time and across countries.
Key Issues in Political Discourse
Figure 1 summarises, through content categories, the policy positions of parliaments in Western Europe and transition countries at two points in time: the early 1990s (around the time of the first democratic elections in most transition countries) and after the latest election. We measure the importance of a policy position in a country’s parliament by weighting the importance of the relevant content category in each party’s manifesto by that party’s vote share. Over time, our measure of a policy position’s importance in political discourse may increase or decline for two reasons. First, parties may change the extent to which they emphasise a given position in their manifestos. For example, parties across the political spectrum are likely to have increased references to healthcare in their manifestos during election campaigns held during the Covid-19 pandemic. Second, as voters’ preferences shift, parties that gain support will see their issues receive greater weight in the aggregate measure relative to parties that lose vote shares. For example, if the pandemic shifted voters’ preferences towards a more comprehensive welfare system, voters could respond by voting for parties which discuss the expansion of the welfare state in their manifestos.
Figure 1. Policy positions of parties in parliament.
Some striking patterns emerge. While the policy priorities of Western European parliaments remain relatively stable over the past 30 years, those of transition countries have changed markedly. During the transition period, many parties focused on the political and economic aspects of transition. Support for democracy, freedom and human rights, as well as the free market economy, featured heavily in the manifestos of parties that formed the first democratic parliaments. Over time, policy priorities in transition countries have become more similar to those of their western neighbours, and issues such as the expansion of the welfare state, the provision of education, and the importance of technology and infrastructure, have come to the fore in all countries.
Nevertheless, some differences still remain. For instance, environmental protection is one of the most important topics in western European parliaments, though its importance has declined over time. In transition countries, the environment is slowly becoming more important, but even in the latest elections it ranked at only number 16 out of 56 issues. In contrast, support for the “national way of life” was and continues to be a prominent part of the political discourse in transition economies and it is also becoming more mainstream in the Western European countries.
Political corruption and governmental and administrative efficiency have become relatively more important issues in the parliaments of transition countries, both over time and relative to their western neighbours. Meanwhile, parties in Western Europe are devoting more of their manifesto to calls for equality and social justice.
A Closer Look at Ukraine
A country’s parliament’s policy platform can change suddenly in response to shocks. Figure 2 shows the big topic groups in the manifestos of political parties in the Ukrainian parliament from 1998 to 2019. The parliamentary election in October 2014 closely followed the Euromaidan Revolution, the annexation of Crimea by Russia and the start of the Donbas war. Compared to the previous elections, external relations became a major issue in the Ukrainian parliament, driven in particular by increased mentions of the military and the relationship with the EU. Party manifestos heavily featured appeals to Ukrainian nationhood, national solidarity, and unity (as evidenced by the increasing importance of the content category “Fabric of Society”). The trend of increasing attention to freedom and democracy also continued in this election cycle. In contrast, the previously most important issues in elections (welfare and quality of life) received much less attention in parliament at times of political upheaval and military conflict.
Figure 2. Topics in Ukrainian elections.
Distribution of Political Ideology
While the previous section discussed the main policy issues in parliament, we now turn our focus to the ideology of individual political parties that make up a country’s parliament. A commonly used summary measure of political ideology is a left-right scale (RILE), where left positions favour peace, state intervention in the economy and the expansion of the welfare state and right positions support security, traditional values and the free market economy. The Manifesto Project provides a RILE value for each party at each election (based on Laver and Budge, 1992), which is calculated by subtracting the share of a party’s manifesto devoted to left-leaning policy issues, for instance support for the welfare state, from right-leaning content, such as support for the free market economy. Condensing the complexity of party programmes into a one-dimensional measure based on fixed definitions has advantages and drawbacks. The RILE makes it possible to compare diverse political parties that campaign on different issues (for instance ecological parties compared to nationalist parties) and measure how the same party’s policy stance may have shifted over time. As the definition of left- and right-leaning issues were based on influential political theories around the 1900s, some scholars argue that this measure has become less appropriate to empirically differentiate between modern political parties, particularly in transition countries (see, e.g., Mölder, 2016). In particular, Tavits and Letki (2009) show that during the transition process many leftist parties in Eastern Europe pursued economically right-wing policies and Vachudova (2008) argues that right-wing parties in the region often appealed to a nationalist discourse.
With these caveats in mind, Figure 3 shows the distribution of all parties in parliament in the Manifesto Project database on the RILE scale, weighted by their respective vote shares. In Western Europe in the 1990s, the chart shows the prominence of both centre-left and centre-right parties, as well as smaller parties both on the more extreme left and right. In contrast, the parties in parliament in transition economies at the time were more concentrated in the centre (and slightly towards the right). Fast forward 30 years and the distribution of political ideology has changed in both the east and the west. In Western Europe, the majority of parliamentarians are now situated slightly right of centre with little mass in the more extreme tails. In contrast, in the former transition countries, there is evidence of political polarisation with party representation moving both to the left and the right on the ideological spectrum and relatively few parliamentarians occupying the centre.
Figure 3. Left-right position of parties in parliament.
What are the main topics of political discourse? Are they different across countries? Do they change over time? While there is no perfect way to quantify and track political discourse over time, this brief uses data from parties’ manifestos provided by the Manifesto Project to illustrate some broad trends across Europe over the past 30 years.
We document two kinds of changes in the subject matter of party manifestos. First, there are gradual shifts in content that reflect underlying developments in society. As democracies have matured in Eastern Europe, the content of their parties’ manifestos has evolved away from the immediate concerns of economic and political transition and converged to those of Western European parties. Second, more abrupt shifts can arise when countries experience crises or institutional upheaval. Over the past decade Ukrainians have lived through a revolution, the Donbas war, and the ongoing Russian invasion. Most of the parties that represent them in parliament are new, and the issues that feature prominently in their manifestos are now markedly different from those before the Euromaidan revolution.
Manifestos are not just about substance but also about ideology. Using the Manifesto Project’s classification of parties on a left-right scale, we show how the distribution of parties has evolved in Western Europe and transition countries. By this measure, political polarisation has been increasing in transition countries where centrist positions are less well represented than in Western European parliaments.
- Gentzkow, Matthew, Bryan Kelly, and Matt Taddy. (2019). “Text as data”, Journal of Economic Literature 57, no. 3: 535-74.
- Grimmer, J., and Stewart, B. (2013). “Text as data: The promise and pitfalls of automatic content analysis methods for political texts”. Political analysis 21, no. 3: 267-297.
- Lehmann, P., Burst, T., Matthieß, T., Regel, S., Volkens, A., Weßels, B. and Zehnter, L. (2022) The Manifesto Data Collection. Manifesto Project (MRG / CMP / MARPOR). Version 2022a. Berlin: Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin für Sozialforschung (WZB). https://doi.org/10.25522/manifesto.mpds.2022a
- Laver, M. and Budge, I. (eds.). (1992). Party Policy and Government Coalitions, Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: The MacMillan Press.
- Mölder, M. (2016). The validity of the RILE left–right index as a measure of party policy. Party Politics, 22(1), 37–48. https://doi.org/10.1177/1354068813509525
- Tavits, M. and Letki, N. (2009). When Left Is Right: Party Ideology and Policy in Post-Communist Europe. American Political Science Review, 103(4), 555-569. doi:10.1017/S0003055409990220
- Vachudova, M. A. (2008). Centre—Right Parties and Political Outcomes in East Central Europe. Party Politics, 14(4), 387–405. https://doi.org/10.1177/1354068808090252
Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in policy briefs and other publications are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the FREE Network and its research institutes.
Thirty years after the fall of communism, many assume that the economic transition of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet States towards a system of market economy is complete. But the region faces new challenges, of both economic and political kind, which renders a thorough understanding the past even more important. This policy brief is based on the scientific contributions presented at the 7th SITE Academic Conference held at the Stockholm School of Economics from December 16th to December 17th, 2019. Organized by the Stockholm Institute of Transition Economics (SITE), the conference brought together academics from all over Europe and the United States to share and discuss their research on economic and political development in Eastern Europe.
The Imperial and Soviet Periods
In the first section of the conference, papers with a focus on the long-term history of Eastern Europe and its implications for more recent events were presented. Marvin Suesse presented his research on how the Russian State Bank financed Tsarist Russia´s belated industrialization, a question that had been discussed by historians, but never thoroughly analyzed quantitatively. By geo-coding historical manufacturing censuses around the turn of the century and using distance between bank branches and factory location, the causal impact of the expansion of the State Bank is estimated, revealing large effects on firm revenues and productivity. These effects are largest in areas where alternative means of financing were least available and where human capital was more abundant.
Natalya Naumenko presented her findings on the economic consequences of the 1933 Soviet famine, which in terms of casualties was extremely devastating. She uses the meteorological conditions a year earlier as an instrumental variable and finds that the famine, which was mostly a rural phenomenon, had a persistent negative effect on the urban population while the rural population recovered relatively quickly.
Gerhard Toews discussed the long-term consequences on regional development of the displacement of an estimated 3 million “enemies of the people”, political prisoners typically belonging to the elite of the society, into the gulags in the early years of the Soviet Union. Using archival data, he has constructed a large database describing the gulag population in terms of the shares of “enemies” relative to other prisoners and taking into account their socio-economic characteristics i.e. the much higher levels of education of the former group. Exploiting variation within gulags, the results suggest that a historically higher density of “enemies” means higher economic prosperity today as measured by nightlight intensity.
Taking another angle, Christian Ochsner investigated the effects of the Red Army´s occupation on post-war Europe, using the demarcation line crossing the Austrian state of Styria as a natural experiment. His conclusion is that even the temporary occupation affected the region’s long-term development, the main channel being age-specific migration.
Finally, Andreas Stegman offered an analysis of the effects of the 1972 East German Extended Visitors Program. The program reduced travel restrictions for West German visitors traveling to certain districts of East Germany. Using a geographic regression discontinuity design comparing similar districts with and without the program, he shows that included districts indeed received much more visits from West Germany and that their citizens were more likely to protest against the Communist government and less likely to vote for the ruling party. This suggests that face-to-face interaction can influence beliefs and attitudes in non-democratic regimes, in turn influencing individual behavior and societal outcomes during transition.
Corruption, Conflict and Public Institutions
Another topic of the conference was the current role of corruption, conflict, electoral fraud and public sector effectiveness for the region. Scott Gehlbach presented his most recent research on the ownership patterns and strategies of Ukrainian oligarchs before and after the Orange revolution. By mapping oligarchs to changing political leadership, he shows how firm owners in Ukraine take actions to protect their property depending on their connections with the current government. He finds that obfuscation of ownership behind holding companies and complicated structures is a potentially valuable strategy in this environment in general but becomes particularly important when an oligarch loses direct connections to the ruling regime.
Likewise, Timothy Frye analyzed election subversion by employers in Russia, Argentina, Venezuela, Turkey and Nigeria. He finds that in Russia, public sector employers and especially state-owned firms are more likely to influence their employees’ decision to vote than private companies. Furthermore, work place mobilization by employers in Russia is clearly negatively associated with the freedom of the press. Election subversion is more likely to be successful when the degree of dependence of the employee is high and the employer’s potential threats are credible. Among Russian firm officials, the most frequently named motivations for them to practice election subversion are the desire to improve their relationship with the authority and the intention to help their party.
Michal Myck studied the impact of the transition experience on economic development around the Polish-German border. Polish communities close to the border were economically backward at the beginning of the transition but could potentially benefit from trade opportunities with an opening towards the West. Using similar methods to those of Stegman above, and nightlight intensity as a measure of economic activity as for instance Toews, Myck finds significant evidence for economic convergence both between Germany and Poland, and between Polish border regions and the rest of Poland.
Vasily Korovkin presented his research on the impact of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine on trade in non-conflict areas in Ukraine, hypothesizing that the conflict may cause a trade diversion away from Russia, particularly so in areas with many ethnic Ukrainians. Using variation in the share of the Russian speaking population at the county level as well as detailed firm level export and import data, he finds that the decrease in trade with Russia is negatively correlated with the share of the Russian speaking population. Potential mechanisms include a decline in trust at the firm level and changes in local attitudes including consumer boycotts.
Finally, Tetyana Tyshchuk analyzed the effects of a Ukrainian public sector reform on civil servants’ capacity and autonomy. The reform created public policy directorates parallel to the regular bureaucracy in 10 ministries. Members of the directorates were hired based on a different procedure and different merits relative to regular public servants and received significantly higher salaries. Tyshchuk finds that the better paid civil servants indeed score higher on many, though not all, indicators of capacity and autonomy.
Information, Populism and Authoritarianism Today
The final important theme of the conference was the role of information and media, old and new, in today’s politics. In the event´s first keynote speech, Ruben Enikolopov analyzed the political effects of the Internet and social media whose low entry barriers and reliance on user-generated content make them decisively different from traditional media channels. On the one hand, this represents a chance for opposition leaders and whistleblowers to make their voice heard and may improve government accountability. On the other, these media may also become a platform for extremists. Enikolopov presented some of his work analyzing to what extent social media has contributed to fighting corruption in Russia. Using the timings of blog posts by the famous Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny on corporate governance violations in state-owned companies, he shows that revelations resulted in an immediate drop in the price of the traded shares of the respective companies. He also finds evidence suggesting that Navalny´s blog posts resulted in management changes in these companies. In related papers, he exploits the spread of VKontakte (VK), the Russian version of Facebook, to better understand the influence of social networks on political activism, voting and the occurrence of hate crime. He finds that the spread of VK is indeed causally related to political protests, though not because it nurtures opposition to the government, but rather because it facilitates protest co-ordination. With respect to hate crime, he finds that social media only has an effect in areas where it falls on fertile grounds and where there already are high levels of nationalism. The tentative conclusion is that in Russia – as in Western countries – social media seems to have increased political polarization.
On a similar topic but taking a more theoretical approach, Galina Zudenkova investigated the link between information and communication technologies (ICT), regime contestation and censorship. In a game theoretical framework, where citizens use ICT both to learn about the competency of the government and to coordinate protests, governments can use different tools to censor information to increase their chances of survival. Zudenkova finds that less competent regimes are more likely to censor coordination, whereas intermediate regimes are more likely to focus on censoring content. These theoretical predictions are then tested using country level data.
The targeted use of information has also played a key role in Putin’s Russia according to Daniel Treisman. In his keynote speech, he argued that while the 20th century dictatorships were mainly based on violence and ideology, the 21st century has been characterized by a sizeable shift towards what he calls “informational autocracy”. Constructing a dataset on the methods used by authoritarian regimes to maintain power between 1946 and 2015, he shows that the use of torture and violence peaked among those dictators who took power in the 1980s and has declined since. Furthermore, he highlights a remarkable shift from topics of violence towards topics of economic competency in dictators’ speeches. However, Treisman finds that by instrumentalizing information, dictators fool the public “but not the elite”. In democratic regimes, those with tertiary education tend to rate their political leaders higher than people without tertiary education. In the new informational authoritarian regime, the opposite seems to be the case. According to Treisman, this is because the “informed elite” has a better understanding of the political reality in places where the media is censored, Putin’s Russia being a good example. Treisman concluded that this new model of authoritarianism has become the prevalent model outside of Europe and today also has its advocates inside the European Union.
The conference ended with a final keynote speech by Sergei Guriev on the political economy of populism. Using existing definitions, he first confirmed that Europe has seen a rise in right-wing populism in the last 20 years. Secular trends, such as globalization and new communication technology, but also the recent global financial crisis, are driving factors behind the rise of populist parties. For instance, analyzing regional variation in voting patterns suggests that the Brexit vote was primarily driven by economic motives rather than by anti-immigrant sentiments. Ironically, though, most evidence suggests that populist governments have a below-average economic performance once in office, the US and Poland being notable exceptions. A key point of Guriev’s presentation was that populism seems to be a good method to obtain power, but, once in power, populists tend to be less successful in promoting citizen welfare. These findings seem to be of high importance given the increasing public support for populist parties around the world and in parts of Eastern Europe
The conference was very well received and on behalf of SITE, the authors would like to express their appreciation to all speakers and participants for sharing their knowledge and to Riksbankens Jubileumsfond for financial support. For those interested to learn more about the papers summarized very briefly above, please visit the conference website and the presenters’ websites as indicated in the text and here below.
Speakers at the Conference
Andreas Stegman, briq – Institute on Behavior and Inequality
Christian Ochsner, CERGE-EI and University of Zurich
Daniel Treisman, University of California, Los Angeles
Galina Zudenkova, TU Dortmund University
Gerhard Toews, New Economic School Moscow
Marvin Suesse, Trinity College
Michal Myck, CenEA
Natalya Naumenko, George Mason University
Ruben Enikolopov, New Economic School Moscow
Scott Gehlbach, University of Chicago
Sergei Guriev, Sciences Po Paris
Tetyana Tyshchuk, Kyiv School of Economics
Timothy Frye, Columbia University
Vasily Korovkin, CERGE-EI
Taxes and benefits create incentives for people to adopt or avoid certain behaviours. They create premiums for (socially) preferred states. A premium can be determined by either taxing unwanted behaviour or by subsidizing desired behaviour. The resulting economic incentive for changing one’s behaviour is nominally equivalent under both mechanisms. However, the choice of frame for an incentive to be either described in terms of a tax or as a benefit can strongly influence perceptions of what is fair treatment of different, e.g. income, groups. Using a survey-experiment with Flemish local politicians, we show policy-makers to be highly susceptible to such tax and benefit framing effects. As such effects may (even unintendedly) lead to sharply different treatment of the same group under the two mechanisms, important questions arise, particularly for the design of new tax and benefit schemes.
The design and implementation of redistributive policies usually evoke much discussion. Opinions, both in public and often also in political debate, tend to be driven by ethical and fairness considerations. However, such concerns can lead to unintended consequences and – at least in terms of ex-ante intended fairness – to ex-post imbalanced incentive structures for different (income) groups.
An important function of taxes and benefits is the creation of premiums for certain behaviours or actions. Either unwanted behaviour may be taxed and thereby sanctioned, or desired behaviour may be encouraged through benefits. Irrespective of the method chosen, an economic incentive is created for individuals to opt for the desired behaviour.
The way such premiums are defined can usually be thought of as a two-step process. First, a baseline for a given behaviour, action, or state is chosen as a reference-point. For instance, baseline behaviours could be to not have retirement savings, to not use safety-certified equipment or follow accepted standards at work, or to not have children. Arguably, these are cases warranting the creation of incentives to encourage people to adopt the socially desirable behaviours of saving money for their old age, working in a safe environment, and having children. The second step, then, requires a choice of mechanism to create an incentive. The mechanism can be to either punish the unwanted behaviour – such as not adhering to safety standards at work – or to grant (cost-reducing) subsidies and benefits for taking the desired action, such as saving for old age or having children.
Importantly, the combination of the chosen reference point and the mechanism to create the incentive can influence the way people think about the fairness of an incentive when the targets belong to different (income) groups. Schelling (1981) demonstrated this point in an in-class experiment, which, somewhat simplified, runs as follows:
Families typically receive some child benefit: they get a certain sum per child. Imagine there are two families, one poor and one rich, both with their first child. What amounts of child benefit should each family get? Should the poor get more than the rich, should both families get the same, or should the rich family get more for having a child than the poor family? Schelling’s students would tend to voice support for either the poor getting more or both families getting the same. After all the rich family is surely already affluent enough to support their child. At the extreme, the rich family would get nothing for having a child, and the poor family quite a lot.
Now think of a world where the standard is to have a child, and couples who do not have a child have this ‘socially undesirable’ behaviour ‘penalised’ through a fee, for instance in the form of a tax. Should the poor couple pay a higher fee, should both couples pay the same, or should the rich couple pay a higher fee? The students now overwhelmingly supported requiring the rich couple to pay more. After all, they have more disposable income. However, in this case, the rich couple receives a lot for having a child (they no longer need to pay the steep fee), whereas the poor family may get no (additional) economic incentive for having a child. The treatment of the same family thus obviously drastically differs between the two frames. At the extreme, the poor family gets quite a lot for changing from having no children to having one child in the first frame, but nothing in the second frame. For the rich family, the situation is the reverse: there is no premium for having a child in the first frame, but potentially quite a high premium for having a child in the second frame.
Does this thought-experiment matter outside the classroom (see also Traub 1999, McCaffery & Baron 2004), beyond the context of child benefit, and among those actually exposed to the design considerations of tax and benefit systems? In a recent paper (Kuehnhanss & Heyndels 2018), we test the occurrence of such framing effects with elected local politicians in Flanders, Belgium, who are involved in the budgetary decision-making in their municipalities.
We invited 5,928 local politicians to take part in an online survey on economic and social preferences in spring 2016. Participation was voluntary, not incentivised, and questions were not compulsory, allowing respondents to skip them if they so chose. In total, 869 responses to the survey were registered and (N1=) 608 participants provided usable answers to the questions relevant to the framing effect described above.
Participants were randomly allocated to one of two groups, each receiving a slightly different wording of the following question:
“In Belgium couples receive financial benefits from the state. Suppose that it is not relevant how the transfer is funded, and ignore any other benefits, which might come into play. How much [more / less] should a couple [with their first child / without children] receive per month than a couple [without children / with their first child]?”
One group saw the question in the benefit frame with only the italicised phrases in the brackets displayed; the other group saw the question in the tax frame with only the phrases in boldface displayed. In both groups, participants were then asked to fill in amounts they would consider appropriate for each of three couples with different monthly net incomes: €2,000, €4,000, or €6,000, respectively.
With framing effects – and distinct from classic rational choice models – the expectation is that the three couples would be treated differently depending on the phrasing of the question. In the italicised benefit version the amount granted should be decreasing with the income of the family. In the boldface tax version the stated amount should be increasing with the families’ income.
Figure 1. Results child scenario
Source: Kuehnhanss & Heyndels (2018, p.32)
As Figure 1 shows, the results strongly conform to this pattern. The low-income (€2,000) couple is granted an average of €330 in the benefit frame, but only €178 in the tax frame (recall that the premium in the latter arises from no longer receiving less – or ‘paying a fee’ – once there is a child). For the high-income (€6,000) couple, the amounts granted average €132 in the benefit frame, but a much higher €368 in the tax frame.
Environmental taxes and benefits
Child benefit systems are usually a well-established part of countries’ tax and benefit systems. The design of new instruments is more common in policy areas undergoing, for instance, technological change or being newly regulated. A relevant example is policy on the promotion of environmentally friendly behaviour and technologies, e.g. through ‘green’ taxes and subsidies. To test the validity of the hypothesised framing effect, we also included a second scenario in our survey related to the municipal interests of our respondents, namely car taxes. Flemish municipalities receive income from a surcharge levied on the car taxes paid by motorists. Consequently, we asked our participants (N2 = 525, see the paper for details) to imagine the introduction of a new environmental certificate for cars in Belgium, and to provide amounts they would consider appropriate for the difference in annual tax paid on cars with or without the certificate. Specifically, roughly one half of participants was asked how much less the owner of a certified car should have to pay in annual car tax than the owner of a non-certified car (the subsidy frame). The other half was asked how much more the owner of a non-certified car should pay in annual car tax than the owner of a certified car (the tax frame). The question was again asked for three different levels, proxying wealth via the cost of the cars: €15,000, €30,000, and €45,000, respectively.
Figure 2. Results car scenario
Source: Kuehnhanss & Heyndels (2018, p.32)
Figure 2 shows the results. The effect is less pronounced in this scenario, as the slope for the granted amounts in the subsidy frame remains largely flat or slightly increases. Nonetheless, a substantial framing effect remains. In the tax frame, the amount of the premium (i.e. the amount of taxes no longer owed once a certificate is obtained) strongly increases with the cost of the car. Taking the most expensive car (€45,000) as an example, we thus observe differential treatment across frames also in this scenario. In the subsidy frame, the premium for having a certificate is €778, in the tax frame it is a much higher €1,333.
These results suggest a strong and economically meaningful effect of framing among policy-makers with a stake in tax and benefit systems. While the exact mechanism driving the results invites further research, the strongly divergent premiums, and hence distribution of incentives, across baseline frames raise concerns of unintended effects in the design of taxes and benefits. Especially new schemes – e.g. ‘green’ policy, reform, or regulatory expansion – may benefit from increased scrutiny in the design process. Awareness of susceptibilities to framing and its potential influence on the formulation of individual tax and benefit instruments may help to align intended fairness, incentive structures, and redistributive outcomes.
- Kuehnhanss Colin R.; and Bruno Heyndels, 2018. ‘All’s fair in taxation: A framing experiment with local politicians’ Journal of Economic Psychology, 65, 26-40.
- McCaffery, Edward. J.; and Jonathan Baron, 2004. ‘Framing and taxation: Evaluation of tax policies involving household composition’ Journal of Economic Psychology, 25(6), 679–705.
- Schelling, Thomas C., 1981. ‘Economic reasoning and the ethics of policy’ Public Interest, 63, 37–61.
- Traub, Stefan, 1999. Framing Effects in Taxation. Heidelberg: Physica-Verlag