Research

This is my research page.

Curriculum Vitae

Publications

Elections and divisiveness: Theory and evidence” (with Massimo Morelli and Richard Van Weelden), Journal of Politics (forthcoming).

This paper provides a theoretical and empirical analysis of how politicians allocate their time across issues. When voters are uncertain about an incumbent’s preferences,  there is a pervasive  incentive to “posture” by spending too much time on divisive issues (which are more informative about a politician’s preferences) at the expense of time spent on common-values issues (which provide greater benefit to voters).  Higher transparency over the politicians’ choices can exacerbate the distortions. These theoretical results motivate an empirical study of how Members of the U.S. Congress allocate time across issues in their floor speeches.  We find that U.S. Senators spend more time on divisive issues when they are up for election, consistent with electorally induced posturing. In addition, we find that U.S. House Members spend more time on divisive issues in response to higher news transparency.

Intrinsic motivation in public service: Theory and evidence from state supreme courts” (with W. Bentley MacLeod), Journal of Law and Economics (2015).

This paper provides a theoretical and empirical analysis of the intrinsic preferences of state appellate court judges. We construct a panel data set using published decisions from state supreme court cases merged with institutional and biographical information on all (1,636) state supreme court judges for the 50 states of the United States from 1947 to 1994. We estimate the effects of changes in judge employment conditions on a number of measures of judicial performance. The results are consistent with the hypothesis that judges are intrinsically motivated to provide high-quality decisions, and that at the margin they prefer quality over quantity. When judges face less time pressure, they write more well-researched opinions that are cited more often by later judges. When judges are up for election then performance falls, suggesting that election politics take time away from judging work – rather than providing an incentive for good performance. These effects are strongest when judges have more discretion to select their case portfolio, consistent with psychological theories that posit a negative effect of contingency on motivation.

On the behavioral economics of crime” (with Frans van Winden), Review of Law & Economics (2012).

This paper examines the implications of the brain sciences’ mechanistic model of human behavior for our understanding of crime. The standard rational-choice crime model is refined by a behavioral approach, which proposes a decision model comprising cognitive and emotional decision systems. According to the behavioral approach, a criminal is not irrational but rather ‘ecologically rational,’ outfitted with evolutionarily conserved decision modules adapted for survival in the human ancestral environment. Several important cognitive as well as emotional factors for criminal behavior are discussed and formalized, using tax evasion as a running example. The behavioral crime model leads to new perspectives on criminal policy-making.

Working Papers

“How do governments enact tax policy? Evidence from U.S. states”

This paper contributes to recent work in political economy and public finance that focuses on how details of the tax code, rather than tax rates, are used to implement redistributive fiscal policies. I use tools from natural language processing to construct a high-dimensional representation of tax code changes from the text of 1.6 million statutes enacted by state legislatures since 1963. A data-driven approach is taken to recover the effective tax code – the set of legal phrases in tax law that have the largest impact on revenues, holding major tax rates constant. Exogenous variation in tax legislation from judicial districts is used to capture revenue impacts that are solely due to changes in the tax code language, with the resulting phrases providing a robust out-of-sample predictor of tax collections. I then test whether political parties differ in patterns of effective tax code changes when they control state government. Relative to Republicans, Democrats use revenue-increasing language for income taxes but use revenue-decreasing language for sales taxes – consistent with a more redistributive fiscal policy – despite making no changes on average to statutory tax rates. These results are consistent with the view that due to their relative salience, changing tax rates is politically more difficult than changing the tax code.

The Performance of Elected Officials: Evidence from State Supreme Courts” (with W. Bentley MacLeod).

This paper provides evidence on the effect of electoral institutions on the performance of public officials. Using panel data on state supreme courts between 1947 and 1994, we measure the effects of changes in judicial electoral processes on judge work quality — as measured by citations by later judges. Judges selected by non-partisan elections write higher-quality opinions than judges selected by partisan elections. Judges selected by technocratic merit commissions write higher-quality opinions than either partisan-elected judges or non-partisan-elected judges. Election-year politics reduces judicial performance in both partisan and non-partisan election systems. Giving stronger tenure to non-partisan-selected judges improves performance, while giving stronger tenure to partisan-selected judges has no effect.

Sequential decision-making with group identity” (with Jessica Van Parys), Aug. 2016.

Previous experimental studies on sequential decision-making games have shown that individuals often conform to the decisions of others rather than reveal their private information — resulting in less information produced and potentially lower payoffs for successive participants. This paper asks whether the decisions underlying such information cascades are affected by experimentally induced group identity. We show that players conform more to the decisions of in-group members and less to the decisions of out-group members, especially on pivotal tie-breaking turns where choices may result in cascades. In particular, reverse cascades (cascades on the wrong choice) are more likely to occur in rounds with more in-group members, reducing average payoffs in those rounds. The results suggest that players update their beliefs differently depending on the group identities of other players. Therefore, alternating decision-making across members of different groups may improve welfare in sequential decision-making contexts.

“Ideas have Consequences: The Impact of Law and Economics on American Justice” (with Daniel Chen and Suresh Naidu).

This paper provides a quantitative analysis of the effects of the law and economics movement on the U.S. judiciary using the universe of recent opinions in U.S. Circuit Courts and 1 million District Court criminal sentencing decisions linked to judge identity. We estimate the effect of attendance in the controversial Manne economics training program that 40% of federal judges attended by 1990. To isolate the effect of judges from the types of cases they face, we exploit random assignment of judges to control for court- and case-level factors, an exogenous seating network from random panel composition to trace the spread of economic reasoning in law, and ordering of cases within Circuit to identify general economic ideas that move across legal topics. We use natural language processing methods to quantify the influence of economics in written judicial opinions. Descriptively, we find that judges who use law and economics language vote for and author conservative verdicts (as coded by Songer-Auburn) in economics cases and are more opposed to government regulation. After attending Henry Manne’s economics training program, participating judges use more economics language and render conservative verdicts in economics cases, and rule against regulatory agencies, particularly in labor and environmental cases. These results are robust to a large set of judge biographical controls, and do not exist prior to Manne program attendance, suggesting a causal effect of economics training on judicial decisions. Further, Manne economics training is more predictive of these decisions than appointing political party. We further document a number of indirect channels of economics influence on the law beyond the direct effect on Manne program participants. Non-Manne judges exposed to Manne peers on previous cases increase their use of economics language in subsequent opinions. Further, some economics concepts are portable across legal contexts: we show that “general-purpose” economics phrases such as “capital”, and “efficiency” move across legal topics within a judge. Thus economics reasoning diffused into even non-economic domains such as criminal law. Consistent with this, finally we show that law and economics influenced criminal decisions: Circuit Court judges that attend the Manne program and use more economics language are more likely to reject criminal appeals, and this effect spills over onto non-Manne judges serving on the same panel. Moving to district courts, and using variation in judicial discretion generated by U.S. v. Booker, we find Manne judges render 20% harsher (10 months longer) criminal sentences after this ruling, which allowed more judicial sentencing discretion.

Religious freedoms , church-state separation, and religiosity: Evidence from randomly assigned judges” (with Daniel Chen).

Aging and retirement in a high-skill group: The case of state supreme court judges” (with Bentley MacLeod).

Local public finance and discriminatory policing: Evidence from traffic stops in Missouri” (with Jeffrey Fagan and Allison Harris).

Property taxes and local labor markets: Evidence from staggered property reassessments.”

The making of international tax law: Empirical evidence from treaty text” (with Omri Marian).