29 July 2008

Does Monetary Theory Apply to Voting?

J. M. Keynes argued that economic slumps come about due to a decrease in spending--a deficit of demand. Consequently, In response, Milton Friedman argued that people's spending was fairly constant (that people spend a fairly constant proportion of their income). This has important economic policy implications, of course: if spending isn't the cause of economic problems, government can't fill in the gap with deficit spending, and Keynsian fiscal policy will be ineffective.

One of the factors within that lack of effectiveness is how people will respond to explicitly temporary fiscal policies. I.e., according to Friedman, people will ignore a temporary tax cut, rather than spending more in response to it. Only perceived permanent changes in net income lead to spending changes.

Early today I was continuing my argument on Dispatches about oil prices, specifically rebutting the claim that oil prices dropped prior to the 2004 election (which was proferred as evidence that oil companies can manipulate prices at will; my evidence rebutting it is found here).

But I suddenly wondered what effect an oil price decrease right before an election would have. There is clear evidence that public perceptions of the state of the economy affect presidential elections. It's also clear that the timing of the perception is important--the economy was reviving in 1992 before the November election, but the public hadn't felt the impact yet. Had the economy revived in late spring/early summer, rather than mid-late summer, George H.W. Bush might have won re-election. That probably would have meant no Clinton, and probably would have meant no W as well. Sigh.

But gasoline prices are quite evident, much more obvious than the signs of a recovering economy, so let's assume timing isn't an issue with them. My question is, then:
Does the public's tendency to not react to temporary tax decreases by increasing spending indicate that they will fail to change their likely vote in response to what they perceive as a temporary decrease in gas prices?
Let's assume a simplified polity where gas prices are the only political issue, and that lower prices mean more votes for the incumbent party. Are voters going to calculate whether they expect the price increase to be temporary or (relatively) long-term, and will that calculation then determine their vote?

I suspect so, but off the top of my head I don't know of any research that's specifically tied that aspect of Friedman to voting behavior.


James K said...

That's an interesting question.

My opinion is that a rational voter model would suggest that voters would evaluate the policies of each candidate based on their expected impact on petrol prices, rather than just naively blaming high prices on the incumbent. In this model whether the price impacts are temporary or permanent would definitely matter.

However if rational voters aren't to your taste (and they're not to mine) then I would expect voters to be too unaware of market mechanisms to understand temporary price effects. More likely they would just assume it was all a conspiracy and demand price controls and windfall taxes: much like they are now in fact.

James Hanley said...


James K said...

In the immortal words of Sir Humphrey Appleby: "A cynic is what an idealist calls a realist".