In “Can Good Politicians Compensate for Bad Institutions? Evidence from an original survey of Italian mayors”, winner of the 2018 Quality of Government Best Paper award, I study the policy impact of the competence of political leaders and whether more competent politicians can offset the existence of weak institutions. An important contribution of this paper is to develop an original survey instrument to measure the competence of politicians along a novel dimension: their ability as managers of their administration. I collect data on this measure by conducting a survey of 306 Italian mayors across all Italian regions. Employing this data, I find that mayors’ competence is associated with a more effective use of funds, an increase in long-term investments, and better service provision without an increase in taxes. However, this association is only present in cases where the quality of informal municipal institutions is low. The findings of my paper show that competent politicians are able to achieve substantial policy improvements, and that politicians’ competence is especially important for communities with more deficient institutions.
In a Journal of Politics article (with Oeindrila Dube), I study the conditions under which the political selection process delivers good politicians. In particular, we investigate the worsening of the pool of elected politicians as a result of natural resources abundance in conflict-affected contexts. Unlike much literature focusing on how natural resources change the behavior of those in power, we focus on political selection, leveraging detailed data on local elections, conflict and oil resources in Colombia. We show that natural resources, coupled with armed conflict, promote the rise to power of corrupt politicians who restrict electoral competition through the use of force.
In “Economic Recessions and Congressional Preferences for Redistribution” (with Edoardo Teso), I move from the competence of politicians to their personal experiences and the effect that these have on the policies they enact. We collect a novel dataset on the biographies of U.S. Members of Congress over the 1957-2012 period, and we show that politicians who grew up during a recession are less supportive of redistribution. Given empirical evidence that recessions make voters more supportive of redistribution, we show that recessions can create a wedge between voters and their representatives.