Does a politician’s age matter for policy?

Alberto Alesina, Traviss Cassidy, Ugo Troiano

22 March 2015

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Politician’s characteristics and policy

In 2012, the average age of European parliamentarians was 53 years (Power and Shoot 2012). In the US, the average age of current Members of the House of Representatives is 57 years, and the average age of current Senators is 62 years (Manning 2014). Motivated by the concern that aging electorates would increasingly select older politicians, the Foundation for the Rights of Future Generations advocates a right to vote from birth, exercised by parents as surrogates until the child reaches a certain age (Gründinger 2013). Such a proposal reflects the conventional wisdom that a politician’s age influences policy choices. But does a policymaker’s age really matter? This is an empirical question which until recently had not been explored.   

In the academic literature, the famous Downsian framework predicts that a politician’s characteristics do not matter for policy, because both candidates in a two-way race will propose the policy platform favoured by the median voter. However, a rapidly growing set of studies have shown that the characteristics of political leaders can affect policies. The existing literature has focused on education and gender. For instance, Besley et al. (2011) find that more educated leaders increase economic growth. Brollo and Troiano (2015) show that male politicians are more likely to engage in political patronage compared to their female counterparts.

The role of a politician’s age in governance: New evidence

In a recent paper (Alesina et al. 2015), we study the role of a politician’s age in affecting political governance, re-election rates, and local public finance. There are three reasons why age may matter.

  • First, younger politicians have a potentially longer political career ahead of them and may be more subject to career concerns.
  • Second, younger politicians have a different time horizon and discount rate compared to older ones and might favour more long-term policies.
  • Third, younger politicians may be more energetic and hence more productive at work.

Evaluating empirically the causal effect of age on policies is tricky. Comparing the choices of mayors of different ages would not allow us to identify our effect of interest, because many other personal characteristics, both observable and unobservable, are correlated with the age of the mayor. For instance, in our data older mayors are more likely to be conservative and more likely to be mayors of municipalities with an older population. We consider close elections in which the results can be considered relatively random and we look at different behaviour of the mayor as a function of his/her age. 

We find that a politician’s age does matter for policy, though not always in the way conventional wisdom would suggest.

Following a close election, older mayors form an older governing coalition and executive committee. On the other hand, old and young mayors have similar levels of average expenditure and revenue over the term, contradicting the common belief that younger politicians will support higher revenues and greater investment in publicly provided goods that benefit the young, such as education. While the mayor’s age does not influence average taxes and spending over the term, it does influence the timing of these policies; younger mayors tend to increase spending and revenue right before the next election by a greater amount than older mayors. In other words, younger mayors engage in the so-called political budget cycles. We find that political budget cycles are positively correlated with re-election in our sample, suggesting that younger mayors may be successfully manipulating revenues and expenditure to increase their chances of re-election.

Our results seem most consistent with the possibility that younger politicians are more subject to career concerns. In fact if young politicians were simply more energetic than older ones, they would plausibly attract more transfers from higher levels of governments in every year of their term. If younger politicians were more long-term oriented, it is unclear why longer-horizon policies such as increasing investments would be adopted only in pre-election years and not across every year of the political term. Thus, it appears that political ambition – rather than ability or patience – drives the different policy choices of older and younger politicians.

References

Alesina, A, U Troiano, and T Cassidy (2015), “Old and Young Politicians”, NBER Working Paper 20977.

Besley, T, J G Montalvo, and M Reynal-Querol (2011), “Do Educated Leaders Matter?”, The Economic Journal, 121(554), 205—227.

Brollo, F and U Troiano (2014), “What Happens when a Woman Wins an Election? Evidence from Close Races in Brazil”, SSRN discussion paper 1999067.

Gründinger, W (2013), “Wahlrecht ohne Altersgrenze”, Foundation for the Rights of Future Generations.

Manning, J E (2014), “Membership of the 113th Congress: A Profile”, Congressional Research Service Report.

Power, G and R A Shoot (2012), “Global Parliamentary Report: The Changing Nature of Parliamentary Representation”, Inter-Parliamentary Union and United Nations Development Program.

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Topics:  Politics and economics

Tags:  policy, politician’s age, politician’s characteristics, re-election

Nathaniel Ropes Professor of Political Economy, Harvard University; and Research Fellow, CEPR

PhD student in Economics, University of Michigan

Assistant Professor of Economics, University of Michigan

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