DONDENA Seminar - Michael Bechtel

Michael Bechtel
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Explaining the Redistribution Gap: Tax Policy Design, Inequality Aversion, and Ideology

“Explaining the Redistribution Gap: Tax Policy Design, Inequality Aversion, and Ideology”

SPEAKER: Michael Bechtel (University of Cologne)


Democracies have largely failed to revert long-term increases in domestic inequality. This is puzzling since self-interested voters should demand more redistributive tax policies in response to higher inequality. We advance two potential explanations for this seeming lack of redistributive demand. First, voters may be insufficiently sensitive to the inequality-reducing features of tax reforms. Second, individuals could fail to update the perceived ideological position of tax proposals even if their extractive and transfer capacities vary dramatically. We assess how key characteristics that determine a tax plan's equalization potential affect policy support and left-right perceptions. Employing both survey-based conjoint experiments and behavioral give-or-take games in Denmark, Italy, Mexico, and the United States, we document a strong sensitivity to inequality-reducing features of tax plans: respondents value higher progressivity and greater poor friendliness. We also present evidence suggesting that poor friendliness appeals more strongly to individuals displaying altruistic behavior. Analogously, more progressive tax plans generate stronger support among envious respondents. However, even radically different tax plans fail to induce pronounced shifts in their perceived ideological position. We then characterize the policy support-equalization frontier by mapping the universe of tax plans with respect to their inequality-reducing potential and the level of support they elicit. We find that there exists in all four countries potential for more effective, inequality-reducing reforms that enjoy greater public support than current policies.


Michael Bechtel is Professor of Political Economy, Director of the Institute for Political Science and European Affairs, and senior researcher in the cluster of excellence ECONtribute: Markets and Public Policy at the University of Cologne. His research explores how countries can address global economic and environmental sustainability problems. Current projects analyze mass support for international climate cooperation, the politics of natural disasters, and policy responses to economic crises. Bechtel’s articles have appeared in journals such as American Journal of Political Science, American Political Science Review, Journal of Politics, International Organization, Nature Climate Change, and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. His research has been featured in media outlets in the United States and Europe and in animated movies. Bechtel has provided testimony in legal proceedings that require expertise in social science research including survey design, conjoint analysis and experiments, and statistical estimation. Before becoming a first-generation college student, he served as an infantry soldier and reserve officer in the German Army where his deployments included the 2002 Elbe flood disaster response.


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