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A politician’s age and policy

Author(s): Alberto Alesina, Traviss Cassidy, Ugo Troiano

Different characteristics of a politician could affect policy. Whereas existing studies analyse gender and education, this column discusses the effect of a politician’s age on governance and re-election. Younger mayors are more likely to strategically increase expenditures and attract more transfers from the higher levels of government right before the election. These fiscal cycles are positively correlated with re-election and, hence, potentially explain why younger mayors are more likely to be re-elected. 

From VoxEU:

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.

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