Dissertation Project

Everyday Politics of the Social Contract: 
How Design Shapes Citizens’ Views of the Costs and Benefits of Governance                  

For most of history, people had only infrequent personal contacts with their governments. By contrast, the modern citizen has myriad interfaces with the state, in the form of taxation and receipt of publicly-funded services. But social policies with the same goals and costs can look very different to citizens. I explore how policy design—the non-financial, non-substantive characteristics of how a policy ultimately appears—affects citizens’ perceptions of governance. While most research links attitudinal outcomes to the content of policies, I argue that seemingly innocuous design features of policies can have outsized  impacts. Studying the U.S., Australia and Sweden reveals how design can promote, or undermine, trust in government.

Select Working Papers

Feeling Taxed?
Comparative Tax Experiences and Policy Feedback in the US and Sweden

[link to paper coming soon]

Taxation generates interactions between citizens and the state. I study how these interactions affect views of government, by comparing the experience of filing income taxes in the US and Sweden. Drawing on internet search and newspaper headline data, I show that specific features of tax policy design focus citizens’ attention in very different ways: on tax compliance in the US, on tax refunds in Sweden. I examine how this might translate into political attitudes via a nationally-representative survey experiment within the US. Priming people with a compliance-focused ‘US-style’ tax environment increases citizens’ perceptions that the government is wasteful. Taken together, these results suggest that policy design may be an important part of feedback loops tying together attitudes, support, and state capacity. Policy design thus emerges as an important lever to affect support for governance---even when policy content cannot be changed---and counter growing distrust of political institutions.

Unclaimed Benefits:
Testing the Effects of Digital Interventions to Help Low-Income Customers Claim a Government Benefit

Why do citizens in need leave money on the table, by failing to claim valuable government benefits? We test different explanations related to policy design in a large-scale field experiment involving a sample of 250, 000 individuals potentially eligible for a substantial government benefit, suspected to have a very low take-up rate. We also examine political and financial consequences of increased benefit take-up.

For more information, see this project, with Michael Hiscox, in the AEA RCT Registry: https://www.socialscienceregistry.org/trials/3083/history/30864

"Take Your Goddamn Government Hands Off My Medicare!"
Or How Policy Design Influences Perceived Benefits of Government       

Does the government get credit (and blame) where it is due? This paper examines whether citizens, in various Western countries, identify the state as the provider of a range of publicly-funded benefits, and why. Survey and experimental methods are used to tease out which design characteristics that help shape the salience of the role of the state as a provider.

Everyday Taxation:
The Salience of the Costs of Government 

There is at least one form of taxation that citizens in developed countries experience practically every day: taxes on consumption. Policymakers can design this consumption tax as a sales tax, which is typically not included in the posted price consumers see, or as a value-added tax (VAT), which is already included. This paper uses an online shopping experiment to test how this seemingly small design detail matters for perceptions of governance.

Select Ongoing Collaborations

Quantifying the Eye Roll:
Experiences at the DMV

With Elizabeth Linos

Mental Health in Sweden

With Ziad Obermeyer and David Yanagizawa-Drott