Gramlich and Rubinfeld, JPE 1982

“Micro Estimates of Public Spending Demand Functions and Tests of the Tiebout and Median-Voter Hypotheses”

In contrast to earlier studies (like Bergstrom and Goodman 1973), Gramlich and Rubinfeld attempt to estimate demand for public spending with a survey. They asked 2001 Michigan households to look at the current profile of spending in their county and assess whether they were happy with this level or would like more or less (in percentage points). What they found is that people were pretty happy with what they had: 2/3 of respondents in urban areas and 3/5 in rural areas asked for no change in spending. These are reasonable and fairly interesting results. As the authors point out, the fairly uniform apparent demand for public goods from citizens within communities stands in contrast to observed differences in the provision of public goods across communities.

The obvious interpretation, in my view, is that people have a cognitive bias in favor of the status quo. Here’s the experiment they should have run alongside this survey: give some people the wrong data (expenditure levels that actually are not accurate) and ask them to say what changes they would like to see. I expect that about the same proportion would say this level of spending was right, and about the same would say it was too low or too high. Of course, this does not get at the whole issue — what we’d really like to do is change the actual level of services people get and see what they think of those altered services, but this is of course not possible. At any rate, lab results in psychology and behavioral economics have confirmed that this sort of bias is rampant. [citation needed] I think any economics paper written today would have to at least mention this possibility.

Gramlich and Rubinfeld do not mention this possibility, and spend the paper instead considering three alternative explanations, one of which I find to be pretty ridiculous and the other two plausible and probably as important as cognitive biases. The first explanation they consider is that the rich actually do want a lot more public goods than the poor do, but they appear to be as satisfied with the status quo as the poor because they actually consume a larger proportion of public goods than do the poor. Public spending, in other words, is “pro-rich.” The authors trot out some evidence from other studies (none of which I’ve seen) arguing that spending on schools and other public services within cities is skewed toward the rich. I can’t evaluate these studies but I can say that this did not match what I thought; in fact I thought spending across districts was actually skewed toward poor schools in many cases (although in most states rich districts are able to spend more than poor districts), and that lawsuits would prevent there from being very much of a distinction in spending within districts. Certainly quality varies highly (was my prior) but not spending. Anyway, I find this argument to be the kind of thing that doesn’t make sense unless you’re thinking about marginal rates of substitution between public and private goods, and something so basic that doesn’t make sense unless you have the same stock economic model in mind is probably not right.

The second and more plausible explanation is that people have already done a lot of sorting, and they like what they get because they chose to live there. I really can’t argue with this explanation, and I can’t think of any particularly good way to test it. The experiment of giving people inaccurate spending profiles and asking how they would change it would only address part of the issue. The third explanation, also plausible, is that we are in or near political equilibrium, and that people are satisfied because their political system has provided the median preferred level of public goods.

My sense was that the paper establishes that some combination of cognitive bias, sorting, and democracy have left people pretty happy with their public goods expenditures, but we don’t really know much beyond that.