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Is improving government as easy as giving politicians a pay raise?

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Two studies say it can help:

Recent studies have emphasized the importance of the quality of politicians for good government and consequently economic performance. But if the quality of leadership matters, then understanding what motivates individuals to become politicians and perform competently in office becomes a central question. In this paper, we examine whether higher wages attract better quality politicians and improve political performance using exogenous variation in the salaries of local legislators across Brazil’s municipal governments. The analysis exploits discontinuities in wages across municipalities induced by a constitutional amendment defining caps on the salary of local legislatures according to municipal population. Our main findings show that higher wages increases political competition and improves the quality of legislators, as measured by education, type of previous profession, and political experience in office. In addition to this positive selection, we find that wages also affect politician’s performance, which is consistent with a behavioral response to a higher value of holding office.

Source: “Motivating Politicians: The Impacts of Monetary Incentives on Quality and Performance”

And:

The wage paid to politicians affects both the choice of citizens to run for an elective office and the performance of those who are appointed. First, if skilled individuals shy away from politics because of higher opportunities in the private sector, an increase in politicians’ pay may change their mind. Second, if the reelection prospects of incumbents depend on their inoffice deeds, a higher wage may foster performance. We use data on all Italian municipal governments from 1993 to 2001 and test these hypotheses in a quasi-experimental framework. In Italy, the wage of the mayor depends on population size and sharply rises at different thresholds. We apply a regression discontinuity design to the only threshold that uniquely identifies a wage increase – 5,000 inhabitants – to control for unobservable town characteristics. Exploiting the existence of a two-term limit, we further disentangle the composition from the incentive component of the effect of the wage on performance. Our results show that a higher wage attracts more educated candidates, and that better paid politicians size down the government machinery by improving internal efficiency. Importantly, most of this performance effect is driven by the selection of competent politicians, rather than by the incentive to be reelected.

Source: “Do Better Paid Politicians Perform Better? Disentangling Incentives from Selection” from IZA Discussion Paper No. 4400, September 2009

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