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Courtesy of Caledonia Curry (Oaxaca, Mexico, 2013)

My research

My research has focused on two interrelated topics:

the political economy of taxation and municipal finance.

Municipal Finance

My current research agenda focuses on urban public finance. In the aftermath of decentralization reforms of the late 20th century, the ability of municipal governments to manage their budgets to most efficiently provide goods and services to their citizens represents an urgent issue.

A first project applied a multi-method design to explain variation in property tax collection across Mexican municipalities from 1989 to 2010. A key finding is that institutional capacity correlates positively with property tax revenue, but more importantly, that the level of electoral competition determines if the local decision makers adopt revenue-enhancing measures or not. Electoral competition encourages mayors and treasurers to forego reforms that would be necessary to strengthen local finances owing to their unpopularity. Key publications include: Unda (2018); Unda (2021).

My book project seeks to explain variation in public revenue and expenditure in Mexico’s largest urban municipalities to gain a better understanding of local government responsiveness. I find that electoral democracy often drives municipal governments to enact fiscal policies that conflict with the interests of citizens. In the face of intense electoral threats local governments tend to under collect taxes and spend more money on payroll rather than public goods—tendencies that I label “fiscal populism.” As consequence, municipalities are left with fewer resources to spend on more responsive types of expenditures, depend heavily on higher levels of government (via intergovernmental transfers), and are less autonomous to decide how to allocate their budgets. Moving forward, I am undertaking qualitative focusing on municipalities that deviate from this trend to understand the conditions under which electoral competition produces responsive fiscal policy rather than fiscal populism.

Political Economy of Taxation

This research agenda seeks to explain the outcomes of most important tax reform episodes in the twentieth and twenty-first century Mexico.

Through archival research, the construction of historical time series data of tax collection, and ethnographic evidence I have published several articles explaining tax reforms. Key publications include: Aboites & Unda (2012); Unda (2017) and Unda (2021).

Contrary to previous scholarship that explained Mexico’s anomalously low tax collection with reference to institutional capacity deficits and alternative resources (oil revenue), I show in this work that Mexico’s historically low tax collection is the result of an alliance between the government and economic elites that prioritized fomenting private investment in the interest of industrialization and political stability, but at the cost of a weak and regressive tax state.

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