My Reseach Focus
My research has focused on two interrelated topics—the politics of tax policy and municipal governance—with an empirical base in Mexico. I apply an interdisciplinary approach, incorporating theoretical insights and methods from economic history, economics, political science, and public administration to understand normatively important questions of redistributive politics and public finance in developing countries. These issues are of urgent need in many developing counties, which often underinvest in core infrastructure and services such as health care, education, and clean water. My research traces this dilemma to structural power exerted by opponents of redistributive policy and the pressures of electoral politics. While the Mexican case underperforms regionally, I also highlight the exceptional municipalities that manage to avert these pressures, sustaining efficient tax collection and responsive spending.
My recent research has been oriented not only to producing academic publications, but also to informing policy debates on local government finance in the Global South, a policy area in urgent need of attention. I have provided consultation on the design of municipal fiscal reform packages to local politicians in Mexico City and Bogotá. As a faculty member at Mexican universities (prior to beginning at Marquette), I coordinated the Academic Council on Social Policy in Guadalajara, where scholars discussed policy issues with the city’s Social Development Ministry. I also served as Secretary of IGLOM, a national network of scholars of local governments, which led me to consult congress members who were promoting a reform of the constitutional article concerning municipal governments. More recently I have supported NGOs (like OXFAM-Mexico) and think-tanks to assess national and local fiscal reform proposals in Mexico.
Political Economy of Taxation
An initial research agenda was guided by an interest in explaining tax policy outcomes, focusing on the most important tax reforms in 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. In contrast to previous scholarship that explained Mexico’s anomalously low tax collection with reference to institutional capacity deficits and alternative resources (oil revenue), I show 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. I initially developed these ideas in my doctoral dissertation at the University of London, SOAS. More recently, I have retaken this policy agenda to analyze the 2013 tax reform in Mexico in a recently published article in Mexican Studies. Using process tracing I show the politics of tax policy making in its different stages (agenda setting, policy formulation, adoption, and implementation) elucidating the specific roles organized business played in each to produce a watered-down reform.
My current research agenda focuses on municipal finance in Mexico. 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—and understudied—issue.
And while important research has explained variations in municipal government capacity, we lack an understanding of how this capacity interacts with factors such as electoral competition and civil society participation to shape better budgetary decisions.A first project applied a multi-method design to explain variation in property tax collection across Mexican municipalities from 1989 to 2010. First, through ethnographic case studies of six municipalities, I generated hypotheses and observed the causal processes connecting political, economic, and administrative factors to tax outcomes. 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. The more intense electoral competition is, the less likely mayors and treasurers are to implement reforms. I test these findings using econometric analysis of an original panel dataset covering all 2,447 municipalities over a twenty-year period.
A second project, “Municipal Finance in Mexico: Why some cities extract more and spend better,” developed in 2018-2019, takes a more holistic approach to diagnose variations in public revenue and expenditure throughout Mexican municipalities. While previous scholars have argued that electoral competition produces more responsive governments, I find that the effect of electoral competition on municipal finance is not always positive. While some large municipalities translate more electoral competition into higher levels of own-revenue –which makes them more fiscally independent– the average municipality increases payroll expenditure under more political competition.
These findings serve as point of departure for my book project, “Responsive Budgets: Fiscal Populism in Mexican Municipalities,” which I plan to submit to academic presses for review in 2023. This manuscript starts by proposing that many urban municipalities fall prey to what I call “fiscal populism,” a set of budget policies meant to be popular in the short run, despite their long-run detrimental effects. Fiscal populism has two dimensions. On the spending side, fiscally populist administrations react to electoral pressure with patronage politics—bloated payrolls and clientelistically allocated distributive programs—rather than investing in the necessary public goods. On the revenue side, fiscal populists respond to budget shortfalls by demanding more fiscal transfers or accumulating debt rather than increasing local taxation, increasing their dependence on higher levels of government, and tying their hands in the ability to respond to areas of local need. I hypothesize that electoral competition brings about more responsive fiscal policy if organized civil society plays a role in influencing these processes. Civil society pressure and oversight can hold politicians accountable to enacting fiscal policy that responds to citizen needs, rather than fiscally populist measures that respond narrowly to their own electoral objectives.