By the committee: Mariana Mota Prado (Chair, Toronto), Nathan Nunn (British Columbia), Emily Sellars (Yale), and Catherine Thomas (LSE)
The Ronald H. Coase Best Dissertation Award Committee was extremely impressed with the contributions to the literature, the quality of the research and the academic ambition of each one of the four finalists for this award. It was not an easy decision to pick a winner.
Roya Talibova (featured on the picture via video screen, while being honored by Federica Carugati) is the winner of the 2023 Award. Her dissertation, entitled “Why Fight? Causes and Consequences of Joining a Tyrant’s Army” analyzes the motivations and implications of members of marginalized groups joining the army in authoritarian regimes. Historically, authoritarian rulers have built armies that included citizens who had been victims of marginalization, persecution, and repression. The literature assumes that such individuals will either mobilize against the state or withdraw from political engagement altogether; in either one of these hypotheses, they will not devote themselves in fighting in an external war to defend the internal enemy. In contrast to the predictions of the literature, Talibova shows that there is instead a complex calculation that marginalized ethnic groups make: joining the army may improve their long-term survival by increasing their ability to change the system. Building on empirical evidence from Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union from the late 1890s through the 1950s, Talibova maps the trajectory of marginalized citizens from the time they are enlisted for an external war to the post-war period, where she tracks their mobilization against the authoritarian regime and the treatment of these veterans after a regime change. This mapping offers both theoretical and empirical contributions to the literature. Theoretically, in addition to articulating the reasons why marginalized groups may join the army of a repressive state, Talibova also shows that the citizen’s capacity to organize and maintain an armed struggle is an important factor in challenges to authoritarian regimes (insurrections, insurgencies, revolts). Empirically, Talibova’s dissertation engaged in careful and detailed archival work, which required innovative computational methods to transform individual level administrative records, some of them hand-written, into machine readable information to build databases that could be linked and compared. The committee was extremely impressed with the scope of the innovative data collection, the relevance and originality of the findings for the specialized literature, and Talibova’s theoretical insights.
The committee also want to congratulate the three finalists in alphabetical order of last names.
Pablo Balán receives an Honorable Mention for his dissertation “Essays on Social Institutions and Development.” This dissertation focuses on the mediating role of social institutions in political and economic life. As Balán describes, informal institutions, such as church networks, kinship groups, or mutual aid societies, serve several purposes within a state or political system. They facilitate collective action, distribute goods and influence among members, and contain local knowledge to facilitate service delivery or government compliance. Balán’s empirical work provides insight into how these diverse mechanisms operate in a variety of settings, examining how social institutions influenced the implementation of a land formalization program in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the political behavior of family firms in Brazil, and the success of efforts to improve tax collection in the Congolese city of Kananga. In addition to the remarkable empirical range of this dissertation, the committee was very impressed by Balán’s efforts to generate, organize, and synthesize a variety of theoretical arguments about how social institutions influence political and economic development.
Juan Felipe Riano receives an Honorable Mention for his dissertation “Essays on the Political Economy of State Capacity, Conflict, and Democratization.” Riano’s dissertation studies the political economy of economic development, examining the importance of political competition, bureaucratic nepotism, conflict, and media for economic development. Chapter 2 provides a theoretical and empirical examination of the relationship between political competition in a clientelist environment and the provision of targeted transfers rather than public goods. Chapter 3 improves our understanding of bureaucratic nepotism by linking information on family ties with administrative employee-employer data in Colombia. It documents the pervasiveness of family connections within the public administration and finds a negative relationship between this and the quality of public performance. It also shows that recently implemented anti-nepotism legislation did little to limit the prevalence of nepotism or its negative consequences. Chapter 4 studies the long-term consequences of U.S. bombing during the most intensive bombing campaign in human history, the Secret War in Laos, which lasted from 1964-1973. Chapter 5 examines the consequences of the adoption of the secret ballot in the United States in the late 19th Century. Riano shows that the reform had greater benefits in locations with a more developed newspaper market. The committee was impressed by the ambition of Riano’s dissertation, which tackles big-picture first-order questions, as well as the extent to which the novel data collection and analyses resulted in genuine improvements in our understanding of political economy and economic development.
Freek van Gils receives an Honorable Mention for his dissertation “Essays on Social Media and Democracy.” Freek’s dissertation studies how accessing information via social media platforms affects voting. In two chapters, he focuses on two characteristics shared by many platforms, that news providers often have undisclosed interests and can also target individual users. He examines the impact of these characteristics both theoretically and in a detailed lab experiment. The findings show that the interaction of individual targeting and undisclosed sender interests leads to voting outcomes that reduce aggregate voter welfare and also affect its distribution among heterogeneous voters. The results in these chapters have clear policy implications: increasing news sender salience on the platforms would increase voter welfare. In the final chapter, Freek analyses a large data set on social media news consumption and political polarization. He finds that accessing news via platforms has a modest effect increasing voters positive views of their preferred party. He concludes that social media has had a limited impact on political polarization in the country. In sum, each of the chapters tackles an important current question in political economy. The committee was very impressed with the range of empirical methods brought to bear on the well-defined theoretical questions in the dissertation.