The unintended consequences of elections

Voters mark their ballots at a Manhattan polling place November 2, 2010 in New York City.

Kai Ryssdal: It's time now for a little bit of Freakonomics Radio. It's that moment of your lives every couple weeks when we talk to Stephen Dubner, co-author of the books and blog about the hidden side of everything. Welcome back, Dubner.

Stephen Dubner: Hey Kai. I sent you a little something this week. Want to open it up?

Ryssdal: Here we go. It's heavy. Also in a bag. Oh get out of here! It's Heineken, a little mini-keg of Heineken. You know what I'm going to do? I'm going to put it in the Marketplace refrigerator.

Dubner: Don't thank me too much, Kai -- I'm actually just trying to save myself a little money. Because, as you know, Election Day is next week.

Ryssdal: Fine, but as much as I like my beer, what does Election Day have to do with it?

Dubner: Well, as it turns out, Election Day and beer inflation sometimes travel together. Here's Jeffrey Kubik, an economist at Syracuse University:

Jeffrey Kubrik: Basically the year after an election, there tends to be beer tax increases. So if you're throwing your kegger during the year after an election, you're probably going to be paying more.

See Kai, the idea is that incumbent politicians may not want to hike beer taxes before an election, since the beer-drinking constituency is pretty sizable. So the taxes come later.

Ryssdal: It's weird, but it kind of makes sense.

Dubner: Oh, it gets weirder.

Ryssdal: It always does.

Dubner: That's my purpose here. Most people, when they look at elections, they focus on the obvious winners and losers -- that is, the candidates themselves. We, however, this week went looking for some strange side effects of elections. Believe it or not, there's a growing body of academic research on this. Here, in order of appearance, are Ben Olken, Spyros Skouras and Arka Ghosh.

Benjamin Olken: In the period leading up to elections, we find greater evidence of deforestation.

Spyros Skouras: In Greece, the area burned in an election year is 2.5 times the size burned on a non-election year.

Arkadipta Ghosh: Crime is lowest in an election year and it rises right after an election for elections in India.

Ryssdal: All right Dubner, that's a lot of stuff. We'll go with the last one first because that's the one that stuck, the crime drop in India. Incumbents, I imagine, want to show they're tough on crime, so they do more policing so crime goes down before re-election.

Dubner: Exactly right. And not just in India, but around the world and here as well.

Ryssdal: So, deforestation and wildfires? Help me out.

Dubner: Well in Indonesia, where that clip is about, illegal logging is big business. The researchers who looked at this theorize that logging companies bribe incumbents during the season to look the other way. The wildfires in Greece, similar story. You can't legally develop forested land unless it's been burned by a wildfire. So again, the theory goes that developers burn the land on purpose knowing that the incumbents they support won't quite notice.

Ryssdal: I know what this is: This is unintended consequences.

Dubner: That's exactly right. Elections produce consequences that are in no way an official plank on anyone's platform. And next week, with an off-year election, we might see the special interests who are always jocking for influence than usual. Here's Sarah Anzia from Stanford University:

Sarah Anzia: When elections are held at weird times, like a city election held in the odd-numbered years, the people who really care about the election outcome are going to turn out to vote -- meaning that each successfully mobilized voter goes much farther toward tipping the election outcome when turnout is low.

So Kai, Anzia found that teachers' unions, for instance, do incredibly well in places that hold school board elections in off years. In those districts, teachers get paid 3 to 4 percent more.

Ryssdal: You're right. It's the disproportionate impact thing. Fewer people voting, your vote counts more, in theory.

Dubner: That's exactly right. Now we've argued before in Freakonomics, voting generally matters a lot less than people think -- in a presidential election, let's say. But next week, with off-year elections, you can have more influence than usual. And then you can go out and celebrate your influence with a cheap keg party, Kai.

Ryssdal: With your beer. Vote early, vote often. Freakonomics.com is the website. Stephen Dubner, see you in a couple of weeks.

Dubner: My pleasure, thanks Kai.

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