Getting re-elected is much easier when voters are content, such as when the economy is doing well and everyone has work. No wonder we see a president tell media that the U.S. economy is fantastic but also tell the Fed that the economy is in trouble and needs a strong boost from a prime rate cut. This is crude, but if everyone complies it will work. However, in nations with a stronger blend of state and private sectors, more sophisticated approaches are also available.
Scholars have long thought that state-owned enterprises (SOEs) have political uses, and in a recent paper in Administrative Science Quarterly by Carlos Inoue we learn more about how politicians can use them. The trick in this case is over-employment, which has to be done very selectively because voters in most nations are wary of the state, or the enterprises it owns, running up excessive bills that have to be paid through taxes. That’s why the use of SOEs has to be sophisticated, not crude.
What to do? Inoue looked at the water-supply sector in Brazil, which has exactly the blend of municipal authorities, SOEs, and privately owned firms needed to check whether SOEs are special. And indeed, they are special. SOEs hired additional staff exactly during election years (for governors, who are the ones controlling them). To maximize the electoral impact, they were careful to hire more staff in communities with greater poverty. Some SOEs also had private investors, who resisted effectively enough that the over-hiring in election years was less. So we see a sophisticated effort to buy elections through influencing SOEs: hire more when needed, where the creation of jobs is most effective, and whenever possible.
What was the cost of all this? In general, SOEs were not costlier than other firms, because they diverted resources from other areas to create jobs. But they did have lower profitability as a result of the greater employment during election years. They spent money – sacrificed profits – exactly when it was useful for politicians seeking re-election, but not otherwise.
Organizations are used in so many ways, some of which are far away from their original purpose. The water-supply industry is important in any nation, because abundant and clean water helps the society and economy, but at least some of these firms have a second purpose. This is something that both scholars and practical readers dislike, but at the same time we have to admire how skillfully it was done in this case.
Inoue, Carlos. 2019. Election Cycles and Organizations: How Politics Shapes the Performance of State-owned Enterprises over Time. Administrative Science Quarterly, forthcoming.