Subsidies and Votes — in India and the United States

When Americans suggest that government transfer programs might affect the way people vote, the mainstream media react with the indignation that greeted Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” comment. Of course, in other contexts the media certainly know that programs like Social Security, Medicare, and farm subsidies impact voting, but Republicans seem to get pounded for making that point.

But when it comes to other democracies, such as India, journalists don’t seem to have any trouble seeing the electoral advantages of government spending. Jim Yardley reports from India for the New York Times:

Frustrated by delays in Parliament, and eager to gain favor with rural voters ahead of national elections, India’s cabinet has approved a sweeping executive order that establishes a legal right to food and will create what is likely to be the world’s largest food subsidy system for the poor….

For the governing Congress Party, the new ordinance fulfills a campaign pledge made by Mrs. Gandhi and provides her party with something tangible to offer voters as the country prepares for national elections next year. The coalition government has been battered by corruption scandals and a sinking economy. With polls suggesting a loss of public support for the Congress Party, the food ordinance is good politics, some analysts say, if uncertain economics.

I noted a few months ago that the Washington Post had made a similar point:

Trying to rekindle the fire of India’s economy, Finance Minister P. Chidambaram promised Thursday to rein in a runaway deficit even as he raised spending on welfare schemes that the government hopes will woo voters in elections scheduled for next year….

“The finance minister faced two counter-veiling pressures: to present a populist, voter-friendly budget and also control the huge fiscal deficit,” said Vir Sanghvi, a political analyst. “What he presented was a ‘this-is-the-best-we-can-manage-under-the-circumstances’ kind of a budget. . . . He is hoping that the economy will improve and prices will come down by the time of the election. That is a big political gamble.”

Chidambaram promised to increase spending on rural welfare schemes, rural roads and jobs, food guarantees for the poor, women’s safety programs, tax breaks on loans for first-time home buyers and a women’s bank.

Is it really so hard to imagine that American politicians might also see transfer programs as measures that would benefit them on election day? Of course, the more fundamental impact of transfer programs may be to make both parties afraid to cut spending. What politician in either party wants to propose cuts in Social Security, Medicare, student loans, or farm subsidies? It’s not that transfer recipients all vote for the same party; it’s just that both parties fear the loss of votes if they interfered with the flow of subsidies. And not just in India.