Alan M. Jacobs

University of British Columbia
Department of Political Science

Department of Political Science, University of British Columbia
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Vancouver, BC
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Alan M. Jacobs studies the politics of advanced industrialized democracies, the politics of public policy, and political behavior. Jacobs' first book, "Governing for the Long Term: Democracy and the Politics of Investment" (Cambridge, 2011, winner of the APSA award for the Best Book in Comparative Politics; the APSA award for the Best Book Developing or Applying Qualitative Methods; and the IPSA prize for the Best Book in Comparative Policy and Administration), examined how democratic governments manage long-term policy issues. This book and related articles have sought to understand the conditions under which elected governments are willing to impose short-term costs on their constituents in order to invest in long-term social benefits. Jacobs' current research focuses in three areas: 1. In research with J. Scott Matthews, Jacobs is engaged in survey-experimental work designed to illuminate how citizens reason about policy tradeoffs, including tradeoffs between present and future. This work has investigated questions such as: Do citizens discount longer-term policy consequences? If so, why? Under what conditions are citizens are willing to pay short-term costs in exchange for long-term policy benefits? An important focus of this work has been on the role of uncertainty, political trust, and political institutions in citizens' reasoning about the future. 2. Jacobs has recently launched a project, with Tim Hicks and Scott Matthews, that is examining the political consequences of rising economic inequality in advanced industrialized democracies. This project seeks to understand a.) how differences in citizens' economic resources get translated into differences in political influence and b.) whether and how different democratic systems translate economic inequality into political inequality to differing degrees. 3. In work with Macartan Humphreys, Jacobs is developing a Bayesian framework for integrating causal inferences from both qualitative and quantitative data.

Jacobs, Alan M. and R. Kent Weaver. "When Policies Undo Themselves: Self-Undermining Feedback as a Source of Policy Change," Governance (currently in Early View).
Abstract: Most studies of policy feedback have focused on processes of self-reinforcement through which programs bolster their own bases of political support and endure or expand over time. This article develops a theoretical framework for identifying feedback mechanisms through which policies can become self-undermining over time, increasing the likelihood of a major change in policy orientation. We conceptualize and illustrate three types of self-undermining feedback mechanisms that we expect to operate in democratic politics: the emergence of unanticipated losses for mobilized social interests, interactions between strategic elites and loss-averse voters, and expansions of the menu of policy alternatives. We also advance hypotheses about the conditions under which each mechanism is likeliest to unfold. In illuminating endogenous sources of policy change, the analysis builds on efforts by both historically oriented and rationalist scholars to understand how institutions change and seeks to expand political scientists’ theoretical toolkit for explaining policy development over time.
Jacobs, Alan M. "Social Policy Dynamics." 2015. Orfeo Fioretos, Tulia Falleti, and Adam Sheingate, eds. Oxford Handbook of Historical Institutionalism. Forthcoming with Oxford University Press.
Abstract: Historical institutionalism (HI) has made vital contributions to our understanding of U.S. social policy by addressing a set of interconnected questions. Why does the United States spend so little on public social programs compared to other rich democracies? Why has the U.S. fashioned such distinctive forms of social protection? How has the peculiar design of the American welfare state shaped the politics of social policy? And what have been the distributive consequences of the rightward shift in politics since the 1970s? Through deeply historical accounts of policy development, HI scholars have explained central features of welfare-state politics that prior frameworks had taken as given – including basic power relations in the American political system.
Jacobs, Alan M. "Process Tracing the Effects of Ideas," forthcoming in Andrew Bennett and Jeffrey T. Checkel, (eds.), Process Tracing in the Social Sciences: From Metaphor to Analytic Tool, Cambridge University Press.
Jacobs, Alan M. and J. Scott Matthews. 2012. "Why Do Citizens Discount the Future? Public Opinion and the Timing of Policy Consequences," with J. Scott Matthews, British Journal of Political Science, 42(4): 903-935.
Abstract: It is widely assumed that citizens are myopic, weighing policies’ short-term consequences more heavily than long-term outcomes. Yet no study of public opinion has directly examined whether or why the timing of future policy consequences shapes citizens’ policy attitudes. This article reports the results of an experiment designed to test for the presence and mechanisms of time-discounting in the mass public. The analysis yields evidence of significant discounting of delayed policy benefits and indicates that citizens’ policy bias towards the present derives in large part from uncertainty about the long term: uncertainty about both long-run processes of policy causation and long-term political commitments. There is, in contrast, little evidence that positive time-preferences (impatience) or consumption-smoothing are significant sources of myopic policy attitudes.
Jacobs, Alan M. 2011. Governing for the Long Term: Democracy and the Politics of Investment. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Abstract: While political analysis has commonly focused on the distributive problem of who gets what, many of the hardest choices facing modern societies are dilemmas of timing. If governments want to reduce public debt, slow climate change, or shore up pension systems, they must typically inflict immediate pain on citizens for gains that will only arrive over the long run. In Governing for the Long Term, Alan M. Jacobs investigates the conditions under which elected governments invest in long-term social benefits at short-term social cost. Jacobs contends that, along the path to adoption, investment-oriented policies must surmount three distinct hurdles to future-oriented state action: a problem of electoral risk, rooted in the scarcity of voter attention; a problem of prediction, deriving from the complexity of long-term policy effects; and a problem of institutional capacity, arising from interest groups' preferences for distributive gains over intertemporal bargains. Testing this argument through a four-country historical analysis of pension policymaking, the book illuminates crucial differences between the causal logics of distributive and intertemporal politics and makes a case for bringing trade-offs over time to the center of the study of policymaking.
Jacobs, Alan M. 2008. "The Politics of When: Redistribution, Investment, and Policymaking for the Long Term." British Journal of Political Science 38 (2):193-220.
Abstract: Why do some elected governments impose short-term costs to invest in solving long-term social problems while others delay or merely redistribute the pain? This article addresses that question by examining the politics of pension reform in Britain and the United States. It first reframes the conventional view of the outcomes ? centred on cross-sectional distribution ? demonstrating that the politicians who enacted the least radical redistribution enacted the most dramatic intertemporal tradeoffs. To explain this pattern, the article develops and tests a theory of policy choice in which organized interests struggle for long-term advantage under institutional constraints. The argument points to major analytical advantages to studying governments' policy choices in intertemporal terms, for both the identification of comparative puzzles and their explanation.
Jacobs, Alan M. 2009. "How Do Ideas Matter?: Mental Models and Attention in German Pension Politics." Comparative Political Studies 42 (2): 252-279.
Abstract: How do ideas affect political decision making? Despite much evidence that ideas matter, relatively little is known about the specific mechanisms through which they influence actors' beliefs, goals, and preferences. Drawing on psychological findings, the article elaborates a cognitive mechanism through which ideational frameworks shape political elites' preferences among options. It argues that actors' mental models of the domains in which they are operating systematically guide their attention within processes of decision making. By leading them to reason about certain causal possibilities and data and to ignore and discount others, politicians' and policy makers' mental models can powerfully shape their causal belief sets and, in turn, their policy preferences. Furthermore, these attentional effects help explain why ideas persist under some conditions but change under others. The argument is empirically probed through an examination of key episodes in German pension politics over seven decades, drawing on detailed records of high-level policy deliberations.

Substantive Focus:
Social Policy SECONDARY
Comparative Public Policy PRIMARY

Theoretical Focus:
Policy History
Policy Process Theory PRIMARY
Public Opinion SECONDARY