A Conversation with Sarah Anzia

Sarah Anzia
July 19, 2016

Sarah Anzia is Michelle J. Schwartz Assistant Professor of Public Policy. Her research interests include elections, state and local politics and policy, public sector unions and public employee pensions. Anzia is also an IGS Affiliated Faculty member. Here she discusses her research and forthcoming work.

What are some of the larger themes and questions that inform your work?

The biggest theme of my work relates to how organized groups such as interest groups, and political parties, influence the political process and public policy. What kinds of political institutions enhance the influence of interest groups or political parties? I’ve also done a lot of work on a particular type of interest group – public sector unions – and how public sector unions influence politics and policy at state and local levels.

Can you speak more about your current work?

I am going to talk about three things. One of the projects is a forthcoming article on the politics of collective bargaining law adoption for government employees. This was a huge political change that took place in the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s. It changed the landscape of American politics because the states’ adoptions of these laws, which required government employers to bargain with their employees, gave rise to public sector unions. In this paper, which is co-authored with Terry Moe, we look at the politics of how these laws were adopted: what was happening with state legislatures and interest groups at the time.

Second, I’m working on a new book project that speaks broadly about the activity and influence of interest groups in city politics. This topic is something we, as political scientists, know almost nothing about. This book is both an attempt to describe what the universe of interest groups looks like in different types of cities across the US but also to test ideas about the conditions under which they are influential, and on what kinds of policies.

The third major area of research I am invested in right now is a series of projects on public sector pensions – public employee pensions. I am writing a paper, also co-authored by Terry Moe, where we look at the boards of trustees that govern pension funds and how they make decisions about what gets contributed to these funds. As you probably know – many of these pensions are massively underfunded. How is this happening? Who are the trustees? How does the composition of the boards affect decisions about funding?

Relatedly, I am collecting some very basic data on what is actually happening in American cities in terms of their pension costs. What has happened over the last 10 years? We’ve heard about San Jose and how their pension costs have skyrocketed. In cities like Chicago they are raising property taxes, and in other places they are cutting services. What I’ve done is taken a sample of 240 cities, and I am looking back to 2005 at how their pension costs have changed over the years and what they have done in response.

How do you define an interest group?

An interest group is very hard to define. Most people think of membership organizations when they hear interest group; something like a union or a neighborhood association. I am taking interest group to mean any institution or membership organization that is not an individual. So, people coming together in a formal and lasting organization to influence politics. Politics can be their primary goal or something they do on the side. I am drawing a blurry line between informal and more formal organizations that are consistently active in politics.

What cities have you chosen for the book?

Each chapter focuses on a large number of cities in different places. One of the things I wanted to do with this project was to move the focus beyond the largest American cities. If you look at the city politics literature, most of it is very old and most of it is focused on Chicago, New York, New Haven, Los Angeles. I am trying to say something quite general about municipal governments across the country and how their politics varies depending on how big they are, and other city characteristics. For example, for the first empirical chapter of the book I did a survey of officials in over 500 municipal governments in every state across the country to get a diverse set of cities. It’s very much a comparative project.

Who have been some intellectual influences and how have you developed your own methodology? 

I would be remiss to not mention Terry Moe who is my co-author and was my dissertation advisor. He has really encouraged me to study things that involve big ideas, to look where no one else is looking and to be bold and adventurous. I am also influenced by the older tradition of pluralists – like EE Schattschneider, Theodore Lowi – people who have really studied the politics of public policy and have tried to understand politics as different for every issue, depending on the particulars of that issue.

As far as methodological strategy, I have always seen myself as someone who goes after the questions that have not been answered. The problem is that there is usually a reason they haven’t been answered: it’s because there aren’t any data. There are many questions out there that no one seems to think about or study because you can’t get data or there aren’t any data. That in a way has been my way of making contributions. Things like the timing of elections or interest groups in city politics are very important but there are no data you can download. I think of myself as someone who works really hard to find data where it seems like none exists and to find ways to get data even if they’re imperfect.

What do you do in the face of an interesting problem where there are no data?

It’s different for every situation – what I’m doing for the book on interest groups in city politics is a number of surveys of city council members, mayors, and candidates for local office. It’s been really interesting, lots of city officials are willing to respond, and it’s created a lot of new information – some of which we never knew before. As far as the book on election timing, I went city to city and state to state to collect information on when elections are held. It’s tedious and time consuming and oftentimes expensive but you ended up getting information that you wouldn’t have otherwise.

What have been the most surprising or interesting findings in your past work or current work?

I am constantly being surprised. In my first book (Timing and Turnout: How Off-Cycle Elections Favor Organized Groups) I was at first surprised to find that in state legislatures it’s more often Democrats who oppose moving school board elections from obscure off-cycle times to November in even numbered years when turnout would be higher. We think typically it’s Republicans who are resisting changes that would increase turnout.

In the collective bargaining paper, the passage of certain laws quite literally gave rise to public sector unions; we know public sector unions support Democrats overwhelmingly, and we know that in recent years, Republicans have been trying to roll back collective bargaining laws to weaken public sector unions. But, if you go back to the 60s and 70s, you find that Republicans mostly voted in support of these laws. Even though it was bad for their party in the long run, they had a lot of other things going on, they were trying to put a stop to government strikes, they had public sector workers in their districts. You see these counterintuitive findings that in hindsight make perfect sense.

What do you enjoy the most about the work that you do?

I get to pick my questions and I get to make discoveries. I feel like I am constantly learning new things that I get to then share with the world. It’s this really wonderful blend of theoretical thinking and working with data –the combination of the two, really wrestling with data and seeing what the data show but also sitting back and thinking and developing expectations about what the data should show. It’s a combination of the two, along with writing. Also, working in this area is just really practically important. Even the work I do for scholarly audiences has relevance for people outside of academia.

Do you have any other forthcoming work that you want to mention?

I have a forthcoming article in Legislative Studies Quarterly, which is co-authored with Terry Moe (entitled “Polarization and Policy: The Politics of Public-Sector Pensions.”). It’s our first article on the politics of public pensions. This is an important article first because it enhances our understanding of how we got into this underfunding crises we are in, but it also suggests a revision of the polarization literature that has dominated the study of American politics in recent decades. If you look back, up until 2008-09, votes on expanding public pension benefits were not polarized; Republicans were supporting increases in benefits right along with Democrats. In the case of public pensions, there was a one sided interest group structure where you had groups that were paying attention, pushing for higher benefits, and no one on the other side. That paper comes out later this year.

Can you speak about your role at IGS and how you are part of that community?

I am a regular attendee at the RWAP (Research Workshop on American Politics) Seminar, and I have presented a couple of times, which is a huge help. RWAP is really special: everybody goes, the feedback is amazing, it’s a great way in which grad students and members of the faculty and fellows are involved and talk to each other. Getting feedback on my work in the early stages has been great. For example, I presented the first empirical chapter of my interest group book this past year and it was really helpful. Also, the various events that IGS puts on are another way to connect with what’s going on in Washington, in Sacramento, and in the real world of politics, which is important to me. I take things out of those events and they inspire new work and change the way I am thinking about whatever it is I’m working on.