Who is Afraid of the Death Tax? Manipulating the Public to Change the Law

By Katharina Bauer

The estate tax law in the US is an institution that allows low discretion (tax codes are stated explicitly) and is subject to high veto power by both, president and congress. According to Mahoney and Thelen (2010) change to the tax law would most likely take place through “layering” (see Figure 1). However, the Republicans in the US aim to repeal the tax completely, which would mean “displacing” the law.

Figure 1 (Mahoney and Thelen 2010, 19 

Figure 1 (Mahoney and Thelen 2010, 19 

So far, this has been impossible since amendments to the tax law are subject to both, veto power of congress and the president. Thus, Republican attempts to repeal the tax law have failed repeatedly (Schaffner and Atkinson 2010). Winning voter support to repeal the tax is of great importance as both, president and congress are subject to direct elections. But, since the estate tax only applies to 0.2% of the Americans, gaining public support to force repeal of the tax is difficult. .

According to Greatz and Shapiro (2005) , Republicans have employed “framing” techniques to change public perception of the estate tax by relabeling it the “death tax”. Schaffner and Atkinson (2010) find that significantly more people exposed to the death tax frame, believed it applied to most families in America, rather than just a few families. This rendered the tax law less acceptable to the public and individuals favored its repeal.

Thus, Republicans attempted to “change the spirit of the law” by framing it as an “unfair tax imposed on most Americans”. Acknowledging public manipulability, renders strength of elected veto power unstable. This could in turn decrease predictability of institutional change within Mahoney and Thelen’s (2010) framework (Figure 1).

What is “Normal”? The Abusive Power of Unnoticed Institutional Change

By Katharina Bauer

In chapter 3, Pierson points to slow moving institutional changes that can only be captured once they exceed certain threshold values. In Pierson’s (2011) analysis, these threshold values are often treated as constant and with that considered to stay at one value over time.

However, threshold values in society can in themselves be subject to change. Deliberately slow introduction of institutional change can allow for adaption of threshold values to new circumstances. This can in turn ensure that institutional change remains unnoticed and is with that left unchallenged.

In this web-post, threshold values are understood as levels that trigger switches from perceptions of “normal” (same) to “not-normal” (different). According to Kahneman, two systems operate in the human mind, namely System 1 and System 2. System 1 is uncritical and intuitive, while System 2 involves more deliberate critical thinking. However, System 2 is only activated once System 1 perceives something as “not-normal”.  What is perceived as “normal” can adapt slowly over time and the threshold value of what is “not-normal” rise step by step. Consequentially, change can happen so subtly that System 2 is left un-activated, and it can in turn remain unquestioned.

Nowadays, democracies are facing a balancing act between the protection of people’s liberties and the insurance of public order. New information extractive technologies equip police forces with additional surveillance power and information collection is becoming increasingly pervasive. Used abusively, these new technologies offer powerful instruments for public supervision and have the potential to undermine current perceptions of democratic principles concerning privacy and autonomy.

If surveillance techniques are established rapidly, people oppose policies for fear of their liberties. However, police force and surveillance mechanisms can be increased just slow enough to remain unquestioned. Deliberately slow institutional change can thus become an effective means to avoid opposition.

Exogenously triggered, Endogenous Institutional Change: The Arrival of Refugees

By Katharina Bauer

I argue that the current arrival of refugees can be seen as an exogenous 'puncture', triggering the shift to a new equilibrium state of institutions concerning border transit in Europe. I hypothesize that the arrival of refugees exogenously triggers contextual changes that in turn leads to endogenous institutional change in European countries.

Increased arrivals of refugees impact the readiness of EU member states to strengthen their border protection. In fact, some EU countries, such as Germany and Hungary, have increased border controls or closed of borders completely. Recently, the Hungarian government introduced new laws, making it punishable to cross borders. This has particular consequences for cross-border movement within the Schengen Area. The Schengen Area comprises most EU member states except the UK and Ireland. Within this area, citizens are allowed to cross borders without being subjected to border checks. Thus, free movement is guaranteed for any person legally present on EU territory. Laws and controls introduced to regulate refugee influx oppose the principle of free movement across borders in Europe. This change in rules also ultimately affects European citizens.

Decentralization of control over national boundaries, triggered by the arrival of refugees, can pinpoint a shift in equilibrium state of institutions governing European borders. Centralized management of the refugee influx, such as the “Refugee Quota” promoted by the EU Commission, has been rejected mainly by Eastern European countries.

On an additional note, it is interesting to see, that decentralization has also been a reaction of African communities to heightened hostilities emerging from slave trade, stated by Nunn (2008). Parallels between the two cases could be drawn regarding the responses of governing authorities to heightened chaotic and insecure environments.