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Today, the primary political aim of most left governments may be to target redistribution, but in a region like Latin America where the degree of economic volatility is often two to three times higher than developed countries, they also need to deliver economic stability. Left governments tend to appoint technocrats, or ministers with mainstream economics training, to signal their commitment to stable governance. But this pattern is most visible during times of poor economic performance. In times of economic growth, left-wing politicians are more willing to push for accommodative fiscal policy.

Technocrats are an important force in explaining economic policy choices, but have received less attention compared to other well-established topics such as elections or democratic tenure. Today, the primary political aim of most left governments may be to target redistribution, but in a region like Latin America where the degree of economic volatility is often two to three times higher than developed countries, they also need to deliver economic stability. Left governments tend to appoint technocrats, or ministers with mainstream economics training, to signal their commitment to stable governance. However, this pattern is most visible during times of poor economic performance.

The appointment of technocrats has been a common reform strategy in Latin America in recent decades. These technocrats entered the region following the 1980's debt crisis, when politicians hoped such expertise would help reassure foreign investors. But left-wing governments face a challenge when trying to reconcile their competing desires. The desire to redistribute income is often outweighed by a desire to protect voters from economic volatility, and left-wing politicians recognize that prudent governance can also encourage investment by providing businesses with a stable environment.

In addition to this, left governments tend to be more severely penalized for unemployment and poor economic conditions than their right-wing counterparts—perhaps explaining why the left often places relatively greater weight on economic issues during hard times. Because of this, left governments select mainstream economists to signal their commitment to sound governance. However, this hiring pattern depends on current economic conditions, with left governments most likely to choose fiscal conservatives who enforce budgetary restraint during cyclical downturns.

During periods of high economic growth when there is lower public scrutiny of economic issues, the left is more likely to align with traditionally partisan priorities. The Latin American left wants to appeal to its political base with an aggressive fiscal push, but rarely gets to pursue such heterodox approaches. Given frequent public concerns about economic stability in Latin America, the left is often constrained by the state of the economy, and so, it tends to systematically appoint mainstream economists.


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Stephen B. Kaplan is an assistant professor of political science and international affairs in the Department of Political Science at George Washington University. His research and teaching interests are on the frontiers of international and comparative political economy, where he specializes in the political economy of global finance and development, the politics of macroeconomic policy-making, and Latin American politics. His book, Globalization and Austerity Politics in Latin America, was published by Cambridge University Press (in the Cambridge Studies in Comparative Politics Series) in 2013, and was selected for Choice’s Outstanding Academic Titles in the Social and Behavioral Sciences that same year. The book is based on his doctoral dissertation, which was awarded the 2010 Mancur Olson Award for Best Dissertation in Political Economy by the American Political Science Association.

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