a1 Loyola Marymount University
a2 Stanford University
Do voters effectively hold elected officials accountable for policy decisions? Using data on natural disasters, government spending, and election returns, we show that voters reward the incumbent presidential party for delivering disaster relief spending, but not for investing in disaster preparedness spending. These inconsistencies distort the incentives of public officials, leading the government to underinvest in disaster preparedness, thereby causing substantial public welfare losses. We estimate that $1 spent on preparedness is worth about $15 in terms of the future damage it mitigates. By estimating both the determinants of policy decisions and the consequences of those policies, we provide more complete evidence about citizen competence and government accountability.
We thank seminar participants from George Mason University, UCLA, and the 2008 Midwest Political Science Association meetings for helpful suggestions. We also thank Bryan Caplan, Richard Fox, Peter Hinrichs, Saumitra Jha, Daniel Posner, Ken Shotts, Laura Stoker, Kate Emans Sims, and Eric Werker for comments on earlier drafts of this article. We particularly thank Farley Howell and Susan Waller of FEMA for helpful discussions. We acknowledge Gena Gammie and Christopher Paik for excellent research assistance. Finally, we greatly appreciate helpful comments from anonymous reviewers and the coeditors of the APSR.