Interview with Jan Falkowski on Political Power and Land Inequality in Poland

Jan Falkowski, of the University of Warsaw, Poland, recently presented a paper, “Do Political and Economic Inequalities Go Together? Mayors’ Turnover, Elite Families and the Distribution of Agricultural Land” at the Politics and Inequality conference held in Warsaw, Poland.

Jan Falkowski is an Assistant Professor with the University of Warsaw, Faculty of Economic Sciences, Chair of Political Economy. His primary research interests are in the impact of institutions and politics on economic processes, and the reciprocal influence of economic conditions on institutional environment and political life. His paper, “Promoting Change or Preserving the Status Quo? The Consequences of Dominating Local Politics By Agricultural Interests” was published in Land Use Policy (2017), and his paper with Grażyna Bukowska  and Piotr Wójcik, “The Political Power of Large‐Scale Farmers and Land Inequality: Some Evidence from Poland,” was just published by Sociologia Ruralis (2018).

We asked Jan Falkowski some questions about his research.

The research you presented at the Politics and Inequality conference was on the economic impact of the distribution of political power. How did you get interested in this topic? And how is this topic connected to other research that you are doing?

The interlinkage between  political and economic power has always been of interest to me. Looking at the connection between political and economic inequalities seemed to me as a natural consequence of studying the former relationship since the distribution of power and the distribution of resources (be it political or economic) are closely related.

In this paper, you use an original dataset. Please briefly describe these data and why they are well-suited for your research.

Measuring economic inequality poses some difficulties as people are typically not so willing to share with others detailed information on how much wealth they have. We needed therefore to overcome this problem or, at least, to try to do so. We discovered that it should be possible to achieve this goal by looking at a specific, but coherent, part of the population, namely farmers. What we do in the paper is we take advantage of the fact that in Poland the information on those who received agricultural subsidies is public. So it is possible to gather, at the individual level, the information on how much money a given person received in the form of the so-called direct payments. In the system that Poland uses to subsidize farmers, direct payments are granted to farmers based on a national flat rate per eligible hectare, and – contrary to what we observe in many other EU Member States – they do not depend on the historical reference period. Thus, the distribution of direct payments at the municipality level can serve as a good approximation of land use distribution. This, in turn, can be used to measure the distribution of wealth.  Obviously, the shortcoming is that it can serve as a good approximation of wealth distribution only in rural areas, in which the dependence on agriculture as a source of living is high. In the paper we collate these data with the data on mayors’ turnover which we use as an approximation of political inequality.

 What surprised you most about your research on political power distribution?

The first surprise was to observe that, even though we have good theories describing potential determinants of the distribution of political power or the theories predicting various consequences that the distribution of political power may bring about, actual evidence (especially the quantitative one) on these issues is sparse. The second surprise was that the distribution of political power can have many different impacts also in areas which we typically do not associate so much with the way in which political resources are distributed.

Imagine that you only have a minute or two to tell someone about your paper. What is the main message of your paper that you want people to remember?

With the caveat that this is still ‘work in progress’, the main message would be as follows: in municipalities characterized by a higher levels of political inequality we observe that the most influential families are able to amass disproportionately large amount of land.

What’s the next step for your research on this topic?

The next step is to better understand the origins of political inequality and in particular to link it to the functioning of informal institutions as measured by (the changes in) religious behavior.

Please list two of your recent favorite articles or books in the field of politics and inequality, and why you chose them.

One could be Pablo Querubin’s work on political dynasties in Philippines and the other one the work by Michael Albertus on land reforms and land inequality. Both of them use fantastic datasets and very sound empirical methods to uncover new things about the way in which politics and economics interact with each other.

What’s an older article or book in the field of politics and inequality that you like, and why?

I think one can find a lot of inspirations from reading Albert O Hirschman. The relatively recently edited book by Princeton University Press entitled “The Essential Hirschman” could be a good reading I believe.

The interview was conducted via email by Joshua K. Dubrow, who also edited this piece, including the embedding of web links. This work was funded in part by the National Science Centre, Poland (2016/23/B/HS6/03916).