Dr. Matthew Di Giuseppe

By Philip Hilen

Dr. Matthew Di Giuseppe is a professor at Leiden University who has been here for over four years and teaches the courses ‘Economics for Political Scientists’ and ‘International Political Economy’ in the International Relations and Organisations programme. He specialises in the politics of sovereign debt. Specifically, trying to understand why countries accumulate debt, what prevents them from adopting policies to reduce that debt and what leads to default. He studies this by understanding the preferences of voters, leaders and credit markets. 

Previously, during his PhD, Dr. Di Giuseppe was trying to understand how states finance wars by accessing credit markets and borrowing money to overcome domestic opposition. Now deep into his career, Dr. Di Giuseppe has a grant from the European Research Council that is around halfway through its lifespan whose purpose is to try to understand voters’ preferences for debt reduction. “But it’s tied to a bigger project,” he added, also saying that he is trying to understand “what leads voters to adopt policy investments in the long run.” Some of the issues he specified included climate change and growing debt burdens, problems that require short-term costs to be burdened in the present. 

But why study this area? Dr. Di Giueseppe believes that “we don’t really have a good behavioural understanding about what motivates voters to adopt these policies.” Many researchers suggest that it is economic-based where people are following their interests. However, a growing number of political scientists are subscribing to the idea that there are psychological or economically irrational behaviors that are preventing voters from internalizing short-term costs for the long term.

Stressing that the research was still “a work in progress,” one of the interesting aspects that Dr. Di Giuseppe has discovered is that voters seem to be motivated by moral judgements about their own personal lives. In other words, voters are not rationally incentivised to understand the policy details or the macroeconomic consequences of debt, but instead relying on their own experiences to justify their policy choices, likening it as a “shortcut”. Thus this leads to him being surprised by these initial findings as it contradicts his “economic self-interest predictions.”

The most challenging aspect that Dr. Di Giueseppe has found is that “it’s really hard to elicit people’s opinions or trying to figure out what they’re thinking.” Essentially, it mostly stems from how the surveys and experiments are designed. Another challenge that Dr. Di Giuseppe encountered was during the COVID-19 pandemic which delayed his work as an attempt to avoid externally invalidating the research. “We didn’t want to start asking fiscal policy questions when everybody is getting fistfulls of cash from the government.”

When asked about how his research fit into the general conversation of political science, Dr. Di Giuesspe said that “any political model you have starts with voters or citizens.” Whether it be for testing an old model or developing a new one, researchers have to look and understand the behaviors of the public. These are a powerful bloc that will constrain the powers of government, at least to a certain degree. “In order to have a good understanding of the macro foundations of any political theory, you need to understand what is motivating the public.” Are these people rational voters who will understand the economic consequences of certain policies or are they motivated by psychological or economic biases? Does this mean that politicians will try to deviate from what the public wants or will they abide by what the public wants in order to be re-elected into office? It is questions like these Dr Di Giuseppe is hoping to answer.