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American Today

Government & Politics

Timing is Key for Public Budgeting Scholar

By Charles Spencer

George Guess

George Guess, codirector of SPA's Center for Democracy and Election Management (Photo: Jeff Watts)

Sometimes the best path to timeliness is an unexpected delay. So it was for George Guess, codirector of SPA’s Center for Democracy and Election Management.

Guess and coauthor Lance T. LeLoup first started planning to collaborate on a project in 2000. Their just-published book, Comparative Public Budgeting: Global Perspectives on Taxing and Spending (SUNY Press), compares cultural and economic conditions between regions and examines other factors that affect the public management of budgets.

The interesting thing about this approach to comparative (public budgeting),” Guess says, “is right now everyone’s trying to figure out how do we create jobs and income to get out of this mess from the dual recessions, from the mortgage and financial crisis and just the general recession that followed . . . You see all the tools of fiscal policy, every one of them being tried by all these major countries.

“In coming up with these lessons, you do need to look at a comparative framework like we have tried to include. Our intent was not to be scientifically rigorous in the sense of coming up with a testable model, but we have a framework that includes things like institutions, institutional structures in country, and political cultures.”

Guess and LeLoup also ask such basic questions as what a “budget” is. Not every country has a “unified” budget like the United States’, Guess notes. And off-budget items, inconsistent classification, and multiple accounting of expenditures can make cross-country comparisons tricky.

Despite the importance of the topic, the path to publication was not smooth. At one point in the project, Guess went off to work in Budapest, and his coauthor was preoccupied with projects of his own. Once they got back on track, the vagaries of academic publishing—changes in editors, unanticipated procedural requirements—further delayed publication for a year.

“Around 2008 the economy went to hell,” Guess says. “Everything went down the toilet. And I’m thinking, ‘Christ, what a break! What a lucky break!’ If they had published this thing we’d look like idiots because we had all this glowing stuff, and there’s no crisis and there’s no fiscal stimulus, no responses. It’s this old-fashioned stuff that just goes in the trash after they publish it. So I had to back-peddle and expand these chapters, add new data, bring things up to date and shove a lot of things out, and that’s what I did . . . It was damn good that we got that delay.”

The most sobering source of delay was the illness of Guess’s coauthor. LeLoup, professor of political science at Washington State University and author of several books, died of cancer in 2009.

Despite the emotional and logistical roadblocks to getting the book in print, Guess is pleased with the work he helped produce.

“We’ve tried to mesh the political cultures of these regions with their laws and regulatory structures and those kinds of things,” he says. “We’re saying are there things, for example, from Latin America that could be applicable to Eastern Europe and vice versa? Are there things from the European Union that we could use in the U.S. or vice versa?”