Policy Punctuations in American Political Institutions

Bryan D. Jones, Tracy Sulkin, Heather A. Larsen

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


Political institutions translate inputs - in the form of changed preferences, new participants, new information, or sudden attention to previously available information - into policy outputs. In the process they impose costs on this translation, and these costs increase institutional friction. We argue that the "friction" in political institutions leads not to consistent "gridlock" but to long periods of stasis interspersed with dramatic policy punctuations. As political institutions add costs to the translation of inputs into outputs, institutional friction will increase, and outputs from the process will become increasingly punctuated overall. We use a stochastic process approach to compare the extent of punctuations among 15 data sets that assess change in U.S. government budgets, in a variety of aspects of the public policy process, in election results, and in stock market returns in the United States. We find that all of these distributions display positive kurtosis - tall central peaks (representing considerable stability) and heavy tails (reflecting the punctuations, both positive and negative). When we order institutions according to the costs they impose on collective action, those with higher decision and transaction costs generate more positive kurtosis. Direct parameter estimates indicate that all distributions except budget data were best fit by the double-exponential probability distribution; budgets are Paretian.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)151-169
Number of pages19
JournalAmerican Political Science Review
Issue number1
StatePublished - Feb 2003

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Political Science and International Relations


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