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The Tortoise or the Hare? Incrementalism, Punctuations, and Their Consequences


Christian Breunig is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto.

Chris Koski is Assistant Professor of Political Science and Environmental Studies at Reed College.


In this article, we contrast the long-term consequences of incrementalism and punctuated equilibrium. We test what the impact of each of these types of policy change is on long-term budgetary outcomes for the American states. Policy scholars have applied both theoretical approaches to the study of budgetary spending as an extension of policymaking. Given the two contrasting paradigms of policy change, we develop the following line of inquiry: Does punctuated equilibrium create a different budget in the long term than incrementalism? We address this question through an analysis of American state budgets because the U.S. states provide a rich variation in both budgetary outcomes and political institutions. We use budget data from all American states across all government functions for the period between 1984 and 2009. We find that, first, state budgets and budget functions vary in their degree of punctuation and, second, the degree of punctuation in a state's budget function corresponds to smaller long-term growth. Additionally, the kind of spending matters: allocational budget categories are more likely to exhibit punctuations.