University at Albany

Politics of Debt

The politics of sovereign debt is Zsófia Barta’s specialty. “I investigate political conditions that explain why, during times of peace and prosperity, wealthy countries borrowed so much in past decades that they now fear bankruptcy,” Dr. Barta explains. “In contrast to earlier work on this topic, I show that excessive borrowing cannot simply be blamed on irresponsible governments that care little about those consequences of their policies that arise beyond the next election. Instead, I argue that dangerous debt accumulation is often a symptom of acute social strife. In deeply divided societies, policymakers have weak control over spending and taxation.”

Barta also explores how debt shapes politics by constraining governments’ ability to pursue their preferred policies. Specifically, she studies the influence of sovereign credit rating agencies on policy choice. By passing judgment on countries’ creditworthiness, rating agencies affect the interest rates governments have to pay on their debt. Barta shows that rating agencies systematically discriminate against leftist parties and penalize policy choices associated with the left.

Supporting Zsófia Barta’s investigation of the politics of sovereign debt is her well-rounded knowledge, training and experience — practical and scholarly. After six years as an investment banker and consultant in Budapest, she left banking for academia, receiving her master’s from the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) of Johns Hopkins University and her doctoral degree in European Political Economy at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

In addition to being an expert on sovereign debt, Dr. Barta describes herself as a comparitivist, interested in how politics and policymaking are different or similar across countries. She believes she can make a theoretical contribution to the field of political science by encouraging a research approach that emphasizes the social and economic foundations of politics. She studies the conflicts and commonalities of interests of different social groups, which underlie the more directly observable political phenomena like party politics, interest group activism, electoral developments, or governmental decisions. As Zsófia Barta notes in her characteristically modest style, “Although the society-centered approach has a venerable tradition in political science, in the past decades it has been eclipsed by institutionalist approaches. I believe reviving that perspective and developing a way to systematically apply it to modern political analysis would be a useful contribution to the field.”

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2015 Rockefeller College News Magazine.