Meet Professor Benny Geys

Benny Geys

One of Professor Benny Geys fields of expertise is fiscal federalism. How a country’s public finances are managed at the local levels.

You became an Associate Professor at 33? When did you realise you wanted to work in academia?

– It was actually a few years into my PhD, at Vrije Universiteit in Brussels. I didn’t have a plan, like my PhD students do today. In my family, I’m the only academic and I lacked the self-confidence I should have had.

What turned things around?

– I started my PhD because I liked research. I liked being given a problem to solve, throwing myself into facts to find a pattern that would confirm a thesis. In Brussels, I wrote report after report for my supervisor. It was time-consuming, but after a while I discovered that my analysis was correct more often than not. It became clear that my research actually led somewhere, and that’s when things turned around.

I think the reason I like research is that I read a lot as a child. Growing up in the small town of Rijkevorsel in Belgium, I only had access to a small library. After having read all their books for kids and teens, I got myself a library card in a nearby town, and did the same there.

Do you still read a lot of fiction?

– While studying, I read a lot of 19th-century classics, which inspired me and has helped develop my writing. I try to use a rich language that will captivate the reader, and at the same time avoiding too much tricky terminology.

Do people comment on your style of writing?

– Yes, they do. Most people appreciate the way I explain my research. Or at least they say so.

One of your research areas is fiscal federalism. Can you elaborate?

– It is about how a country’s public finances are managed on more local levels. Which functions and instruments work best when centralised, and which should be decentralised. Research in fiscal federalism is often about how expenditure and revenue are distributed across different political functions.

What attracted you, in particular, to this field?

– After my PhD in Brussels, I was very lucky to get a position as a researcher at WZB Berlin. A fantastic place, where research is focused on problems that arise in communities in a globalised world. I came from a small and resource-limited university, and in Berlin, for the first time, I was part of a broader context. I stayed for five years – five good years of researching local public finance and local government taxes.

"- Reading fiction has helped my writing. While studying, I read a lot of 19th-century classics, which inspired me. Instead I use a rich language to captivate the reader. Professor Benny Geys"

What are you researching at the moment?

– Right now, I’m writing a report about how public donations are linked to public sector contracts. If donations can lead to advantages.

Can they?

– We have researched a large amount of data from the Czech Republic, where we look at the correlation between companies that make donations to a political party and companies that get more profitable getting more profitable commissions from regional governments.

The report shows that there are benefits connected to donations. But I don’t think this is unique to the Czech Republic. You read about political scandals everywhere, about people allegedly giving someone advantages, or even benefiting themselves. My theory is that rules and regulations often are quite vague, and that’s when people take advantage. After a scandal, regulations tend to be tightened. It’s an important debate because it’s about everyone’s money and how it’s spent.

When you find a correlation in your research that suggests that something isn’t right, do you take a stand?

– No, I don’t. My conclusion is to highlight a certain correlation. A political party may benefit from taking donations from a company, one that’s been commissioned to build a new bridge for example. The bridge building company may be extra efficient and quick, because of the relationship it has with the political descision-makers.

Since your research often focuses on what takes place at a local level, does it attract attention from the local press?

– It happens, but I’m not particularly keen on that since it usually leads to a very unbalanced debate. For example, I wrote a research report on Belgian mayors and how their salaries were determined. The decisions were governed by how many citizens lived in the mayor’s area at a specific time. One threshold was 5,000 inhabitants. If there were 4,999, you would be paid less than if there were 5,001. The report examined data dating back to 1977 and showed that the number of inhabitants often rose faster at population thresholds linked to higher mayor wages. My conclusion was that there should be another way of determining salaries, not based on the number of residents. But instead, we created a debate about mayors abusing the system.

With the EU, there must be a huge amount of data to analyse within your field?

– Yes, there is. And with the EU, the amount of data is constantly increasing. Another exciting field for me is local politicians with supplementary incomes. In some geographical areas, there are rules that stipulate how much you’re allowed to earn, but not for how long. This certainly makes for very exciting research. Say a politician is involved in drawing up local regulations, but also runs a law firm. Will this make them a worse politician? Perhaps this person is absolutely perfect for the job, because they will also have good insight into people’s everyday lives in terms of laws and legislation. But if you don’t have a clear set of regulations that state how much a politician is allowed to earn on the side, you risk getting someone who, instead of being passionate about local politics, uses their position to build networks and market the law firm. Donald Trump is a good example. Vague laws have given him the opportunity to benefit personally, by hosting international political meetings at his own hotels. Every weekend, he can check the giant Presidential entourage into his own golf resorts.

Can these vague regulations be found everywhere?

– I think most countries have their fair share. Belgium, where I come from, is known for not always using money in the way in which it was intended. In Belgium, fairness across regions is everything, and this can lead to inefficiency when developing the community. If Flanders really needs a new bridge, fairness states that Wallonia must also get something, perhaps a new motorway. Hence, a motorway will be built, even though it isn’t really needed. Belgians refer to is as waffle-iron politics.

Have you ever thought of taking a job in the private sector?

– No, and that’s probably because there aren’t that many jobs in local public finance and local government taxes. Once you have your PhD, your skill-set is not necessarily optimized for many positions offered by private companies.

Research, lectures and networking seem to be a major part of the job of a professor. Which of these are your strengths?

– My driving force is research, finding patterns and new answers in large amount of data. On the teaching side, I try to be as accessible to my students as possible. I also appreciate the valueof a strong network and work at improving my own networking capabilities.

Reference: Advantage #2/2017 – The magazine for members of BI Alumni


AGE: 40


WORKS AS: Professor at the Department of Economics

TEACHES: Micro Economics


2004 Ph.D at Vrije Universiteit Brussel

2000 MSc in Economics at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven


2015 – Present BI

Norwegian Business School, Professor in Economics

2010 – Present

Vrije Universiteit Brussels, Research Professor


BI NorwegianBusiness School, AssociateProfessor


WZB Berlin, Senior research fellow


Local government performance, intergovernmental relations and civic engagement


Proportional Representation, Political Fragmentation and Political Decision-Making: an Economic Analysis, 2004


Economic Journal, Journal of the European Economic Association, Journal of Public Economics, Leadership Quarterly, Public Opinion Quarterly, European Journal of Political Research and British Journal of Sociology


Recently ranked number 36 among the top 100 researchers in Norway across all disciplines, and first among economists

Published 29. November 2017

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