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Discounting Inside the Washington D.C. Beltway

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  • Coleman Bazelon
  • Kent Smetters

Abstract

This article focuses on how the choice of discount rate can dramatically affect policy choices. These policies include whether to build a bridge, whether to privatize a Power Marketing Administration which sells electricity generated by government-owned facilities such as dams, how much money should be spent on early-childhood education, or options for reforming Social Security. The ongoing challenge is to discount future costs or benefits in a way that matches the project's level of riskiness. We begin by discussing the underlying issues in choosing an appropriate discount rate. We then discuss the variety of different discount rates that are actually used by various Washington policymakers and the biases they often generate.

Suggested Citation

  • Coleman Bazelon & Kent Smetters, 1999. "Discounting Inside the Washington D.C. Beltway," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 13(4), pages 213-228, Fall.
  • Handle: RePEc:aea:jecper:v:13:y:1999:i:4:p:213-228
    Note: DOI: 10.1257/jep.13.4.213
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    File URL: http://www.aeaweb.org/articles.php?doi=10.1257/jep.13.4.213
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    1. Pizer, William A. & Kopp, Raymond, 2005. "Calculating the Costs of Environmental Regulation," Handbook of Environmental Economics, in: K. G. Mäler & J. R. Vincent (ed.),Handbook of Environmental Economics, edition 1, volume 3, chapter 25, pages 1307-1351, Elsevier.
    2. Pizer, William A. & Popp, David, 2008. "Endogenizing technological change: Matching empirical evidence to modeling needs," Energy Economics, Elsevier, vol. 30(6), pages 2754-2770, November.
    3. Popp, David, 2005. "Lessons from patents: Using patents to measure technological change in environmental models," Ecological Economics, Elsevier, vol. 54(2-3), pages 209-226, August.
    4. David Popp, 2019. "Environmental policy and innovation: a decade of research," CESifo Working Paper Series 7544, CESifo.
    5. Hansen Jason & Lipow Jonathan, 2013. "Accounting for systematic risk in benefit-cost analysis: a practical approach," Journal of Benefit-Cost Analysis, De Gruyter, vol. 4(3), pages 361-373, December.
    6. Newell, Richard G. & Pizer, William A., 2003. "Regulating stock externalities under uncertainty," Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, Elsevier, vol. 45(2, Supple), pages 416-432, March.
    7. David Popp, 2004. "R&D Subsidies and Climate Policy: Is There a "Free Lunch"?," NBER Working Papers 10880, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    8. Newell, Richard G. & Pizer, William A., 2004. "Uncertain discount rates in climate policy analysis," Energy Policy, Elsevier, vol. 32(4), pages 519-529, March.
    9. Diego Nocetti & Elyès Jouini & Clotilde Napp, 2008. "Properties of the Social Discount Rate in a Benthamite Framework with Heterogeneous Degrees of Impatience," Management Science, INFORMS, vol. 54(10), pages 1822-1826, October.
    10. Brealey, Richard & Cooper, Ian & Habib, Michel Antoine, 2018. "Valuation in the Public and Private Sectors: Tax, Risk, Debt Capacity, and the Cost of Capital," CEPR Discussion Papers 13277, C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers.
    11. Pennacchi, George, 2006. "Deposit insurance, bank regulation, and financial system risks," Journal of Monetary Economics, Elsevier, vol. 53(1), pages 1-30, January.
    12. David Popp, 2019. "Environmental Policy and Innovation: A Decade of Research," NBER Working Papers 25631, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    13. Newell, Richard G. & Pizer, William A., 2003. "Discounting the distant future: how much do uncertain rates increase valuations?," Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, Elsevier, vol. 46(1), pages 52-71, July.
    14. Daniel Piazalo, 2000. "Poland's Membership in the European Union: An Analysis with a Dynamic Computable General Equilibrium (CGE) Model," LICOS Discussion Papers 8900, LICOS - Centre for Institutions and Economic Performance, KU Leuven.
    15. Alicia H. Munnell & Alex Golub-Sass & Richard W. Kopcke & Anthony Webb, 2009. "What Does It Cost To Guarantee Returns?," Issues in Brief ib2009-9-4, Center for Retirement Research, revised Feb 2009.
    16. Duan, Hong-Bo & Fan, Ying & Zhu, Lei, 2013. "What’s the most cost-effective policy of CO2 targeted reduction: An application of aggregated economic technological model with CCS?," Applied Energy, Elsevier, vol. 112(C), pages 866-875.
    17. Deborah Lucas & Marvin Phaup, 1975. "The Cost of Risk to the Government and Its Implications for Federal Budgeting," NBER Chapters, in: Measuring and Managing Federal Financial Risk, pages 29-54, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    18. Guadalupe Souto Nieves, 2003. "El descuento social," Hacienda Pública Española / Review of Public Economics, IEF, vol. 165(2), pages 99-126, June.
    19. Liqun Liu, 2005. "The Multi-Period Cost-Benefit Rule with Mobile Capital and Distorted Labor," International Tax and Public Finance, Springer;International Institute of Public Finance, vol. 12(2), pages 145-158, March.
    20. Pennacchi, George G., 2005. "Risk-based capital standards, deposit insurance, and procyclicality," Journal of Financial Intermediation, Elsevier, vol. 14(4), pages 432-465, October.
    21. Louis Kaplow, 2006. "Discounting Dollars, Discounting Lives: Intergenerational Distributive Justice and Efficiency," NBER Working Papers 12239, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.

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    JEL classification:

    • H43 - Public Economics - - Publicly Provided Goods - - - Project Evaluation; Social Discount Rate

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