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Rising Government Debt: Causes and Solutions for a Decades-Old Trend


  • Pierre Yared


Over the past four decades, government debt as a fraction of GDP has been on an upward trajectory in advanced economies, approaching levels not reached since World War II. While normative macroeconomic theories can explain the increase in the level of debt in certain periods as a response to macroeconomic shocks, they cannot explain the broad-based long-run trend in debt accumulation. In contrast, political economy theories can explain the long-run trend as resulting from an aging population, rising political polarization, and rising electoral uncertainty across advanced economies. These theories emphasize the time-inconsistency in government policymaking, and thus the need for fiscal rules that restrict policymakers. Fiscal rules trade off commitment to not overspend and flexibility to react to shocks. This tradeoff guides design features of optimal rules, such as information dependence, enforcement, cross-country coordination, escape clauses, and instrument versus target criteria.

Suggested Citation

  • Pierre Yared, 2019. "Rising Government Debt: Causes and Solutions for a Decades-Old Trend," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 33(2), pages 115-140, Spring.
  • Handle: RePEc:aea:jecper:v:33:y:2019:i:2:p:115-40
    Note: DOI: 10.1257/jep.33.2.115

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    References listed on IDEAS

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    2. Frank, Marco & Stadelmann, David, 2021. "More federal legislators lead to more resources for their constituencies: Evidence from exogenous differences in seat allocations," Journal of Comparative Economics, Elsevier, vol. 49(1), pages 230-243.
    3. Schilirò, Daniele, 2020. "COVID-19 crisis and the public debt issue:The case of Italy," MPRA Paper 103997, University Library of Munich, Germany, revised Nov 2020.
    4. Michele Salvi & Christoph A. Schaltegger & Lukas Schmid, 2020. "Fiscal Rules Cause Lower Debt: Evidence from Switzerland’s Federal Debt Containment Rule," Kyklos, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 73(4), pages 605-642, November.
    5. Raveh, Ohad & Tsur, Yacov, 2020. "Reelection, growth and public debt," European Journal of Political Economy, Elsevier, vol. 63(C).
    6. Mr. Atish R. Ghosh & Ugo Panizza & Mr. Andrea F Presbitero & Antonio Fatás, 2019. "The Motives to Borrow," IMF Working Papers 2019/101, International Monetary Fund.
    7. Rogoff, Kenneth, 2020. "Falling real interest rates, rising debt: A free lunch?," Journal of Policy Modeling, Elsevier, vol. 42(4), pages 778-790.
    8. Inmaculada Martínez-Zarzoso & Marta Gómez-Puig & Simón Sosvilla-Rivero, 2019. "“Re-examining the debt-growth nexus: A grouped fixed-effect approach”," IREA Working Papers 201911, University of Barcelona, Research Institute of Applied Economics, revised Jul 2019.
    9. Kose, Ayhan & Ohnsorge, Franziska & Sugawara, Naotaka, 2020. "Benefits and Costs of Debt: The Dose Makes the Poison," CEPR Discussion Papers 14439, C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers.
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    12. Ryota Nakatani, 2021. "Fiscal Rules for Natural Disaster- and Climate Change-Prone Small States," Sustainability, MDPI, Open Access Journal, vol. 13(6), pages 1-26, March.
    13. Lars P. Feld & Martin Beznoska & Oliver Holtemöller & Hans-Peter Burghof & Ulrike Neyer & Clemens Fuest & Friedrich Heinemann & Thomas König, 2020. "Rekordschulden gegen Corona-Folgen – was kann sich der Staat leisten?," ifo Schnelldienst, ifo Institute - Leibniz Institute for Economic Research at the University of Munich, vol. 73(08), pages 03-32, August.
    14. Daniele, SCHILIRO', 2019. "Public debt and growth in Italy:Analysis and policy proposals," MPRA Paper 97950, University Library of Munich, Germany, revised Nov 2019.
    15. Valerio Dotti & Eckhard Janeba, 2020. "Consistent Flexibility: Enforcement of Fiscal Rules through Political Incentives," CESifo Working Paper Series 8440, CESifo.
    16. Andersen, Torben M. & Bhattacharya, Joydeep & Liu, Pan, 2020. "Resolving intergenerational conflict over the environment under the Pareto criterion," Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, Elsevier, vol. 100(C).
    17. Marina Azzimonti & Gabriel P. Mihalache & Laura Karpuska, 2020. "Bargaining over Taxes and Entitlements," NBER Working Papers 27595, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    18. Coate, Stephen & Milton, Ross T., 2019. "Optimal fiscal limits with overrides," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 174(C), pages 76-92.
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    20. Marina Azzimonti & Laura Karpuska & Gabriel Mihalache, 2020. "Bargaining over Mandatory Spending and Entitlements," Department of Economics Working Papers 20-02, Stony Brook University, Department of Economics.

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    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • D72 - Microeconomics - - Analysis of Collective Decision-Making - - - Political Processes: Rent-seeking, Lobbying, Elections, Legislatures, and Voting Behavior
    • E23 - Macroeconomics and Monetary Economics - - Consumption, Saving, Production, Employment, and Investment - - - Production
    • E32 - Macroeconomics and Monetary Economics - - Prices, Business Fluctuations, and Cycles - - - Business Fluctuations; Cycles
    • E62 - Macroeconomics and Monetary Economics - - Macroeconomic Policy, Macroeconomic Aspects of Public Finance, and General Outlook - - - Fiscal Policy
    • H20 - Public Economics - - Taxation, Subsidies, and Revenue - - - General
    • H50 - Public Economics - - National Government Expenditures and Related Policies - - - General
    • H63 - Public Economics - - National Budget, Deficit, and Debt - - - Debt; Debt Management; Sovereign Debt


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