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Low Altruism, Austerity, and Aversion to Default: Are Countries Converging to the Natural Debt Limit?

  • Henning Bohn

Democracies around the world are making promises to the old at the expense of future generations. I interpret this as reflecting low altruism—a discount rate on children’s utility greater than the world interest rate—and I examine the implications in a small open economy with overlapping generations. A focus is on the public sector: The model includes public capital in production and public education as determinant of human capital. I examine to what extent both are crowded out by spending on debt and retiree entitlements. In the model, altruism towards children determines bequests, government debt, and the time-path of consumption. Altruism towards parents influences incentives to default. If altruism is low, voters demand fiscal policies that extract substantial resources from future generations. Public debt rises until debt service requires maximum taxes forever, and an era of austerity ensues: investment in human capital declines to a lower bound, and reduced human capital discourages investment in private and public capital. The threat of default enters as a constraint that may protect future generations.

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Paper provided by CESifo Group Munich in its series CESifo Working Paper Series with number 4270.

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Date of creation: 2013
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Handle: RePEc:ces:ceswps:_4270
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  1. Bulow, Jeremy & Rogoff, Kenneth, 1989. "Sovereign Debt: Is to Forgive to Forget?," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 79(1), pages 43-50, March.
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  10. Michele Boldrin & Ana Montes, 2004. "The intergenerational state: education and pensions," Staff Report 336, Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.
  11. Cukierman, Alex & Meltzer, Allan H, 1989. "A Political Theory of Government Debt and Deficits in a Neo-Ricardian Framework," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 79(4), pages 713-32, September.
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  14. Eduardo Borensztein & Ugo Panizza, 2008. "The Costs of Sovereign Default," IMF Working Papers 08/238, International Monetary Fund.
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