IDEAS home Printed from
   My bibliography  Save this paper

The Political Economy of Public Debt: A Laboratory Study


  • Battaglini, Marco
  • Nunnari, Salvatore
  • Palfrey, Thomas R


This paper reports the results from a laboratory experiment designed to study political distortions in the accumulation of public debt. A legislature bargains over the levels of a public good and of district specific transfers in two periods. The legislature can issue or purchase risk-free bonds in the first period and the level of public debt creates a dynamic linkage across policymaking periods. In line with the theoretical predictions, we find that public policies are inefficient and efficiency is increasing in the size of the majority requirement, with higher investment in public goods and lower debt associated with larger majority requirements. Also in line with the theory, we find that debt is lower when the probability of a negative shock to the economy in the second period is higher, evidence that debt is used to smooth consumption.

Suggested Citation

  • Battaglini, Marco & Nunnari, Salvatore & Palfrey, Thomas R, 2016. "The Political Economy of Public Debt: A Laboratory Study," CEPR Discussion Papers 11357, C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers.
  • Handle: RePEc:cpr:ceprdp:11357

    Download full text from publisher

    File URL:
    Download Restriction: CEPR Discussion Papers are free to download for our researchers, subscribers and members. If you fall into one of these categories but have trouble downloading our papers, please contact us at

    As the access to this document is restricted, you may want to look for a different version below or search for a different version of it.

    Other versions of this item:

    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Marco Battaglini & Salvatore Nunnari & Thomas R. Palfrey, 2016. "The Dynamic Free Rider Problem: A Laboratory Study," American Economic Journal: Microeconomics, American Economic Association, vol. 8(4), pages 268-308, November.
    2. Alberto Alesina & Guido Tabellini, 1990. "A Positive Theory of Fiscal Deficits and Government Debt," Review of Economic Studies, Oxford University Press, vol. 57(3), pages 403-414.
    3. Kenneth Matheny & Charles Noussair, 2000. "An experimental study of decisions in dynamic optimization problems," Economic Theory, Springer;Society for the Advancement of Economic Theory (SAET), vol. 15(2), pages 389-419.
    4. Fr Chette, Guillaume R. & Kagel, John H. & Lehrer, Steven F., 2003. "Bargaining in Legislatures: An Experimental Investigation of Open versus Closed Amendment Rules," American Political Science Review, Cambridge University Press, vol. 97(02), pages 221-232, May.
    5. Battaglini, Marco & Nunnari, Salvatore & Palfrey, Thomas R., 2012. "Legislative Bargaining and the Dynamics of Public Investment," American Political Science Review, Cambridge University Press, vol. 106(02), pages 407-429, May.
    6. Guillaume Fréchette & John Kagel & Massimo Morelli, 2012. "Pork versus public goods: an experimental study of public good provision within a legislative bargaining framework," Economic Theory, Springer;Society for the Advancement of Economic Theory (SAET), vol. 49(3), pages 779-800, April.
    7. Vivian Lei & Charles N. Noussair, 2002. "An Experimental Test of an Optimal Growth Model," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 92(3), pages 549-570, June.
    8. Enrica Carbone & John D. Hey, 2004. "The effect of unemployment on consumption: an experimental analysis," Economic Journal, Royal Economic Society, vol. 114(497), pages 660-683, July.
    Full references (including those not matched with items on IDEAS)


    Citations are extracted by the CitEc Project, subscribe to its RSS feed for this item.

    Cited by:

    1. Marina Agranov & Christopher Cotton & Chloe Tergiman, 2016. "Persistence of Power: Repeated Multilateral Bargaining," Working Papers 1374, Queen's University, Department of Economics.
    2. João Tovar Jalles & Carlos Mulas-Granados & José Tavares, 2016. "Fiscal Discipline and Exchange Rates; Does Politics Matter?," IMF Working Papers 16/230, International Monetary Fund.

    More about this item


    laboratory experiment; public debt;

    JEL classification:

    • H63 - Public Economics - - National Budget, Deficit, and Debt - - - Debt; Debt Management; Sovereign Debt
    • H72 - Public Economics - - State and Local Government; Intergovernmental Relations - - - State and Local Budget and Expenditures

    NEP fields

    This paper has been announced in the following NEP Reports:


    Access and download statistics


    All material on this site has been provided by the respective publishers and authors. You can help correct errors and omissions. When requesting a correction, please mention this item's handle: RePEc:cpr:ceprdp:11357. See general information about how to correct material in RePEc.

    For technical questions regarding this item, or to correct its authors, title, abstract, bibliographic or download information, contact: (). General contact details of provider: .

    If you have authored this item and are not yet registered with RePEc, we encourage you to do it here. This allows to link your profile to this item. It also allows you to accept potential citations to this item that we are uncertain about.

    If CitEc recognized a reference but did not link an item in RePEc to it, you can help with this form .

    If you know of missing items citing this one, you can help us creating those links by adding the relevant references in the same way as above, for each refering item. If you are a registered author of this item, you may also want to check the "citations" tab in your RePEc Author Service profile, as there may be some citations waiting for confirmation.

    Please note that corrections may take a couple of weeks to filter through the various RePEc services.

    IDEAS is a RePEc service hosted by the Research Division of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis . RePEc uses bibliographic data supplied by the respective publishers.