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A Positive Theory of Fiscal Deficits and Government Debt in a Democracy


  • Alberto Alesina
  • Guido Tabellini


This paper considers an economy in which policymakers with different preferences concerning fiscal policy alternate in office as a result of democratic elections. It is shown that in this situation government debt becomes a strategic variable used by each policymaker to influence the choices of his successors. In particular, if different policymakers disagree about the desired composition of government spending between two public goods, the economy exhibits a deficits bias. Namely, in this economy debt accumulation is higher than it would be with a social planner. According to the results of our model, the equilibrium level of government debt is larger: the larger is the degree of polarization between alternating governments; and the more likely it is that the current government will not be reelected. The paper has empirical implications which may contribute to explain the current fiscal policies in the United States and in several other countries.

Suggested Citation

  • Alberto Alesina & Guido Tabellini, 1987. "A Positive Theory of Fiscal Deficits and Government Debt in a Democracy," NBER Working Papers 2308, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:2308
    Note: ME

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    References listed on IDEAS

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    Cited by:

    1. Ernesto H. Stein & Lorena Caro, 2013. "Ideology and Taxation in Latin America," Research Department Publications IDB-WP-407, Inter-American Development Bank, Research Department.
    2. Koren, Stephan & Stiassny, Alfred, 1998. "Tax and Spend, or Spend and Tax? An International Study," Journal of Policy Modeling, Elsevier, vol. 20(2), pages 163-191, April.
    3. Di Gioacchino, Debora & Ginebri, Sergio & Sabani, Laura, 2004. "Political support to public debt repudiation in a Monetary Union - the role of the geographical allocation of debt," Economics & Statistics Discussion Papers esdp04019, University of Molise, Dept. EGSeI.
    4. Stephen Morris & Stephen Coate, 1999. "Policy Persistence," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 89(5), pages 1327-1336, December.
    5. Bruno de Paula Rocha & Fabiana Rocha, 2005. "Consolidação Fiscal Nos Estados Brasileiros: Uma Análise De Duração," Anais do XXXIII Encontro Nacional de Economia [Proceedings of the 33th Brazilian Economics Meeting] 047, ANPEC - Associação Nacional dos Centros de Pósgraduação em Economia [Brazilian Association of Graduate Programs in Economics].
    6. John Lott & W. Reed, 1989. "Shirking and sorting in a political market with finite-lived politicians," Public Choice, Springer, vol. 61(1), pages 75-96, April.
    7. Anton Muscatelli & Piergiovanna Natale & Patrizio Tirelli, 2003. "A Simple and Flexible Alternative to the Stability and Growth Pact Deficit Ceilings. Is it at hand?," CESifo Working Paper Series 1006, CESifo Group Munich.
    8. Alesina, Alberto & Tabellini, Guido, 1989. "External debt, capital flight and political risk," Journal of International Economics, Elsevier, vol. 27(3-4), pages 199-220, November.
    9. Jensen, Svend Erik Hougaard & Jensen, Lars Grue, 1995. "Debt, deficits and transition to EMU: A small country analysis," European Journal of Political Economy, Elsevier, vol. 11(1), pages 3-25, March.
    10. Alessandra Casella and Jonathan Feinstein., 1988. "Management of a Common Currency," Economics Working Papers 8891, University of California at Berkeley.
    11. Donato Masciandaro, 1995. "Designing a central bank: Social player, monetary agent, or banking agent?," Open Economies Review, Springer, vol. 6(4), pages 399-410, October.
    12. Baqir, Reza, 1999. "Districts, spillovers, and government overspending," Policy Research Working Paper Series 2192, The World Bank.
    13. Jochimsen, Beate & Nuscheler, Robert, 2005. "The Political Economy of the German Länder Deficits," Discussion Papers 2005/6, Free University Berlin, School of Business & Economics.
    14. Warwick J. McKibbin & Nouriel Roubini & Jeffrey Sachs, 1987. "Dynamic Optimization in Two-Party Models," NBER Working Papers 2213, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    15. Alesina, Alberto & Özler, Sule & Roubini, Nouriel & Swagel, Phillip, 1996. "Political Instability and Economic Growth," Journal of Economic Growth, Springer, vol. 1(2), pages 189-211, June.
    16. Baldursson, Fridrik M & von der Fehr, Nils-Henrik M, 2004. "A Whiter Shade of Pale: on the Political Economy of Regulatory Instruments," Memorandum 29/2004, Oslo University, Department of Economics.
    17. Oliver Pamp, 2004. "Partisan Preferences and Political Institutions: Explaining Fiscal Retrenchment in the European Union," Eastward Enlargement of the Euro-zone Working Papers wp24, Free University Berlin, Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence, revised 15 Oct 2004.
    18. Cukierman, Alex & Edwards, Sebastian & Tabellini, Guido, 1992. "Seigniorage and Political Instability," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 82(3), pages 537-555, June.
    19. Alberto F. Alesina & Roberto Perotti, 1999. "Budget Deficits and Budget Institutions," NBER Chapters,in: Fiscal Institutions and Fiscal Performance, pages 13-36 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    20. John Considine, 2002. "Budgetary institutions and fiscal discipline: Edmund Burke's insightful contribution," The European Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 9(4), pages 591-607.
    21. Faust, Jon, 1996. "Whom can we trust to run the Fed? Theoretical support for the founders' views," Journal of Monetary Economics, Elsevier, vol. 37(2-3), pages 267-283, April.
    22. Hyungon Kim & Chang Kwon, 2015. "The Effects of Fiscal Consolidation and Welfare Composition of Spending on Electoral Outcomes: Evidence from US Gubernatorial Elections between 1978 and 2006," New Political Economy, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 20(2), pages 228-253, April.
    23. Vuchelen, Jef, 1995. "Political events and consumer confidence in Belgium," Journal of Economic Psychology, Elsevier, vol. 16(4), pages 563-579, December.
    24. Albert Saiz, 2002. "Democracy to the road: the political economy of potholes," Working Papers 02-17, Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia.

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