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How Should Benefits and Costs Be Discounted in an Intergenerational Context?

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  • Cropper, Maureen

    () (Resources for the Future)

Abstract

Should governments, in discounting the future benefits and costs of public projects, use a discount rate that declines over time? The argument for a declining discount rate is a simple one: if the discount rates that will be applied in the future are persistent, and if the analyst can assign probabilities to these discount rates, this will result in a declining schedule of certainty-equivalent discount rates. A growing empirical literature estimates models of long-term interest rates and uses them to forecast the declining discount rate schedule. I briefly review this literature, focusing on models for the United States. This literature has, however, been criticized for a lack of connection to the theory of project evaluation. In cost-benefit analysis, the net benefits of a project in year t (in consumption units) are to be discounted to the present at the rate at which society would trade consumption in year t for consumption in the present. With simplifying assumptions, this leads to the Ramsey discounting formula. The Ramsey formula results in a declining certainty-equivalent discount rate if the rate of growth in consumption is uncertain and if shocks to consumption are correlated over time. Using the extended Ramsey formula to estimate a numerical schedule of certainty-equivalent discount rates is, however, challenging.

Suggested Citation

  • Cropper, Maureen, 2012. "How Should Benefits and Costs Be Discounted in an Intergenerational Context?," Discussion Papers dp-12-42, Resources For the Future.
  • Handle: RePEc:rff:dpaper:dp-12-42
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    References listed on IDEAS

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    Citations

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    Cited by:

    1. Rautiainen, Aapo & Lintunen, Jussi, 2017. "Social Cost of Forcing: A Basis for Pricing All Forcing Agents," Ecological Economics, Elsevier, vol. 133(C), pages 42-51.
    2. Lugovoy, O. & Polbin, A., 2016. "On Intergenerational Distribution of the Burden of Greenhouse Gas Emissions," Journal of the New Economic Association, New Economic Association, vol. 31(3), pages 12-39.
    3. repec:eee:forpol:v:83:y:2017:i:c:p:58-69 is not listed on IDEAS
    4. Eli P. Fenichel & Matthew J. Kotchen & Ethan T. Addicott, 2017. "Even the Representative Agent Must Die: Using Demographics to Inform Long-Term Social Discount Rates," NBER Working Papers 23591, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    5. Mauri Kotamäki, 2013. "The Pension Scheme Need Not Be Pay-As-You-Go: An Overlapping Generations Approach," Finnish Economic Papers, Finnish Economic Association, vol. 26(2), pages 56-71, Autumn.
    6. Maureen L. Cropper & Mark C. Freeman & Ben Groom & William A. Pizer, 2014. "Declining Discount Rates," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 104(5), pages 538-543, May.
    7. Cameron Hepburn & Greer Gosnell, 2014. "Evaluating impacts in the distant future: cost–benefit analysis, discounting and the alternatives," Chapters,in: Handbook of Sustainable Development, chapter 9, pages 140-159 Edward Elgar Publishing.

    More about this item

    Keywords

    discount rate; uncertainty; declining discount rate; cost-benefit analysis;

    JEL classification:

    • D61 - Microeconomics - - Welfare Economics - - - Allocative Efficiency; Cost-Benefit Analysis

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