In a new paper, researchers from Germany use "controlled laboratory experiment with and without overlapping generations to study the emergence of public debt."
The set up of the experiment is simple: "Public debt is chosen by popular vote, pays for public goods, and is repaid with general taxes."
The end result is asymmetric:
- "With a single generation, public debt is accumulated prudently, never leading to over-indebtedness." In other words, if your generation is the one responsible for repaying debt, spending is prudent and debt accumulation is ex ante bounded by expected income.
- However, "with multiple generations, public debt is accumulated rapidly as soon as the burden of debt and the risk of over-indebtedness can be shifted to future generations."
Crucially, "debt ceiling mechanisms do not mitigate the debt problem. With overlapping generations, political debt cycles emerge, oscillating with the age of the majority of voters." In other words, the idea that debt can be controlled by explicit limits is useless. So much is clear from the US debt ceiling system performance, as well as from the EU SGP experiences. And as much will be confirmed by the Fiscal Compact rules application in due time. Worse, absent levels constraints we are left with the Keynesian proviso that simply says: Be nice. Save when you can, send when you need. Oops... if the stick does not work, any hope the carrot will? I don't think so...
The paper was written by Fochmann, Martin and Sadrieh, Abdolkarim and Weimann, Joachim, and is titled "Understanding the Emergence of Public Debt" (May 24, 2014, CESifo Working Paper Series No. 4820. http://ssrn.com/abstract=2458325).