...against fictions and other tall tales

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Anthony Atkinson on the public debt and intergenerational equity

It's been a long time since my last post. Much of my spare time has been spent reading and thinking about the best way to think about the economy. In the end, I've come to the conclusion that it's the big picture that matters.

Take the question of the public debt. Much of the discussion in the popular press relating to the national debt focuses on the liabilities of the government and actuarial concerns (dealing with "how to pay it off"), but it rarely discusses the link between public debt and private wealth, wealth distribution and intergenerational equity.

Anthony Atkinson, I believe, summarized it best here:
Much of the rhetoric of fiscal consolidation is concerned with the national debt as a burden on future generations [...] One lesson of the public economics literature on the national debt is that we have to look at the full picture. We pass on to the next generations:
  • national debt, 
  • state pension liabilities, 
  • public financial assets, 
  • public infrastructure and real wealth, 
  • private wealth, 
  • state of the environment, and
  • stocks of natural resources.
We need to look at the overall balance sheet, where assets as well as liabilities are taken into account. This does not mean that the position is a healthy one. If we consider the difference between the assets of the state and the national debt, expressed as a percentage of the total national wealth, then in the 1950s the net worth of the [UK] state was negative, but it was becoming less negative, and turned positive in the 1960s [...]

The direction of change since the 1970s has however been in the wrong direction [...] In effect the process of privatisation, with the proceeds used largely to fund tax cuts, transferred wealth from the state to the personal sector. We saw that it was at the end of the 1970s that personal wealth began to rise faster than income. The worsening of the public balance sheet is the other side. Personal wealth has risen faster than national wealth since the 1970s because, in effect, assets have been transferred from the public to the private sector. We are passing on more privately to the next generation but less publicly.

Reversing this pattern can be achieved not only by reducing the national debt, but also by increasing public assets.
Now, to say that more wealth is being passed on privately rather than publicly does not mean that it's being passed on equitably.

For instance, when the government sells-off public sector assets such as parks and decommissioned military bases, the government can use the proceeds to pay down the debt, but the assets get transferred to the purchasers of those assets in the private sector, who, most of the time, don't have the same class and socio-economic profile as that of the whole population (i.e., the former "owners" of those assets).

So here's the bottom line: paying down the debt by selling off public assets to the financial interests has contributed immensely to the wealth inequality that is being discussed these days.

And the corollary to this statement is that there's still lots of wealth "out there" that could be used for public purposes and has the potential to be passed on to future generation in a more equitable manner. It hasn't disappeared, it's just changed hands.


Atkinson, A.B., "Public economics in an age of austerity", January 12, 2012