Discounting for public policy: A survey

Economics and Philosophy 33 (3):391-439 (2017)
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Abstract
This article is a critical survey of the debate over the value of the social discount rate, with a particular focus on climate change. The ma- jority of the material surveyed is from the economics rather than from the philosophy literature, but the emphasis of the survey itself is on founda- tions in ethical and other normative theory rather than highly technical details. I begin by locating the standard approach to discounting within the overall landscape of ethical theory, and explaining the assumptions and simplifications that are needed in order to arrive at the model that is standard in the discounting literature. The article then covers the general theory of the Ramsey equation and its relationship to observed interest rates, arguments for and against a positive rate of pure time preference, the consumption elasticity of utility, and the effect of various sorts of uncertainty on the discount rate. Finally, it turns specifically to the ap- plication of this debate to the case of climate change, focussing on the recent controversy over the low discount rate used in the Stern Review of the Economics of Climate Change.
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