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Ricardian Equivalence and the Effectiveness of Tax Cuts during a Recession
University of the West of England, Bristol Business School.MSc Economics.Master’s
I’d like to thank my academic advisor, Daniela Gabor for all her help during this process, Andrew
Mearmanfor calming me down when my stress levels where high, Dr. Will Cummings for getting me started on
the right path in economics, and my family for all their support throughout my life.
This study examines the Ricardian Equivalence in detail. A survey method was
conducted in order to determine the behaviour decisions by consumers in response to a
potential tax cut. Results indicate that consumers treat a tax cut as they would treat an
increase in their own private income, and do not adjust behaviour due to Ricardian effects.
These findings provide evidence against the Ricardian Equivalence hypothesis at a micro
level. Furthermore, the classification of my “savings” variable contributes to the existing
literature on Ricardian Equivalence by differentiating between short-term and long-term
savers, resulting in a more accurate account of consumer behaviour, and therefore, Ricardian
effects on consumers.
Table of Contents
Introduction ……………………………………………………………………… 3
A. Literature Review ………………………………………………………………… 5
Ricardian Equivalence Assumptions ............................................................. 8
Policy implications ........................................................................................ 19
B. Empirical Analysis ……………………………………………………………….. 20
Twin Deficits Model ...................................................................................... 23
Surveys and Experimental Methods ............................................................... 24
C. Method and Methodology ……………………………………………………….... 29
D. Results …………………………………………………………………………….. 34
E. Conclusion .……………………………………………....………....………………39
References ……………………………………………....…………………………. 40
Since the inception of the modern economy, few issues have been as important, and
triggered as many debates than the issue of whether or not Policymakers should interfere with
the economy. Classical economists, Monetarists and proponents of Adam Smith’s invisible
hand adopt a lazefair approach, where they feel that policy intervention causes inefficiencies,
and is detrimental in the long-run. Keynesian and New Keynesianeconomists believe that
government intervention is needed to correct market failures, and to boost the economy
during a recession.Both sides have feverishly looked for empirical evidence to justify their
own beliefs in an attempt to prove the notion that, if modern economies adopted their
philosophy, it would solve the macroeconomic problems we see today.
A very important theory in this debate is the RicardianEquivalence Hypothesis. This
theory, as understood today, considers Fiscal stimuli funded by government debt useless in
that it creates no increase in output due to rational consumers’ anticipation for a future tax
increase, and their unwillingness to adjust their behaviour in the present tense. (Barro (1974),
Buchannan (1976), Ricciuti (2001)).
The integration and implications of the Ricardian equivalence are vast. Not only have
we witnessed a fundamental change in the global intellectual landscape, butRicardian
Equivalence is actually built into the theoretical framework of many policy decisions. For
example, the New Consensus model currently being used by British policy makers will cite
Ricardian Equivalence when determining the effectiveness of Fiscal policy. In Recent years,
they have dismissed fiscal policy, and have adopted inflation targeting as the policy weapon
of choice. Prior to the 1970’s, both policy tools were used, and both would support each other
in order to achieve economic stabilityas John Maynard Keynes had outlined. As Robert
Solow puts it, “Serious discussion of fiscal policy has almost disappeared. A [current]
reading of the literature on macroeconomic theory and policy would lead you to believe that
there is only one policy goal--the control of inflation - and that task is assigned to monetary
policy. Fiscal policy is either impossible or undesirable or both.” (Solow, 2002).
Fiscal policy led the debate concerning economic policy from the 1930’s to the
1960’s in the periods after the great depression and WWII. Monetary policy was considered
to be a tool simply to keep interest rates at a level to support growth and Inflation was of little
concern in the post-war period. The 1950’s saw Milton Friedman, the famous economist from
the University of Chicago, gain popularity for his emphasis on the importance of Monetary
Policy. Friedman established the link between money demand and nominal income
determination in his 1956 essay, The Quantity Theory of Money-A Restatement. This meant
that the quantity theory could now explain changes in output as well as in prices, and could
no longer be dismissed as arbitrarily assuming full employment. In 1963, Friedman and
Meiselman published a report called “The Relative Stability of Monetary Velocity and the
Investment Multiplier in the United States, 1897-1958,” where they helped define an
emerging monetarist argument: changes in nominal income are largely determined by
changes in the money supply. Since movements in the money supply are related directly to
policy actions, fluctuations in economic activity are tied to the Central Bank’s policy
decisions. (Friedman and Meiselman, 1963).
The monetarists decided that the central bank’s role should be to keep inflation stable,
and not to help support Fiscal policy as Keynes had illustrated. They believed that
expansionary Fiscal policy created a “crowding-out” effect on investment by causing the
interest rate to increase. The result, according to Friedman, was that this boost in
consumption demand will be offset by a decline in future investment demand caused by the
rise in the interest rate. However, more recently, it has been argued that government spending
results in a “Crowding-in” effect since the injection of high-powered money into the bank’s
reserves causes the interest rate to fall, other things being equal. Monetary policy, on the
other hand, is the culprit for crowding out investment by offering bonds for sale, draining
those reserves.(Tcherneva, 2009).
Friedman’s most significant contribution to economics was perhaps his contribution
to economic methodology, specifically, on determining the effectiveness of a model. In his
opinion, a model’s assumptions were irrelevant as long as it had success in its predictions.
Many economists today follow Freidman’s philosophy and we continue to see models with
unrealistic assumptions emerge from highly prestigious universities. I will critique some of
these assumptions with respect to the Ricardian Equivalence, and attempt to limit the amount
of assumptions made in my own empirical work.
The goal of this paper is to investigate the RicardianEquivalence Hypothesis, the
effectiveness of Fiscal Policy (specifically tax cuts), and whether or not tax cuts can still be
effective in boosting economic growth during a recession.
Part A) is the Literature review, which highlights the history of economic paradigms
and their views of government debt, a discussion of the Ricardian Equivalence hypothesis,
the theoretical debates surrounding it and most importantly, the assumptions associated with
it, as well asa critical exploration of those assumptions. Succeeding that, is a discussion of the
policy implications for the RicardianEquivalence. Part B)takes a closer look at many of the
empirical studies surrounding Ricardian Equivalence with an analysis of their results. Part C)
is a methodological critique of the majority of empirical work in economics, as well as my
own “quest” to find an appropriate method to test the Ricardian Equivalence hypothesis. Part
D) details my empirical test, and the results of my work. Part E) is the conclusion,
summarizing my findings.
The famous classical economist David Ricardo was the first person to propose the
idea that there is no real difference between a government issuing bonds to fund government
spending, or raising taxes in his “Essay on the Funding System” of 1820. This is because
when the government goes into debt to increase spending or cut taxes, people will anticipate a
future tax increase to repay the debt and will therefore leave their consumption unchanged,
setting money aside in order to pay for the future tax increase.The result would be the same
as if the government had increased taxes now. However, Ricardo doubted the practicality of
his own theory and went on to say, “It would be difficult to convince a man possessed of
£20,000, or any other sum, that a perpetual payment of £50 per annum was equally
burdensome with a single tax of £1000.” (Ricardo, 1820). He never made a point on the
effectiveness of fiscal policy to boost growth, but was comparing different methods of
financing government spending (in this case it was for war). Ricardo, being unconvinced of
the rational expectations of consumers, did not explore the Ricardian Equivalence any further,
and so the idea lay dormant for some time. Attempts to improve on the theory proved
unsubstantial for many years. It wasn’t until 1974 when an American economist named
Robert J. Barro revived Ricardo’s original idea in his paper “Are Government Bonds net
Wealth?” (1974),and reformed it into what we now call Ricardian Equivalence.
Barro’s adaptation of Ricardo’s theory was based on Milton Friedman’s permanent
income hypothesis (1957), which states that a person’s consumption decisions are not based
solely on their income, but also on their expected future income. In Barro’s theory,
consumers behave as if they have infinite lives because it is assumed they care about their
children, and their grandchildren’s future and wish to leave behind money for them, a
phenomenon he calls “Intergenerational Altruism”. He says “It was shown [with the
Overlapping-generations model1] that households would act as if they were infinitely lived,
and, hence, that there would be no marginal net-wealth effect of government bonds, so long
as there existed an operative chain of intergenerational transfers which connected current to
future generations.” (p. 1116, Barro, 1974).
This differs from Ricardo’s theory in two key ways. Barro used Freidman’s
permanent income hypothesisto explain why a consumer plans their expenditure over their
entire life, and that consumption decisions are based on aggregate future income, and not just
current income. He also added this notion of intergenerational transfer to extend consumption
decisions infinitely into the future. This is important, because with these two additions to
Ricardian theory, the date of the future tax rise to fund current government debt is
insignificant. In other words, Barrosuggests that planning to tax future generationsthrough the
use of government debt will yield the same results as raising tax now. This indifference in
regards to government debt was quite a departure from the more recognized economic
paradigms of the time, which were Keynesian and Neoclassical.
Keynesian theory came into popularity after the great depression and throughout the
post WWII period. During the 1970’s mainstream economic thought shifted towards the
Neoclassical and Monetarist school of thought. The Keynesian view held that government
debt can be used to fund government expenditure or tax cuts in order to boost economic
growth in the short-term. Thus appropriately timed deficits have a beneficial effect on the
The Neoclassical view held that consumers are farsighted and plan their consumption
throughout their lifetime. Budget deficits will increase consumption in our own lifetime.
However, “If economic resources are fully employed, increased consumption necessarily
implies decreased savings. Interest rates must then rise to bring capital markets into balance,
1The Overlapping Generations Model (OLG) was a popular economic model at the timein
which agents live a finite length of time but live long enough to endure at least one period
of the next generation's lives.
thus persistent deficits ‘crowd out’ capital accumulation.” (Bernheim, 1989). In other words,
Neoclassical theory regards persistent government debt as a significant problem in the long
run.It must also be noted that according to the Fiscal Theory of the Price Level, most
governments are non-Ricardian, in that they make no promises to raise taxes in the future.
This results in expansionary fiscal policy leading to an increase in the price-level now due to
the consumption boost, which erodes the real value of the government debt. (Woodford,
According to the Ricardian logic, cutting taxes will increase savings, and not
consumption. We then have to ask, why is this not desirable for economic growth? Keynes
theory says that Savings = Investment and that Consumption + Investment + Government
spending + exports - Imports = Output (Y). Therefore an increase in Investment leads to an
increase in output. However, when the tax cut occurs, the government must lower the price of
bonds to fund the tax cut. This drives up interest rates and crowds out investment (in other
words, it has a negative effect on investment). In Keynes’s theory, crowding out occurs in the
long run, while short run economic output is still increased because we can adjust monetary
policy to keep interest rates low. But according to the Ricardian logic, monetary policy
should follow the natural rate of interest within the economy, so it is incompatible with
Keynesian’s exogenous monetary policy. In other words, Keynesian theory often used
monetary policy in conjunction with Fiscal policy to achieve the desirable policy goals. For
example, increasing government spending while simultaneously lowering interest rates,
would be very expansionary, and best used during a recession. Keynes believed monetary
policy could be adjusted to achieve economic goals (exogenous) and is not simply a reaction
to the level of inflation (endogenous), as it behaves in many economies today.
Many economists doubt the validity of Barro’s theory, and especially the assumptions
associated with his theory. Each household is assumed to have made an optimal intertemporal
consumption-saving plan. They are all forward looking and rational, and any influx of
temporary income from the government will disturb their plans and cause them to set money
aside to account for the sudden increase. These are lofty assumptions, but if they hold, the
effect of a publicly financed tax cut will be zero. Whatmight interfere with this predicted
result? If households lacked liquid assets and are unable to borrow freely then the added
liquidity from the tax cut would let them consume more now. If the treasury is more efficient
and less risky of a borrower than many households, then the sudden increase in new public
debt would also affect real behaviour. (Solow, 2002). And, of course, “If consumers do not
look ahead very far or very carefully, if they give little weight to the interests of descendants,
or if they tend to ignore or underestimate the future implications of current budget actions,
then Ricardian equivalence will fail, and tax reduction financed by borrowing will indeed be
expansionary.”(p. 11, Solow, 2002).Recent theoretical work has clarified the explicit and
implicit assumptions of Barro’s theory.
Ricardian Equivalence Assumptions
There are quite a number of assumptions in the RicardianEquivelence theory, which
have been criticized heavily for not properly reflecting reality. However, as is the case with
many economic theories, as long as these assumptions are made clear, and the formal
mathematical models are testable, then they are still valid academic works. Most importantly,
it is up to the reader to gauge how useful a particular theory is.
Assumptions of Barro’sRicardian Equivalence include: (1) Intergenerational Altruism,
the belief that that the current generation is motivated by altruism for the next generation; (2)
Consumption smoothing, where consumers wish to maintain a smooth level of consumption
throughout their lifetime; (3) Nondistortionary taxation and redistribution, in order for the
Ricardian equivalence to hold, taxes must be nondistortionary since distortionary taxes distort
consumer preferences. This also means redistributive policies cannot be present because they
are distortionary in the labour sector; (4) Perfect capital markets exist, or if they are imperfect,
they fail in specific ways which are predictable; (5) Perfect information, specifically in
regards to consumers being perfectly informed about their future income and planning their
lives accordingly, and consumers being perfectly informed about the political-economy
(including the details on tax cuts); (6) Consumers are indifferent when choosing between tax
cuts or government debt; and (7) The government faces an intertemporal budget constraint.
The theoretical debate surrounding the Ricardian equivalence has focused on the
underlying assumptions of Barro’s proposition. Most results indicate that Ricardian
equivalence is almost impossible to hold given the combination of assumptions required.
(Buchannan 1976, Buiter 1979, Abel 1985, Bernheim 1989, Bohn 1992, Trostel 1993),
however, Seater (1993) believes Ricardian equivalence may hold as a good approximation.
This is due to the way societies have retired their debt, and how the observable effects of debt
have been inconclusive. Therefore he says, so long as modern societies continue to deal with
debt in the same manner, Ricardian effects may have some truth to them. (Seater, 1993).
The majority of Empirical studies have tested the validity of the assumptions, as well
as testing the Ricardian equivalence with one or more assumption relaxed.By relaxing the
assumptions, and if evidence is found in favor of Ricardian Equivalence, it allows the theory
to possibly remain relevant to the real world since all those assumptions, collectively, may
not exist. I’ll be explaining the theory and empirical research surrounding these assumptions
1) Intergenerational Altruism
As highlighted above, Barro’s theory depends heavily on Intergenerational transfers,
which itself is being carried by the assumption of intergenerational altruism. If this
assumption does not hold true, in other words, if the current generation are not being
motivated by altruism for the next generation, then consumption will increase for the current
generation. While this seems like a realistic assumption, how can we explain the
environmental degradation we have experienced in the past 200 years? Surely if people cared
about their children’s future, they would want to leave them with a less polluted earth as
opposed to a more polluted one, they would vote for policies that protect the environment,
and would elect policymakers who maintain the environment as a priority. Either the public is
not as informed (in this case, about the state of the environment) as Barro would like to
believe, or they don’t care about future generations. This disregard for the condition of
environmental public goods seriously hampers the legitimacy of this assumption.
A number of authors empirically analysed the intergenerational altruism assumption
(Buiter 1979, Carmichael 1982, Weil 1984, Abel 1985, Kimball 1986). However, many of
them reject certain specifications of preferences due to dynamic inconsistency, which is when
a person’s preferences change over time, in this case it is between members of successive
generations.“Dynamic inconsistency is simply a manifestation of conflict within families, and
I see no reason to rule it out.”(P. 265, Bernheim, 1987).In other words, it’s best not to drop
observations and outliers in econometric analysis. There are always exceptions in real life
scenarios and the data should reflect that. We can argue about the probability of these
conditions, however, we must still acknowledge them. In fact,Barro’s specifications for
intergenerational altruism, which portrays families as perfectly harmonious units, is
extremely restrictive, and the preferences of distinct family members will conflict. According
to Bergstrome (1986), the case where the presence of altruism automatically harmonizing
objectives is unlikely. (Bernheim, Schleifer, and Summers, 1985).
Furthermore, there is the case of childless families. Individuals or couples without
children will alter their behaviour after a tax cut because they have no concern for taxes on
future generations. (Tobin and Buiter, 1980). Proponents of RicardianEquivelence argue that,
because household decision-makers are perfectly informed (a bold assumption, but one that
we will discuss in detail later), they will realise that their children will bear a disproportionate
burden due to childless families, and they will increase their bequests appropriately, but these
higher bequests may not fully offset the excess tax burden.Barro (1989) argues that as long as
there are large families with many children, the “childless family” effect is counteracted.
(Ricciuti, 2001, citing Barro, 1989).
The motives for intergenerational transfer are debatable, and Seater (1993) argues that
intergenerational transfer could occur for strategic reasons as a form of insurance, or through
accidental death. (Seater, 1993).
Testing the situation in which households are bequest-constrained, but generations are
linked by an altruistically motivated human capital investment, Lord and Rangazas (1993)
found that Deficits could have real effects on behavior by shifting the consumption
possibility frontier outward for families that are bequest-constrained. “The wealth effect will
increase consumption, whereas the substitution effect, due to diminishing returns to human
capital investment, will decrease the return on investment of parental consumption, since
greater investment is required to maintain a given level of after-tax wealth for the children.
The calibrated model of bequest-constrained households shows that a deficit will reduce the
children’s after-tax wealth, despite the presence of altruistic human capital transfers.” (Adji
2006, citing Lord and Rangazas 1993).
2) Consumption Smoothing
Consumption smoothing is one of the related theories that Ricardian Equivalence
depends on. It describes people’s desire to have a stable pattern of consumption, therefore
when income shocks occur, it will not affect their spending patterns because they have
already saved money in anticipation for these shocks, and they will simply dip into their
savings when the shocks occur. If they cannot save appropriately, they will borrow money.
This is based on Milton Friedman’s Permanent income Hypothesis (1956) and Brumberg’s
Life-Cycle Model (1954). Unfortunately, when borrowing constraints are present,
consumption smoothing fails to hold according to empirical work done by Wilcox (1989) and
Zeldes (1989). In addition, numerous studies (Campbell and Mankiw (1989) using aggregate
data, Hall and Mishkin (1982), Zeldes (1989), and Carroll and Summers (1991) using
household data), have shown that people are more sensitive to current income than future
income which undermines the basic consumption-smoothing model. (Elmendorf and Mankiw,
3)Nondistortionary Taxation and redistribution
One of the assumptions for Ricardian theory to hold, is that the taxation in question must
be non-distortionary. Therefore when an economy has a nonlinear estate tax schedule,
Ricardian equivalence does not hold. (Abel, 1986).A distortionary tax is one which alters
economic preference, and as a result, economic behaviour. For example, a tax on petrol will
distort people’s preferences away from petrol because it is now relatively expensive
compared to letting the market decide on the price. A lump sum tax, is meant to have the least
distortionary effects, as it does not pertain to a particular good, and is therefore inescapable
and non-distortionary. However labour market distortionary effects will still occur as long as
there is a nonlinear income tax system. A nonlinear income tax requires the taxpayers to be
taxed a different percentage of income depending on how much they make, and this distorts
labour market preference. This can be extended to the non-linear estate tax which distorts, not
only present day labour markets, but also inter-temporal markets as well.
Most developed countries have a progressive tax schedule on bequests, which is nonlinear,
and thereforeRicardian equivalence fails. The reason for this, is that when this lump sum tax
occurs, even if the consumer’s consumption remains unchanged, he/she is driven into a
marginally lower tax bracket, and in order to maintain consumption, their savings rate drops.
This reduction in savings implies a reduction in the consumer’s estate and therefore, a
reduction in the marginal estate tax rate. This reduces the price of the heir’s consumption
relative to the parents. Therefore, the parent will reduce their own consumption because, at
the margin, it is more profitable to save.The Ricardian method was predicted to leave
consumption unchanged because of “consumption smoothing.” The fact that consumption
drops in order to save more (due to the more appealing lower tax bracket on savings) distorts
behaviour, and “destroys the RicardianEquivalence.”(p. 12, Abel, 1986).
Henning Bohn makes a very good point(1992) when he says that, following the Ricardian
logic, but assuming distortionary taxes, higher taxes increase the marginal cost of publicly
provided goods. If consumers observe a tax cut in this environment, they rationally anticipate
that tax cuts today will be accompanied by future government spending cuts. Therefore their
consumption increases because they will not assume that taxes will increase in the future
since it is more economically efficient for the government to simply cut future spending. (p.
589, Bohn, 1992).The key assumption here is distortionary taxes will generate a greater
deadweight-loss than non-distortionary ones. Again, according to Bohn, if the government is
concerned with macro-efficiency it is in their best interest, marginally, to cut future
government spending. While I agree that government debt increases the likelihood of
government program cuts (for example, as of this writing, a massive government program cut
is being debated in the Unites States congress due to their large gov’t debt figure), I feel the
need to challenge Bohn’s claims that distortionary taxes reduce welfare. Many distortionary
taxes are observable in the real world, for example, progressive income tax, and an extra tax
on alcohol and tobacco. A progressive income tax may distort behaviour and reduce workers
incentives to work harder and gain a higher wage. However, it reduces income inequality and
that, in turn, will reduce labour strikes, animosity between classes, and health issues resulting
from poverty. (Baumal, 1972). Overall effects are debatable, and it is beyond the scope of
this paper to delve into any more detail on the effects of that particular tax. Other
distortionary taxes may include Pigoviantaxes, which are intentionally distortionary, and are
used to correct negative externalities. These include things such as an extra tax levied on
tobacco, alcohol, or pollution. They still distort behaviour and therefore may increase the
nominal deadweight-loss of taxation, but again, the reduction in medical costs as a result of
these taxes may offset the loss to efficiency created by the distorted behavior. Nominally it
would be difficult to determine the net outcome of these Pigovian taxes.Socially, the benefits
to society would seem to increase as a result of these taxes, but again, with a black market
arising from high tax rates, even that is debatable. Therefore, are we to believe that a
government who values the welfare of its state, would reduce these taxes to boost efficiency?
And should we believe that consumers will predict this?These thoughts seem to undermine
Henning Bohn’s argument, and the effects on the RicardianEquivelence theory are uncertain.
If consumers don’t expect a reduction in future government spending, would they expect an
increase in future taxes? I suppose it depends on their knowledge and opinion of distortionary
taxes, their overall foresight, and their interest in economics and politics.
Trostel (1993) conducted a test allowing for a distortionary tax using a model of
individual intertemporal optimization. He finds that, with a non-linear tax on labour, a
temporary substitute from taxation to debt caused a Keynesian-like reaction: increasing
consumption and output in the short-run and decreasing them in the long-run. (Ricciutti 2001,
citing Trostel 1993).
If distortionary taxes are present, the timing of these taxes is very important. This is
especially true when deficits are used to postpone capital income tax since a reduction in
marginal capital income tax rates may cause individuals to save more and consume less.
(Bernheim 1987, Auerbach and Kotlikoff 1986). It must be noted that much of this outcome
depends on intertemporal substitution elasticities, which is empirically difficult to determine.
Most importantly, Deficits may substantially depress the long-run capital stock even when
the short-run effect is Crowd-in investment. (Bernheim 1987).
Redistribution between generations, as well as between different income groups of the
same generation cause serious problems for the Ricardian theory. As stated earlier, a
progressive tax system, which itself is a form a redistribution policy, causes problems for
Ricardian predictions. However, when the distribution of future taxes is uncertain, deficits
may actually “Crowd-In” investment. (Chan 1983). Since uncertainty for the future will
increase savings, and Savings = Investment, this will have a positive effect on short-term
investment. Unfortunately, it is difficult to determine the significance of this factor in
quantitativeterms. “If the world was otherwise Ricardian, then one would never expect to
observe deficits since the electorate would universally oppose the gratuitous introduction of
uncertainty.” (Bernheim, 1987). In other words, we would expect to see massive surpluses to
curb future uncertainty, which we haven’t seen for some time. However, Barro (1979) finds a
reasonable explanation for government debt. He argues that government expenditure is
cyclical in nature, and the capital needed today is not produced immediately from a rise in
taxes. In addition, transaction costs from tax collection, (and raising taxes) add to the
deadweight loss of taxation, making issuing bonds a relatively cheaper option. (Barro, 1979).
4)Perfect Capital Markets
One of Barro’s main assumptions is the existence of perfect capital markets, or if they
are imperfect, they fail in specific ways, which are predictable. During this day and age,
we’ve surely seen examples of imperfect capital markets. Consumers who need loans are
unable to get them because the default risk during a recession is too high, or that risk is
miscalculated due to asymmetric information (more on that later). What happens when
imperfect capital markets exist? When consumers are unable to receive loans, Government
deficits may have a real effect on the economy.
Liquidity constraints play a very important role when comparing the effectiveness of a
tax rise versus deficit spending. “Under the assumption that 20 percent of the population is
liquidity constrained, they show that a $1 deficit-for-tax swap would increase consumption
by 25 cents.”(Hubbard and Judd 1986, cited by Bernheim 1987). This conflicts directly with
Barro’s predictions of a 1 dollar deficit-for-tax swap resulting in a 5 cent increase in
consumption. In other words, perhaps more people are liquidity constrained than Barro, or
even Ricardo had imagined. Or perhaps, the economic environment is vastly different to how
it was in the 1820’s and possibly even in the 1970’s. The general consensus is that that there
are two types of households in the economy that react differently to tax cuts: Those who are
liquidity constrained, and those who are not. Those who are liquidity constrained will spend
the money immediately, living from paycheck to paycheck. Therefore, as the proportion of
liquidity constrained households increases, the less impact Ricardian consumers have on
economic policy. The question of debate is how large a proportion of the population are
liquidity constrained? Approximations have it pegged around 20-23% in 2007 (Gorbachev
and Dogra, 2010). It’s interesting to note that even though more and more households have
gone into debt over the past 30 years, the proportion that are liquidity constrained hasn’t
changed much. The reason for this is that “The demand for debt has increased in line with the
supply, due to historically low real interest rates, increasing house prices and increased
income volatility.”(Gorbachev and Dogra, 2010).But there seems to be more to this story.
The literature agrees (including Barro himself) that Liquidity constrained consumers do
not behave in a Ricardian fashion, but what about those who are not liquidity constrained, but
still in debt?It’s safe to assume they would use a tax cut for consumption or to pay off their
debt. Logically, we wouldn’t expect these people to save it long-term when they have
outstanding debts incurring heavy interest fees.Looking at credit card payments after the
2001 U.S. tax credit, Agarwal, Liu and Souleles(or ALS) found that consumers initially
increased their credit card payments to repay their debt. Shortly afterwards, their spending
increased, counter to the RicardianEquivalence hypothesis. (Agarwal, Liu and Souleles,
2007). Although in their report, ALS consider credit card repayment as a form of saving and
perhaps it is technically a form of saving, but is it the heavy interest fees, or the Ricardian
Equivalence which weigh more heavily on the decision to repay debt as opposed to consume?
It seems we cannot compare repayment of debt to a pure long-term saver (which isn’t in debt)
because the interest rates are so skewed that they greatly influence disposable income
decision-making. In other words, the incentive for someone to save their money and receive a
5% nominal interest rate per year (which in real terms would be closer to 2-3%), is not equal
to the incentives for a consumer to repay their debt incurring 20% interest (or 17% in real
terms). Therefore, the definition of savings as ALS described it, is not the same as the
Ricardianconsumers savings that Barro described. This theoretical debate is important
because it is currently estimated that 43% of American households spend more than they earn
each year. (World Bank, 2010).
Consumers who are not liquidity constrained will possibly save the tax cut, the reasons
for which are not so clear. According to Freidman’s permanent income hypothesis (to which
Barro’s theory are based on), they adjust their expenditure plans over such a long period of
time, that their short-term household expenditure increase will be miniscule. In addition, in
line with Barro’sRicardian theory, they will tend to save the money in anticipation of future
tax increases, even so far as to leave it behind for their children if the tax increase happens
after their death. Therefore, it is very important to ask, is this how consumers actually behave
and what exactly are their motives? Are they acting Ricardian? Or are they, in fact, simply
acting as they normally would if their disposable income had increased? In other words, does
the fact that the money is being given from the government influence their marginal
propensity to consume it? I intend to provide an answer to this question in section D.
5) Perfect information
The Permanent Income hypothesis assumes that consumers will know their future
income and plan their lives accordingly. However, when uncertainty is introduced events may
not go exactly as planned.Barro’s theory contains implicit assumptions of perfectly informed
and forward-looking consumers. In a time when less than 60% of America’s public votes in
presidential elections (Federal Election Commission, 2008), are we to believe that the
majority of the public is informed about public policy, let alone perfectly informed on the
details of policy?Imperfect information may also help to explain the cases forimperfect
capital marketsmentioned previously. An empirical testconducted by Stiglitz and Weiss on
credit rationing shows that potential borrowers, who are even willing to take loans at a higher
interest rate, are denied loans, while at the same time, observationally identical borrowers are
not denied. Due to adverse selection, the bank cannot increase interest rates or loan
requirements because it could increase the riskiness of the loan by attractinghigh risk
investors and possibly lower the profits of the bank’s loan portfolio. (Stiglitz and Weiss,
1981). Here we can see an example of a non-market-clearing equilibrium. If perfect
information existed, this would not be possible because the extra supply of loans a bank gives
out could have interest rates adjusted to meet various credit scores. Adverse selection is a
side-effect of asymmetrical information and is observable in many other areas such as the
insurance market, medical, and even a used car lot. In this case, it helps explain the
mechanism for market failures in the credit market.
Empirical work conducted by Michael Reiter (1999) found that Ricardain Equivalence
fails to hold when thereis a lack of perfect information concerning government debt. His
explanationwas that households face difficulties when attempting to obtain information about
government debt. Even for educated households, “the problem begins with the fact that data
from different sources source country statistics, OECD, IMF that sometimes differ by
nonnegligible amounts, due to subtle differences in definitions. Further questions concern the
decision of market vs. par values and the treatment of government assets.” (Reiter, 1999). For
uneducated households, who obtain most of their economic information from popular media
outlets, it’s even less accurate. Most media outlets focus on “gross” rather than “net” public
debt. Most importantly, the changes in gross and net debt can differ substantially. (Reiter,
1999). Reiter goes on to say that much of the debate is concerned with deficits and not the
overall debt, failing to recognize the inflationary devaluation of debt over time. In general,
changes in debt by news networks are given in nominal terms, which can be largely arbitrary
during periods of high inflation. (Reiter, 1999).Reiter’s work assumes rational expectations,
and even still, as long as perfect information is not available, Ricardain Equivalence fails to
Further evidence of the public’s lack of perfect information was found by Allers, Haan,
and Kam’s (1998) microeconomic tests in the Netherlands on the knowledge of public debt.
Only 27% of respondents gave a fairly correct answer when asked about the size of
government debt/deficit. (AHK, 1998).
6) Consumers are indifferent when comparing tax cuts to government debt.
This is a very important piece of the Ricardian puzzle because if this were true, people
would not be willing to take on debt at a high interest rate. The reason for this is that
many“consumers’ discount ratesare greater than the government interest rate on debt.”
(Blanchard, 1985). In other words, these consumers gain more utility from consumption, even
though they incur a high interest rate (ex: many credit card companies charge over 20% APR)
than from saving. If they plan out their expenditure across their lifetimes, as the life-cycle
hypothesis suggests, they are losing a great deal of lifetime income due to their high discount
rates (ie: their preference to have the money now, for consumption, rather than save for future
consumption). Consumers in credit card debt have discount rates that are higher than the APR
on their credit cards, otherwise, they would not borrow. Since there is no credit card in
existence that has an interest rate as low as a government bonds rate (3-5%), then we cannot
say they are indifferent when the choice arises to pay more taxes now, or to pay more in the
future. Put another way, since their credit card debt indicates they are already willing to pay
the principle amount + 20% so long as it’s in the future, they will gladly forego paying the
tax now in order to pay a future amount + 5% interest (or whatever the discount rate on
government debt is.) This helps explain the behavior of consumers which are liquidity
constrained, and also the consumers which are not constrained but still are willing to take on
debt.This is just one example of the failure of the “tax cuts = government debt” assumption.
7) The government faces an intertemporal budget constraint.
An Intertemporal budget constraint means that if the government cuts tax in period one,
it must raise tax in the future (period 2). Logically this makes sense, however the reality,
especially in the case of the United States government is not so clear. It is assumed, in
regards to Ricardian equivalence, that the government cannot run a Ponzigame. In other
words, they cannot spend more than they earn continuously, while constantly gaining new
investors and selling them bonds, all while only paying interest payments and not the actual
principle owed. Unfortunately, the past 30 years have been a “Ponzi” period for the United
States, and there’s no clear indication that it will stop.
Since we’ve seen the U.S. National Debt rise, while only interest payments have been
going out, we cannot assume that the U.S. government faces anintertemporal budget
constraint. If they do, it spans a large period of time, well into the future and is dependent
upon a multitude of variables. Policy decisions on whether to increase/decrease government
spending or raise/cut taxes all depend on who the policy leaders are, as well as the economic
climate, and all add to the uncertainty. Political fads, affecting the public’s voting decisions
will affect fiscal and monetary policy.The future brings a great deal of uncertainty in general,
and we cannot say for certain that the government cannot run a Ponzi game until it collapses
at an unforeseeable future date. In other words, it’s not an obviousassumptionas many authors
believe it to be. In Fact, Woodford argues that governments do not necessarily face spending
constraints unless they are artificially imposed, and it is also possible for the fiscal authority
to run deficits without any offsetting action in the future. (Tcherneva, 2009 citing Woodford,
1996).Feldstein (1976) makes a very similar argument and uses this reasoning to contradict
Ricardian Equivalence when he said that if the growth rate of the economy (the sum of the
rates of population growth and technical progress) exceeds the interest rate, the government
can permanently postpone the repayment of debt so that no generation has to repay the debt
left by previous generations. (Feldstein, 1976).On average, the interest rate on debt in the U.S.
has been lower than the growth rate of the economy, however, they exhibit different risk
characteristics and therefore risk/reward payout is cannot be compared by only looking at
average returns. (Elmendorf and Mankiw 1998, referencing Abel, 1989). Furthermore, there
is no empirical evidence that shows that the growth rate of the economy is greater than the
interest rate over the long run. (Ricciuti, 2001).
There is no reason to believe that consumers that observe this trend of “interest only”
payments by their government should expect to see their taxes increase in the future to pay
off the principle owed by the government, aside from a slight increase due to higher interest
rate payments (to cover the larger government deficit). In fact, to many people, an increase in
inflation is more observable, and would provide incentives against saving, especially when
the interest rates are at historically low levels. Therefore, at least from the view of the
younger generation of taxpayers, perhaps they don’t expect taxes to increase since it hasn’t
happened in their lifetime.
The Macroeconomic implications of the government not having an intertemporal
budget constraint means that the bond price reduction to fund expansionary fiscal policy will
not be offset by future tax increases. This occurs in a non-Ricardian government regime,
where they make no promises to increase future taxes. The effects of this policy will improve
actual wealth, which in turn will increase output and cause upward inflationary pressure
because the economy is assumed to be at full employment. According to Tchernerva, this
only works if the government is explicit in its intentions to not raise future taxes. “A bond
drop will do little to stimulate the economy unless it has an impact on expectations.”
“Public debt issue permits the generation in power to shift tax burdens to generations
without a political voice.” (Buchannan, 1976). This is the very nature of public debt.
However, if we believe Ricardian Equivalence to be true, then it means that massive
government deficits can be created by this generation without worrying about future
generations because the current generation will set aside resources and give them to future
generations. For example, a very plausible scenario is that the current generation’s
policymakers can increase wartime spending significantly, funded by treasury bonds. They
will not raise taxes to cover the debt for a long period of time, say 30 years, which will affect
the second generation, as Buchannan claimed. However, policymakers that believe in
Ricardian Equivalence would dismiss Buchannan’s claim that we are taxing those without a
political voice because they assume that the current generation has set aside resources in
anticipation of the future tax increase. Therefore, policymakers can pursue their own agenda
(for example: increase wartime spending while not raising taxes—since raising taxes would
hurt their chances for re-election) all thanks to the Ricardian Equivalence. Ironically, they can
dismiss a Fiscal stimulus package during a recession as completely ineffective and quote the
same theory (the irony is that both are forms of government spending).
It would seem that the policymakers with the most faith in the Ricardian Equivalence
are those in the United Kingdom. After producing a stimulus package in spring of 2008, they
later decided that a tax rise or a public expenditure cut was to be implemented in the autumn
in compliance with their strict fiscal rules. When asked what the correct framework to think
about the change was, Governor and Chief economist of the bank of England, Mervyn King
replied, “RicardianEquivalenceis not a bad place to start.” (Giles 2008 quoting King 2008).
In other words, the “Fiscal rules” of the British government dictate the actions they take when
reacting to a recession. These rules are part of “The New Consensus” economic model, which
hasRicardian Equivalence built into its theoretical framework.
B) Empirical Analysis
Direct tests on Ricardian equivalence have taken a few forms. One way is to see if large
deficits result in an increase in the interest rate.Another way, which is more commonly used,
is to test whether an increase in government bonds leads to an increase in household income
and consumption, or an increase in savings. An alternative approach is a test to see whether
government debt leads to a trade deficit (twin deficits).Finally, there are surveymethods
testing consumer behavior.
The most common econometric technique for testing RicardianEquivalence is the
Ordinary Least Squares estimator (OLS). As with many econometric tests, the results can be
questionable because they may not be exogenous to the data. (Bernheim, 1987). In other
words, variables such as debt, gov’t expenditure, income, and interest rates may all be
determined at the same time. The main limitations to this method are that the connection
between the estimated equations and their underlying theoretical models are not specified
explicitly, and that most empirical applications focus on the current changes in variables
(such as taxes, labour, consumption, etc.) and speak very little of the expected changes in the
future variables. (Leiderman and Razin, 1988).
Feldstein (1982) tests consumption andis among the most cited study testing
RicardianEquivalence. He finds that fiscal policy can have a significant effect on aggregate
demand. The rejection of the Ricardian Equivalence is especially apparent when looking at
the coefficient on his ‘government transfer’ variable.(Feldstein, 1982). However, Seater
(1993) argues that Feldstein omits variables including the marginal tax rates and business
cycle indicators, which leaves the interpretation of his government transfer variable
Kormendi (1983) tests the Ricardian Equivalence using a consumption function
“Consolidated Approach” method. A consolidated approach nests previous tests of Ricardian
Equivalence. He assumes rational expectations of individuals with respect to fiscal policy. He
says the standard approach does not model a person’s rational expectations. His results are in
favor of the Ricardian Equivalence. (Adji 2006 referencing Kormendi 1983).
Since the late 1980’s the Euler equation has dominated the tests for Ricardian Equivalence
(tests such as Auschauer (1985), Evans (1988), Haug (1990), Himaarios (1996)). The Euler
equation was formed in order to obey the first order conditions of optimal consumption for
farsighted and rational conditions. With these assumptions in place, the results are usually in
favor of Ricardian Equivalence for industrial countries, while tests for developing countries
yield mixed results. (Adji, 2006). Again, we have to highlight the rational expectations and
farsighted consumers assumptions, and question thevalidity of these assumptions, the
methodological approach of these studies, and therefore the results.
Leiderman and Razin (1988) estimate a stochastic-intertemporal model for
consumption behavior and use it for testing Ricardian Equivalence with time series data.
They focus on the “co-movement” of consumption and government-budget variables. They
use monthly, time-series data for Israel from the periods of 1980-1985. As they state, “This
case is of particular interest in testing the Ricardian-equivalence hypothesis because of the
high volatility of movements in the budget deficit, taxes, and private consumption in an
economy with unusually high government budget deficits, amounting to 15 percent of
aggregate output, on average, during this period. The sizeable deficits have resulted in a
relatively large government debt, which was twice the size of GNP at the end of the
period.”(Leiderman and Razin, 1988). This is significant because most of the literature
beforehand had focused on testing Ricardian properties in a relatively stable economic
environment. Therefore, they claim that it could potentially enable a more powerful
hypothesis test related to the co-movements of private-sector consumption and public sector
spending. (Leiderman and Razin, 1988). Their results are in favor of the
Kostas Drakos (2001) tests the hypothesis that increased private savings will match an
increase in government borrowing, looking for a positive correlation between the two. If a
positive relationship is found, it provides evidence in favour of the Ricardian Equivalence
and if a negative relationship is found, it provides evidence against the Ricardian Equivalence.
He used time-series data from Greece from the periods of 1981-1996. In order to account for
inflation the values are expressed in real terms by using the Consumer Price Index. The
macroeconomic variables were non-stationary, so he had to explore the link between
government borrowing and savings within a possibly cointegrated system2. He used the
Johansen procedure to test for cointegration. This test permits more than one cointegrating
relationship so is more generally applicable than the Engle-Granger test. (Johansen, 1991).
To test the order of integration, a Dickey-Fuller unit root test was used, which is an
econometric technique seen commonly in the literature. The results indicated that the system
satisfied the no-autocorrelation3 assumption, which is a critical assumption in the Johansen
procedure.Drakos’s empirical results suggest there were some Ricardian effects when the
government increased borrowing, in the form of increased private savings. However, he notes
that the increase in savings doesn’t completely offset the government debt. In other words,
households do perceive the government bonds as net wealth to some extent, and consequently
increase their consumption, contrary to the Ricardian Equivalence. This behaviour is
attributed to liquidity constraints and myopia due to uncertainty regarding the future path of
taxes among consumers. (Drakos, 2001).The coefficient of Drakos’s “government borrowing”
variable in the long-run can be interepreted as the Marginal Propensity to save out of
increased wealth due to holding government bonds. This was only 7%, while the Marginal
propensity to consume it was 93%. (Drakos, 2001). In other words, Ricardian effects in the
long-run were minimal.
2Cointegration of a vector of variables implies that the number of unit roots in the systemis
less than the number of unit roots in the corresponding univariate series. (Drakos, 2001
citing Granger (1981), Granger and Weiss (1983), Granger (1986), Engle and Granger (1987)).
3Autocorrelation is when the residuals (error-terms) show a pattern over time.
It is interesting that in Drakos’s conclusion, he sounds as if the results produced a
“mixed bag”, but when reading through his empirical work, he shows very strong evidence
against Ricardian Equivalence. Furthermore, he does not include data on changes in the
interest rate. I find this particularly puzzling since a decrease in the price of bonds can result
in an increase in the interest rate (although this in itself would test Ricardian equivalence as
well). If the interest rate increases, this can have an effect on private savings. Therefore, due
to a potential omitted variable bias, Drakos’s results are questionable.
Testing the behavior of the labour market, Karen Conway (1999) uses a two-period
perfect foresight model in which the individual maximizes utility over two periods. The
empirical results suggest that state government budget deficits increase male labour supply
and point to workers being Ricardian, howevershe goes on to say, “the results found here for
state government policy should not be directly applied to an analysis of the labor supply
effects of federal deficits because of the multitude of differences between federal and state
government policy.” (P. 187, Conway, 1999). Therefore, this study is applicable to local
governments who are debating the effects of public debt. Her assumption,as with much of the
literature, is perfect foresight, and therefore the application of her results to the real world is
Twin Deficits Model
When the subject of government debt arises, The Twin Deficits model must be
mentioned. It is a related theory that describes how a trade deficit can occur as a result of
government debt. Following Keynesian theory,
C+I+G+X-M = Y
X-M = Y-C-I-G
X-M = S – I
X – M = Public Savings + Private savings – Investment
X – M = (T-G) + (Private savings – Investment)
And since Private savings – Investment = approximately 0,
X – M = (T-G)
In other words, the Account deficit = Trade deficit.
Therefore if taxes are decreased, consumption (and imports) will increase, and interest
rates will increase, which means foreign investors will buy more currency, this will affect the
exchange rate and exports will decrease as a result. If the world were Ricardian, we would
not expect to see consumption (and therefore interest rates and imports) increase when taxes
are decreased. Therefore if we can find examples where an account deficit did not lead to a
trade deficit, then it would provide evidence in favor of the Ricardian Equivalence.
According to the literature on this Twin Deficits phenomenon, a number of studies have
found a correlation between an increase in government debt and an increase in the trade
deficit. (Lau and Tang (2009) referencing Hutchison and Pigott (1984), Zietz and Pemberton
(1990), Bachman (1992), Vamvoukas (1999), Piersanti (2000) and Leachman and Francis
(2002)). More specifically, some researchers have found a uni-directional causal relationship
between government deficits and the current account balance; This includes Baharumshah
and Lau (2007), who analysed data in Thailand, Acaravci and Ozturk (2008) in Turkey, and
Hakro (2009) in Pakistan. (Lau and Tang, 2009). However, empirical work by Enders and
Lee (1990), Evans and Hasan (1994), and Kaufmann et al. (2002) have concluded that there
is no link between the twin deficits and are therefore supportive of the Ricardian Equivalence.
(Lau and Tang, 2009). Overall, there is no real consensus over the causality of the Twin
Deficits Hypothesis. Most researchers agree that they are correlated, however, and that is
enough evidence to question the Ricardian Equivalence, and to motivate further potential
research in the field.
Surveysand Experimental Methods
One of the assumptions of Barro’s theory involves a nondistortionary, lump sum tax.
Adji, Alm and Ferraro (AAF) find that, while the Ricardian view largely holds in the
presence of nondistortionary taxes, the existence of distortionary taxes on savings generates
inconsistent behaviour, and the Ricardian equivalence fails. Following Cadsby and Frank
(1991), Slate et al. (1995), and Ricciuti and Di Laurea (2003), AAF’s experimental design
uses an intergenerational utility function in an overlapping generations setting. Their
experiment consists of 2 treatments. The first conforms to Barro’s assumption of a lumpsum,
nondistortionary tax. The second, includes a tax on savings (distortionary) in which one unit
of savings does not generate one unit of future income. Details of the experiment are as
“The baseline treatment consists of 12 three-period rounds with a
nondistortionary tax…. Thirty-two subjects, drawn from a subject pool
maintained by the Experimental Economics Center at Georgia State University,
participated in the experiment. The subjects were undergraduate students with
various majors, and most students had taken 2-3 economic courses.” (P. 3,
AAF opted for a simple multiplicative utility function, also used by Cadsby and Frank
(1991), Slate et al. (1995), and Ricciuti and Di Laurea (2003) who concluded that the
multiplicative form generated less noisy behavior than the other utility functions. AAF
created quite a complex experiment and really seemed to look at all angles when designing
the experiment to be as nonbiased as possible on a theoretical basis. However, the fact that
they chose subjects who had taken an economic course is not necessary indicative of the rest
of the public. How many people in America, for example, have taken a college-level
economics course, let alone 2-3 courses? The methods used for this experiment were perhaps,
overly complex, and as a result, required a test subject who was proficient in economics in
order to even understand what was being asked.However, despite that, even with the
unrealistic assumption of the public’s extensive knowledge of economic vocabulary, the
results showed that when distortionary taxes are present on savings,
In the Netherlands, Allers, Haan and Kam (AHK) conducted a survey among readers of
14 regional Dutch newspapers. With 15,507 replies, it is quite a large sample size. However,
it is still only 1.2% of the newspapers sold which could be an indication of potential sample
selection bias. (AHK, 1998). This survey about government debt was combined with a
psychology survey which reduces potential sample selection bias. Because their survey
targeted newspaper readers, those that are more educated were overrepresented, which means
that their sample would over-estimate the public’s knowledge on government debt. (AHK,
Three questions were asked by AHK in order to test the Ricardian Equivalence. The
first question asked how large the deficit was (the correct answer was 375 billion GLD, but
responses in the range of 250 – 450 billion were deemed close enough). The second question
asked how much government debt increased in the previous year, again allowing a range of
numbers as “close enough.” Finally they asked, “When the government debt increases, taxes
have to rise in the future. Do you save extra money now explicitly in order to be able to pay
those higher future taxes?” (AHK, 1998). The third question is the most direct inquiry into
the microeconomic validity of the Ricardian Equivalence I have seen in the literature.
However, it is not without it’s faults. He is projecting an assumption onto the respondents by
saying that when government debt increases, taxes must rise in the future. This assumption is
still being debated, and I have outlined criticisms of it in section A: namely that the
government could choose to cut government programs instead of raising taxesand that the
government may not, in fact, face an intertemporal budget constraint.Despite that, the results
of his survey were quite interesting: 27% of respondents knew the level of public debt, and
39% answered correctly about the previous year’s deficit. Most people underestimated public
debt levels. 88% of respondents indicated that expected future tax increases do not influence
their saving decisions. (AHK, 1998).
Looking at historical tax cuts, Damien Echevin’s analyses the effects of the 2002 tax
cut on the French economy in his 2010 paper, “Ricardian or Spender Consumers? Evidence
from a taxpayer survey questionnairewas an important entry to determining the legitimacy of
Ricardian Equivalence. She says that due to liquidity restraints faced by households, many of
them can be considered “spender consumers” where by they spend a large portion of their tax
cut. According to Mankiw (2000), “both these realities may actually coexist: some consumers
have short-term prospects while others have longer-term ones. In the Fall of 2002, the French
households received an additional 2.6 Billion Euros, which corresponds to a 5% income tax
cut. The mean tax cut being 100 Euros, and the median was 60. Looking at those two
numbers alone, we can see that the higher income groups received a larger lump sum tax cut
than the lower income groups. The tax cut was concentrated on the top income group, where
the average tax cut was 500 euros. Furthermore, the top marginal income tax rate was
decreased by 2.6%, from 52.75% to 50.1%, whereas the lower marginal income tax was
decreased by 0.4% (from 7.5% to 7.1%). (Echevin, 2010). However, because the tax cut has
been applied to income tax before reductions and credits which benefit lower income
households, it changed from regressive to slightly progressive.”(Echevin, 2010).
The results from Echiven’s survey were as follows: “As seen on table 3, among the
households who beneﬁt from the income tax cut, 669 (52.6%) state that they have spent this
money on consumption while 99 (7.8%) say they have saved it; 63 (5.0%) say they have used
it both for consuming and saving, while 75 (5.9%) have used it for other purposes; 356
(28.8%) do not know. Most of the households answer that they have consumed the tax cut,
while another signiﬁcant share say they don’t know how they have spent it.” (P.4, Echevin,
The main problem I have with Echevin’s method is the way she dealt with the
nonresponses. The group of people who answered that they “don’t know” what to do with the
money were split equally into the various groups. This method tends to artificially inflate the
lower numbers. She should have omitted those responses as they are not helpful in assessing
the impact of the tax cut, or she should have split the responses proportionally to how the
others responded (which would yield the same result as my first suggestion, as the
percentages would not change). For simplicity, if we drop the last two groups in her survey,
we are only left with those who responded that they would spend it, or save it. The 3rd group
can be split equally since they are both saving and spending half. This would yield the
Spend on Private
Save it 15.76% 131
Total 100% 831
Echevin’s results yielded 81.5% of consumers that would spend the tax cut, which is
close to my approximation of her data: 84.24%. Compared to other similar studies, a figure of
81-84% is quite large. For instance, using the same methodology, “Shapiro and
Slemrod(1995) also ﬁnd evidence of a large response to the 1992 US tax cut with 48 per cent
of the respondents who planned to mostly spend the tax cut, while according to Shapiro and
Slemrod (2003a) only 21 per cent planned to spend the 2001 US tax cut.” (Echevin 2010).Of
course, no two tax cuts are equal and many factors can come into play when determining the
effectiveness of the policy. Factors such as the economic environment at the time it was
issued, as well as which groups were targeted play a very important role in the repercussions
of the tax cut. Of particular importance is the Marginal Propensity to Consume (MPC) of the
individual, but we will explore that in detail later.
The findings are quite interesting, but what happens when the lump sum tax cut is a
larger amount? Echevin conducted a similar survey, this time testing household behavior
when the tax cut in question was equal to 10% of their annual income. The results can be
seen in the table below.
These results favor Barro’sRicardianEquivelence hypothesis more so than the previous
survey because the number of respondents that would save the money has increased
significantly. I would have liked to see a follow-up question asking how long the household
would save the money, because if they only save it for a few months to a year, then it would
still boost short-term economic growth. Echevin notes that, in consistency with the life-cycle
hypothesis, households headed by older individuals appear to consume a larger share of the
tax cut,” and, “contrary to what is conventionally believed, there is evidence that lower-
income households save a larger proportion of the tax cut, all the more so when the tax cut is
small.” (P.8, Echevin, 2010). These results are significant, and it leads me to believe that if a
policymakers wanted to boost consumption using a tax cut, it may yield better results if the
tax cut was a small amount, or if they wanted an even larger boost, they could try giving
small lump sums in intervals, say every few months, instead of one large amount. What truly
surprises me is the way that the low income groups responded. Would they really save the
money when they are living on the border of poverty? I only wish we could have seen a
follow-up question because this goes against logic and observed behavior. Perhaps most of
these people would save the money until the end of the month and use it to pay bills.
Unfortunately, Echiven’s survey was not detailed enough to account for this behavior and,
according to her, they act as Ricardian Consumers.
C) Method and Methodology
When deciding on the optimal method for my research, I had tworeal choices. The
first choice was to use econometrics. Among this first choice, there were also choices as to
which variables would be tested:
1.a) One way was to find various macroeconomic data on consumption and fiscal policy and
to run a regression and analyse the data, attempting to determine if a reduction in taxes (or an
increase in government spending) led to an increase in consumption, and if it did, how large
the multiplier was.
1.b) A similar approach to this method would involve different variables, this time analysing
data on government debt and savings, and whether an increase in government debt leads to an
increase in savings. If savings increases with government debt then we could see evidence of
Ricardian consumer effects.
1.c) I also could have run a regression testing whether deficits increase the real interest rate.
1.d) Finally, I could have tested the twin deficits hypothesis to see if a current account deficit
led to a trade deficit.
Choice 2):The other choice was to orchestrate a survey asking specific questions directly to
consumers about their behaviour.
I had to compare the benefits and shortcomings of each method in order to decide on my
The first method (and all its sub-choices) involves econometrics, which has been the
preferred choice for empirical economic research, and especially for macroeconomics. This is
due to macroeconomic data becoming more widely available, and innovations in econometric
methods that allow it to be more accurate. However econometric methods still exhibit many
problems. I’m not referring to the problems of heterogeneity, spurious regressions, or omitted
variable bias, but a more philosophical problem. Usually in statistical methods, one presents a
hypothesis and attempt to prove it false. If unable to prove it false, they do not dismiss the
null hypothesis. However, “..do subsequent observations of confirming evidence necessarily
increase the confidence in the general statement as opposed to its denial?” (Boland,
1982).Boland uses the example of testing the hypothesis that “all swans are white.” He argues
that the confirmation criteria of conventionalists would have us believe that each past
observation of white swans will necessarily increase the likelihood that next swan found will
be white.(Boland 1982). “This alleged necessity is based on a prior, and unsupported,
assumption that the general statement is true.” In other words, “you will see confirming
evidence for your empirical generalizations only because you have already assumed they are
true!” (Boland, 1982). Boland speaks at length about the “Conventionalists” and their
“Criterion of Confirmability” and since I’ve mentioned them, an explanation is in order.
Conventionalism as a methodology in economics gained popularity after general
agreement over the glaring problem with Induction, which was “finding a general method of
providing an inductive proof for anyone’s claim to empirical knowledge.” (Boland, 1982).
Induction includes the Positive/Normative debate, in other words should we attempt to
present only empirical evidence (positive), or suggest solutions to problems (normative). The
problem of induction was made clearer after Newtonian physics (which was inductively
proven) turned out to be possibly untrue. Therefore a retreat to conventionalism took place,
especially among neoclassical economists. Conventionalism is not concerned with absolute
truth, but instead looks at a conditional deductive argument for why the chosen theory is a
“best” theory available.(Boland, 1982). But how do we measure the “best” theory? This leads
to the problem with conventionalism: “the problem of finding generally acceptable criteria
upon which to base any contingent, deductive proof, or any claim to knowledge.” (Boland,
1982). The most widely used criterion is confirmability. In other words, if we can observe, or
confirm, a theory in the real world, then we can say it is confirmed (although not necessarily
true). (Boland, 1982). A highly confirmed theory, such as the white swan example, can still
be false in the presence of a black swan. The reason that this philosophical debate is so
important is because the criterion for confirmability is so widely used in econometrics.
Another problem with conventionalism occurs when choosing the “best theory/model”
for a particular hypothesis. “The central difficulty is that several different models may all
seem reasonable given the data, but lead to very different conclusions about the parameters of
interest. In these circumstances, presenting the results of a single preferred model can often
be misleading. It leads the reader to underestimate the uncertainty actually present about the
parameters, because the reader is rarely made aware of the inevitable uncertainty surrounding
the form of the model.” (Temple, 1999).Other problems in econometrics have to do with
regression analysis. If two variables move together over time, we must assume a lot to infer
that one is causing the other to move. How many other possible variables have an effect on
that particular variable, and have we discovered all of them? Of course we can measure the
degree of confidence with a particular variable by looking at the error term, but what if there
are problems with the data, or proper measurement of the variables? For example, Seater
(1993) makes the argument that instead of using data for a country’s total deficit (including
local and state debt), much of the empirical work surrounding Ricardian Equivalence only
specifies the federal deficits. (Seater, 1993).Perhaps looking at macro data is the wrong
method in determining how consumers behave, and asking them directly would provide a
more accurate answer. With that, I decided that econometrics contained too many problems,
inherently within it, so I chose to conduct a survey as my empirical method.
However, a survey method is also guilty of presenting results in a manner of
confirmation and also exhibited other problems as well. I am assuming those taking the
survey will not only answer the questions honestly, but will actually follow the behaviour that
they indicated in the survey. For example, someone could have the intention of saving a
bonus received from their employer, but when it actually occurs, they may very well lack the
self-control and spend it immediately. There could be a potential problem with the sample I
choose not properly reflecting the population. However all things considered, I still feel that a
survey method exhibits fewer problems than econometric methods.
The beauty of the survey method is that we are not required to assume anything about
consumer behavior. Debating whether consumers are farsighted, rational, consumption
smoothing, perfectly informed, or altruistic is a completely avoidable process in a survey
because the hypothesis is tested directly. I would argue a survey method is the most direct
test because different consumers may behave in different ways due to their specific
philosophy (such as being farsighted, altruistic, etc. or any combination), therefore lumping
all consumers into a specific category (for example farsighted), is unnecessary and avoidable
because we are testing behavior directly. This allows the survey method to accurately
represent a population without making unrealistic assumptions about the entire populace.
Now I had to choose the type of survey, and I chose to conduct a face-to-face survey
around Bristol, England. I was lucky to have studied in England because if I had conducted a
face-to-face survey in my hometown of San Diego, California, I don’t think the results would
accurately reflect the population. This is because I conducted the survey mainly outdoors,
usually on the sidewalks during a sunny period in England. Because nice weather is so rare in
England, a great deal of the population comes out into the sun. In California, nice weather is
very common, so those who normally stay indoors will continue to stay indoors. Combine
that with the fact that most people drive in America, results in a very limited sidewalk
survey.Statistical concerns for representative sampling caused me to chose a variety of
locations for my survey, over various hours throughout the day. Since a significant proportion
of the population may be working during daytime hours, I included employees of various
retail outlets. In addition I took some surveys during the weekends as well.
Advantages of a face-to-face interview include the following: enhancing respondent’s
participation, answering the respondent’s questions, clarifying the meaning of questions and
responses, making sure the questionnaire is answered in the correct order and by the
respondent herself/himself. (Troitzsch, 2006).
Disadvantages to a face-to-face interview as opposed to other types of survey methods
include the fact that it is difficult to maintain anonymity and difficult to ensure confidentiality.
However in regards to my particular survey, this is not a concern because I didn’t ask the
respondent’s name or any personal questions (ie: address, phone number, etc.). Another
disadvantage stems from the interviewer effects that occur during face-to-face interviews.
This includes subtle visual cues from the interviewer that may influence the respondent’s
answers. Although this behaviour is often difficult to control, I tried to maintain a completely
neutral visual position when asking my questions. Another disadvantage is that the
interviewer can interject values or expectations: “The interviewer may change the wording of
a question or of response choices slightly, or in clarifying them, distort them. Telephone
interviewing can be better supervised and is less prone to these distortions.” (p. 77, Troitzsch,
2006). Again, this problem has been addressed because of the way I designed my survey.
Half of the sample were asked if they would save or spend a tax cut, while the other half were
asked if they would spend or save it. Note that the positions of the words “spend” and “save”
were swapped for 50% of the sample in order to reduce interviewer bias.
Now that my empirical method was chosen, I want to highlight some methodological
debates in which much of my critiques regarding the Ricardian Equivalence stem from.
Milton Friedman’s contribution to economic methodology was his emphasis on a model’s
ability to predict. Whether or not its assumptions were realistic was not important. “More
than thirty years ago I noted that economists could be divided into two groups: Those that
agreed with Freidman’s [methodological] essay and those that did not. Given the
overwhelming dominate emphasis on formal mathematical model building in today’s
graduate schools, we are considered free now to assume whatever we want so long as we are
explicit and the result is a mathematically tractable model. With this in mind, it should be
clear to everyone that today the latter group has become very small.” (P. 4-5, Boland, 2003)
I personally belong in the latter group. I don’t have very much faith in most basic
economic models due to their unrealistic assumptions, and detachment from the real world.
For example, why spend a significant portion of introductory economics courses teaching
theories based on perfect competition, when perfect competition is rarely observable in the
real world? I see these models being useful as elementary teaching aids, but I feel that a better
method of teaching would involve examining real world examples and breaking them down,
in other words, a top-down approach. Secondly, emphasis should be placed on the majority of
the population, such as the welfare of the majority of consumers. For example, too much of
economics is concerned with exceptions to the rule. The Ricardian equivalence itself is based
on an exception that consumers will rationally anticipate a future tax increase (as shown by
my own study). Before any theory is taken seriously, we ought to conduct a study
determining if the majority of the population do in fact behave as the theory suggests. If not,
then how large is the proportion that does? We can use this data for policy decisions, and to
compare policy options. For example, because so much of economics today is based on
theory being backed by mathematical models, often with assumptions which are detached
from reality, we have policymakers who don’t believe in involuntary unemployment, ones
who consider the majority of the population as forward looking, rational, and perfectly
informed, and those that believe perfect capital markets exist. If they don’t believe in these
assumptions, but back the theories that incorporate them, then they themselves are examples
of individuals that are not perfectly informed.
When analysing the paragraph above, you can see some of my implicit assumptions
and methodological approach. I believe the majority of people to be honesthence I favour
studies based on face-to-face surveys.I don’t believe all employment is voluntary because I
myself, as well as many people I’ve spoken with, have been involuntarily unemployed. I
don’t think consumers are perfectly informed, and I don’t believe perfect capital markets
exist (if you check the assumptions section in the Literature review, you can see why). I have
little faith in mathematical models because, while numbers cannot lie, the people creating
these models can represent an idea, no matter how unrealistic, false or otherwise insignificant,
with the correct mathematical model, and while, they are proficient in mathematics, the
theory backing it can often be very poor. As Deirdre McCloskey put it, “The progress of
economic science has been seriously damaged. You can’t believe anything that comes out of
[it]. Not a word. It is all nonsense, which future generations of economists are going to have
to do all over again. Most of what appears in the best journals of economics is unscientific
rubbish.I find this unspeakably sad. All my friends, my dear, dear friends in economics, have
been wasting their time.They are vigorous, difficult, demanding activities, like hard chess
problems. But they are worthless as science."(McCloskey, 2002). McCloskey observed, as I
have, that actual inquiry into the world (which is a fundamental principle of science), is rarely
taking place in economics. However, unlike McCloskey, I believe there is still hope for the
future of economics. By placing such a strong emphasis on a model’s assumptions, and how
well it reflects the real world, we can start to rebuild the foundations of economics.
I carried out a survey to see how consumers would behave if a lump sum tax cut was
put into place. In my survey, I specifically designed it to be as simple as possible so I do not
confuse the general public with complex economic vocabulary or theory.120 people split into
2 groups were asked to take a face-to-face survey. Response rates were close to 95%, with
very few people refusing to participate in this quick survey. These people were asked in a
variety of locations around Bristol, England. Locations include a supermarket, a bank, a
shopping mall, a pedestrian crossing area outside a city counsel building, a gym, and a local
park. The survey was conducted at various times from 10am to 6pm. The first 60 were asked
the following: “If the government gave a tax cut in the form of a lump sum of 500 pounds4,
would you save or spend it?”
The second group of 60 were asked the same question except that the words “save” and
“spend” had their positions swapped. I designed the survey in this manner in order to reduce
potential bias because whichever word is spoken first can have a psychologically
manipulative effect on the participants.It’s important to note that the first group who were
asked the question with “save” appearing first were more likely to save than the second group.
This brings into question the validity of former studies done on the subject when asking
participants a uniform question. I believe my 50/50 double question format is preferable, as
there is no possible way to ask a single question like this without causing bias.
If the person said that they would save the money, a follow up question was asked in
order to ascertain the length of time they would save it for. This is my main contribution to
the field, and I feel that it’s significant because if the person spends the money within one
year of obtaining it, it will still affect short-term growth (although obviously it will suffer
from more lag-time). Other similar studies do not specify the length of time that consumers
will save the tax cut. This can often lead to falsely classifying consumers as Ricardian, which
in this case would mean that they save the tax cut until a future tax rise goes into effect. Most
importantly for policymakers, however, is the need to boost short-term growth during a
recession, and if the money is spent in the short-term, it will affect short-term growth. Some
may criticise my method of classification for savings, however, by asking a consumer how
long they will save a tax cut, it accomplishes three goals. 1) I am forcing them to consider
their intertemporal budget constraints as well as their expectations of their own future income,
therefore, if they are still willing to spend the money in this frame of mind, there is no reason
to believe they would save it otherwise. 2) I’m checking to see if there’s a significant
difference between short-term savers and savers in general, and as it turns out, there is. 3) I’m
measuring dynamic actions as opposed to static. The effects of any policy, fiscal other
otherwise, are not immediate, therefore why have previous survey literature only measured
static savings data? I noticed a gap in the literature and decided to provide a more detailed
choice for consumers.
4Great British Pounds (GBP) currency.
Of the 120 survey participants, 76 would spend the tax cutimmediately, 44 decided to
save the money, however, 36 of those people said they would spend the money within 1 year
of receiving it. Only 8 people total said they would save the money for over a year.
Spend Save (Less than 1 year) Save (More than 1 year)
76 36 8
63.33% 30% 6.67%
These results are significant in the sense that they directly conflict with Barro’s
theories of RicardianEquivalence. In fact, only 6.67% of participants would behave as Barro
predicted.Even if we assume a 25% liquidity constrained population who are required to
increase spending due to their liquidity constraints, that still leaves 73% of the population
behaving in a manner opposite to Ricardian. To put it into perspective, Echevin’s results
indicated 81% would spend. Again, assuming 25% of the population are liquidity constrained,
then we have 56% of the population behaving in a manner opposite to Ricardian. I attribute
the difference in numbers between Echevin’s survey and my own due to the more detailed
classification of my “savings” response (saving more than 1 year).
It’s important to note that not one person answered that they would save money
because they feltthat a future tax rise was eminent. They behaved as if they had just received
Save (less than 1
than 1 year)
Save (less than 1 year)
Save (more than 1 year)
extra disposable income. Those that would normally save their extra disposable income
answered that they would save, and those that would normally spend answered accordingly.
The fact that this new income comes from the government seems irrelevant to the participants,
and has little to no affect on their behaviour. I did not comment on whether the tax cuts were
temporary or permanent because most people are unaware of the details of tax cuts. Even if a
policymaker puts a permanent tax cut into place, a future administration can implement a tax
raise. Similarly, if a temporary tax cut is put into place, it can always be extended indefinitely.
I attempted to reflect the current state of affairs in terms of the public’s knowledge on
government policy. The aim was to design my study to be as realistic as possible, to mimic
reality. I refused to make the unrealistic assumption of perfect information, and more
importantly, “perfect future information” and my questions were structured with that in mind.
Many of the people who answered that they would spend the money also stated that
they would spend it on things that they actually need, such as bills, debt, and transportation
costs. I also noted that of the people who saved the money for over a year, 5 of the 8 were
wearing business suits. This suggests, that they are possibly making a relatively higher
income than the majority, and therefore have no need for the 500 pounds now. If that is true it
complies with basic economic theory of higher income groups having a lower Marginal
Propensity to Consume (MPC). Although again, this was simply an inference and there was
not sufficient evidence to prove their income.
In order to investigate the possibility that the source of the funds could affect the
consumer’s MPC, a second survey was conducted. This time I changed the question to the
following: “If your employer gave you a 500 pound bonus, would you spend it or save it?”
Just like before, I asked 60 people the question above, and another 60 people a similar
question in which the words “spend” and “save” swapped positions, in order to reduce bias.
The results were very similar to the first survey, except for the fact that a few people were
unemployed. I instructed them to answer the question as if they were employed (such as a
previous job, or potential job), which they had no problem complying with.
Of the 120 survey participants, 73 would spend the money immediately, 47 decided to
save the money, however, 35 of those people said they would spend the money within 1 year
of receiving it. Only 12 people total said they would save the money for over a year.
Spend Save (Less than 1 year) Save (More than 1 year)
73 47 12
60.83% 39.17% 10%
Looking at the numbers from both surveys, we see very similar results. Robert Barro, in
compliance with his theory, would have predicted that if the source of funds had arisen from
a tax cut, that we would expect to see more people save it because they would anticipate a
future tax rise. My results indicate that this is certainly not the case. Comparing the amount of
people that save in both surveys, we see more people saving the money (for over 1 year) if it
had come from an increase in their private income (10%) as opposed to if it had come from a
tax cut (6.67%).
As stated by Henning Bohn (1992), “The marginal propensity to consume income
obtained from a tax cut can take any value between zero and the marginal propensity to
consume out of ordinary income.” (P. 589, Bohn, 1992). And the results indicate a value very
close to being equal to the MPC out of ordinary income.In both scenarios most people would
spend the money immediately, while still a significant portion would save it for less than 1
year, and a small percentage would save it long-term. As previously stated, as long as
consumers spend the money within 1 year, it should help boost short-term growth, although
the lag time will increase depending on how quickly they consume it.
(private sector bonus)
Save (less than 1 year)
Save (more than 1 year)
Therefore, if policymakers were to design a tax cut to boost economic growth during
a recession, according to my results, it would seem that the most effective tax cut would
target low-income groups. This is because low-income groups have the highest marginal
propensity to consume out of ordinary income. (Hugget and Ventura, 2000). This is
observable due to their low savings rates, and the largeproportion of the group that are
liquidity constrained. What I have shown is that the marginal propensity to consume income
obtained from a tax cut is nearly identical to the MPC out of ordinary income. Therefore, if
policymakers were to design a tax cut to boost economic growth during a recession, the most
effective tax cut would target those who were most likely to spend it: low-income groups.
The most important elements in my analysis of the Ricardian Equivalence are the
assumptions associated with it. Robert Barro assumed that consumers would react to fiscal
spending funded by government debtby smoothing consumption (in anticipation of a future
tax increase) so far into the future that it would affect their bequests for their children. I have
shown that consumers do not, in fact, behave as Barro assumed. Supporters of Ricardian
Equivalence acknowledge the fact that these assumptions may not reflect reality, however
they continue to claim that Ricardian Equivalence is still a good approximation of reality, and
that it's a good place to start when discussing government debt. (Seater, 1993). My question
then is; why would it be a good place to start when it has a multitude of conditions attached
to it? Econometric results have been mixed, and I attribute that to the nature of econometric
techniques in general. My survey method was created to reflect reality, and I believe that type
of methodology is where we should start when discussing consumer behaviour in response to
The results of my survey suggest consumers will treat a tax cut as an increase in
disposable income. In other words, those that are more likely to spend an income bonus will
spend a tax cut, and those most likely to save (ie: high income individuals) will save it.
Therefore fiscal policy should not be dismissed due to Ricardian effects, as long as the
policies in question target the correct demographic.
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