Friday, October 24, 2008

GWU Law School conference on generational equity

Yesterday I attended the first half of a conference at GWU Law School in Washington, D.C., organized by Neil Buchanan, concerning generational equity. 5 panels: philosophical perspectives, government finance (my panel, obviously), environmental, reproductive rights, "living constitution."

Ordinarily it's bad sportsmanship to go to a conference and not attend all of the panels, since this would both shrink the audiences and destroy the idea of bringing multiple perspectives together. But this time around I had no choice but to miss panels 3-5, as they are today in DC whereas I have to be back in New York to teach my next class.

On the philosophical perspectives panel, Bob Hockett and Ori Herstein presented papers dealing with aspects of the generational equity issue that don't especially excite my main interests - my fault, no doubt, not theirs - as I'm committed to a utilitarian perspective in which one weights present and future individuals equally whereas they are worried about problems such as the Derek Parfit non-identity issue (we don't know yet, and perhaps it isn't determined yet, which individuals they will be), or the issue of whether people can have rights before they exist. Great commentary, from a perspective that I very much share, by GW philosopher David DeGrazia, who has written books on animal rights that I now am curious to see.

On the fiscal panel, the main papers were by Neil Buchanan and me. Neil criticizes generational equity-based grounds for worrying about the fiscal gap, on the view that, even if future lifetime net tax rates go way up, future generations are still expected to have higher after-tax and transfer lifetime incomes than current ones.

I argued in my paper that relative wealth is only one of the inputs to a utilitarian analysis of generational equity, and that there are lots of other important inputs, with the unfortunate effect of making the implications of such analysis for our long-term budgetary problems empirically indeterminate. I argue that efficiency reasons (the risk of a fiscal meltdown, plus arguments for tax smoothing and outlay smoothing) strongly support addressing the fiscal gap immediately, subject only to countercyclical concerns which affect only the timing of implementation for tax increases and benefit/spending cuts, not the timing of their announcement. Plus I discuss the political economy issues and suggest that in the current U.S. they support taking a pretty grim view of the fiscal meltdown risks.

Nancy Altman offered comments on my paper. Although she is perhaps a bit more in the Krugman camp than I am (viewing it as primarily a healthcare crisis not a budget crisis, whereas I say it's equally both), I stated publicly during the discussion that she and I appear to be 90% in agreement. A minute later I whispered to her that this was too low - probably more like 95% agreement.

I'll post the paper on SSRN fairly soon and then of course link to it here. I've gotten a few excellent comments from readers that I need to incorporate, plus I need to adjust in a couple of places for (a) the most recent developments in the financial markets meltdown we're having, plus (b) the outcome on Nov 4, once that is known.

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