The Great Blog Debate about Debt: A Reading List

I applaud everyone who has weighed in on the Great Blog debate about debt (Simon,  Bob,  me, and others too numerous to link. All of the issues that have been raised on Nick's blog were the topic of frontier research in economics journals in the 1950s -- 1970s.  Nick has links to earlier posts here.

The paper that started all of this (at least in the English speaking world) was by Paul Samuelson. "An exact consumption-loan model of interest with or without the social contrivance of money", Journal of Political Economy 1958, Vol 66 No. 6. The French lay claim to an earlier version by Maurice Allais, but that's another story. 

Samuelson's paper was a revelation to economists because it provided an example where markets don't work. In Samuelson's example, there is an equilibrium, (people optimize taking prices as given and all markets clear) that can be improved upon by a government institution. Samuelson's paper is a good starting point for those who would like to read more about this.

Samuelson provided a model of pure exchange, like the examples Nick has developed. In a pure exchange model there is no production. In 1965, Peter Diamond introduced capital to this model and he discussed the role of government debt in "crowding out" private capital. His paper was published in the American Economic Review, Vo. 55, no 5 under the title "National Debt in a Neoclassical Growth Model". Peter uses a mathematical tool called a 'difference equation'; and if you are sticking with my reading program, you will need to know a little bit about difference equations. There are many good undergraduate books on the topic; I like "Fundamental Methods of Mathematical Economics" by Chiang, but that probably dates me.

The next paper I would recommend in this literature is by a mathematician, David Gale, "Pure Exchange Equilibria of Dynamic Economic Models" Journal of Economic Theory 6 (1973). I include David's paper on the reading list of my first year Ph.D. class. In it, David distinguishes what he calls a "Samuelson economy' from a 'classical economy' and he shows that every overlapping generations model has at least two steady state equilibria; one in which the interest rate equals the population growth rate and one in which the aggregate saving by the young is zero. This divide is the key to understanding when government debt is a burden in the sense we have been discussing.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s there was a very muddled discussion in the journals, trying to understand why markets can sometimes fail to be optimal. Some people thought that it was because not everybody can meet, due to the one way flow of time. That issue was cleared up by Karl Shell in 1971, "Notes on the Economics of Infinity", Journal of Political Economy, Vol. 79. Karl attributed the problem to what he called the 'double infinity' of people and goods. This is the paper to cite at parties if you want to appear knowledgeable about the topic. It probably won't enlighten you much unless you're enrolled in an economics Ph.D. program.

Any question that you have has, almost surely, been answered already in the literature. How do the conclusions of the model depend on the assumption of no bequests? What happens if some people live forever? What happens if there are multiple goods in each period? Many of these questions are answered in my book "The Macroeconomics of Self-Fulfiling Prophecies".

I'm sorry if the answers are not always obvious, or the papers I have cited seem impenetrable to you. But realize that mathematics is a language and often it is the best language for answering questions of logic. "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler".

If you think that we are debating esoteric issues that are unrelated to the real world; you are entitled to that opinion. An economic model is only useful if helps us to understand the world. I happen to think that the overlapping generations model contains a great deal of useful insight. If you read, and understand, all of the papers I have cited, you will never again utter the phrase: "debt is money that we owe to ourselves".