top of page

Project Publications

Many scholars and policymakers see rising debt burdens in the industrialised world as the product of ageing populations. Prominent theoretical models of government debt accumulation – used to justify fiscal rules and austerity measures – explicitly assume that support for debt reduction decreases with age. While such models have been influential, the fundamental relationship between age and preferences for debt has not been tested empirically. We test this argument but further theorise that the relationship between age and debt preferences is non-linear. While the elderly have a clear preference for ignoring debt burdens, we add that the young should also prefer to delay reckoning with high national debts given their low income and expectations of higher future earnings. Using survey data (N = 112,689), we find that age does have a small to modest non-linear impact on concern for national deficits and debt burdens. Middle-aged respondents are most concerned about debt reduction, while the young and old view reducing government debt as less of a policy priority. Notably, the relationship is strongest in countries with more generous old-age benefits.

Popular media and politicians have often blamed the high public debt of some EU countries on cultural differences. These claims are most apparent in the discourse contrasting ostensibly prudent Northern Europeans with spendthrift Southern Europeans. Despite the prominence of these and similar narratives and evidence that culture plays a nontrivial role in other economic outcomes, there is no systematic evidence that culture influences attitudes towards sovereign debt in the EU. We provide the first empirical test of this claim using over 233,000 responses to a Eurobarometer question about the salience of national debt. Our analysis reveals that national and sub-national differences explain very little of the variance in debt preferences. Further, the differences that do emerge do not fit existing cultural narratives. Additional analysis reveals that established measures of national culture or religious observance, at the national and regional levels, do not correlate with debt attitudes as cultural arguments would predict.

The public places an important constraint on funding security in Europe, and austerity risks making the constraint tighter. Several recent studies show that curtailing military spending is a popular way to reduce debt in Europe. Yet it remains unclear if military spending aversion persists when threats are salient. We fielded an original survey experiment in Italy weeks before the Russian invasion of Ukraine to examine how information about security threats influences military spending preferences and fiscal trade-offs. We found that information about threats increases support for military spending. To validate the survey experiment, we recontacted and remeasured our respondent's preferences three weeks after Russia's invasion and find evidence consistent with our initial experiment. Our findings suggest that, while public opposition to military spending remains high in Italy, external threats dampen the public's opposition to military spending, even under high debt burdens.

How to finance green investments? The role of public debt

@ Energy Policy

by: Jaroslaw Kantorowicz, Marion Collewet, Matthew DiGiuseppe, Hendrik Vrijburg

Economic costs are a central political obstacle to investing in climate change mitigation and adaptation measures. Several studies now demonstrate that as costs increase, voters are less likely to support green initiatives. In this paper we argue that opposition to government green investments is conditional on the method of financing. Notably, because public debt shifts the burden of investments into the future, it may face less public opposition than broad based taxes that require an immediate sacrifice. To test this proposition, we fielded a preregistered conjoint survey experiment on nationally representative samples in one highly indebted (Italy) and one fiscally sound country (The Netherlands). We find debt financing increases voter support for green financing by up to 10 percentage points relative to broad-based taxes. However, we find carbon taxes and wealth taxes are most preferred. These findings demonstrate that credit market tools, like green bonds and debt for climate swaps, are likely politically efficient and not just economically efficient. Where investments are already financed with debt, the findings suggest that political communication can limit a political backlash to green investments. Most importantly, the findings show that the political opposition to paying for green investments can be circumvented.

Hidden debt is endemic throughout the sovereign credit market and poses a serious threat to global financial stability. Yet, little is known about why governments conceal their liabilities from creditors. I argue that governments intentionally hide debts from international financial institutions (IFIs) to maximize their ability to borrow while avoiding punishment for rising debt burdens. IFIs frequently penalize governments in low-income countries for borrowing beyond their means. By hiding some debt, governments are able to continue borrowing without being disciplined. I test this using recently released data that reveals half of the Chinese loans in Sub-Saharan Africa are missing from sovereign debt records. I find that borrower governments hide loans to avoid violating World Bank debt sustainability thresholds. However, governments hide less debt while under IMF scrutiny so as to reduce the risk that they will be discovered and punished. These findings offer evidence that borrower governments use hidden debt as a strategic tool to pursue fiscal goals. Further, this work reveals the unintended consequences of IFI intervention in less-developed countries, as efforts to ensure fiscal stability increase governments’ incentives to hide debt.

How does domestic politics affect sovereign credit risk? To date, scholars have largely focused on how economic interests along class-cleavages influence sovereign default risk and borrowing costs. Ethnic dynamics are another important political factor that explains governments’ creditworthiness, yet are understudied. We investigate how ethnic politics shape governments’ credit access and argue that the fiscal incentives generated by ethnic coalitions influence credit risk differently than those created by class cleavages. Because ethnic coalitions are usually smaller than class coalitions, left governments with ethnic support can commit to lower spending and receive more favorable risk assessments. Right governments that rely on ethnic support, however, will have greater spending demands because of their need to satisfy ethnic groups. We test our argument using a new indicator of government ethnic support and four indicators of sovereign credit risk. We find that, in emerging markets, the borrowing costs of right governments increase as they become more dependent on ethnic groups for political support. Our findings suggest that financial markets are attuned to multiple dimensions of domestic politics and demonstrate that ethnic divisions can have strong implications for governments’ access to credit.

bottom of page