Environmental and Resource Economics

, Volume 3, Issue 4, pp 337–358

Intergenerational transfers and the social discount rate

  • Richard B. Howarth
  • Richard B. Norgaard

DOI: 10.1007/BF00418816

Cite this article as:
Howarth, R.B. & Norgaard, R.B. Environ Resource Econ (1993) 3: 337. doi:10.1007/BF00418816


This paper investigates the relationship between intergenerational asset transfers and the choice of the discount rate for use in cost-benefit analysis in a model of a competitive overlapping generations economy constrained by a socially managed exhaustible resource. Provided that there are no distortions in capital markets and that all agents hold perfect foresight, cost-benefit techniques will result in a Pareto efficient resource allocation if the discount rate is set equal to the market rate of interest. But since the path of the interest rate depends on the level of intergenerational transfers, cost-benefit techniques do not ensure a socially desirable distribution of welfare between generations; a social optimum will result only if intergenerational transfers are properly chosen and enforced. Decentralized private altruism may result in intergenerational transfers that both present and future individuals would agree are too small if members of the present generation attach positive weight to the general welfare of future generations, not simply their personal descendants. In a world where intergenerational transfers are non-optimal, second-best policy-making may imply a constrained optimum that is inefficient. Together, these findings suggest that cost-benefit analysis is at best a partial criterion to policy formulation that should be used only in conjunction with ethical principles that define the proper distribution of welfare between present and future generations.

Key words

exhaustible resource allocationintergenerational equityintergenerational transfersoverlapping generations modelssocial discount rate

Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1993

Authors and Affiliations

  • Richard B. Howarth
    • 1
  • Richard B. Norgaard
    • 2
  1. 1.Environmental Studies BoardUniversity of CaliforniaSanta CruzUSA
  2. 2.Energy and Resources GroupUniversity of CaliforniaBerkeleyUSA