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WHY STUDY PUBLIC FINANCE?

Questions and Problems


1. Many states have language in their constitutions that requires the state to provide
for an adequate level of education spending. What is the economic rationale for
such a requirement?
There are two economic rationales for government provision of a good or service: market
failure, and redistribution. A market failure argument for state provision of education
would be that an educated population benefits society generally. Each person who
receives an education receives a private benefit and also confers a positive externality on
the community. In the absence of public provision of education, self-interested people
would acquire less-than-optimal levels of education because they would not take into
account its external benefit. Public education corrects this market failure. An argument
can also be made that public education is redistributive because it increases the human
capital of all students regardless of their individual economic status.
2. How has the composition of federal and state and local government spending
changed over the past 40 years? What social and economic factors might have
contributed to this change in how governments spend their funds?
Federal spending has grown from being less than 5% of GDP in 1930 to approximately
20% of GDP. Defense spending has declined from representing more than 50% of total
federal spending in 1960 to less than 20%. Social Security and health care spending now
account for a much larger share of the budget.
At the state and local levels, government spending has increased less dramatically, from
being approximately 5% of GDP in 1947 to approximately 10%. Education has been, and
remains, the largest single expenditure item in these budgets, but its share of the budget
has declined as the share of spending on health care has increased. The shift of
expenditures from the state and local levels to the federal government reflects greater
centralization. Perhaps greater mobility and advances in communication and
transportation have also contributed to this trend. Changes in demographics have led to
increased Social Security and health care expenditures: baby boomers are aging, and with
advances in health care they will live longer and will use more medical resources as they
age.
3. Some goods and services are provided directly by the government, while others
are funded publicly but provided privately. What is the difference between these two
mechanisms of public financing? Why do you think the same government would use
one approach sometimes and the other approach at other times?
Direct public provision of a good or service occurs when the government itself produces
the good or service. Police forces and the military are examples of direct provision. The
services they provide are public goods but would not be efficiently provided by the
market.

Once these services are provided, all citizens benefit; thus, there is an incentive to free
ride on the providers of these services. When the government provides these services, it
can tax citizens for their provision. There may be national security concerns related to
private provision of some goods and services, especially those performed by the military
(although the military does contract with private firms to build equipment).
The government can also pay a private entity to provide goods and services, and is more
likely to do so when the market is likely to produce efficient quantities of those goods
and services. For example, the government contracts with construction companies to
build roads. When there is an existing market or industry for a given good or service, it
may be cheaper for the government to purchase these goods and services than to produce
them itself. Competition in markets encourages private providers to produce goods and
services efficiently, while government may lack the discipline of the market for the
production of goods and services. If the good or service is privately provided in an
industry that is not perfectly competitive or one in which there are uncorrected
externalities, that is, one in which there is some market failure, then the governments
purchase of those goods and services would not be efficient. However, direct provision
by the government can also suffer from efficiency failures.
4. Why does redistribution cause efficiency losses? Why might society choose to
redistribute resources from one group to another when doing so reduces the overall
size of the economic pie?
Redistribution can cause efficiency losses if there are behavioral responses to the
redistribution system. For example, a very high tax on labor income may cause some
workers to reduce their amount of labor. Similarly, generous unemployment benefits may
induce some who are out of work to remain unemployed. Despite these possible
efficiency losses, we (collectively) choose to redistribute wealth. Some reasons for
redistribution are that people have a taste, or preference, for a certain degree of economic
equity; that the existence of a large or visible underclass is somewhat discomforting or
threatening; that people are risk averse and so are willing to pay for a safety net in case
they or their families ever need assistance; and that humans are naturally empathetic.
5. Consider the four basic questions of public finance listed in the chapter. Which of
these questions are positivequestions that can be proved or disprovedand which
are normativequestions of opinion? Explain your answer.
The four basic questions of public finance are:
1. When should the government intervene in the economy?
The word should suggests that this is a question about which opinion will vary, so it is
normative.
2. How might the government intervene?
The wording of this question suggests the government might intervene in different
ways, so this question is normative. A positive question would ask How does the
government intervene? We could answer that question by observing verifiable evidence
or data.

3. What is the effect of those interventions on economic outcomes?


Economic effects can be measured, and thus are not a matter of opinion, so this question
is positive.
4. Why do governments choose to intervene in the way that they do?
This question asks about existing interventions, which we can directly observe. But can
we prove a governments motivation? Economists infer motivation by observing patterns
of choice, so historical data can be used to address this question. It is a positive question.
6. One rationale for the public funding of higher education is that, by taking this
class, for example, you will cause a positive spillover to the rest of society. If this
rationale is correct, in the absence of governmental support, will people consume too
much, too little, or the right amount of higher education?
If people demand this service based solely on their own private expected returns, they
will consume too little education. Recall that demand reflects, in part, the expected
benefit from consumption. Self-interested consumers will not be willing to pay for a
benefit that accrues to others.
7. What is the role of the Congressional Budget Office? Why is independence and
impartiality important when conducting empirical analyses?
The CBO provides economic analyses of proposed legislation, particularly estimates of
the cost of proposed projects. To do this accurately, and to provide the best possible
advice to Congress, the CBO must carefully consider all of the economic effects of a
proposal. A politically motivated CBO might be tempted to understate some costs or
overstate others in order to influence legislation.
8. On occasion, when a government implements a policy that provides benefits to
recipients (such as health insurance for the unemployed), it requires a waiting
period before the benefits can be enjoyed. A rationale for doing so is that people may
change their behaviors in order to take advantage of the benefit. Is this a valid
concern? Explain your thinking.
Our model of rational decision making suggests that people will consider the marginal
costs and benefits of their decisions. Valuable benefits can be expected to induce some
people to engage in the associated behavior in order to receive benefits. By requiring a
waiting period, the government makes it more costly for people to try to take advantage
of the program by changing their behavior because they would then have to wait longer
for the benefits. However, a waiting period also imposes costs on those who truly need
the program.
9. Bill starts out with $100 in his pocket. Suppose that the government redistributes
some of this money to Ted; to do so, it taxes Bill $40 and gives $35 to Ted, expending
$5 in administrative costs. Does this redistribution of wealth raise social welfare?
Explain your answer.

Whether or not social welfare increases depends on societys tastes for redistribution. In
this example, it costs $5 to reduce Bills wealth and increase Teds, which is an
efficiency loss. However, if society is concerned about equity, total utility may increase
when wealth is equalized. For example, if Bill and Ted exhibit diminishing marginal
utility in wealth, and Bill is wealthy while Ted is poor, Bills loss in utility from losing
$40 may be less than Teds gain in utility from receiving $35. In this case this
redistribution increases total utility, one possible measure of social welfare.
10. In the United States, the federal government pays for a considerably larger share
of social welfare spending (that is, spending on social insurance programs to help
low-income, disabled, or elderly people) than it does for K12 education spending.
Similarly, state and local governments provide a larger share of education spending
and a smaller share of welfare spending. Is this a coincidence, or can you think of a
reason for why this might be so?
Local control is often considered more important for education than for other services,
because there may be regional variations in curriculum preferenceswhether to teach the
theory of evolution, for example. There may be fewer regional variations in preferences
related to social programs, however, so people may be more willing to give up local
control over these programs. Another possible explanation for federal control of social
welfare programs is jurisdiction shopping. If social insurance benefits varied
substantially among states, people might move from one to another in order to avail
themselves of more generous benefits.
11. The urban African-American community is decidedly split on the subject of
school vouchers, with their leaders comprising some of the most vocal proponents
and opponents of increased school competition. Why do you think this split exists?
This community contains a disproportionate number of poor families, with many students
attending substandard schools. Proponents of the voucher system may believe that it will
allow them to send their children to better schools or that competition will encourage
their local schools to improve in order to retain students who would have a choice of
schools under the voucher system. Opponents may view it as a threat to neighborhood
schools, fearing that if students take their vouchers and leave, inner-city schools may
become even more impoverished. Philosophically, some proponents believe that market
competition can solve a wide variety of problems, while some opponents are suspicious
of the market system, possibly viewing it as an institution that favors those with more
money to spend in the marketplace.
12. Many states have constitutional requirements that their budgets be in balance
(or in surplus) in any given year, but this is not true for the U.S. federal government.
Why might it make sense to allow for deficits in some years and surpluses in others?
Time-series graphs illustrate one striking reason to allow for deficits: during World War II
the Federal government spent far more than it took in. Like a family, a government
sometimes faces unforeseen emergencies that require it to borrow. Had the United States

been constrained by a balanced budget requirement at the time of World War II, the
outcome of that war may have been very different. The family metaphor is relevant for a
second reason: borrowing allows an entity to pay over time for a durable good that is
being consumed over time.
It makes sense for most families to take out a mortgage to purchase a home, because that
purchase delivers benefits over many years. Similarly, many government investments
yield long term benefits. Surpluses and deficits may also have beneficial macroeconomic
effects.
13. Why might the government get involved in regulating economic and social
activities? How, besides regulation, does government influence these activities?
When activities entail external costs, the government may wish to curtail them; when
they confer external benefits, the government will want to encourage them. Taxing an
activity or a product consumed as a complement to that activity tends to reduce the
activity. Subsidizing an activity or related product tends to increase the activity. The
government might also engage in campaigns to influence behavior without taxing or
subsidizing it. Anti-litter campaigns are an example of this approach.
In-class Projects or Demonstrations
Federal Budget Shares and Positive vs. Normative Questions
1. How does the federal government allocate its budget?
On the first day of class (before most students have read the text), ask students
individually or in small teams to allocate 100 points among the federal budget
categories, showing the proportion of the budget they think is actually spent on each
category. This is a positive question; initial guesses can be verified against the data in the
text.
2. How should federal government dollars be spent?
After the first exercise, ask small groups of students to set an ideal budget (again based
on 100 points so that their allocations can be easily translated into percentages), then
require each team to justify its allocations. Part of this exercise forces students with
differing priorities to negotiate over the 100 points. The exercise also encourages them to
use economic theory to justify their allocations.
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