Social discount rate
Social discount rate (SDR) is the discount rate used in computing the value of funds spent on social projects. Determining this rate is not always easy and can be the subject of discrepancies in the true net benefit to certain projects, plans and policies.
Use in cost benefit analysis
It may be used in estimating the value of creating a highway system, schools, or enforcing environmental protection, for example. All of these things require a cost-benefit analysis where policy makers measure the social marginal cost and the social marginal benefit for each project. Almost all new policies will not even be considered until after a cost-benefit analysis has been completed. The social discount rate can appear in both calculations either as future costs such as maintenance or as future benefits such as reduced pollution emissions.
Calculating the true social marginal cost can be a lot easier than measuring the social marginal benefit. Because of the uncertainty involved with calculating benefits, problems may arise. Should you put a dollar amount on time based on average wages, contingent valuations or revealed preferences? One of the big problems today is putting a value on a life. While some might say that a life is priceless, economists usually state the value to be somewhere between three to ten million dollars. Another problem is that often the current generation will be paying for most of the costs while future generations will be reaping most of the benefit. Should we weigh current and future benefits differently?
The proper discount rate should represent the opportunity cost of what else the firm could accomplish with those same funds. If that means that the money could be instead used to invest in the private sector that would yield 5% and that is the next best alternative for using that money then 5% would be the social discount rate. The government uses a variety of discount rates but something around seven percent is what the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB) recommends for a pretax rate of return on private investments.
The SDR is directly analogous to concepts found in corporate finance such as the hurdle rate or the project appropriate discount rate; so the mathematics are identical. The benefit or cost per dollar can be calculated by
where r equals the SDR and t equals time. For benefits or costs that have no end it is just
A higher SDR makes it less likely a social project will be funded. A higher SDR implies greater risks to the assumption that the benefits of the project will be reaped. A small increase in the social discount rate can matter enormously for benefits far into the future so it is very important to be as accurate as possible when choosing which rate to use.
There is a strong case for factoring in the equity issue when discounting benefits and costs of intergenerational projects such as those designed to combat climate change and environmental degradation.
The social discount rate is a reflection of a society's relative valuation on today's well-being versus well-being in the future. The appropriate selection of a social discount rate is crucial for cost-benefit analysis, and has important implications for resource allocations. There is wide diversity in social discount rates, with developed nations typically applying a lower rate (3–7%) than developing nations (8–15%).
The subject of a social discount rate, always a source of fierce debate between economists, has become highly controversial since the publication of the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change. The publication exploded on the global warming scene in 2006 with its dire warning that global gross domestic product (GDP) was at future risk of a 20% reduction if there was a failure to invest 1% of world GDP now to reduce global warming. The Review did not use a single discount rate, but applied a stochastic approach whereby the discount rate varied with the expected outcomes, reflecting the interaction between growth and the elasticity of marginal utility, in line with Frank Ramsey's growth model. However, critics questioned the findings on the basis that they were partly arrived at using an extremely low pure time preference rate of 0.1% in economic modeling.
There is no consensus among economists and, according to the survey, no “one-size-fits-all” solution to the choice of social discount rate, owing to national variations. A regular reassessment and readjustment of the social discount rate used by each country is therefore required.
There are a number of qualitative differences between social and corporate discount rates and evaluation of projects associated with them. The governance of social project funding is different naturally, because estimating the benefits of social projects requires making ethically subtle choices about the benefits to others. For example if it was presumed that a meteor will wipe out all life in a few years the SDR is very high. Alternately if we presume that the population will have many new and wonderful choices capturing benefits (i.e. they will be more wealthy) in the future that too raises the SDR of creating any given benefit. For example, choices about the SDR of environmental protection projects, such as funding the reduction of global warming, place a greater valuation on future generations.
Importance in global climate changes
This topic has recently been very controversial and highly debated. Since there is such a strong probability that the world will suffer significantly in the future due to global change in temperature, finding the correct social discount rate for the benefits of reducing CO2 emissions and other harmful greenhouse gases is very important.
"The choice of an appropriate social time discount rate has long been debated. Some very intelligent people have argued that giving future generations less weight than the current generation is 'ethically indefensible.' Other equally intelligent people have argued that weighting generations equally leads to paradoxical and even nonsensical results." 
The range in the social discount rate for a cost-benefit analysis in this issue range from zero to over 3%. Some argue that the only reason for discriminating against future generations is that these generations might cease to exist in the future. Thus the rate of time preference should equal zero since the probability for such a catastrophic event is so low (assumed to be 0.01% per year). This infers that there is equal weight given to all generations. However, to the extent that future generations are likely to be richer than those in the present, a positive discount rate should be applied reflecting the diminishing marginal utility of consumption. The Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change is one such report that argues for zero discrimination of future generations, but applied a range of positive discount rates to its assessment based on the range of consumption projections predicted by climate models at the time. There is an important distinction here between discounting, which is partly a function of expected future consumption paths, and pure time preference, which the rate of discrimination through time. A common misconception is that the Stern Review applied a zero discount rate. In fact, the Stern review's stochastic projections applied many discount rates reflecting a range of consumption projections, all of them positive, even while it took the rate of time preference to be close to zero. This confusion is prevalent. William D. Nordhaus of Yale
"examines a model of climate change that is similar to the one used in the Stern Review but with a 3 percent social discount rate that slowly declines to 1 percent in 300 years rather than the 0.1 percent discount rate used in the Stern Review. In his model, the welfare of future generations is given less weight than the current generation’s welfare. He finds that preventive measures like a tax on carbon emissions are certainly required. But they are of a much smaller magnitude than those recommended in the [Stern] report."
The Stern Review did not apply a 0.1 percent discount rate, but it did apply a near-zero rate of time preference.
- Public policy
- Applied information economics
- Financial analysis
- Kaldor-Hicks efficiency
- Risk-benefit analysis
- Ramsey growth model
- Gruber, Jonathan (2007). "Chapter 8: Cost-Benefit Analysis" Public Finance and Public Policy, pp. 201-223
- Recalculating the Costs of Global Climate Change - New York Times
- Zhuang,J., Z. Liang, T. Lin and F. De Guzman. 2007. Theory and Practice in the Choice of Social Discount Rate for Cost-Benefit Analysis: A Survey. ADB. Manila. http://www.adb.org/Documents/ERD/Working_Papers/WP094.pdf
- Jalil, Muaz. 2012. Approaches to measuring social discount rate: A Bangladesh perspective. BIISS JOURNAL, VOL. 33, NO. 4, October 2012. http://www.biiss.org/biiss_journal/october2012_issue.html