Hamilton’s Paradox

I recently finished reading Jonathan Rodden’s 2006 book Hamilton’s Paradox: The Promise and Peril of Fiscal Federalism. The book provides a fascinating analysis of fiscal federalism that combines theory, qualitative and quantitative analysis, and contemporary case studies.

Rodden begins by detailing the potential promises and perils of fiscal federalism. He states that the promise of federalism is straightforward: “decentralized, multitiered systems of government are likely to give citizens more of what they want from government at lower cost than more centralized alternatives.” The perils of federalism, although less examined in the literature, are rooted in the idea that “In decentralized federations, politically fragmented central governments may find it difficult to solve coordination problems and provide federation-wide collective goods. As in the private sector, public institutions only produce desirable outcomes when incentives are properly structured” (p. 5).

In Chapter 3 Rodden provides a very interesting history of federalism and federal bailouts in the U.S. Specifically, he discusses the federal assumption of state debt that took place in 1790, the rapid growth in state borrowing in the early 1800s, the nine states that defaulted in 1841 and 1842 (Maryland, Pennsylvania, Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, and Mississippi), and the constitutional debt limitations that many states adopted in the 1840s and 1850s.

Most interesting is the game theory model Rodden develops in the second half of Chapter 3. Specifically, it’s a dynamic game of incomplete information that takes place between the central government and a single subnational government. Information is incomplete because subnational governments don’t know exactly how the central government will behave in the event of fiscal crisis. That is, the central government will either allow the subnational government to default (resolute type) or will provide a bailout (irresolute type).

The fist move of the game occurs when a subnational government experiences a fiscal shock with lasting effects (i.e. recession). In response to the fiscal shock it can either adjust immediately or refuse to deal with the shock by borrowing, with the long term hope of receiving a bailout. The path that the subnational government takes is a function of, among other things, the expected probability of the central government being resolute or irresolute (the complete game is much more detailed than the brief description provided here).

Rodden utilizes this game as he develops each of the case studies provided later in the book. The case studies involve comparing and contrasting the events that have taken place in Germany and Brazil. In the 1990’s two states in Germany received formal bailouts by the federal government (the Bund). During the same time, however, bailouts were distributed to virtually every state in Brazil. In Chapters 7 and 8 Rodden carefully details the structures of government in these two countries and outlines the reasons their outcomes were so different.

Two of the many important conclusions that Rodden makes in this book are (1)

when free to borrow, growing transfer dependence is associated with increasing deficits, both among federated units and local governments (p. 116)

and (2)

The central government must not only allow subnational governments significant tax autonomy and disentangle its books from those of the subnational governments, but it must demonstrate through costly action that it will not assume subnational liabilities when times get tough (p. 267)

This brief review of Hamilton’s Paradox only covered a few of the many important topics that the Rodden details in the book. I strongly recommend this book for anyone interested in fiscal federalism.

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