Discounting the Bright Green Future

Steven F. Hayward22 Apr, 2023 5 Min Read
No, seriously, we're all gonna die.

The Biden administration’s proposed new 2030 tailpipe standards for automobiles is attracting a lot of attention and criticism for its indirect attempt to coerce Americans to buy electric cars whether they want them or not, or whether the electricity grid can handle it, which is doubtful. But another far-reaching technical move by the Biden administration could have a much larger and more insidious effect well beyond cars, but is attracting almost no public attention.

Biden’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has issued new guidance for performing cost-benefit analysis of regulations. The key change in the guidance is lowering the “discount rate” government agencies should use from 3 percent to 1.7 percent. I know—you’ll need to contain your outrage, and resist the urge to rush to the barricades.

Although the use of discount rates has been essential to mainstream financial and economic analysis for more than a century, it is arcane to the general public. Discussion of the issue puts people to sleep, and thus only takes place among economists, who, the old joke goes, are people who lack the personality to be accountants. But this is a hugely important technical question, in this instance being driven by politics rather than sound economic analysis.

"Trust us," he lied.

The significance of the Biden proposal for a 1.7 percent discount rate is simple: the Left wants to be able to claim huge economic benefits from costly and onerous regulations including requiring expensive electric cars, replacing natural gas stoves and furnaces, putting solar panels and windmills from sea to shining sea, not to mention lots of other regulations from other government fiefdoms. But it requires understanding why fixing the discount rate—already unrealistically low at the presently-used 3 percent—is necessary for this shell game to work.

One simple way to understand how a discount rate works is to ask yourself if you’d prefer to have $1 today, or $1.10 a decade from now. The answer depends on your discount rate. At the Federal Reserve’s 2 percent target rate of inflation (inflation is a good baseline for settling on a discount rate), to have the same purchasing power ten years from now you’d need to have $1.22 to stay even. Thus having $1 today is better than $1.10 a decade from now. Today of course inflation is running much higher than 2 percent. If we averaged only 5 percent inflation for the next decade, you’d need $1.63 to have the same purchasing power as $1 does today.

The analysis is reversed somewhat when analyzing present costs against future returns, whether for capital investment or determining whether government regulations will provide net economic benefits. The question of what discount rate the government uses has been central to climate policy for two decades now.

When it comes to "climate change," conventional economics has been an obstacle to the world-changing dreams of the activists. All of the “consensus” climate forecasts claim that unchecked global warming will impose large economic costs, but not for more than 50 years from now or longer. So how much should we spend today to prevent the high future costs? Using any realistic discount rate, the answer comes back: very little, because a dollar today is worth a lot more than a dollar 50 years from now.

Here's a simple example: if you assume $1 billion in climate costs 50 years from now, how much should you spend today to avoid that cost at the present 3 percent discount rate? The answer is $228 million. But at a 1.7 percent discount rate, the answer is much larger: $430 million.

You can see where this game is going: with a realistic discount rate, most of the billions and billions we are spending for green energy and other climate-driven causes will badly fail a cost-benefit test. Only by using an absurdly low discount rate will the huge costs of the climate crusade seem economical. The talking point goes something like this: “Yes, this project will cost $1 billion, but it will avoid $2 billion in costs down the road [50 years from now],” relying on the innumeracy of the public not to see through the flim-flam. (This assumes, of course, that projected costs of future global warming are reasonable in the first place, but that dubious contention is a subject for another time.)

While the rate of inflation is a good place to start in thinking about how discount rates work, inflation is only half the story in using discount rates. The other baseline is the cost of capital (think interest rates over time). Corporations use discount rates to calculate the optimal use for their limited capital between investment options, and always employ a discount rate above their long-term cost of capital, typically 7 percent or more depending on the time horizon for the investment. (In periods of high inflation like the present, discount rates generally go up commensurately.)

While the government might be justified in employing a lower discount rate than the private sector for the case of public goods, the proposed 1.7 percent rate is absurd. No one outside of government climate circles uses a discount rate this low. As a matter of sound public administration, government should use realistic discount rates to allocate their scarce capital for projects that deliver the best returns for taxpayers, rather than projects favored by politically connected activists and rent-seekers.

I'm from the government and I'm here to help.

But that’s not the only way the Biden regulators are trying to tilt the playing field in favor of uneconomic spending. Because the costs of green energy are highly regressive (low-income people spend a higher proportion of their income for energy), the Biden regulators assert with scant evidence that low-income people bear a disproportionate share of the harm from global warming and other pollution, thus justifying higher costs for low-income households. This they will call “environmental justice,” which can be thought of as an attempt to rebuild the Edmund Pettus Bridge over the Cuyahoga River fire.

Even if you believe the climate change religion, this kind of economic illiteracy is preposterous. One person who has been making this point for years now is Nobel-winning economist William Nordhaus of Yale University. Although Nordhaus is a believer in the “consensus” that climate change is a serious future problem that ought to be addressed, when he won the Nobel Prize for his work on climate economics pointing out that spending trillions today makes little economic sense, climate change activists said: “Shut up.”

Steven F. Hayward is a resident scholar at the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley, and lecturer at Berkeley Law. His most recent book is "M. Stanton Evans: Conservative Wit, Apostle of Freedom." He writes daily at


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10 comments on “Discounting the Bright Green Future”

  1. To all those Hollywood Celeberties telling us we have to stop our High Way of living and live a Primeative Way I would say YOU FIRST

  2. -->"Here's a simple example: if you assume $1 billion in climate costs 50 years from now, how much should you spend today to avoid that cost at the present 3 percent discount rate? The answer is $228 million. But at a 1.7 percent discount rate, the answer is much larger: $430 million."
    Well, you can stop right at "if you assume." No one is so naïve to believe the avoided "climate costs 50 years from now" is anything but a plugged number solved for, justifying today's dream expenditure (advocated by enviro-activists) based on the chosen/dictated/preferred discount rate.
    Your enviro-activist wants $430 million spent today--well the 50 year avoided climate cost is estimated (assumed) to be $2 billion.

  3. Well you have 10 million plus of illegal immigrants crossing our southern border with no money, no education, no english language skills. they are being fed, educated and housed by local and state governments. how long can this continue? why would we allow it to?

  4. It just got worse. EPA now says it will prohibit companies (Toyota) from selling ICE vehicles if they havent sold enough EVs

    You may think you are safe owning a late model ICE vehicle. What happens down the road when they kill the gasoline supply?

  5. But things here are actually far, far worse. 1.7% versus 3% means nothing regarding *hypothetical* future damages we can't actually measure today or be sure will ever happen. Simply in terms of risk management I tend to use a 5% discount rate for anything delayed (like ten years out), and a 10% discount rate if it's contingent and may never happen at all. So I'd recommend today's valid expenditures be calculated with an 18% rate (5% + 10% + 3%), or, if they insist, we'll try lowering that to 16.7%.

  6. Old people have a higher discount rate. At my advanced age I wouldn't trade a dollar today for 5 dollars in ten years (my heirs be damned)!

  7. It is meant as a metaphor of sorts for how the left is trying to fuse environmentalism (mostly an elite rich white people cause) with the civil rights movement.

  8. Mr. Hayward, As a real estate appraiser I very well understand this time value problem. My appraisals for the feds would be rejected as unrealistic if I used a 1.7% discount rate. 3.0% is the opening bid so to speak. The 30-year US bond yield today is 3.77%. An economic model for uncertain costs and benefits would need to be either modestly (10%) or significantly greater (say 25% greater) than this rate to be believable: 3.77 + 10% = 4.15% discount rate to 3.77 +25% = 4.71% discount rate. Present Value (PV) of 1 deferred 30 years at 1.7% = 0.60, PV of 1 deferred 30 years at 3.77% = 0.33, and at 4.71% = 0.25.
    The real joke about this model is the projected future "cost avoidance". That figure is very uncertain. A static model with no allowance for adaptation etc.

  9. Our standard of living right now is high., but will it stay that way? Today I flip a switch and lights come on. I turn a key and the engine rumbles to life. I rotate a knob and the stove top ignites. I move a dial and the room cools down. What I read today at every turn tells me in fifty years my 83 year old daughter won't be able to do any of those things.

  10. OK, I know where the Edmund Pettus bridge is, and why it is famous. And I vividly remember the Cuyahoga River fire. But somehow this knowledge is inadequate for me to decipher, "... which can be thought of as an attempt to rebuild the Edmund Pettus Bridge over the Cuyahoga River fire."

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