Establishing a Limit on Federal Debt

The ideas of a debt ceiling hover in the reasoning explored in this research paper with the intention to create an argument that could be potentially an answer to the question of a debt ceiling effectiveness.

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October 20, 2023

Inquiry-driven, this project may reflect personal views, aiming to enrich problem-related discourse.

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Abstract— In the realm of economic decision-making, the visions and judgements individuals, businesses, and policy makers holds about future price levels wields tremendous sway over a nation’s economic well-being.Inflation, the steady uptick in general price levels, is more than just a numerical outcome; it's intricately weaved into the psychological and behavioral reactions of economic agents. The ideas of a debt ceiling hover in the reasoning explored in this research paper with the intention to create an argument that could be potentially an answer to the question of a debt ceiling effectiveness.


As individuals, businesses, and policymakers navigate the complexities of economic decision-making, their anticipations and perceptions regarding future price levels wield significant influence over a nation’s economic health. The phenomenon of inflation, characterized by the persistent increase in the general price level, is not merely a numerical outcome; it is profoundly intertwined with the psychological and behavioral responses of economic agents.

This research paper embarks on a comprehensive exploration of the multifaceted relationship between public expectations and inflation dynamics, uncovering the pivotal role that the anticipation of future price changes plays in shaping macroeconomic outcomes as well as proposing the idea of a debt ceiling in the included historical examples and its effectivity in the long macroeconomic term. 

I delve into the nuanced facets of public expectations and their intricate ties to inflation. The anchoring effect of expectations on price stability is examined, shedding light on how individuals’ anticipation of consistent inflation rates can reinforce economic equilibrium. The wage-price spiral, where wage demands and price adjustments feed into one another, illuminates the intricate feedback loops that arise from public expectations.

This exploration extends to the models of adaptive and rational expectations, offering insights into the diverse frameworks through which individuals form predictions about future price dynamics. These models offer divergent lenses through which to view the dynamic nature of expectations and their potential impact on economic outcomes. The implications of these models for policy responsiveness and coordination are paramount, as they emphasize the need for aligning public and policymaker anticipations.  

Fiscal Policy and Inflation

Inflation is the rate of increase in prices over a given period of time. Inflation is a broad measure, it evaluates the increase in prices or the increase in the cost of living in a country. But it can also be more narrowly calculated—for certain goods, such as food, or for services, such as a haircut, for example (IMF, 2023). In a federal context, inflation occurs when money supply is increased, while the Federal Monetary Entity keeps interest rates low. (Cochrane, 2011). This generates a surplus of liquidity, increasing general demand against limited supplies. 

Although inflation is believed to be a natural consequence of growth, this isn’t always the case. Countries that serve us as examples are Zimbabwe in 2008 – economic mismanagement, political instability and poor monetary policies lead to extreme hyperinflation – and Argentina in the 1990’s – driven to hyperinflation due to excessive government spending, fiscal management and overreliance in money printing as an exercise to finance federal deficits –.

Public expenditures have increased worldwide, reflecting the efforts to establish a welfare society and stepping up the annual rates of economic growth. In this particular description some countries have failed drastically to manage the balances of GDP-to-Debt ratio. This metric is understood by comparing what a country owes with what it produces, the debt-to-GDP ratio reliably indicates that particular country's ability to pay back its debts. 

When countries present imbalances in their income leading to a deficit, it means that the federal government will fall into debt caused by their expenditure being higher than their revenue. Some countries that constantly fall into deficit are the United States, Japan, India, United Kingdom and Brazil. The main cause for this is the increase in government spending in contrast with the increase in the cost of living and Consumer Price Index (CPI) and the weak tax policies, social spending and economic fluctuations, aged population, defense expenditures, and weak fiscal policies responses. 

The combination of these factors lead to Fiscal Stress. 

Fiscal stress essentially refers to the options of policymakers in a context where there is a growing imbalance between revenues and expenditures over a period, or where the imbalance is short term, usually confined to a fiscal year and reflecting a situation that is different from that used as a basis for the budget. (IMF, 1993). The Covid-19 pandemic was a big source for the current fiscal stress many countries face. During the global financial crisis, fiscal stress that materialized increased the public debt of the most heavily affected economies by an average of 26 percentage points of GDP, with a third of this coming from non-budget operations. (IMF, 2012). 

The exercise of robust public financial management, risk management and mechanisms to control and mitigate risk have led to the deteriorating macroeconomic conditions, commodity price declines, currency depreciations, sovereign spread widening, and the need to service explicit guarantees. 

In this stance, the incentivisation of new measures to combat fiscal stress and short-medium term inflation emerge, one of them is to have debt ceilings in countries that don’t have one already. 

The debt ceiling or fiscal limit, marks the point where governments can no longer sustainably finance higher debt levels through increased taxes. Instead, adjustments to either fiscal spending or monetary policy become necessary. This underscores the importance of considering timing and policy adjustments while setting and adhering to a fiscal deficit limit, as a way to ensure fiscal sustainability, manage deficits, and promote macroeconomic stability.

This shouldn’t be confused with the proposition to stop federal borrowing. States use borrowing as one of the factors that allow growth and decrease dire expectations on the welfare of citizens. But, fiscal discipline, control in interest rates and debt sustainability derive directly as an application of debt ceilings. 

One of the many cases of study that aid the predictability of the efficiency of a debt ceiling is Brazil in the early 2000’s. Since 1999, Brazilian public debt, as a fraction of GDP, has steadily increased—in part because the primary surplus, though rising, has never been sufficient to stabilize the debt. The presence of default risk in Brazil reinforces the possibility that a vicious circle might arise, making the fiscal constraint on monetary policy more stringent   

One of the theoretical approaches that a debt ceiling could have had was mainly fiscal discipline. A debt ceiling would have imposed a constraint on the government's ability to accumulate debt beyond a specified threshold. This would likely have encouraged greater fiscal discipline and forced policymakers to carefully consider the necessity of each expenditure and its long-term impact on debt levels.

With a debt ceiling in place, the government would need to prioritize its spending more rigorously. Some programs or projects might be postponed or reduced in scale to ensure compliance with the debt ceiling. This could lead to more focused and efficient use of resources. Leading to fiscal responsibility. If the government reached the debt ceiling, it would have to reduce its borrowing and, consequently, cut back on spending.

This could lead to austerity measures, impacting public services, infrastructure projects, and social programs. Now having a reduced government spending, it might lead to slower economic activity in the short term, although it could contribute to fiscal sustainability over the long term. Some consequences might also arrive, while the limits of a government borrowing seem sometimes unclear, the risk of default will be present if the economic context isn’t optimal.

With a narrow debt ceiling a government won’t be able to fund its obligations, leading to a risk default. Unlike the events experienced in the United States, a debt ceiling would promote greater transparency in fiscal management. The government would need to communicate its financial plans more clearly to the public and financial markets to ensure compliance with the ceiling. Instead, of being a lasting reaction that policymakers aren’t taking into consideration at the moment of creation plans for social welfare.  

Growth in a Time of Debt

Carmen M. Reinhart and Kenneth S. Rogoff suggested a specific threshold of public-debt-to-GDP ratio of around 90% debt-to-GDP ratio as the point beyond which average economic growth rates decline.

Moderate levels of public debt may not have a significant negative impact on growth, but as debt levels rise beyond a certain point, the adverse effects on growth become more pronounced, specifically, they have indicated that countries with high levels of public debt experience lower average economic growth rates compared to countries with lower debt levels, this being a non-linear relationship. 

Again, the idea of a debt ceiling can seem proficient. It can serve as a mechanism to prevent a country from reaching or exceeding the critical threshold that Reinhart and Rogoff studied. The debt ceiling can potentially mitigate the negative effects on economic growth that might arise from unsustainable debt levels in the long-term.

The study’s findings suggest that maintaining a sustainable level of government debt is important for ensuring long-term economic growth. A debt ceiling could be seen as a tool to encourage responsible fiscal management and support stable growth over time.

One of the main claims for the theoretical application of a debt ceiling or fiscal limit is the relationship between debt and growth  influenced by the credibility of fiscal and monetary policies, the structure of the economy, the nature of debt financing (internal vs. external), and the ability to service the debt. It becomes intuitive to think that a debt-ceiling is useful for countries with limited control over their monetary policies and accumulating high debt levels, creating concerns about fiscal sustainability.

Public Expectations

The public expectation is the materialization of demand and supply behavior. Public expectation can act as an anchor for inflation, if people believe that future inflation will remain low and stable, the demand for higher wages and prices decreases.

On the other hand, when individuals believe the opposite, they demand higher wages, leading to the accumulation of more liquidity to keep up with rising prices. This increases the production cost for businesses, prompting them to raise prices to maintain profit margins. 

The public expectations derived from the central bank of federal monetary entity credibility.  If a central bank is perceived as credible and committed to maintaining low and stable inflation, people are more likely to believe that future price increases will be controlled.

When a central bank signals its intention to control inflation by adjusting interest rates or implementing other policy measures, individuals and businesses adjust their behavior accordingly. If these expectations are aligned with the central bank’s goals, policy actions are more likely to achieve the desired outcomes.

Public expectations have a significant impact on inflation outcomes. Anchoring expectations around low and stable inflation helps maintain price stability, encourages responsible economic behavior, enhances the effectiveness of monetary policy, and contributes to long-term economic stability. 

The public has the tendency to feel safe when they experience stable expectations and a reduction in governments demand in the local markets.

The application of a debt ceiling can enhance market confidence in the government’s ability to manage its finances effectively. This confidence can lead to lower interest rates on government bonds, reducing the cost of borrowing. Lower borrowing costs mean less pressure on the government to resort to inflationary policies to meet debt obligations, increasing the market's confidence with the ability of the government to manage its finances effectively.


The connection between public expectations and inflation highlights how people's beliefs and perceptions shape the economic landscape. What individuals, businesses, and policymakers anticipate can either maintain steady prices or push inflation higher, forming a crucial dynamic.

The role of public expectations in the context of inflation is intricate and has several dimensions.

Expectations can either help stabilize or unsettle inflation. When people foresee consistent, low inflation, they tend to adjust their wage requests and pricing decisions accordingly. This continuous cycle acts as a buffer against sudden and uncontrolled price spikes.

The interaction between wage demands and price hikes, often termed the wage-price spiral, underscores the dynamic nature of expectations. If folks expect inflation to rise, they seek higher wages. This, in turn, raises production costs for businesses and leads to increased prices. This cycle showcases how expectations can significantly influence the persistence of inflation.

The credibility of central banks rests on their ability to shape public expectations. A central bank that's seen as trustworthy in maintaining stable prices instills confidence in future price stability. This alignment between expectations and central bank actions strengthens the effectiveness of monetary policies aimed at controlling inflation.

Effective communication strategies further stress the importance of public expectations. Clear and transparent messages from central banks and policymakers about their inflation targets and policy rationale shape how expectations are formed. Such strategies provide a common understanding of policy directions, assisting in managing and guiding public predictions.

The concept of the debt ceiling adds a new layer to the conversation. A debt ceiling acts as a financial boundary, putting a cap on how much the government can borrow. By limiting borrowing, a debt ceiling encourages responsible fiscal management, preventing unchecked government spending that might contribute to inflation. This measure enforces financial discipline and nurtures a stable economic environment, aligning with the aim of curbing inflation and enhancing long-term well-being.

The weight of public expectations is reinforced by their role in the persistence of inflation. High and erratic inflation can embed beliefs about future price hikes, continuing a cycle that's hard to break. Navigating and transforming these expectations demands thoughtful policy considerations.

Public expectations serve as a link between economic theories and real-world results. They influence economic choices, policy effectiveness, and the course of inflation. Anchoring expectations to control inflation ensures that economic players make informed decisions, facilitating smoother policy implementation and promoting lasting economic stability.


The Institute for Youth in Policy wishes to acknowledge Paul Kramer, Carlos Bindert, Gwen Singer, and other contributors for developing and maintaining the Programming Department within the Institute.


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Ivan Jose Paiewonsky

2023 Summer Fellow

Ivan is 18 years old. He is an enthusiast of behavioral economics, market dynamics, urban environmental innovation, monetary public policy, and patent research.

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