Publication by 2008 DPDF Human Dimensions of Global Environmental Change Fellow Seth Baum.
The choice of discount rates is a key issue in the analysis of long-term societal issues, in particular environmental issues such as climate change. Approaches to choosing discount rates are generally placed into two categories: the descriptive approach and the prescriptive approach. The descriptive approach is often justified on grounds that it uses a description of how society discounts instead of having analysts impose their own discounting views on society. This paper analyzes the common forms of the descriptive and prescriptive approaches and finds that, in contrast with customary thinking, both forms are equally descriptive and prescriptive. The prescriptions concern who has standing (i.e. who is included) in society, how the views of these individuals are measured, and how the measurements are aggregated. Such prescriptions are necessary to choose from among the many possible descriptions of how society discounts. The descriptions are the measurements made given a choice of measurement technique. Thus, the labels “descriptive approach” and “prescriptive approach” are deeply misleading, as analysts cannot avoid imposing their own views on society.