At the Edges of Public Debt: European Public Debt Categorization, Application, and Reinterpretation
Public debt figures are powerful political and societal instruments. However, the reliability of underlying data and how appropriately they reflect government finances have become a matter of further discussion after the eurozone crisis. This dissertation project explores how the boundaries between what is included in and excluded from debt calculations are drawn, applied, and reinterpreted. A key object of this constant reinterpretation are activities or institutions at the edges of governmental balance sheets, such as contingent liabilities. Materializing only if certain events occur, contingent liabilities such as public-private partnerships or government guarantees are a key conduit for off-balance sheet state interventions while at the same time carrying potential fiscal risk. Drawing on field theory and the sociology of quantification and instrumentation, the project explores the conflicts emerging around the inclusion (or exclusion) of contingent liabilities in debt calculations within the European Union. It thus analyzes the interaction between EU and national political actors and statisticians in the unique context of the aftermath of the eurozone crisis, a phase characterized by the reflexive application and reinterpretation of statistical categories. Project duration: October 2019 to March 2023.