To Repay or Not to Repay Debts?

For months now, a fight over sovereign-debt restructuring has been raging between those who insist that Greece must continue to honor its signature and those for whom the country's public debt should be partly canceled. Who is right?

BRUSSELS – For months now, a fight over sovereign-debt restructuring has been raging between those who insist that Greece must continue to honor its signature and those for whom the country’s debt should be partly canceled. As is often the case in Europe, the crossfire of contradictory official and non-official statements has been throwing markets into turmoil. Confusion abounds; clarity is needed.

The first question is whether Greece is still solvent. This is harder to judge than is the solvency of a firm, because a sovereign state possesses the power to tax. In theory, all that is needed in order to get out of debt is to increase taxes and cut spending.

But the power to tax is not limitless. A government determined to honor its debts at any cost often ends up imposing a tax burden that is disproportionate to the level of services that it supplies; at a certain point, this discrepancy becomes socially and politically unsustainable.

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