The Eurozone periphery - Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Italy and Belgium - are tottering on the brink. Their governments have accumulated too much debt, and their capacity to repay these debts is in doubt.
What is to be done? There are two options; fiscal austerity and debt restructuring. The first requires deep cuts in expenditures, and higher taxes. The hope is that this strategy will cut the fiscal deficit, and gradually lead to a reduction in public sector debt levels. Lower public debt might also reduce long term interest rates and help sustain economic growth.
The second is a debt default. Governments would no longer repay the full value of the contracted debt. The burden of adjustment will fall on creditors and not on the general public. Painful austerity would be avoided. Governments would not have to explain to their electorates why taxes have gone up and social services have deteriorated. However, public sector creditworthiness would suffer, which would lead to higher long term interest rates and possibly lower growth.
Here are four perspectives on the debate. First up, John Makin, who suggests that the Eurozone economies are in an untenable position, where further austerity efforts only serve to increase debt levels.
"There are several insolvent countries along Europe's periphery. Their debt levels are unsustainable in a specific sense. Attempts to reduce their debt-to-GDP ratios by cutting deficits actually have increased the ratio of debt to GDP by slowing growth for countries with an already high—over 100 percent—debt to gdp ratio."
Laurence Kotlikoff thinks default is the lesser of two evils:
"I think each of the PIIGS should do a careful fiscal gap analysis to understand if the present value of their projected spending can be covered by the present value of their projected taxes assuming normal borrowing rates. If the answer is no and the required fiscal adjustments are far beyond what can be achieved, then restructuring the debt is inevitable. And doing so sooner rather than later makes sense. Paying creditors, say, 50 cents on the euro may suffice, but it will come at a real cost in terms of higher borrowing rates for decades to come."
Harold James casts the issue in moral terms:
"The principle of not reneging on public debt is deeply intertwined with the development of legal security, representative government, and modern democracy. The experience of wartime inflations and de facto defaults in the 20th century made the theme of responsible finance a crucial part of a new European consensus. A foundation of the European integration process was a recognition of the importance of a stable currency to political legitimacy."
Paul Seabright argues that the Eurozone periphery are too deep in debt for moral considerations to play any part in the debate:
"It has long been evident that, barring a miracle economic recovery, some countries in the euro zone were going to default on some part of their sovereign debt. It has also long been evident that an orderly debt restructuring would be vastly preferable to a disorderly default triggered by a market panic. Unfortunately politicians have perceived their interests as lying in the perpetuation of the belief that restructuring could be postponed, and indeed had to be postponed at all costs because it would threaten the very existence of the euro."
Neither option looks terribly appealing.