Can California declare bankruptcy? What about Greece?

Answers to your questions about the news.
March 8 2010 5:01 PM

Can California Declare Bankruptcy?

What about Greece?

Arnold Schwarzenegger. Click image to expand.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger

California passed a gas tax last week to help make up for its nearly $20 billion budget gap, the latest in a series of measures to right the state's teetering economy. The country of Greece is in even worse shape, with accumulated debt higher than 110 percent of GDP, set to reach 125 percent this year. Can a state declare bankruptcy? Can a country?

No and no. Chapter 9 of the U.S. bankruptcy code allows individuals and municipalities (cities, towns, villages, etc.) to declare bankruptcy. But that doesn't include states. (The statute defines "municipality" as a "political subdivision or public agency or instrumentality of a State"—that is, not a state itself.) For one thing, states are said to have sovereign immunity, as protected by the 11th Amendment, which means they can't be sued. In other words, they don't need any protection from angry creditors who would take them to court for failing to pay their debts. As a result, states can simply borrow money ad infinitum.

Advertisement

Say the state can't make its debt payments, and no one will lend it any more money. In that case, the federal government can step in and put the state into receivership. This would involve the assignment of an accountant to manage the state's debt, overseen by a judge. It would be a lot like bankruptcy, except instead of following a structured set of steps—informing creditors, appointing creditors' committees, a 120-day window to file a plan, etc.—a receiver has the authority to force creditors to renegotiate loans in a speedy fashion. However, the accountant in charge would not have the power to make decisions about the state's budget, such as which programs needed to be cut and which taxes had to be raised. (No state has ever gone into receivership.)

Greece is in a slightly different situation. There's no international bankruptcy court for countries that can't pay their debts. Instead, other EU countries that depend on Greece's solvency, such as Germany or France, would have to agree to bail it out. (When the economy of one member of the Eurozone sinks, it drags the euro down across the continent.) In return for loans, Greece would agree to implement austerity measures, such as hiking the price of gas, freezing government salaries, and raising the retirement age, to steer the country toward solvency. Whichever countries bail out Greece may not get their money back. But at the very least, Greece wouldn't pull the European economy down with it. Another option would be a bailout funded by the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank, which have stepped in when the economies of Ecuador, Russia, and numerous African countries have tanked. But their leaders seem reluctant. Worst-case scenario, the EU could expel Greece—Greece's deficit is already four times higher than what the EU allows. But that could hurt the euro as well by signaling to investors that the EU is unstable and thus a risky bet.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Kenneth Klee of UCLA Law, Alexander Laughlin of Wiley Rein LLP, and John Pottow of the University of Michigan Law School.

Become a fan of  Slate  and the  Explainer  on Facebook. Follow us on  Twitter.

Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.

TODAY IN SLATE

The Slatest

Ben Bradlee Dead at 93

The legendary Washington Post editor presided over the paper’s Watergate coverage.

The Congressional Republican Digging Through Scientists’ Grant Proposals

Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

Whole Foods Is Desperate for Customers to Feel Warm and Fuzzy Again

The XX Factor

I’m 25. I Have $250.03.

My doctors want me to freeze my eggs.

The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I’m 25. I Have $250.03. My doctors want me to freeze my eggs.
Technocracy

Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

George Tiller’s Murderer Threatens Another Abortion Provider, Claims Free Speech

Walmart Is Crushing the Rest of Corporate America in Adopting Solar Power

  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 21 2014 3:13 PM Why Countries Make Human Rights Pledges They Have No Intention of Honoring
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 21 2014 5:57 PM Soda and Fries Have Lost Their Charm for Both Consumers and Investors
  Life
The Vault
Oct. 21 2014 2:23 PM A Data-Packed Map of American Immigration in 1903
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 1:10 PM Women Are Still Losing Jobs for Getting Pregnant
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 21 2014 1:02 PM Where Are Slate Plus Members From? This Weird Cartogram Explains. A weird-looking cartogram of Slate Plus memberships by state.
  Arts
Behold
Oct. 21 2014 12:05 PM Same-Sex Couples at Home With Themselves in 1980s America
  Technology
Technology
Oct. 21 2014 5:38 PM Justified Paranoia Citizenfour offers a look into the mind of Edward Snowden.
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Oct. 20 2014 11:46 AM Is Anybody Watching My Do-Gooding? The difference between being a hero and being an altruist.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.