Monday, August 15, 2016

Why the fate of Greece’s chief statistician matters

Financial Times
August 15, 2016

No one loves the messenger who brings bad news. The sentiment expressed by Sophocles is as much in evidence as ever in Athens, where Andreas Georgiou, the former chief of Greece’s statistical agency, faces criminal charges of “undermining the national interest” — because he applied EU rules to produce an accurate calculation of the country’s budget deficit. The figures were validated by EU statisticians, but his critics accuse him of colluding with Eurostat to inflate the debt, and say Greece was forced to accept bigger loans and harsher austerity as a result.

There are many people at fault in this latest twist in the Greek debt crisis but Mr Georgiou is not among them.

First and foremost is the government led by Costas Karamanlis from 2004 to 2009 — responsible for the worst excesses of over-borrowing in the run-up to the global financial crisis, and for its persistent under-reporting. The campaign against Mr Georgiou looks like a vindictive attempt to shift the blame for Greece’s financial collapse from a discredited political class that still hopes to make a comeback.

The socialist government that succeeded Mr Karamanlis showed a similar suspicion of Mr Georgiou’s work. They appointed him to head Elstat, an independent statistical agency set up as a condition of Greece’s first bailout, but also installed two political appointees on its board to keep him in check — one of whom will soon go on trial charged with hacking Mr Georgiou’s computer.

Alexis Tsipras, the prime minister, pledged to reform Greece’s corrupt political system when he brought his radical Syriza party to power but he too appears content to see the case against Mr Georgiou go ahead. The statistician, who spent more than two decades at the International Monetary Fund, is too convenient a scapegoat for a party ideologically opposed to all the IMF represents. Above all, Mr Georgiou’s prosecution reflects a political culture in which facts and figures are a matter of negotiation and convenience, and not of objective reality. If statistics can be massaged and manufactured, then an unwelcome number must be an act of hostility — and it becomes easy to believe that a former IMF official implementing European rules is serving the interests of Greece’s creditors.


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