Monday, August 7, 2017
Greece scapegoats a statistician who only did his job
The Washington Post
By Editorial Board August 4
IN GREECE, the lucrative tourism industry is threatened this summer by millions of oversized jellyfish washing ashore on the nation’s beaches. An even slimier development is the ongoing persecution of the country’s first independent chief statistician, whose tough-minded steps to straighten out Greece’s notoriously fraudulent economic data have been repaid with farcical prosecutions by a judicial system rapidly discrediting itself in the world’s eyes.
Andreas Georgiou, an American-trained economist who spent two decades working at the International Monetary Fund, was hired as Greece’s top statistician in 2010 as the country’s debt crisis was spiraling out of control. His goal was to honestly report economic data that for years had been fudged by politicians and officials seeking to minimize their own fateful fiscal mismanagement.
Having done just that, by applying reporting standards widely accepted across Europe, he is now scapegoated as the cause of the painful austerity program imposed on Greece by the IMF and European Union. Four times in recent years, an array of criminal accusations against Mr. Georgiou have been dismissed by prosecutors, only to be revived by judicial authorities amid fury by politicians and media outlets. This month, an Athens appeals court gave Mr. Georgiou a two-year suspended sentence — essentially for reporting accurate information to European authorities during the debt crisis.
Meanwhile, the real villains in Greece’s economic swan dive — officials who manipulated the numbers to hide their profligacy and populist bungling — have avoided accountability. In their self-serving view, which feeds into popular conspiracy theories, Athens is the victim of a cabal of sinister international institutions bent on victimizing Greece, and Mr. Georgiou was their instrument in bringing unwarranted suffering on the blameless Greeks.
That handy myth conveniently absolves Greece’s ruling political class, including the current president, Prokopis Pavlopoulos of the New Democracy Party, who was interior minister until 2009 and played a role in the reckless expansion of the country’s public payroll.
Mr. Georgiou’s critics harp on his upward revision of Greece’s 2009 budget deficit, which forced officials to seek a bigger bailout from the E.U. and IMF, which in return imposed a stringent program of fiscal and structural reform in 2010. Quite properly, he refused to vet data with the statistical agency’s meddlesome board of directors before reporting to European authorities, thereby avoiding the statistical airbrushing and data fiddling for which Greece had become infamous.
Rather than exaggerating the deficit, as his critics charge, Mr. Georgiou simply followed European rules by including sums, previously omitted, from money-losing state-owned enterprises and figures reflecting the government’s actual obligations for interest on its bonds, social security and other pending payments.
Mr. Georgiou left Greece after his five-year term expired in 2015 and returned to Maryland, where he spends his days defending himself against an array of baseless accusations. His conviction, a disgrace roundly condemned by economists and statisticians, gives Greece’s creditors and investors ample reason to wonder whether the nation has learned any lessons from its debt crisis, and cause to avoid wading again into Greece’s perilous shores to help.