Angry statisticians and fiddled figures

Merijn Knibbe (@MerijnKnibbe) alerted Twitter yesterday to an extraordinary statement on the website of ELSTAT, the Greek official statistics agency. It was issued by the Members of the European Statistical System Рthe professional group of official statisticians in Europe  Рand includes this statement:

“Therefore, we confirm our concern with regard to the situation in Greece, where the statistical institute, ELSTAT, as well as some of its staff members, including the current President of ELSTAT, continue to be questioned in their professional capacity. There are ongoing political debates and investigatory and judicial proceedings related to actions taken by ELSTAT and to statistics which have repeatedly passed the quality checks applied by Eurostat to ensure full compliance with Union legislation.”

The story – told in the opening pages of my book

– is that at the start of the Greek crisis, one of the most benign conditions required by the IMF was that the Greek government stop fabricating its GDP statistics, which it had been doing for some years in order to keep the loans flowing. The EU statistics body had refused to approve the statistics but international lenders (hello Goldman Sachs) didn’t seem to mind.

So the Greek statistical agency was dissolved, the new one (ELSTAT) created, and a former IMF economist, Andreas Georgiou, was appointed to lead it. One of his graduate school friends told me Mr Georgiou is one of the most honourable people he has ever known. Yet, almost immediately after his appointment to the job, some of the sacked former board members accused him of treason for cleaning up the Greek statistics and brought legal proceedings. “I am being prosecuted for not cooking the books,” Mr Georgiou said at the time. The continuing legal and political shenanigans are what the new statement refers to.

The independence and integrity of official statistics really matters. We take economic statistics far too seriously in one sense, often ignoring the margins of error and the judgements involved in their calculation (so it’s encouraging to see a vigorous debate about these issues), not to mention the fact that the categories we define are social constructs. Yet independent and freely available official statistics are a vital part of the fabric of a democracy, one of the key tools for holding governments to account – see my new working paper on this. The only OECD country moving away from independence for its official statisticians has been, bizarrely, Canada; all others have moved in the opposite direction. The statisticians’ statement this week about Greece does not augur well for how things there will turn out.

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