What motivated you, in 2010, to take the position of running ELSTAT, Greece’s national statistics
I wanted to correct a perennial problem. You may have heard of the term “Greek statistics.” This was a derogatory term that reflected the nearly continuous eruption of problems with Greece’s official statistics prior to 2010. This was fundamentally an issue of not following clearly stated rules. When you compile statistics, no nonstatistical considerations can come into play. I used to tell my staff, “We do not care if the deficit is 10 billion up or 10 billion down. You’re supposed to be completely cool and cold about that.” The best way for official statisticians to serve the national interest is to compile the most accurate statistics possible. This enables any analysis or policy decision to be made on the basis of evidence. To serve his country, an official statistician must never be political!
Is this comparable to a physician needing relevant and accurate information about a patient? If we only tell our physician things that make us sound healthy, what if there’s a real problem?
Then you’re going to die, and the physician will not have a chance to take any action. This is exactly what happened in Greece.
Was it really that bad?
Absolutely. I’ll give you an example: In 2008, before the crisis broke out, the Greek national statistics office published statistics putting the government deficit at 5 percent of GDP—hefty, but not catastrophic. The real number, however, was not 5 percent, but 9.9 percent. It was double what they published! With a 9.9 percent deficit, the bottom has fallen out, from a macroeconomic policy point of view. It was hidden, and thus no policy action was taken to address the problem. And then, in 2009, the deficit went to 15.4 percent.
15.4 percent? Did they publish that number?
No, I published that number. Before I arrived, the statistical estimate for 2009 was 13.6 percent, but that estimate was not accepted by Eurostat [the statistical office of the European Commission, tasked by EU law with validating statistics for every EU country]. The 15.4 was what ELSTAT produced under my supervision as a revision to the 13.6. Ever since then, my detractors and accusers have said that, through this revision, I was the cause of the agreements that Greece signed with their European partners and with the IMF—that effectively I singlehandedly brought this program of bailouts and austerity to Greece and even created this whole crisis. Of course, this is absurd, as the revision in the deficit figures was made more than a year after the Greek debt crisis broke out—and five months after Greece had signed onto the adjustment program.
How did you get the job at ELSTAT?
I had a newborn baby at that time—I’m a single father, raising her by myself—and Greece was not in my plans. The plan was for me to keep my stable, good job in D.C. My daughter was born in February 2010. I took a month off to care for her, and my mother came to visit and help. Two weeks after my daughter’s birth, there was a lunch at the IMF for the visiting Greek finance minister. I was invited along with other Greek IMF staff, and my mom said, “Why don’t you go, just to get out of the house?” So I went. At the lunch, the finance minister mentioned they were looking for somebody, looking to make a new start. I applied on the very last day because I had some ambivalence. I was aware of the problems.
What’s one area of change that you had to bring about?
There was massive rebuilding of the national statistics office in virtually all areas. However, I will mention an example from the flashpoint area: the deficit and debt statistics. Before I arrived, a lot of the data provided by government ministries and other institutions to the statistics office was inaccurate or outright manipulated. Many times the data would be provided anonymously. It would be provided by phone. People would not write it down. They would not sign their name to it. These are all red flags for low-quality information. So we—the statistics office—signed memoranda of cooperation with every ministry in Greece, and with the Central Bank and the General Accounting Office, stipulating exactly when we expected data, and what quality this data should fulfill, and that we needed signatures and specific processes to be followed.
Had you had any idea of the level of disarray when you arrived?
In April 2010 the government deficit and debt statistics had received “reservations” from Eurostat—
that’s a technical term for doubt about their quality and accuracy. This had been the norm for many years. Between 2005 and 2009, in 10 semiannual validations by Eurostat, these statistics had received reservations five times. And when they had not, Eurostat had gone in and corrected the figures itself, always increasing the deficit. So it was important to start putting the statistics in order. The Greek government and its European and international partners needed to know how much was the deficit and how much was the debt.
That would seem to be a noncontroversial point.
You mean, to want to know the truth about that? One would think so!
Did you welcome those visits from Eurostat?
Absolutely. But not everybody did. Some people cast me as a representative of the EU and international institutions and took a position of resistance. The employees’ union put out a press release saying ELSTAT needs to be “abaton” for Eurostat and EU institution staff. Abaton is an ancient Greek word that refers to the inner sanctum, where the uninitiated may not enter. My philosophy was exactly the opposite. From the beginning, representatives from Eurostat would come, and we would go to various Greek government agencies that provide data. And some official would take me aside and say, “Maybe we should’ve met before to discuss what to tell them.” I said, “Why? Tell them everything.”
Did you lack a full understanding of how far animosity toward creditor nations was driving sentiment in Greece? You made it clear that you wanted to work closely with Eurostat. But that got you in trouble.
It is a necessary trouble, if you would like. If it played into a certain political narrative, well, so be it. I have no regrets about following this approach. It helped bring reliability and credibility to Greece’s official statistics. It had huge benefits both for ELSTAT and the country itself.
The Greek government has continued to rely on your statistics even as it allows you to be prosecuted for them.
You can’t have your cake and eat it too. But they are trying just that. In my tenure at ELSTAT, I supervised the production of official statistics accepted by four different governments in Greece, which used those statistics to conduct the business of the country, and by the different parliaments of Greece that voted on budgets that explicitly relied upon these statistics. And yet in 2013, Mr. [Prokopis] Pavlopoulos—now president of Greece, then a senior MP of the center-right New Democracy party that was in power in 2004–09, leading up to the crisis—gave a radio interview saying that I “weakened the board of ELSTAT” and did not allow it “to decide collectively on the deficit.” I “did not object” to what Eurostat wanted; I “did not negotiate” the matter and thus “did not defend the interests of the land.”
Doesn’t his comment make clear that statistics are being viewed in a wholly instrumental way?
Exactly. It’s the political weaponization of official statistics—which, needless to say, is also the destruction of those statistics. It is disconcerting that in a country of the European Union, leaders can say things like this, repeatedly, and somebody suffers the consequences through prosecution—and gets convicted. I have actually been convicted for not allowing voting on the statistics!1
Your conviction was on a charge of violation of duty.
Yes. The EU and Greek legal framework is crystal clear about this: you cannot put up the figures for a vote! When the case arrived at the Supreme Court, I supplied, among many testimonies of senior European statisticians and officials, letters to this effect from five current heads of national statistical offices in Europe: France, Italy, Austria, Ireland and Finland. They were ignored. All this has important implications about the rule of law in general, within Greece and the EU. It also means that an EU member state can follow a “national approach” toward professional independence for European official statistics, as well as other issues, negating what is provided for in EU law. The consequences can be dire. As history has painfully shown us, a country as small as Greece can, through its manipulation of statistics, not only create a huge problem for itself—a Great Depression, with a more than 25 percent reduction of its real income—but also set off, through contagion, a massive European crisis. This has global reverberations.
“If it played into a certain political narrative, so be it. I have no regrets about following this approach.”
Let’s review how the legal cases against you developed. In September 2011, the president of the Athens bar submitted a complaint to the Supreme Court charging that you and your ELSTAT colleagues “inflated the deficit [and] lied to the Greek people in order to trap them in the IMF with a program of tough austerity,” despite knowing that such actions “would harm our national sovereignty.” What allegedly was your motive?
I’m often represented as an agent of the creditors, working for some nebulous benefit. The most recent prosecutor’s proposal to refer me to open trial embraces the conspiracy theory that I inflated the deficit statistics in order to trigger unnecessary measures to ensure that foreign creditors—whose interests I was allegedly representing—would get paid. It’s obviously false on many grounds, including logic. If measures such as raising taxes and cutting spending were unnecessary, then large amounts of extra cash would have accumulated in the government coffers. There is no such extra cash lying around. In the case in which I was convicted for violation of duty for not putting up the numbers for voting, the alleged benefit was that I did it in order to claim sole authority. But taking sole responsibility for the statistics was not a choice for me. It was the law.
I’m struck by the extravagant metaphors of betrayal that have been applied to you—and not by online trolls but by public figures. You have placed the country “in the eye of a hurricane.” You are a “Trojan Horse.” You’re part of “the new German occupation.” You’re an “executioner.”
Yes, and that sends a message to official statisticians: If you do your job, follow the rules and don’t succumb to political pressures, you are going to be persecuted. If you do the opposite, you are going to be fine. To the outside person, the market participants, the investor, the message is that maybe statistics will be accurate, maybe they will not be. This will reduce economic activity within Greece. It will reduce investment from abroad. It will reduce the capacity of Greece to borrow and will increase its costs when it does borrow. These are costly things, but are they taken into account by the people who make the statements that you read to me? No.
Was there no Greek politician of consequence who defended you publicly?
There have been occasional expressions of support from a couple of small political parties. And I should mention that Prime Minister [Alexis] Tsipras, when pressed in a June 2018 interview in a German newspaper about whether I was being scapegoated for the Greek crisis, acknowledged, “We recognize his figures,” and added, “If the court asks us to testify in his defense, we will do it.” Since 2011, when the prosecution began, the major political parties have acted to serve only what they saw as their own political interests at the moment. The main opposition party, the center-right New Democracy, made my alleged inflation of the deficit one of its flagship issues, actually helping to launch the prosecution with the public comments of the party’s leadership in 2011. And the left-wing SYRIZA party is responsible for that quotation about my having placed the country in the eye of the hurricane. 2
It seems that you represent one of the few unifying elements in Greek politics.
I had a friend who used to tell me I should run for president because I’m the only thing that unites the Greeks! More seriously, the political system has found in me a convenient type of a person. I’m a Greek of the diaspora; I was educated abroad; I worked for the international institutions that they like to bash. And I came to Greece to try to do things differently. This can rub people in positions of power the wrong way. They can then sell conspiracy theories about me, especially when a big part of the public in Greece believes that everybody manipulates the figures, everybody succumbs to political pressures or uses connections to get favors. “Everyone does it”: this view is the scourge of Greece. It is not how I operated.
I’d like to talk more personally about what you’ve gone through. When did you start to understand that you were facing serious opposition?
In August 2010, the ELSTAT board told me they wanted to negotiate with Eurostat. Eventually they said they wanted to bring the statistics for a vote at the board. I tried to explain to them that we needed to follow the very explicit EU rules on compiling these statistics—that there was nothing to negotiate, and that voting on the numbers would be contrary to EU statistical principles. It was very difficult. Then one day the union came in. They showed me a document. The moment I saw it, I realized somebody was hacking my emails.
I submitted a complaint to the police. The police found the hacker was the vice chair of the board, [Nikos] Logothetis. They went to his home and found my emails on his computers. Logothetis had criminal and misdemeanor charges pressed against him for the hacking, but he never went to open trial—in one instance because the statute of limitations expired, and in the other because a 20-euro processing fee could not be found in the court file. In their document, the judges said while they believed he had done the hacking, his motive had been to defend the interests of ELSTAT, and therefore of Greece. Interesting.
Meanwhile, the cases against you were piling up. These seem like zombie cases—no matter how often they get killed, they rise again from the dead.
Yes. The current chief prosecutor in Greece has already managed—for a second time—to reverse the decision of the Appeals Court Council that my two colleagues and I should be acquitted. And the Supreme Court Council has agreed. The Sisyphean rock rolls down the hill again, and we start again.