When Papaconstantinou arrived here, last October, the Greek government had estimated its 2009 budget deficit at 3.7 percent. Two weeks later that number was revised upward to 12.5 percent and actually turned out to be nearly 14 percent. He was the man whose job it had been to figure out and explain to the world why. “The second day on the job I had to call a meeting to look at the budget,” he says. “I gathered everyone from the general accounting office, and we started this, like, discovery process.” Each day they discovered some incredible omission. A pension debt of a billion dollars every year somehow remained off the government’s books, where everyone pretended it did not exist, even though the government paid it; the hole in the pension plan for the self-employed was not the 300 million they had assumed but 1.1 billion euros; and so on. “At the end of each day I would say, ‘O.K., guys, is this all?’ And they would say ‘Yeah.’ The next morning there would be this little hand rising in the back of the room: ‘Actually, Minister, there’s this other 100-to-200-million-euro gap.’ ”Wow. HT: Marginal Revolution [Update: autoqueued when Tyler first posted, now everybody's pointing to it. Oh well.]
This went on for a week. Among other things turned up were a great number of off-the-books phony job-creation programs. “The Ministry of Agriculture had created an off-the-books unit employing 270 people to digitize the photographs of Greek public lands,” the finance minister tells me. “The trouble was that none of the 270 people had any experience with digital photography. The actual professions of these people were, like, hairdressers.”
By the final day of discovery, after the last little hand had gone up in the back of the room, a projected deficit of roughly 7 billion euros was actually more than 30 billion. The natural question—How is this possible?—is easily answered: until that moment, no one had bothered to count it all up. “We had no Congressional Budget Office,” explains the finance minister. “There was no independent statistical service.” The party in power simply gins up whatever numbers it likes, for its own purposes.
Once the finance minister had the numbers, he went off to his regularly scheduled monthly meetings with ministers of finance from all the European countries. As the new guy, he was given the floor. “When I told them the number, there were gasps,” he said. “How could this happen? I was like, You guys should have picked up that the numbers weren’t right. But the problem was I sat behind a sign that said GREECE, not a sign that said, THE NEW GREEK GOVERNMENT.” After the meeting the Dutch guy came up to him and said, “George, we know it’s not your fault, but shouldn’t someone go to jail?”
As he finishes his story the finance minister stresses that this isn’t a simple matter of the government lying about its expenditures. “This wasn’t all due to misreporting,” he says. “In 2009, tax collection disintegrated, because it was an election year.”
“The first thing a government does in an election year is to pull the tax collectors off the streets.”
Now he’s laughing at me. I’m clearly naïve.
Single favourite line:
“every single member of the Greek Parliament is lying to evade taxes.”The Germans must love paying for this.
Read the whole thing, seriously. How does Greece get out of this mess? Can anything save a civic culture this broken?