Lies, Damn Lies, and European Growth Statistics

ATHENS – “Greece has at last returned to economic growth.” That was the official European Union storyline at the end of 2014. Alas, Greek voters, unimpressed by this rejoicing, ousted the incumbent government and, in January 2015, voted for a new administration in which I served as finance minister.

Last week, similarly celebratory reports emanated from Brussels heralding the “return to growth” in Cyprus, and contrasting this piece of “good” news to Greece’s “return to recession.” The message from the troika of European bailout lenders – the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund – is loud and clear: “Do as we say, like Cyprus has done, and you will recover. Resist our policies, by electing people like Varoufakis, and you will suffer the consequences of further recession.”

This is a powerful story. Except that it is built on a disingenuous lie. Greece was not recovering in 2014, and Cyprus’s national income has not recovered yet. The EU’s claims to the contrary are based on an inappropriate focus on “real” national income, a metric bound to mislead during periods of falling prices.

If asked whether you are better off today compared to a year ago, you would answer in the affirmative if your money income (that is, its dollar, pound, euro, or yen value) rose during the previous 12 months. In the inflationary times of yore, you might have also accompanied your response with the (reasonable) complaint that increases in the cost of living eroded your increased money income.