Letter from Thessaloniki

As the coquettish teenager Maisie flirts with the boys, in the 50-year-old British musical «The Boyfriend,» she expresses her love for all of them in song and dance: «There’s safety in numbers/And the more the merrier am I.» Good for her. On the other hand «There is terror in numbers,» as well, as Darrell Huff wrote in his best-seller «How to Lie with Statistics.» This is a delightful little book about statistical deception (published in New York, by W.W. Norton & Company) for all of us who wonder what all the numbers in news stories mean and where they come from. Now, a great number of figures have been flung around during these last three days at the inauguration festivities of the 68th annual international trade fair (TIF) here in Thessaloniki. Also, as in «The Boyfriend,» the aforementioned camp musical comedy where boy meets girl and wealth plays a significant role as well, there was a lot of wooing too – of the voters. With all those speeches, presentations, correlations, data collections, sample sizes and sample bias, I was curiously reminded of «How to Lie with Statistics,» a book I read quite a time long ago. Nevertheless, I recall that in Huff’s book, one can discover a good selection of the methods by which numbers can be made to say something different than the actual data support. Of all books I have read in my life, I wonder why that specific hardback was much in my mind over the last few days. With an eye fixed on next year’s – or perhaps this year’s – ballot, and implying that money grows on trees, Prime Minister Costas Simitis has every reason to feel optimistic after three full and energetic days in Thessaloniki. According to a poll carried out by Metron Analysis for the Saturday Imerisia newspaper, 61.5 percent of those asked considered that the «social package» of measures announced last week by the prime minister were positive while only 27.7 percent thought they were a wrong move. The Greek PM should be satisfied. Mr Simitis seems to be persuading more and more people to take him seriously as the potential next prime minister as well. That is unless his destiny lies elsewhere. Brussels, perhaps? Anyway, that kind of credibility is invaluable for a politician. Pundits call it momentum and Mr Simitis has some of it. Yet, as already mentioned «There is terror in numbers,» as well. «The secret language of statistics, so appealing in a fact-minded culture, is employed to sensationalize, inflate, confuse, and oversimplify,» warned Huff. Summing up PASOK’s achievements, Costas Simitis – always seen looking unusually hearty in Thessaloniki – kept telling his story, backed by statistics (he has never met a superlative he didn’t like) and vaunting a number of real or imagined achievements. In the northern port, he declared that «the greatest change we achieved was the gaining of national self-confidence» and that the next four years would be high risk. He also emphasized that the package of «social measures» he announced last week – the source of so much recent joy – «is in accordance with the 2004 budget…» Simitis had hardly begun his speech, when there was a new wave of harsh criticism from the other side of the fence. Numbers were inextricably linked with appropriate answers. «The greatest redistribution of wealth that has taken place in Greece during all the years that PASOK has been in government, are the 30 billion drachmas (88,041,085 euros) that were lost on the stock market…» New Democracy leader Costas Karamanlis blithely sneered. Personally, I always enjoy arguments that fling statistics back and forth, bestowing a certain aroma of reality on both sides. Those were unmistakably the PASOK days for Thessaloniki. New Democracy is on next this week. As regards Mr Karamanlis, PASOK supporters described him as verbose, an intellectual lightweight who was devoid of experience in government. All the same, they had to admit that he has been exceptionally successful in distancing himself from his far-right fringe, and that his team is acquiring competence. The government may accuse him of not having an economic plan but they overlook the fact that a wise opposition never risks answers: It just emphasizes problems in an antagonistic way. The inauguration of the 68th annual TIF, in Greece’s second-largest city and the center of northern Greece, was necessarily a cheerful day for a city which has proved hostile to human beings and the environment, according to a Thessaloniki University survey. Led by Associate Professor Niovi Chrysomallidou, a study stressed last February that the «Nymph of the Thermaic Gulf is the perfect example of how not to design a city,» hinting darkly of dangers from pollution. The northern port of Thessaloniki has its industries situated to windward (in the northwest), sending airborne fumes over the city. Needless to say, the sea breeze from the Thermaic Gulf would be able to improve the environment and cool the atmosphere, if it were not obstructed by a high wall of eight-floor buildings along the seaside promenade. Oh, there are so many problems troubling the city, including issues of de-industrialization, high prices and unemployment, to name just a few of them. As the Prime Minister spoke at the TIF Vellidion Convention Hall, large protest marches got underway outside, with uniformed policemen, firemen and coast guard officials among the demonstrators. The «Metropolis of the Balkans» and «big projects» are cherished old friends when it comes to political rhetoric. Working as if from a master plan, Simitis had proclaimed, during his inaugural address at the opening of the fair four years before: «The time has come for us to look more closely at this city’s role. We can build the future on four axes with the aim of turning Thessaloniki into the metropolis of the Balkans.» This was on a Friday, September 3, 1999 to be exact. In case they have already have been forgotten, these axes were: «Making Thessaloniki the economic center of southeastern Europe; constructing infrastructure projects (such as the subway and the tunnel under the Thermaic Gulf – none yet realized); highlighting the city’s culture; developing education, research and technology.» Or whatever. All suitably vague.

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