October 25, 2007 [LINK / comment]

Argentine inflation in dispute

While watching Spanish-language news in Northern Virginia two weekends ago, I saw a report about Argentina, where it seems that the government is manipulating statistics to keep the inflation rate down. This is important because the country is about to hold a presidential election, and many suspect that the government of Nestor Kirchner is using statistical fraud to maintain its hold on power. (See item on Cristina below.) The BBC reports that a number of top officials at the national statistics institute (INDEC) have been replaced by political appointees over the past several months, which is a gross violation of professional norms.

According to the government - using INDEC figures - annual inflation is just a little under 9%. But others claim it is actually running as high as 15% or 20%.

This issue is near and dear to my heart, because I used to work as an economist in the Bureau of Labor Statistics, writing press releases, etc. for the Producer Price Index. I also used to lecture to foreign economists, including many from Latin America, and the issue of political neutrality of statistical agencies came up more than once. Yet even in the United States, our government bureaucrats are not above suspicion: In 1980, a few weeks before he was elected president, Ronald Reagan accused our agency of "jimmying the figures" (alluding to President Jimmy Carter), which we did not take well.

Cristina: like Hillary or Evita?

The leading candidate for president in this Sunday's elections is none other than the current First Lady of Argentina, Cristina Kirchner, who has served as a senator for the past decade. Statistical fraud or not, she is widely expected to succeed her husband Nestor in that post. She is smart and glamorous without question, and some have compared her to other powerful women leaders such as Hillary Clinton or Evita Peron, the extremely popular First Lady of the late 1940s and early 1950s. What does Cristina think about such comparisons? It's hard to say. Either she has contradicted herself, or some journalists are in big trouble for misquoting her. According to the BBC, "Mrs Kirchner herself has welcomed the comparisons with Mrs. Clinton, who she has praised as an 'intelligent and modern woman.'" However, CNN, reported that "doesn't want to be compared to Hillary Clinton or Eva Peron." I have no idea which report is more accurate, but it may simply be that the Kirchners are habitual double-talkers.