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Planet Money

How A Computer Scientist Tried To Save Greece

Originally published on Mon May 7, 2012 11:13 am

It's like a bad joke. Why did the Greek government borrow so much money?

Because it couldn't get its own citizens to pay taxes.

The Greek government estimates that one third of taxes owed never get paid. And apparently it was far easier to borrow money even at outrageous rates than to make Greeks pay what they owe.

So in 2009, the Greek finance ministry called in an unlikely hero: A methodical, computer science professor at Athens University, Diomidis Spinellis.

Spinellis tackled the problems like it was programming challenge. He made something called a mind map. A mind map looks like a tree, and it maps how your brain works. And Spinellis's mind map illustrated in a precise, clean manner why Greece is missing so much of its tax revenue.

First on the mind map. Locate the tax evaders, he thought, and improve tax collection. It should be easy, because wherever he looked in the data, he saw tax evasion.

For instance, a corporation often lists its shareholders and their compensation. Those shareholders also reported their income for their taxes. So he used a computer program to check that the numbers matched — the reported income should not be less than the compensation. But, Spinellis's program found in many cases, it was:

What we found is that some failed to declare that amount completely and others missed a digit so they declared ten times less what they actually had to declare.

Spinellis's program found hundreds of thousands of cases of potential tax fraud.

Greece has three hundred regional tax offices. Spinellis thought the solution was simple. Share the data with all of them and wait for the revenues to come flowing in.

Nothing.

Most Greeks will tell you there is widespread corruption in the tax offices. Collectors take bribes.

So Spinellis added a new item to the mind map. Management issues at regional tax offices.

Spinellis wrote a small program that would extract each day's performance data from every single tax office. It recorded information on how much revenue was collected, how many cases were closed, the number of days it took to close a case, etc. It also kept a list of the tax offices that had not closed a single case that day. There were hundreds of them.

The program sent an email every single afternoon to the finance minister and every tax collection office, reporting which offices did absolutely nothing that day. And still, days passed with no action.

It is around this point, two years in, that Spinellis had a disturbing thought. A new item on his mind map. Fixing Greece's tax system, and ultimately making the Greek economy work, was not a matter of tweaking his computer programs. It was not an information problem. It was a culture problem.

If the people don't want to pay taxes, the collectors don't want to collect, and the politicians don't want to punish them, perhaps Greece needs more than a mind map.

At the end of 2011, Spinellis resigned from his government job. He's back to teaching.

And for now, Greece is surviving on international bailouts from countries where people do pay their taxes. In just a few weeks European inspectors will travel to Athens to check if, among other things, Greece has increased tax collection. If the culture has finally changed.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Also increase, a top tax official faces criminal charges this week for failing to do his job. That's a common refrain in Greek life, the tax collector who shows little interest in collecting taxes, despite the country's enormous debt.

Chana Joffe-Walt of our Planet Money team introduces us to one man who tried to buck that trend.

CHANA JOFFE-WALT, BYLINE: Diomidis Spinellis has a Mind Map. He's a methodical computer science professor at the Athens University and he has a Mind Map on his laptop.

PROFESSOR DIOMIDIS SPINELLIS: It tries to map how your mind works. It's like a tree.

JOFFE-WALT: Imagine a graphical outline of the tasks before you at any given time, or a flowchart with tasks, subtasks, sub-subtasks. A Mind Map can, for instance, illustrate in a precise, clean manner the situation Greece finds itself in right now.

Greece borrowed too much money. Click, and it branches out to: Greece cannot pay back its debt. Click, two branches here: This fact threatens all euro countries and Greece is surviving off international bailouts. Click, Greece needs to increase revenues.

SPINELLIS: It was actually a no-brainer that I could help with that, or at least I thought I could help with that.

JOFFE-WALT: In 2009, Spinellis brought his methodical approach and his Mind Map to the Greek Finance Ministry. Solving the tax problem, he proposed, was not that difficult. Actually, with the help of information technology, it might even be kind of easy.

SPINELLIS: Because all the data was there; wherever you looked you could see evidence of tax evasion. And I thought you just have to cross-correlate those two tables and you will find the tax evaders, and then we can improve revenue collection.

JOFFE-WALT: For instance, say a corporation lists its officers and their compensation. Have the computer program check the officers' declared income. It should not be less than their compensation, but Spinellis' program found, in many cases, it was.

SPINELLIS: What we found is that some failed to declare that amount completely and others missed a digit so they declared 10 times less what they actually had to declare.

JOFFE-WALT: Spinellis' program found hundreds of thousands of cases of potential tax fraud.

SPINELLIS: Initially, we felt that's simple. We just post those results to the original tax offices, they get the money and we are all happy.

JOFFE-WALT: Greece has 300 regional tax offices. Spinellis shared his data with every one of them. And then he waited for the revenues to come flowing in - nothing. A few weeks later, he sent it out again.

SPINELLIS: The results were disappearing in a black hole.

JOFFE-WALT: Most weeks will tell you there is widespread corruption in the tax offices - collectors take bribes. So an item was added to the Mind Map: management of regional tax offices. Spinellis wrote a small program that would extract each day's performance data from every single tax office.

SPINELLIS: How much revenue was collected through how many cases that were closed; the average number of cases; how many days you would need for all the cases to close if they were working at that rate. And also, a list of tax offices that hadn't closed a single case on that day, and there are hundreds of offices each day that don't close a single case.

JOFFE-WALT: The program sent an email every single afternoon to the finance minister and every tax collection office reporting which offices did absolutely nothing that day.

SPINELLIS: And many days passed without anything happening.

JOFFE-WALT: It is around this point, two years in, that Spinellis had a disturbing thought. Fixing Greece's tax system, and ultimately making the Greek economy work, was not a matter of tweaking his computer programs. It was not an information problem. It was a culture problem.

The people, the tax collectors had to want to go after tax cheats. And if they didn't want to, they needed a boss who would make them want to.

SPINELLIS: This turnaround artist is not somebody we have within the tax collection agency.

JOFFE-WALT: At the end of 2011, Spinellis resigned from his government job. He's back to teaching. And Greece is still surviving off international bailouts.

In just a few weeks, European inspectors will travel to Athens to check if, among other things, Greece has managed to increase tax collections, if the turnaround artists have shown up.

Chana Joffe-Walt, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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