It's been more than six years since Malcolm Gladwell's best-selling book, "The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference," helped the phrase, well, reach its own tipping point.
At it's most basic level, the term -- actually coined by a sociologist more than 50 years ago when he was studying the integration of America's neighborhoods in the 1960s -- refers to that dramatic moment when something unique becomes common.
For a lot of the major accounting initiatives being tackled by the profession's major regulatory bodies -- be it the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board admitting Sarbanes-Oxley needs some tweaking, or the Financial Accounting Standards Board at last adding a lease accounting project to its agenda, or the Securities and Exchange Commission officially taking on the sometimes shady practices in the granting of stock options -- it seems a laborious process to get anywhere close to the tipping point of taking action.
In fact, Gladwell tackles what's sure to be another major issue that accountants are at least on the sidelines in a recent New Yorker article -- namely, the rational and the reasons behind the shaky economics of America's pension programs. In fact, "The Risk Pool," appears in the magazine's Aug. 28 issue, is a good read and actually available online, at www.newyorker.com/fact/content/articles/060828fa_fact.
A lot of these bookkeepping debates are nothing new, and Gladwell traces the concerns of union members about the structure of pension programs (which basically concentrate the burden of paying for retired workers on the backs of a company's current workforce) to the 1950s.
Taking a "wait and see" approach, to any of these issues, doesn't seem like a safe route for the profession to follow. Too many of accounting's big names don't seem to truly be speaking as leaders of the profession -- press releases focus on company revenues, public speaking engagements too often get mired down in talk about the need for strong ethics. And of course, on that point, it took the debacles of Enron and WorldCom for the big names in the industry to get on board with any attempt at some meaningful reform.
But the question remains over who best to put a localized face on issues like social security and tax reform, especially before a public that either doesn't recognize the severity of looming problems, or adapts by turning a blind eye to both their own, and their country's, shaky finances. The Government Accountability Office's David Walker has spoken about the nation's fiscal imbalance for years, specifically urging accountants to get involved in helping people realize that those dollar signs totalling in the trillions are more than numbers on a sheet of paper.
But that appears to be just one more issue waiting for its own tipping point to make the public take notice. Admitting there are problems in the system, and that better accounting could play in a role in helping fix those problems is part of it -- and is seen on occasion -- but the key is that these problems need meaningful public debate, and the attention and work of the profession's brightest minds and biggest players. It shouldn't be left to academics and policy wonks to spread the word of threats, or to ponder possible solutions.
I'd like to think that the leaders on the business side of the profession -- whether they're leading a Big Four firm, or running a respected practice in a small town -- are true visionaries, who take seriously their responsibility to start that tipping of a collective perspective.
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