[IMGCAP(1)]Among the main professions, architecture probably gets the most attention from historians. All those pyramids and cathedrals and brick factories and skyscrapers make good copy, after all. Next up would be medicine, not least because it has a great narrative arc, moving away from ridiculous ideas like the four humours, and toward common sense, like washing your hands before you put them inside your patients, or not putting leeches on sick people. Laws and legislation get plenty of play, obviously, but the actual practice of law would come in third, possibly because it hasn't changed much since Cicero perfected jury nullification in the last century B.C.
That leaves accounting. Economics and finance get their due, but generally speaking accounting -- their backstop and support, the tool that makes their modern forms possible and reliable -- is more or less overlooked by historians. That's why I was happy to receive two recent books that tackled the subject, Jane Gleeson-White's Double Entry and Jacob Soll's The Reckoning. (Special thanks to Chris Frederiksen for sending Double Entry my way.) Both are full of fascinating details on the development of accounting over time. Gleeson-White focuses primarily on Renaissance Italy, the life of Fra Luca Pacioli, and his critical role in promoting the then-new idea of double-entry bookkeeping. Soll casts his net a little wider, looking at the role accounting played at various points in history, from the court of Louis XIV to Colonial America to Dickensian London, right up to the present day.
So far, so interesting. Gleeson-White sketches the progress of double-entry accounting, and indicts it for having created a mindset where we only value what we can debit or credit, and having powered capitalism to the point that our society doesn't care enough for the things it can't measure. Soll uses his series of historical vignettes to argue that civilizations flourish most when governments are held financially accountable, and that if accountants aren't up to the job, our society is in serious trouble.
The books share some common problems. When it suits them, they inflate their definition of "accountants" to include businessmen, economists, statisticians, fraudsters, government bureaucrats, tycoons, quants, politicians and just about everyone else who ever handles or looks at or thinks about money. They often make unsupported leaps from the specifics of accounting practice to larger trends that have a multitude of other causes. And having amassed tons of fascinating historical details on accounting, they sometimes try to put more rhetorical weight on them than they'll bear.
That said, the details are really interesting, and the books' larger points -- that we shouldn't sacrifice the environment (and everything else) just because they don't contribute to narrow ideas of economic growth, and that we need governments, rulers and other seats of power, like large corporations, to be held to standards of accountability and transparency -- are inarguable. The question they sparked for me, though - and which I'm putting to you -- is what should accountants be doing about it, above and beyond what every citizen should? Does the profession bear any responsibility for, say, promoting sustainability through standards that incorporate the currently unmeasured items Gleeson-White talks about? Or for holding Washington to account for the looming entitlement crisis? Now, neither of these books convinced me that accountants deserve any special blame for these problems, but they did make me wonder if, given its uniquely applicable expertise, its position of trust and its reputation for integrity, the profession has a duty to take the lead in addressing some of them.
I'm not sure, though -- so I put it to you: Does the profession need to step up, or is it already doing enough? And if it does need to do more, which issues should it be focusing on? Drop us an e-mail at AcToday@SourceMedia.com or comment here, and we'll share your thoughts with all our readers.
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