This month, February 2016, marks 20 years of “The Spirit of Accounting,” and this column is the 380th for Paul Miller and the 280th for Paul Bahnson. Probably more than anyone, we’re amazed it’s still going on because we’ve probably worked through at least 5,000 drafts and put somewhere around 450,000 words in print.
When the column debuted in 1996, Accounting Today was just getting its legs as an independent news magazine that was overshadowed by The Journal of Accountancy and newsletters published by the American Institute of CPAs and the large accounting firms. Back then, we’re guessing the circulation would have been a few tens of thousands; now, each issue reaches as many as half a million print and online readers.
Our worldwide reach was validated in 2015 by reprint permission requests from a newsletter in Zambia and the Institute of Singapore Chartered Accountants, as well as October’s lengthy op-ed comments from the International Accounting Standards Board on our August column. We would have reacted with side-splitting laughter to any predictions in 1996 of today’s mindboggling global impact.
In light of this milestone, we’re sharing some facts and thoughts about the past, the present, and the future.
WHO WE ARE
Our regular byline doesn’t reveal much about us, and we think you may understand us better if you know more.
Paul Miller, an emeritus professor, retired in 2014 after a 43-year career. His Ph.D was granted by the University of Texas at Austin and he holds two degrees from Rice University. Paul Bahnson is a professor and John A. Elorriaga Fellow at Boise State. His Ph.D was earned at the University of Utah (with some guidance from Paul M.) and he also has degrees from Indiana University and Augustana University. We first met in Salt Lake City in 1983. We’re both proud to be CPAs (Paul M. is in retired status). Surely, it’s no surprise that we’re not Chartered Global Management Accountants.
We’ve collaborated on four books, 14 articles, and numerous presentations, including three before Financial Accounting Standards Board members and staff. Coincidentally, we worked at different times in the Denver office of Haskins & Sells when we were younger. Not by coincidence, we both served on FASB’s technical staff. Paul M. was also a Securities and Exchange Commission fellow in the Office of the Chief Accountant.
We’re each the proud father of adult children. Paul M.’s include two pastors and a social worker while Paul B.’s are a young professional accountant and a soon-to-be Ph.D and business professor. M. is astonished and grateful to be the grandfather of eight. B. and his wife eagerly await the arrival of grandchildren in the uncharted future.
One of us is a liberal Democrat and the other a conservative Republican. Take note, Washington, we’re the closest of friends who have never had an argument in the 30-plus years we’ve worked together, although we often disagree. We just know that being civil really helps us find the best answer.
WHAT WE DO
Although we each have multiple professional and personal interests, we share a strong commitment to using our column to serve the following goals:
- Identify crucial issues in accounting, especially financial reporting. (We define an issue as a question that sparks controversy about which of its multiple possible answers is preferable.)
- Explain and analyze positions on those issues.
- Suggest resolutions to them.
- Encourage, even demand, ethical professional decisions and actions.
We’ve written in many areas, most frequently about financial reporting and standard-setting. We focus on important economic and ethical factors and are unafraid to jump with both feet into politically touchy topics. This tendency wins us friends but also creates pushback from those who feel threatened by our analyses and recommendations.
Our shared Quality Financial Reporting paradigm is straightforward: Better information reduces uncertainty and risk, and therefore leads to lower capital costs and higher security values. (That proposition is not merely our assertion. It has been confirmed by findings from uncountable research studies.) Thus, when reported information is complete, understandable, pertinent, timely and trustworthy, everybody benefits because accountants are providing more valuable services, users can make better decisions, and managers will find that market values of their companies’ securities will come closer to their intrinsic values.
We’re persuaded that truly useful financial statements reveal information compiled from observations of current economic facts, specifically market-based values. In contrast, we find little usefulness in today’s GAAP-compliant reports that disclose mostly pseudo-information comprised of obsolete past facts and systematic allocations based on conjured assumptions instead of actual observations. The immense gulf between
ideal and current practice needs to be bridged sooner, not later.
We summarize our ethics paradigm very simply as, “Do the right thing.” We firmly believe that if someone has to test whether an activity is ethical by looking in a rule book, it isn’t.
We want our ideas to be like yeast that creates a ferment and causes dough to turn into better bread. Because we push for change, we don’t expect (or get) much in the way of thanks or adulation, although we have received a few awards.
WHY WE DO IT
Clearly, we’re not doing this for money. As proof, our total compensation over 20 years consists of two pleasant dinners hosted by our editors when we were already in New York.
So, then, why do we keep doing it?
In our minds, we’re blessed (or cursed) with active consciences that have gotten the better of us. Specifically, we’re discontented because, in general, we find our profession to be unresponsive, even resistant, to significant ethical and economic stimuli. Despite clear needs for radical reforms that would better serve our constituents and the general public, many accountants and policy-makers remain frustratingly self-absorbed, self-satisfied, and otherwise complacent.
We’d like our words to help change those attitudes.
We’ve been told that a large percentage of Accounting Today subscribers read our columns. We also know we’re read at the very highest levels. Our popularity is reflected in occasional letters to us that express appreciation for our thoughts.
On the other hand, our editors also receive letters that express somewhat different opinions! Contrary to what these disgruntled writers intend, we’re not intimidated by their criticism. In fact, their attacks don’t faze us in the least because we see them as proof that our words have power. Perhaps unexpectedly, we actually feel affirmed when they criticize us personally because it means they can’t refute our ideas.
In any case, we hope we positively impact the many thousands, even hundreds of thousands, who read us every month.
The first few columns were invited by then-editor-in-chief Rick Telberg, who asked Ed Ketz of the Penn State faculty and Paul M. to extract germane thoughts from their paper that had been presented at an academic conference on ethics. Many symposium participants found it to be iconoclastic and controversial because we observed that some in the accounting profession were not acting ethically.
After the first few were well-received, Rick asked us to keep writing, and we eventually published 100 columns over the next four-and-a-half years. At that point, Ed bowed out and Paul B. joined the team.
Ed suggested the column’s apt title, taking a cue from the declaration in the AICPA Code of Professional Conduct that, “Integrity requires a member to observe both the form and the spirit of technical and ethical standards.”
We’re occasionally asked the awkward question of how long we intend to keep going. Our consistent response explains, with a smile, that we’ll stick with it until the profession stops generating new topics for us to write about. Of course, if we were totally serious on that point, we’d never quit.
If we ever feel we aren’t provoking new thoughts, we might consider giving it up, but only if we couldn’t find better ways to be provoking. We would feel more comfortable about stopping if other people were sending the same sort of messages to our audience. Because we don’t think that’s presently true, we’re not yet ready to slow down.
On the other hand, perhaps we will someday grow tired of dealing with that endless conveyor belt of deadlines. (Ironically, our editor sent 2016’s monthly due dates on the day we were preparing this column’s first draft.) Sure, it’s a grind, but it does give two very good friends separated by more than 600 miles a chance to enjoy quality time together.
Of course, health problems may eventually impede us, or our priorities might shift toward spending more time each month with family and friends (or on the golf course and ski slopes).
Suffice it to say that, at least for now, we’re planning to stick with it.
One never gets to do anything for 20 years without a lot of help, so we’d like to thank:
- Our friend, Ed Ketz, for his efforts in the beginning.
- Our editors, Rick Telberg for trusting us, Bill Carlino for building up the readership, and Dan Hood for keeping us focused (and in stitches).
- Our profession, for granting us our credentials, for our fellow professionals’ commitment to integrity, and for the opportunity to stimulate them to think differently.
- Our universities, for supporting us, even at the risk we might create adverse reactions from some constituents.
- Our academic colleagues, for their encouragement, especially from those who use our columns as course materials.
- Our families, for putting up with grousing when deadlines loom and with our gloating that follows on-time submissions.
And, of course, thanks to all of you who are reading these words right now.AT
Paul B. W. Miller is an emeritus professor at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and Paul R. Bahnson is a professor at Boise State University. The authors’ views are not necessarily those of their institutions or Accounting Today. Reach them at email@example.com.
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