This column is different because it describes who we are, what we do and why. It was motivated by a recent e-mail from an upset reader. Look — if you find holes in our premises, arguments and conclusions, we’ll gladly entertain your suggestions, so there’s no point in being nasty.
Besides, we embrace the old adage that sticks and stones may break our bones but words will never hurt us, even when they arrive in ad hominem attacks.
Our April column (“You manage what gets measured: Penny-wise but pound-foolish financial reporting”) evoked this comment that appears below as we received it:
“Have either of you two ever lived in the real world...or is all of your experience limited to an academic environment? It would seem to me that you live in a fantasy world... You might temper your thoughts and opinions (and they are opinions, not facts), if you did not have such a nice perch in your ivory tower. I have not read anything so detached from reality in a long time. ...”
Although we occasionally get messages like this one that exalt the writer’s superior “real-world” experience, they neither impress nor upset us.
To respond to this person, we first want to explain that as columnists we are supposed to deliver opinions. As for being “detached from reality,” it’s ironic that the column asserted that many chief financial officers (perhaps including the writer) are themselves detached from the reality faced by users of their financial statements. That is, they prepare their companies’ reports as cheaply as possible without assessing whether they in fact communicate useful information.
Unapologetically, we admit we live in an ivory tower. The view from up here is amazing because we can see a bigger picture and look further out into the future than those of you who fight your daily battles down in the trenches.
We know you face intense problems with tight deadlines. They surely preoccupy your mind and prevent you from thinking about what’s needed to keep our profession vital in the coming years and decades.
However, your preoccupation with the routine is exactly where we come in! Specifically, our professional role is to have both a different perspective on issues and more working time to collect, ponder and otherwise process data from many sources to identify and explain what kind of information statement users need to make better decisions.
WHAT USERS NEED
Over and over, we’ve found that users are not pleased with the same ol’, same ol’ financial reporting content that comes out year after year, but you don’t have to just take our word for it. Instead, we encourage everyone to read A Comprehensive Business Reporting Model: Financial Reporting for Investors, a 2007 monograph available from the CFA Institute as a free download at www.cfapubs.org.
Although this book strongly criticizes GAAP financial statements, its authors aren’t ivory tower academics. Rather, they’re well-credentialed and experienced professional financial analysts, and they don’t mince words about their obvious dissatisfaction with the lack of useful information in those statements. Their disappointment is evident in their as-yet-unheeded call for “fundamental reforms rather than superficial, cosmetic changes.”
What reforms, for example, do they want? Our regular readers will see familiar themes. At the top of their list of essential innovations is widespread use of fair value measurements. They also want all off-balance-sheet financing to be eliminated. A third demand asks that statements fully reveal companies’ underlying economic volatility, instead of concealing it with cleverly rigged accounting principles.
These analysts say much more and we know their views are echoed by many others.
HOW DID WE GET HERE?
Again, the reason we’re in our ivory tower is to scrutinize the status quo and raise our voices when it doesn’t cut it.
To be clear, we didn’t build this tower. It was constructed by the accounting profession to enable academicians to raise hard questions that practitioners cannot or don’t want to ask. Its existence reflects the profession’s commitment to help educators create better accountants and improve practice. Even the American Institute of CPAs supports this arrangement by providing financial assistance to doctoral students so they can come up here and join us.
We have risen to our position by succeeding in our own real world that many practitioners know nothing about. Specifically, we both earned Ph.D’s (Paul M. from Texas at Austin and Paul B. from Utah) and CPA licenses. We’re tenured professors (Paul M. is emeritus) with more than 75 years of combined experience teaching at state universities. We have consulted extensively, spoken before many audiences, and published a great deal. Paul M. has written more than 15 books and over 40 articles, and Paul B. has collaborated on many of these efforts and written others on his own. We both worked for FASB and Paul M. was a fellow in the Office of the Chief Accountant of the Securities and Exchange Commission as well.
We’ve also earned our perch by not missing a single deadline for more than 370 issues of Accounting Today since January 1996 (since August 2000 for Paul B.). We’re proud that our ideas are scrutinized every month by the magazine’s print and online readership, which numbers several hundred thousand. In addition, we’ve won writing awards from the AICPA and the Institute of Management Accounting, and “The Spirit” has been a finalist for two notable business journalism awards.
To summarize, we’re in this tower to see what’s right about practice and what’s not and then to express our views to inspire and motivate others to keep doing what’s right and to take action to fix the rest. If you want us to just bless the status quo and protect it from change, those duties aren’t in our job description. Indeed, we’re expected to do just the opposite.
OUR STATE OF MIND
We have written so passionately for so long simply because we want to make the financial reporting world better than we found it.
We also keep writing because a great many of you encourage us. Our files are stuffed with praise from senior officials, other professors, and even regular accountants. They most often thank us because we’ve said what they’ve wanted to say but couldn’t. Ironically, the same April column that our critic hammered was so appreciated by a Zambian accountant that he asked permission to republish it for his colleagues. We love it when we can help people like him!
A recent conversation revealed that some may think we’re motivated by the money we’re paid to write this column. So you know, our only compensation in 19 years has been two nice dinners in New York when we were already in the neighborhood.
In short, we’re privileged to have this leadership opportunity and the responsibilities that go with it.
Bottom line, we think dismissive “ivory tower” epithets actually validate our ideas. After all, if our critics resort to personal attacks, it surely means our arguments are otherwise unassailable.
Although we’d prefer that it not happen, we don’t regret that some take umbrage at our ideas, especially when they’re protecting their self-interest to the detriment of the broader good. Our only interest is contributing to society’s progress, and we’re willing to move ahead without those who can’t change or just don’t want to get better.
We think it’s fair to ask whether we’ve made a difference.
For one thing, many instructors tell us they use our columns to challenge students with ideas and issues that aren’t in their textbooks. For another, we know we’ve deflated a few leaders and encouraged the rank-and-file to keep getting better every day.
Perhaps our most substantive impact was helping stop the seemingly unstoppable movement to supplant GAAP with IFRS and replace the Financial Accounting Standards Board with the International Accounting Standards Board. In May 2005, when everyone else was gushing over international harmonization, we published our first of 21 columns arguing against it (“Convergence: Don’t confuse the means with the end”). It accurately predicted that setting the goal of producing converged pronouncements would cause at least some FASB and IASB members to consider issuing a joint standard to be a worthwhile accomplishment even if it didn’t significantly improve practice.
Our apotheosis was our April and May 2014 columns that described the real story behind the Financial Accounting Foundation’s million-dollar donation to the IASB. Somehow, though, we think our latest column on this subject (“IFRS in the U.S.: The opera star has already sung,” November 2014) won’t be our last.
While we can’t take credit for derailing this train, it seemed we were the only ones speaking out against it. Our words also supported the SEC’s Mary Schapiro and Jim Kroeker as they navigated that political minefield without actually stating what they thought. Would they have let it die without our support? Most certainly, but perhaps we helped them along the way.
We were especially pleased when Accounting Today ranked us in the 2011 Top 100 Most Influential People in Accounting because of our stance in this area.
So, now you know we’re not surprised, offended or dismayed by assertions that we reside in an ivory tower, because, after all, that’s right where we belong.
If someone doesn’t like what we write, they should first re-evaluate our ideas, premises and conclusions and then their own to see whether they’re valid or not. In any case, please note that ad hominem attacks are like water off a duck’s back to us. With that said, we welcome comments of all kinds. We’re eager to get everything right, regardless of who does or doesn’t like the result.
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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