Farewell to "The Spirit of Accounting"

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We rarely appreciate those who call us to account for our failings, who remind us of the responsibilities we’ve shirked, the compromises we’ve made, or the corners we’ve cut. We do not like to hear that we have not always lived up to the standards we’ve set for ourselves — or that those standards may not be quite as high as they should have been in the first place.

In fact, we’re more likely to resent those who speak up, and so it is hardly surprising that few people take on the hard task of insisting that we live up to our principles and continue to earn the reputations we claim. For all its well-deserved reputation for integrity, accounting is still subject to many of the same pressures as other professions — the commercial considerations that chip away at a higher calling; the multitude of stakeholders who insist on being accommodated; the client demands that seem much more immediate than the call to duty — and so it needs watchdogs and gadflies as much as anyone else, to remind it of its higher calling, and to call it on the carpet when it fails.

Since its founding, Accounting Today has been privileged to be a platform for some of the profession’s gadflies — the late Eli Mason springs to mind, along with Professor Abe Briloff and a handful of others. But none have been as consistent and dedicated in their duties as Professors Paul Miller and Paul Bahnson, and so it is with real sorrow that we announce that this issue marks the last appearance of their “The Spirit of Accounting” column, which has run in these pages for two decades.

In over 400 columns, they (along with Prof. Ed Ketz, who originally launched “Spirit” with Paul M.) have consistently held the accounting profession to high standards, both literally, with their frequent, incisive criticisms of GAAP and IFRS, and metaphorically, in their willingness to take on the structure of standard-setting here and abroad, to upbraid corporate management en masse, and to call out leading figures and organizations in the profession itself. (They do a far better job than I could of summarizing the many windmills they’ve tilted at in their final column, here.)

Their reward for this stewardship of the profession’s reputation was meager: a grand total of two free meals. Their clockwork output and their painstaking composition process did not help them with the “publish or perish” requirements of academia; Accounting Today is not a qualifying academic journal. And while it may have brought them the occasional friend or letter of thanks from accountants who shared their concerns about the direction of the profession, it also brought them more than their share of angry e-mails and accusations of ivory-tower eggheadedness (and worse).

It hasn’t even always brought them the thanks of their editors here at AT; we have disagreed with them from time to time, over everything from the placement of a comma, to the thrust of an argument, to the target of an attack. But even when we thought they were wrong, we knew that they deserved to be heard, because they had demonstrated, time and time again, that they thought carefully, that they cared deeply, and that they wrote with an unmatched passion for the profession and its public role.

While this month marks the last appearance of “The Spirit of Accounting,” we hope that it won’t be the last appearance of Paul M. and Paul B., together or separately; given how strongly they feel about the profession and its purpose, we suspect that it won’t be.

And even if it is, they have long since earned our best wishes for the future, and our deepest thanks.

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Accounting standards