On the perils of accountancy

Many of our psychologists, sociologists, economists and other latter-day cabalists will have numbers to tell them the truth or they will have nothing.

Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business

When I graduated from university, back in the 1980s when dinosaurs still roamed the Earth, there used to be an institution known as the Milk Round, whereby various corporations toured universities hoping to recruit the nation’s best and brightest. Rather disappointingly, to my mind, most of these seemed to be after future accountants. They had a point, in that the CEOs of many large UK businesses already came from a background in accountancy, and the trend was for this tendency to become more pronounced. “Become an accountant, me hearty,” they didn’t actually say but I suspect secretly wanted to. “‘Tis a man’s life! The smack of the salt breeze in your spreadsheet….”

You have to realise that prior to this time accountancy was generally seen as very, very boring. There was a well-known Monty Python sketch in which an accountant by the name of Herbert Anchovy seeks to break out of the stereotype by re-training as a lion tamer. He says of accountancy: “It’s dull. Dull. Dull. My God it’s dull, it’s so desperately dull and tedious and stuffy and boring and des-per-ate-ly DULL.” The joke, of course, is that when he realises how scary lions actually are he changes his mind.

Looking back, I dodged a couple of bullets at this moment in my life. I didn’t go into accountancy. I also didn’t go into academia, which was what I thought I was going to do, but that’s another story. Accountants did, however, go on to rule the world, and I think this is no longer helpful, if it ever was. Let me explain.

An account is, fundamentally, another word for a story. In the sense accountants use the term, it’s a story about financial transactions, and it is told to an auditor – literally, a hearer. These stories are not, for the most part, especially riveting. My point, however, is that like all narratives they construct a reality. In this case, the reality is based around arithmetic, which is itself an abstract view of the world, and what is being counted is money, which is not of itself a real thing.

Our oldest written records are financial accounts, but when they speak (for instance) of the movement of ingots of silver there is good reason to believe that no physical ingots ever stirred from the temple treasuries in which they resided. As I have discussed previously, we should always bear in mind that money is not the same thing as wealth. Interested readers are referred to the works of Michael Hudson concerning ancient Mesopotamian economics, and to the late David Graeber’s excellent Debt: The First 5,000 Years (Melville House Publishing, 2013).

Now the idea behind keeping accounts is to have an accurate and verifiable record of financial transactions – originally for the purposes of keeping track of tax liabilities and payments, but the practice is now used by pretty much any organisation that uses money, which is all of them. But like any account of the truth, it is capable of being adapted for the narrator’s own purposes. “Creative accounting” is not a compliment. It is the kind of thing that led to the collapse of Enron, and when people are caught doing it they can end up doing prison time.

Because accounts are supposed to be a true description of affairs. That is their whole value. For this reason, we have a system of supposedly independent scrutiny by external auditors which is meant to ensure this. Notoriously, Enron’s auditors, Arthur Andersen, failed spectacularly in this regard. But without going to such extremes, accountants can choose to represent basically the same underlying facts in different ways in order, for example, to reduce their client’s liability to taxation. Whatever you may think of the morality of this, it is perfectly legal and quite a substantial industry in its own right.

This is an example of how changing the narrative can have real-world effects. I remember hearing the political economist Mark Blyth remark in a lecture that in the previous year he personally had paid more tax than America Airlines did. A further real-world effect of this might well be, as he went on to suggest, that Americans would cease to be willing to put up with this sort of thing, which might not be such good news from American Airlines’ point of view.

Now this may be reprehensible in the financial sphere, but it’s downright dangerous when we apply the accounting mentality to other things, as we are so prone to do. The poster child for this is CO2 emissions. Many industrialised nations claim to have reduced their emissions when in fact what they have done is offshored them – that is, transferred them to the balance-sheet of some other, poorer nation. This completely overlooks the central fact that the global levels of actual, physical CO2 in the atmosphere are what counts.

Massaging statistics does not and cannot affect the underlying realities. The map is not the territory, nor the accounts the reality they describe. Our physical environment is not a tax system. You might be able to fool the Inland Revenue, but not Mother Nature. This goes for all other forms of pollution, depletion of fossil fuels and other natural resources, social issues, and so on. The stories we tell ourselves will not help us unless they relate usefully to what it actually happening and suggest practical action.

As I write these words, COP26 has yet to produce a definitive agreed text. I very much doubt whether that text, when it emerges – and something or other will have to emerge to justify the thing being held – will meet either of those criteria. There will be pledges. There will be nice-sounding generalisations. There will be continued growth in CO2 emissions and in all the other harms we are perpetrating to the living world to which we belong and on which we depend.

Nothing to see here, move along.

We no longer have the luxury of pretending that manipulating numbers in Excel is the same thing as making effective change in the world. We’ll probably keep on doing it, of course, because it’s what we do. But there will be a reckoning, and it will entail more than just a tax bill.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

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