Return accountants to former glory

By Toby Manhire In The Internaut

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Porrtrait of a Merchant, c1530, by Jan Gossaert. (National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC)

Portrait of a Merchant, c1530, by Jan Gossaert. (National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC)

Once upon a time they were esteemed, garlanded, valorised.

And it might just be time, reckons historian Jacob Soll, to put them back on their pedestals.

Accountants, that is.

In periods of history, mostly notably in Holland’s golden age, accountancy was an exalted kind of practice, as evidenced in paintings of the trade’s purveyors, which “carried a clear message: mastering finance was an achievement requiring both skill and humility.

It’s a stark contrast to today’s depiction in art and entertainment of accountants as “comically boring bean-counters or fraudsters cooking the books”.

These days “accounting is almost a synonym for drudgery”, writes Soll, author of The Reckoning: Accountability and the Rise and Fall of Nations, in the Boston Globe.

Yet if we were to glorify the crunching and checking of numbers, perhaps we’d be less susceptible to global financial rip-offs and catastrophes.

By the late 19th century, accounting had become a profession of its own, rather than fundamentally a shared practice and value. It receded from the lives of individuals, and began to take on more the reputation it holds today.

As it became more remote, and as financial scandals piled up—even in Britain and Holland—accounting gained a dual reputation for being both boring and possibly fraudulent …

Today, he writes, there is no Dutch-style appreciation of accountancy as “a profound moral advance in business and public affairs”.

Yet, in ignoring this aspect of accounting, or leaving it to the technical whizzes inside the financial world, we’re losing something important. In a world driven by money, in which everyone tends to be answerable to money, accounting offers a toolkit for anyone to at least understand the basic principles that are supposed to guide finance—as well as a genuinely independent kind of moral reckoning for its practitioners. The balancing of books still provides a dramatic language of financial morality, with numbers telling stories of riches and ruins, or hiding them. But before we can speak and decipher it, we too need to learn to balance our books.


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