AUTHOR Q&A: JANE GLEESON-WHITE
Carbon tax, global population explosion, national economies falling like dominos, climate change, the Global Financial Crisis and the Occupy movement.
These hot topics might seem unrelated but they do have one thing in common: double entry accounting. “Huh?“, I hear you ask.
A 1495 portrait of Franciscan monk Luca Pacioli, the father of accounting.
Go back to Renaissance Italy when Venice was a major trading centre and you are in a period when imposing symmetry and order on the world was paramount. One man, monk and mathematician Luca Pacioli, wrote a book that took Venetian bookkeeping to the world and revolutionised how business was conducted and recorded ever since.
But the history of double entry accounting is about much more than balancing the books, it has been complicit in bringing down nations, governments and corporations.
Jane Gleeson-White’s history Double Entry takes the reader on a fascinating journey through Renaissance Italy, post-war Europe and America to modern times when accounting may be the very tool we need to save the planet.
She talks to The Hoopla’s Meredith Jaffé.
What inspired you to write the book?
It seems so straight forward when I look back. I went to the Guggenheim in Venice as an intern where we were completely immersed in the art of the time and Venice was like a dream, a floating city. I knew I wanted to write but I wanted to be more than just working in a bookshop, which was my job at the time, so I got an economics degree.
I had an incredibly charismatic accounting lecturer who casually mentioned accounting history and Venice in the same sentence which I thought was extraordinary. After I had published my first two books I came back to this idea and what was a potentially boring subject was in fact fascinating. Maths itself was undergoing a major Renaissance part of which lead to the discovery of perspective, which changed art and architecture forever. I found out that Pacioli was friends with Leonardo Da Vinci and had a direct influence on the painting of The Last Supper.
Then I read Bobby Kennedy’s speech from 1968 about all the important things GDP (Gross Domestic Product) did not measure such as happy marriages and healthy children and I saw the link between double entry accounting in Renaissance Venice and twentieth century accounting.
Society measures success in terms of profit and loss, return on investment and GDP. Haven’t we gone too far down this path to ever really change?
That is the big question. I sort of think that we have. The only way to preserve the planet is to put numbers on things like pollution and trees and give them a monetary value but that is also a very traumatic thing to think that we can reduce our natural world to a numerical value. We have gone too far. Given the way the world’s economies are teetering, we could be on the brink of total change.
The Australian Parliament has just passed the Carbon Tax legislation. Do you think this is a starting point for change on how Australians value our natural resources?
I do. Especially when I see that in 2015 it will lead to a Carbon Trading Scheme. It’s a start. I’m very interested in the public dialogue on the subject and the questions it throws up. There’s a lot of misinformation. It’s not about making carbon more expensive as its own end. It’s like tax on cigarettes. It’s supposed to encourage us to find alternatives and change our behaviour.
When we talk about subjects like Corporate Greed, aren’t we really talking about Greedy People?
Totally. Greedy people with their hands on ways of being greedy in a really big way. Corporations are legal entities and the extent to which corporations go for higher and higher profits has become insane. I think it is human nature but it is the corporate form itself that allows it to deviate from the law in the interest of making a profit.
What do you think are the chief sins double entry accounting has allowed people to commit?
I think accounting is a language like any other. I can’t blame double entry accounting because any business can be made to look good using it. The flaw is that we think that because it uses numbers and statistics that it is infallible when it is as fallible as words.
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