Quote

“…mathematicians have made a covenant with the devil…”

Double Entry: How the Merchants of Venice Shaped the Modern WorldDouble Entry: How the Merchants of Venice Shaped the Modern World by Jane Gleeson-White

It’s always fun to read a book where in the writing of it the author learns something to confound the expectations with which she began it. In the penultimate chapter White writes:

Before I started researching it, I had intended to name this chapter ‘The rise and fall of a profession’. It was to chart the glorious rise of accounting in the second half of the twentieth century to the lofty heights of the professional Olympus and then trace its collapse in the wake of scandals like Enron and WorldCom, and in Australia, HIH, ONe.Tel and ABC Learning. However, not only has no such fall ensued but it turns out that these accounting scandals are a regular feature in the landscape of accounting. They are as old as the profession itself…And they all stem from significant accounting misstatements orchestrated by influential senior managers.

From its beginnings in Venice in the early 1300s

…[where] scholarly Europe rejected and even outlawed Hindu-Arabic learning, the new mathematics found a ready audience among the merchants of Italy, where it became known as ‘abbaco’ mathematics.

to its use down to the present day

…the figures produced by Pacioli’s double-entry bookkeeping to create the four financial satements that are the raison d’etre of modern accounting–the balance sheet, the income statement, the cash-flow statement and the statement of retained earnings–today run the international economy and drive its share markets.

double-entry bookkeeping, White says, has created the world as we know it. And, she adds in the last chapter, can destroy it.

It seems that if we want to bring our infinitely voracious consumerism into line with the resources of our finite planet, we must consider giving our planet a value that the market can recognise and account for, assign a monetary value to the oceans, air, forest, rivers, wildernesses…unless we start accounting for our transactions withte earth, we will bankrupt it for all future human habitation.

An interesting read filled with enticing screenshots to bolster her thesis, like this one

As early as the ninth century a Muslim merchant could cash a cheque in China drawn on his bank in Bagdad.

and that horrible Ford Pinto cost-benefit analysis of paying out insurance on lives lost versus the cost of installing a safety device that would keep the Pinto from blowing up, with the result that at minimum 500 people burned to death in Pinto crashes. And the group who after our fine, fine Supreme Court declared that corporations were people, too

decided to treat the corporation like the person it legally is and test its psychology profile. Using the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of mental Disorders (DSM-IV), they found that the corporation shares many of the characteristics that define psychopaths. That is, corporations break the law if they can, they hide their behaviour, sacrifice long-term welfare for short-term profit, are aggressively litigious, ignore health and safety codes, and cheat their suppliers and workers without remorse.

Lest you think she is overstating things a tad, remember the Enron tapes?

…Enron employees are seen watching the Californian forest fires on television. As they watch they can be heard celebrating the destruction of electricity pylons and shouting, ‘Burn, baby, burn”‘ All in the name of corporate profit.

Which will remind you of what St. Augustine said about mathematics, as previously quoted by White

‘The good Christian should beware of mathematics and all those who make empty prophecies. The danger already exists that mathematicians have made a covenant with the devil to darken the spirit and confine man in the bonds of Hell.’

Wow. Reminds me a little of Robert Reich: “Economists exist to make astrologists look good.”

Like too many other academic writers White overuses the phrase “As we shall see,” but other than that no complaints. There is a lot of rage vented at corporations nowadays, justifiably so (how does Jamie Dimon still even have his job?). This book will confirm the pessimists’ view of plus ça change, but it is also a wake-up call to those optimists who think maybe, possibly, as capitalists we can do better. And we should.

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