As an English major in college, and then preparing for a business career after that, I found accounting to be among the most daunting subjects I encountered. Akin to trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. But, eventually, I came to fear it less and then, to actually enjoy it.
What “flipped the switch” for me was coming to understand — and to keenly appreciate — the genius of double-entry accounting. For those of you not familiar with it, double-entry is a principle used in accounting that requires at least two entries to be recognized and recorded for every transaction — matching debits and credits.
For every dollar received, for example, it insists on showing what you did with it. In some respects, it parallels Newton’s Third Law, which tells us that for every push, there’s an equal force in the opposite direction. A pro and a con.
Double-entry accounting insists on uncompromising objectivity — a documented objectivity that ultimately allows one to determine whether that dollar received, or that dollar spent, ultimately contributes to a net gain or to a net loss. It’s the system by which the complexities involved in businesses can be sorted out and their impacts defined.
As is the case with business, the world is a very complex place — only infinitely more so. It’s not a binary, yes or no place that lends itself to the apparent precision of financial accounting. Most everything happens due to many, many factors. One factor can hardly ever be proven to be 100 percent responsible for any one outcome. And one factor typically results not just in one, but in many outcomes — some foreseen and intended, and some not so.
Which brings us to our current state of political affairs.
Few, if any, political initiatives result in just one outcome. And equally few have an intended outcome that rests on just one factor. The number and complexity of factors typically involved makes it nigh onto impossible to accurately project outcomes. There’s always uncertainty.
Yet, few politicians or pundits — in their zeal to “make a case” — acknowledge this reality. All too often, positions and platforms are confidently asserted and defended on the basis that they will lead — or have led — to a single desired result.
There are two disturbing results:
First, political actors and their followers mislead by asserting an overly simplistic “if we do this, then this will happen” promise.
Second, responses to these assertions are often equally simplistic.
So, the game is to discredit rather than enlighten. As a consequence, there’s no real resolution. The populace is tossed about in a sea of one-sided barrages. Votes are cast on the basis of incomplete or flawed understandings and/or partisan affiliation. And the likelihood of a positive outcome is diminished.
Wouldn’t it be refreshing if the ethos of double-entry accounting were introduced to politics? Where it was generally acknowledged that every thrust creates one or more thrusts in opposite directions? In which pros and cons were simultaneously revealed? When the potential merits and demerits of policies could be openly displayed, weighed and measured?
To think that this will happen on a grand scale any time soon would be hopelessly naïve. After all, not all political agendas are based on logic or in the interest of commonwealth. But could it be that just one political actor adopting this approach would gain credibility and following? And, perhaps, serve as a model for others to follow?
In the meantime, today’s scene underscores the value of responsible journalism and news media that are dedicated to “double-entry reporting,” allowing the populace a more comprehensive view and means to assess political issues facing us. Those journalists and media that strive to fulfill this role deserve our applause and support as never before.
Kent Collins of Bluffton is a strategy adviser to various businesses.