In J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic fantasy novel The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins sits in his home enjoying a quiet cup of coffee when he is visited by strangers: a wizard named Gandalf and a group of 13 dwarves. These unexpected guests insist that the surprised Bilbo join them on an adventure to retrieve a brass ring. What role is Bilbo supposed to take in this grand adventure? It is nothing less than grabbing the ring from underneath the head of a giant, fire-breathing dragon called Smaug.
Accounting is perceived as a profession for the timid, quiet, coffee-drinking types. No grand adventure is to be inflicted upon these reserved ones. Accountants sit in the backroom processing infinite numbers on reams of paper. Numbers and papers are innocuous, harmless things with little meaning beyond their handlers.
Tolkien’s book is pure fantasy, and so is that perceived, sedate world of accounting. I worked in the profession for over 40 years, retiring last March. An accountant’s typical day is not to be confused with any television drama, to be sure. But the low-key paper rustling and computer keyboard tapping in an accountant’s office dramatically understates the weightiness of the decisions made and the social impact of the tasks performed on a daily basis.
I worked closely with family-held businesses primarily in the food distribution and construction industries. My task was to report on the financial activities of the businesses, maintain banking relations, and comply with all reporting and tax requirements.
At the beginning of my career, I was gung-ho to carry out my duties with spot-on accuracy and in eager compliance with the regulations. A sense of fairness drove my moral compass. But my sense of fairness was quickly challenged. For example, I learned that the cars driven by company executives were subsidized by taxpayers. A company car would be loaned to an executive with the company paying for insurance, gasoline, and repairs. The executive would have to report the equivalent lease value of the automobile as personal income, but that amount would be spread out over the life of the car, and he would pay taxes only on that. If his tax rate were 30 percent, the executive would end up spending only $9,000 for the free use of a $30,000 car. Regular folks like accountants have to pay full price for a car, its insurance, gasoline, and repairs.
More unfair standard practices began to appear the longer I worked as a senior level accountant. The spouse of an owner could be given a weekly paycheck. “It keeps the family peace,” as one owner said. Owner families with children in college would put their students on the company payroll to cover tuition and school expenses. Often the student wouldn’t actually work, and when he or she did, the work completed was way below the value of the wages paid (e.g. 5 hours of work for 20 hours worth of pay).
After a few years with family businesses, I joined one of the 20 largest food distributors in the country. I wondered how things would be different there. Sadly, only the scale of the unfairness changed. There were dozens of vehicles available. The owner’s family abused major league sports tickets meant for employees and customers. Products meant for sale, like chinaware, were taken home. This food distributor also controlled an auto dealership, a bank, and a restaurant supply dealer. Employees were encouraged mightily to buy from the owner’s other holdings. The owner, a public advocate for free enterprise, often ranted in management meetings about how he wanted to grow the food, process it, ship it, insure it, store it, sell it, and bank it. He didn’t come right out and say it, but he really wanted complete control of his market; that is, he wanted to monopolize his part of the industry.
More sophisticated and clearly legal tax avoidance schemes were legislated into existence. An American corporation with minimal international business could set up an entity offshore, say in the Caribbean, and through a series of paper transactions move a significant amount of profits off the corporation’s tax return, greatly reducing its share of federal income taxes.
I could not avoid running into these schemes. My sense of unfairness was strong. I tried to talk about this with fellow accountants in trade association meetings. Comments consisted of “That’s the way it is” or “Everyone does it.” Ethics and morals were subjects that carried little meaning and were passed over with quiet sneers, odd looks, and few thoughtful comments but no constructive discussion.
I felt that my attempt at a career as an honest accountant had turned into something other than an honorable living. Most of the time, I was an unwilling player in my employers’ grand adventures of immoral fraud and escape from their share of civic responsibility—that individual commitment to uphold obligations as part of a greater community. It seemed as though I was being hired for my skills as an accountant, which were then exploited in pursuit of the interests of the executives: greed and avarice. Meanwhile, I felt pressure to keep quiet.
Early in the year 2000, I arrived at a place of total malaise with my career. My bad attitude led to my dismissal. A week later my sister passed away, and I found myself re-examining everything in my life. I decided to leave my church after 25 active years. I was to enter the desert searching for meaning. I worked temporary jobs, and I was without a faith community.
I came across the Quakers in my reading of other spiritual books and began attending Milwaukee (Wis.) Meeting, where I knew a few of the members. I was ambivalent at first, even returning to my former faith community for a few months. But I sensed I had found what I wanted: an intimate faith community of people who cared for each other and took on the issue of social justice in meaningful ways. In many ways, I felt contented there, but the malaise I felt with my career persisted.
As a Quaker, I took on finance committee and treasurer responsibilities. I uncovered a personal leading for explaining how money, while simply a tool, is also a reflection of a person’s values. I also learned about the proud history of Quakers and business (their strong sense of integrity stood out to me), and I saw potential for role models to emerge in the Quaker business community. With this new information and optimistic outlook, I believed my discomfort could be alleviated. But I was disappointed to see that, at this point in Quaker history, there are few Quakers actually in business, most opting for careers in the social service professions. And there was no place for Quaker business people to get together.
Within the last year, efforts to gather together business people within the larger American Quaker community have resulted in the Quakers and Business Forum that took place prior to the 2014 Friends General Conference Gathering, which I attended. I am very excited about the prospect of an ongoing venue for Quaker business people to communicate and exchange ideas. I am hopeful to meet more business people who share my sense of fairness. I want economic as well as social justice.
I have confessed my involvement in legal but immoral tax avoidance schemes. I am tired of seeing such unfairness continue without any real action. I want to end my feelings of malaise with the accounting profession. I hold this concern in the Light, so that Quakers and others who sense this leading will come together in prayer and action.
Friends in Business is a new department that shares stories of Friends striving to align their activities in business with their spiritual lives. Go to Fdsj.nl/dept-submit to see a full list of department categories and to submit your own piece.
1 thought on “Confessions of a Tired Accountant”
Thank you Dan for such an interesting article. I have also spent my career in finances and accounting. I have experienced many of the frustrations you list above, as well as others. Unlike you, I have spent the vast majority of my career in non-profit financial management. I chose to work for non-profits because they have a ‘mission motive’ instead of a ‘profit motive’. However, one of the things that frustrates me the most, is when non-profits operate at a deficit. In my mind, there should only be a deficit when investing in a new program that intends to have long-term viability. Unfortunately, I have experienced several Quaker organizations operating significant deficits year after year. To me, it is just as immoral to deplete savings because we don’t want to face the tough decisions today (often personnel based). This is the equivalent of pushing those tough decisions into future years only to have a reduced number of options because the savings accounts are gone. To quote the band Rush, “if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.” Rather, I believe it is our moral obligation to live sustainably within our means today, so that our Quaker organizations are viable seven generations into the future.
Comments on Friendsjournal.org may be used in the Forum of the print magazine and may be edited for length and clarity.