Magazine article The Christian Century

Being Accountable

Magazine article The Christian Century

Being Accountable

Article excerpt

AN ACCOUNTANT--so goes the joke--is someone who solves financial problems you didn't know you had in a way you don't understand. Doubtless the accountant jokes have gotten a lot nastier with news that the world's largest accounting firm, Arthur Andersen, indulged in some unusually lax methods on behalf of the Enron corporation, apparently to retain lucrative consulting fees. Andersen also helped create the "special purpose" partnerships that allowed Enron to move large debts off its balance sheets and thereby sustain its inflated stock value--until the house of cards finally crashed in December. Enron's collapse erased thousands of people's jobs, investments and pensions. In this case, the accountants chose to ignore--if they didn't help create--the financial problems that Enron officials didn't want anyone to understand.

The accounting profession has been deeply tarnished by its role in the Enron debacle. The crisis is a reminder that accounting at its best is indeed a profession. That is, unlike, say, plumbing, and more like practicing law or medicine, accounting involves more than offering technical knowledge to a customer for a fee. Just as a tree lawyer serves justice, not merely the client, and as a doctor serves the health of her patients, not the health-care industry, an accountant serves a publicly shared standard for evaluating a company's financial status. He doesn't merely serve at the beck and call of the firm that hires him. In this sense, the accountant serves a public interest. …

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