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Murray Blum, where are you now? Accountants as heroes or villains?
Global capitalism – a force for good or evil? Few questions can have exercised the human mind more in recent times. The debate has come into particularly sharp focus over the role of banks in the current recession.
On one side of the argument stand Chwastiak and Lehman (Accounting Forum, December 2008). They advance the opinion that capitalism glorifies the accumulation of wealth, analyses human problems in terms of economics instead of quality of life and leads to war with nature. They give examples of how language and accounting have been used to ‘normalize’ the planning and execution of war and to dehumanize its victims. They show that while economic sanctions reduce guilt and cost for those who impose them, they seldom achieve their goal and cause great harm to civilian populations. Accounting, say the authors, is used to rationalize various forms of violence and distance people from its human effects.
In the opposite corner is Hamm (Business Week, 8 Dec 2008), who describes how charitable foundations and non-profit companies are using business techniques to solve the world’s social problems. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is perhaps the best-known manifestation of this so-called ‘philanthrocapitalism’. It is funelling billions of dollars into the fight against ill health around the world and education inequalities in the USA. But there are many other possible examples – from Wall Street billionaire Pete Peterson to investment guru Warren Buffett. Their efforts will only grow in importance as the credit crisis deepens.
The poles of opinion on global capitalism are reflected in the contrasting views people have on the role and character of accountants.
When you think of the portrayal of accountants in the movies, do your thoughts turn to the heavy-set and closed-minded accountant who guides William H. Macy’s oppressive and wealthy father-in-law in Fargo, or Ben Kingsley’s bespectacled accountant who serves both as Schindler’s factory manager and his voice of conscience in Schindler’s List? Do you reflect upon the antics of money-man Gene Wilder, who teams up with Zero Mostel in a scheme to cheat old ladies in The Producers, or accountant Oscar Wallace, who conceives the idea of nabbing Al Capone for tax evasion in The Untouchables? The weasel accountant in Jurassic Park who gets devoured by a dinosaur, or the handsome Danny Glover, Angelica Huston’s dependable second husband in The Royal Tenenbaums?
In their analysis of 91 films distributed between 1932 and 2000 published in Journal of Business Ethics, Dec 2008 Part I, Felton, Dimnik and Bay reveal that 60% of the 110 accountants in a main or supporting role engage in some kind of unethical act. The accountants are usually portrayed as hard-working and competent people – but tend to direct their competency towards unethical behaviour.
The hit film Dave contains perhaps the most notable exception to this prevailing image. Murray Blum, an accountant from Baltimore, reworks the US national budget in one overnight session in order to save a $650 million programme for helping the homeless. The following morning, he drives away from the White House in his modest small car.
At a time when national debts are ballooning and politicians scratch around ever more desperately for solutions to the global recession, could the movie world be in line for more unlikely heroes such as Murray Blum?