This Accounting Life

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Late last night I was driving home from work, yeah I know it was Saturday - it's budget time, enough said - and I passed by a building where I used to work. There was a light on in one room and I realized it was my old office. Now, I have no way of knowing whether that's still the Controller's office or not, but I felt a stab of pity/empathy for a fellow sufferer. I pictured him / her sweating over the gap between revenues and expenses just as I had been doing.

Did we sign up for this? When you went to accounting school, did anyone stand at the front of the class and ask you why the hell you were choosing a life where you would be working late nights and weekends to meet this or that corporate / government / bureaucratic deadline? And they just keep coming. It isn't just year end. It's also month / quarter / budget / government form / system change / retroactively applying some new accounting pronouncement etc. etc. time. And then someone says they need a quick report / analysis / answer to an important question. Frankly, often that person is me. I stare at the numbers and something doesn't make sense, so I'm off on a hunt to find out what REALLY happened.

I know, I know. I shouldn't complain. Accounting has been a good career for me. It allowed me to move between companies and across industries when times were hard. I have been involved in challenging projects and meet some very caring people. But neither of my children has any interest in becoming an accountant. "You work too hard," my son told me. I just smiled. I'll let him figure that one out for himself.

So, what sparked this little diatribe? In yesterday's paper there was an essay about Kevin Page, "The Man Who Knows Too Much". He is the head of the Parliamentary Budget Office and his projections of the cost of the budget disagree with the government's. Surprise, surprise. He seems to think that the government's projections are too rosy and now he is being accused of violating his legislative mandate.

He sees the Parliamentary Budget Office, which has been in operation for a year and a half, as the Canadian equivalent of Washington's Congressional Budget Office, the powerful independent agency that, among its other duties, costs proposed legislation in the House of Representatives and the Senate.

The key word is "independent". Yesterday I was looking at a proposal that called for "independent legal advice". It occurred to me that that is an oxymoron. There is no such thing as independent legal advice because lawyers are paid to be advocates. Lawyers professionally represent their client's point of view. Accountants are the ones who crave independence and objectivity. The numbers need to stay the same regardless of who is using them. It shouldn't matter whether you are the government or the Parliamentary Budget Office, there is only one projected cost. Sure, you can attack the accountant's assumptions and methods, but you can bet (s)he was there past midnight making sure the numbers were right.


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