Friday, December 28, 2012

"Double Entry" by Jane Gleeson-White


Anyone interested in numbers and the history of math will enjoy "Double Entry: How the Merchants of Venice Created Modern Finance" by Jane Gleeson-White. It's a new history of the development of mathematics and accounting from the Renaissance forward, with a particular emphasis on the work of the mathematician Luca Pacioli. Gleeson-White is Australian, and brings a refreshing perspective to the convoluted politics of her story. The history of double-entry bookkeeping is necessarily entwined with the conversion from Roman to Arabic numerals and the development of the printing press. Pacioli documented and standardized bookkeeping, and gave the world a versatile tool. His timing was such that his description was published and distributed throughout Europe.

The first six chapters take us through the 19th century, when double-entry bookkeeping was adapted to take account of the developments of the industrial revolution (expenses of man-made components like rail ties are conceptually different from a good that is traded away, like a gallon of wine.) This part of the book is lucid and interesting, though it might have been enhanced by illustrations that match the glory of the cover illustration.

Gleeson-White loses her way a bit in the final four chapters, forgetting that she is talking about a tool - instead she reifies double-entry bookkeeping into the cause of many social ills. Her point that we do not account for the environmental costs of many of our actions is a good one, but that is not because of the tool. On accounting for environmental costs, today's New York Times carries an interesting article on Ireland's three-year history of carbon taxes. One short quote:
“We are not saints like those Scandinavians — we were lapping up fossil fuels, buying bigger cars and homes, very American,” said Eamon Ryan, who was Ireland’s energy minister from 2007 to 2011. “We just set up a price signal that raised significant revenue and changed behavior. Now, we’re smashing through the environmental targets we set for ourselves.”
By contrast, carbon taxes are viewed as politically toxic in the United States. Republican leaders in Congress have pledged to block any proposal for such a tax, and President Obama has not advocated one, although the idea has drawn support from economists of varying ideologies.
 Cover image via Amazon.com

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