We're looking at Double Entry: How the Merchants of Venice Created Modern Finance by Jane Gleeson-White, starting here. Book-keeping evolved into accounting as outside investors needed assurance that dividends were paid out of actual income, not capital.
Railways and factories also wore out, however, which led to another important concept: capital stock and depreciation.
It took a long time for accountants to come to terms with depreciation and properly accounting for assets. And this is still a problem, she says, when it comes to the environment since many assets are free.
The advent of the corporation raised several other key accounting issues; for example, how to calculate the declining values—due to wear and tear—of large investments in machinery, rails, rolling stock (or railway vehicles), and so on. This problem gave rise to the concept of depreciation.
This is because until recently economists have assumed that natural resources are so plentiful that any loss of them is insignificant, not worth counting. They assumed that natural resources like water, soil, forests and air were free gifts of nature.
But just as the nineteenth-century railway entrepreneurs had to learn that human-made capital—rails and machinery—wears out and must be depreciated, so some economists are beginning to understand that nature’s capital is also subject to wear and tear and depletion. Cambridge University’s Professor Sir Partha Dasgupta is one economist who is critical of the GNP and its use to judge the progress or otherwise of nations. He argues, ‘as so many economists have already done, that GNP’s main weakness lies in the fact that it is insensitive to the depreciation of capital assets’. And from an environmental point of view, this is critical.
The Modern Economy is about StocksThis is no doubt true. But she perhaps over-emphasises environmental gaps to the exclusion of other social assets like trust or quality of life.
The larger point is we are often too focused on flows rather than stocks, including the depreciation of assets (stocks meaning an amount, like a stock of wheat, rather than an equity share like the stock exchange.) This is a basic economic distinction we often forget. As Dasgupta says, we need to be sensitive to the depreciation of capital assets.
We are much better at being conscious of flows of income rather than the valuable stock of assets which produces that income. Yet many of the great economic challenges of our era have more to do with stocks than flows of income. Many or our capital assets, such as the knowledge required to build an Intel processor or the song "Hey Jude" do not depreciate in the traditional way. They may have to be re-learned or passed on, but they do not wear out.
So what happens when the stock of our valuable assets, properly defined, gets disproportionately much larger than money income flows? In many ways, our prime objective should be to increase the stock of assets. Income and distribution are secondary factors , especially of many of the benefits flowing from those assets are free. Some of our political thought gripes towards this, especially those who think capitalism should be left unfettered to create wealth which government can then redistribute. But that often confuses income with value.
We will come back to this point another time.
Finally, Gleeson-White emphasizes again how the numbers may often conceal deeper uncertainties.
Even accounting’s most fundamental concepts and practices, such as income measurement and asset valuation, are based on uncertainties. Accountants still cannot agree on how to define income, the measurement of which remains one of the intractable problems in financial accounting theory and practice. The valuation of assets only becomes more complex and more fiercely debated as modern global corporate structures and financial instruments become increasingly labyrinthine, and income measurement, the key to determining profits and therefore dividends, is inextricably linked to this contentious, chimerical practice of asset valuation. Nor is the crucial measurement of costs an objective process: costs are also highly contestable figures and may result as much from the collusion or rivalries of firms as from any other actuality. Accrual (or corporate) accounting—the need to allocate revenues and expenses between accounting periods and to value assets and liabilities at the end of an accounting period—raises problems which have never been solved and are probably incapable of solution. Numbers can be negotiated to make management look good. In effect, ‘accounts are used to justify decisions and to excuse mistakes’.
(My bold). In the end, we come back to the problem of economic value. There have been many major shifts in perception of costs and decisions and stocks and accountability and depreciation. Together, they make up the modern economy.
In an era of international capital, when our wealth is more than ever tied up in its fortunes, and at a time when corporations, governments and financial institutions are demonstrating their fallibility on a global scale, it is essential that we are aware of the somewhat arbitrary laws of account that govern them—especially because it is in the labyrinthine workings of our accounting systems that value itself is assigned. It seems that if we want to bring our infinitely voracious consumerism into line with the resources of our finite planet, we must consider giving our planet a value that the market can recognise and account for, assign a monetary value to the oceans, air, forests, rivers, wildernesses. • Delete this highlight
It is time for another major shift, to cope with intangibles and abundance and our reliance on those abundant stocks. Value should not be defined by arbitrary default.