Obit you missed: John Burton, tried to make accounting sexier
Earlier this week Michael Roston turned my attention to the death of John Shepherd-Barron, developer of the ATM, whose innovation affected most of our short-term memories. As Michael pointed out: “because of this guy, you know longer have to remember to go to the bank before a certain hour.”
Shepherd-Barron is getting the celebrity send-off this week — over 300 online publications have mentioned his death. It’s not all that often financial leaders noticeably affect the everyday lives of millions of people. Usually they work in obscurity. And that’s proven to be more than a little scary.
John C. Burton, whose death has gone far less noticed than Shepherd-Barron’s, thought the accountant should be the common person’s primary defender — and that the role should be spiced up a bit.
In 1980, Mr. Burton wrote an essay for The New York Times in which he argued that, yes, accountants were undervalued in society, but that in many ways they were themselves to blame for a lack of creativity and for not seizing opportunities to influence business trends and political decisions.
“Accountants are not primarily record keepers and checkers,” he wrote in the essay, titled “Where Are the Angry Young C.P.A.’s?,” “but measurers of economic and social phenomena whose measurements can significantly influence the allocation decisions of our society.”
Burton was a professor and dean at Columbia, but twice toiled toward that higher purpose.
… he served first as the chief accountant of the Securities and Exchange Commission in Washington and then as New York City’s deputy mayor for finance at a time when, after years of mismanagement, the city came perilously close to bankruptcy.
We may not know his name well — his essay of 30 years ago didn’t start a revolution — but maybe we should know him better in light of the growing number of finance scandals.
… he argued that accounting firms were too secretive about their own finances.
“The mantra he was selling to Capitol Hill was, ‘An eighth grader has to understand this: Is the company healthy or isn’t it?’ ” said his daughter, now the general counsel for the Hearst Corporation, who was an eighth grader while her father was in Washington.