Creative accountants?

by John Q on September 11, 2004

Today’s NYT runs an archetypal David Brooks piece. The obligatory lame conceit is that the elite is divided into spreadsheet people (notably accountants) who vote Republican and paragraph people (notably academics) who vote Democrat.

Unusually though, Brooks seems to have some actual numbers to back his story, and they give pause for thought. The most striking is that:

Back in the early 1990’s, accountants gave mostly to Democrats, but now they give twice as much to the party of Lincoln.

If this is true, considering the state of US national finances under Bush, it speaks volumes about what has happened to the accounting profession in the last decade. Do the accountants supporting Bush really believe that he has a plan to cut the deficit in half or do they just think that accounts should show whatever the client wants them to show? I guess we learned the answer to that with Enron, but it’s useful to know that nothing has changed.



Barry 09.11.04 at 1:48 pm

There’s a phrase used by some comedian:
“back when accountants were considered to be
mild-mannered people, unlike the wild rogue outlaws
we now know them to be”.


jam 09.11.04 at 2:04 pm

Hmmm. What about Powerpoint people?


Brett Bellmore 09.11.04 at 2:17 pm

“Do the accountants supporting Bush really believe that he has a plan to cut the deficit in half”

They don’t have to think Bush is good, to support him. They only have to think Kerry is worse.


bobcox 09.11.04 at 3:02 pm

I spoke recently to a friend who is a quantitative financial analyst in New York, for a large firm. He said that the “quants” are divided — some pro-Kerry, some pro-Bush. But the traders and executives are 100% pro-Bush — they regard supporting him like supporting “family”, and anything else is betrayal.


Barry 09.11.04 at 3:17 pm

Brett, please note that they don’t have to think that Kerry is worse for the country, only worse for their interests. If I were supporting corporate corruption, Bush would clearly be The Man.


Katherine 09.11.04 at 3:19 pm

So are all academic economists, mathematicians, biologists, chemists, physicists, engineers, geologists, astronomers simply filed under “close minded librul word-lovin’ number-hatin’ History of the African-African and Women’s Studies Movements Philosophical Postmodern Literature professors” in Brooks’ analysis?

I mean, in what world does the fact that 94% of donations from M.I.T. went to Democrats proof that number people are Republicans and word people are Democrats?!!?

(I’m sure Brooks considers sociologists, psychologists, etc. to be “paragraph people”, not realizing that there are sociologists out there who ACTUALLY USE DATA.)

Computer-related fields are also omitted from the analysis–I’m guessing they don’t support the thesis either. Doctors are also not included–I’ve no idea what their results would be.

If we’re going to rely on inane analogies I’d say it’s more like: Democrats have the Word people and the STATA people locked up, Republicans have the PowerPoint people, the Excel community is split, and if we don’t watch out and demand better voting technology we’ll all just be Access people.


pj 09.11.04 at 3:25 pm

A word about accountants. In 1995, the republicans pushed through, over Clinton’s veto, a law that greatly reduced the potential liability for accountants in accounting fraud cases by overturning a Supreme Court case that allowed for accountants and other third parties to face liability as aiders and abettors of securities fraud. That law, the Private Litigation Securities Reform Act of 1995, is not likely to be forgotten for a long time by accountants. In 2002, when accounting reform resulted in Sarbanes-Oxley and the SEC was being pushed for radical reform, conservatives consistently backed the accounting profession both in terms of liability issues, but also in leaving the profession largely in charge of standards.

Accountants support for Bush and republicans in general has nothing to do with budgeting. They support the republicans for the same reasons the trial lawyers support the dems


praktike 09.11.04 at 3:56 pm

Bobo sure is confused.

Are all academics liberal arts people?

Even those guys from MIT?

As for the party of Lincoln … where did those guys go?


John Isbell 09.11.04 at 3:58 pm

Weird how pj’s detail escaped Brooks.


WeSaferThemHealthier 09.11.04 at 4:07 pm

Does anyone have a URL where one could go look at the money/votes/support that parties/candidates get based on education, income, economic sector etc?

As for Brooks’ column: archetypal, indeed.


luci phyrr 09.11.04 at 5:23 pm

Less than 25% of Americans have a college degree. So, Brooks is talking about a slice of that fraction.

This column’s not as offensive as his usual @#$% – how liberals can’t fight terrorism because, say, political correctness prevents us from racial profiling, or an unwillingness to see and name Evil.


Giles 09.11.04 at 5:34 pm

I would have thought that the most striking feature is that it indicates that some professions seem to have a quite unprecedented lack of political diversity.

Accountants are the exception in that they have changed their votes – i.e. they make their minds up on the facts. The rest give the impression of being worryingly stuck in a rut.


g 09.11.04 at 6:17 pm

Why does “they have changed their votes” imply “they make their minds up on the facts”? Is that the only reason why anyone’s vote might change?

And, um, if some profession has a “quite unprecedented lack of political diversity”, doesn’t that imply that some of them *have* changed their votes? (Otherwise their political diversity would be the same as it always was.)


Delicious Pundit 09.11.04 at 6:30 pm

PJ beat me to my point.

The accounting industry really ought to be more grateful. Both Democratic senators from Connecticut have carried their water too.


abb1 09.11.04 at 6:52 pm

If you replace “accountants” with “corporate managers and other used-car-dealer-type crooks”, then his column actually makes sense.

That’s probably what he meant, “accountants” is just a typo. Surely they’ll print a correction in the next issue.


es 09.11.04 at 7:49 pm

Liability insurance costs for audit work are astronomical. If 40% of your gross revenue went to lawyers you might also vote Republican. (Overall for an accountant 40% is too high, but for pure audit work, I have heard numbers this high.)


phil 09.11.04 at 8:41 pm

Pretty much all demographics are giving more more money to Republicans than to Democrats, since it’s the Republicans who controll the White House and both houses of Congress.


Jonathan Dresner 09.11.04 at 9:16 pm

Another element of the accountants’ support for Bush: presumably they don’t think he’s serious about simplifying the tax code….


Matt Weiner 09.11.04 at 9:40 pm

As an academic, I’d like to take exception to Giles’ claim that we never change our minds politically when the facts change. I used to support the occasional Republican, and to refuse to support Democrats when they weren’t liberal enough for my taste–now, after witnessing the GOP’s behavior for the last 10 years, I see it as my duty to do everything I can to keep Republicans out of power.

And yes, the relevant fact is that Republicans (and some Democrats) have shown themselves willing to let accountants commit profitable crimes.


Alex 09.11.04 at 9:44 pm

Agree pj, bobcox, & with good points made. jdresner also.


Giles 09.11.04 at 10:57 pm

q – no, I think you’ll find that the voting pattern changed not because people changed their minds but because the people changed – which is why the change was gradual and why it won’t fade soon.

Matt kind illustrates how the feed back effect then reinforce this process – a moderate democrat turned to a totally committed democrat.

And this thread seems to me to illustrate the way the mechanism worked. Maybe I dont get out enough, but as far as I am aware, most of the accouting misdeeds over the last 2 decade or so can be laid at the door on one firm – Arthur Anderson. Which is why they were, for instance, barred from working for the british government.

The rest of the profession seems to me to be carrying on much as before, dully but honest. But you just need to say to some people that they split 60:40 to the Repulbicans and suddenly every ones saing they think they’re all a load of crooks.

Again, I find this a bit worrying.


John Quiggin 09.11.04 at 11:23 pm

Giles, you don’t get out enough. All the big accounting companies have had scandals (Cendant, Orange County etc) though only the Enron/AA scandal was fatal.

More importantly, the divergence between accounting profits and national income estimates in the late 90s was so great as to indicate that dishonest (perhaps legal) accounting practices had become endemic. Certainly, the accounting profession was not “carrying on much as before, dully but honest”.


Giles 09.12.04 at 12:13 am

I still don’t buy that the correlation implies accountants became more dishonest. Most financial or stock market rorts will require the services of an accountant somewhere along the line and it doesn’t necessarily imply dishonesty for the accountants to have signed off on over inflated accounts – weakness, incompetence or simple lack of knowledge could be the explanation. More important its worth remembering the “new economy” zeitergiest was putting a lot of pressure on accountants to follow the herd and sign off.

Generally I think that the dishonesty only really existed at the top or, more often, in an investment bank. And, more relevantly, both these occupations, have the sort of “worrying” lack of political diversity that accountants don’t.


Jason McCullough 09.12.04 at 12:25 am

I got a pretty big laugh out of this bit of Brooks “sociology by anecdote.” I work with nothing but spreadsheet technical people, and they’re something like 80/20 Kerry voters.


SomeCallMeTim 09.12.04 at 1:00 am

“[W]eakness, incompetence or simple lack of knowledge,” could also be the simplest explanation for their support for Republicans. Really not meant as snark – I think Brooks overstates the (implied) intelligence and competence of the groups which he claims as Republican bastions. There are a lot of idiot CEOs out there.


ruralsaturday 09.12.04 at 1:23 am

There’s a lot of idiots of all stripes out there.
“Party of Lincoln”?
My ass.
By that measure George Washington is no longer represented.
Thomas Jefferson, of the Democratic Republican Party, is in a fugue state.
And Teddy Roosevelt gets legitmately claimed by both the Republican and Progressive parties simultaneously.
My royal Irish ass.
Karl Rove has as much affinity with, and connection to, Abraham Lincoln, as Paris Hilton does Virginia Woolf.


praktike 09.12.04 at 1:36 am

I got a pretty big laugh out of this bit of Brooks “sociology by anecdote.” I work with nothing but spreadsheet technical people, and they’re something like 80/20 Kerry voters.

Was that deliberate irony?


bob mcmanus 09.12.04 at 3:50 am

I think DenBeste may have quit blogging, but is now ghost-writing columns for David Brooks. Sure looks to me like the return of the empiricists vs. p-idealists.

There are two kinds of people in the world: people who divide the world into two kinds of people, and you other folks.


Jason McCullough 09.12.04 at 4:34 am

“Was that deliberate irony?”

I dunno, I work one of the biggest software houses in the country. My anecdote’s better.


Kim 09.12.04 at 3:54 pm

I’m not enthralled with the numbers/paragraph distinction, but Brooks (perhaps unwittingly) makes another point that IS backed up by data: there is tremendous heterogeneity in the political behavior of members of different occupations, even those that sociologists, political scientists, pundits, and the lay public typically lump together as birds of a feather.

I’m working on a paper that looks at the relative strength of “big-class” vs. occupation politics, where “big classes” are the standard academic formulations of the class structure that group “like” occupations into 6-12 aggregate categories. It turns out that knowing whether a person is an engineer or an author/journalist gives you as much information about their propensity to vote Democrat or Republican as knowing whether he or she is an Evangelical Protestant or a Jew. (Engineers are as likely to vote Republican as Evangelical Protestants, authors/journalists are as likely to vote Democrat as Jewish voters.) Also, although the relationship between big class and vote choice has been weakening in the last 3 elections, the relationship between occupation and vote choice is, if anything, strenghtening.


David Sucher 09.12.04 at 4:25 pm

I think that The NYT must have made a clerical error and publised a submission from _Mel_ Brooks.

The idea that accountants used to vote Democratic is a funny, at the least, if you know accountants.


Matt Weiner 09.12.04 at 5:23 pm

Giles, as I think my post made clear, I wasn’t a moderate Democrat before but someone who tended to be more to the left than most Democrats. And it’s not a feedback effect that’s made me more of a partisan Democrat (many academics are Nader-voter types), but watching the way Republicans behave in power–government shutdowns, trumped-up impeachments, election theft, bankrupting the country to give tax cuts to the wealthy, ignoring the threat of spreading nuclear weapons in order to fight a war against a country that posed no threat, torturing prisoners and refusing to hold thorough investigations. Those are the facts to which I am responding.


Steve 09.12.04 at 5:42 pm

Guess I need to comment that ancedotal evidence is favored by Democrats, real statistics by Republicans — or why would the general response by the paragraph people here be to cite to ancedotal anolomies in response to numbers?

One interesting trend that everyone is ignoring, other than the lack of development of spell checkers for comment engines, is that both parties routinely tell lies, and the real division in America is over the lies people disbelieve.

Numbers people, as a statistical group (with, of course, exceptions to be found in Massachusetts, for example) have decided not to believe the lies of socialists, paragraph people have decided not to believe the lies of neo-statist right wingers.

That tells us something, though no one here seems to want to listen or to demonstrate an understanding of math or statistics.


Steve 09.12.04 at 5:48 pm

Matt, if you can say “I wasn’t a moderate Democrat before but someone who tended to be more to the left than most Democrats.” — then how the heck could you need anything to alientate you from Republicans?

Sounds like you’ve only solidified where you are at, and tossed in talking points to support it, rather than made any real change.


John Quiggin 09.12.04 at 9:00 pm

Steve, my point was (granting Brooks’ data) that “numbers people” seem willing to believe lies about numbers. You seem to agree. Or do you believe that Bush is telling the truth about the Budget?


abb1 09.12.04 at 9:14 pm

…have decided not to believe the lies of socialists, paragraph people have decided not to believe the lies of neo-statist right wingers.

Hmm, you make it sound like this is a matter of faith, but there is plenty of empirical evidence: lying socialist weasels rule countries like Sweden, Holland and France while lying neo-statist right wingers rule places like Nicaragua, El Salvador and Colombia. Statistics are available – why bother listening to any of ’em liars?


bellatrys 09.13.04 at 12:07 am

kim – what about Jewish engineers? Does that cancel out?

Seriously, I’d have thought Brooksie would have learned better than this kind of careless generalization, considering how badly he got burnt for doing what for us ordinary mortals would be called cooking your data or just making shit up, with the business about what food was available where trying to prove that there were two kinds of people…


AIK 09.13.04 at 4:07 am

Another great piece of reasoning…”C.E.O.’s are classic spreadsheet people. According to a sample gathered by PoliticalMoneyLine in July, the number of C.E.O.’s donating funds to Bush’s campaign is five times the number donating to Kerry’s.” Which, of course, is because they all majored in business in college and has nothing to do with the fact that Bush’s economic policies explicitly favor them


ChrisPer 09.13.04 at 10:07 am

I guess we should be glad this insulting tripe is dished up in a context where it doesn’t matter, instead of in a campaign to criminalise red necks or driving SUVs.

And they wonder how the good people of Germany went so far along under the Nazis. Sheesh.

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