Economic Inequality: Where are the accountants?

Featured

dreamstime_s_53174060Dr Dale Tweedie and Dr James Hazelton

Rising inequality in income and wealth is one of the biggest contemporary social and economic concerns, but accountants have been surprisingly quiet on this issue.

Concerns over economic inequality

The growth of economic inequality is increasingly a topic of public debate in countries like the United Kingdom, the United States and Australia.

Numerous influential – and typically conservative – economic institutions have now identified growing income inequality as a critical economic and social issue. The World Economic Forum listed deepening income inequality as number one on its top ten trends of 2015, and describes growing inequality as a threat to global economic growth, social cohesion and sustainability. The International Monetary Fund has reported that inequality in developed nations is at its highest level in decades, with ‘significant implications for growth and macroeconomic stability.’ There is also growing evidence of serious and widespread social harms from economic inequality, with economic inequality being linked to social ills ranging from poor physical and mental health to drug addiction to rates of violent crime.

Public debates over inequality have created an all too-rare cross-over between academic research and public concerns. French economist Thomas Piketty’s 685 page treatise on economic inequality was a surprise hit of 2014, reaching the top of the New York Times’ best-seller list. While Piketty’s analysis of the causes of economic inequality is hotly disputed, there is little challenge to his finding that income inequality has sharply risen in most developed nations since the 1970s. For example, in the United States, Piketty reports that the top decile’s share of national income grew from just under 35% in 1970 to almost half by 2010.

A role for accountants?

Despite growing evidence of the economic and social costs of inequality, accountants have had little involvement in either public or academic debates. However, as we observe in a recent article (50 free e-copies here), there are key contributions that accountants could make to public discussions

First, as Piketty and others have argued, both public deliberation and informed public policy about economic inequality requires greater global transparency about who owns economic wealth and receives economic income. Whatever else it may be, accounting is a vehicle – albeit imperfect – for understanding and promoting transparency. Accountants might therefore add their voice to calls to improve public access to economic information, such as in the recent debate over whether taxes paid by resource companies to governments should be disclosed.

Second, key debates about the equity of income distribution, such as ongoing critiques of the pay of executives (especially CEOs), are closely connected to corporate governance. While economists have proposed macro level policies like a progressive tax on capital (Piketty) and a minimum basic income, seriously addressing inequality will invariably need to address how resources are managed and distributed within corporations. Accountants have the expertise to evaluate existing corporate accountability mechanisms and propose workable alternatives. These proposals could complement the broader macroeconomic agenda that economists like Piketty put forward.

What do you think?

Is there is a role for accountants on economic inequality? And if so, what do accountants – or accounting – have to say?

Accounting for inequality will be the subject of a special session of the Australasian Centre for Social and Environmental Accounting Research (CSEAR) Conference, which will be held at Macquarie University, Sydney in 2015, and also a special section of the Accounting, Auditing and Accountability Journal.