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Double Entry has not long been available, but I have been looking forward to reading it since I first heard of its impending publication. A blend of accounting and Renaissance Italian history; Jane Gleeson-White could have been writing for an audience of me.The author starts poorly, however, patronising her audience a number of times with declarations that Renaissance Venice was ‘the New York of its age’ or ‘the Silicon Valley’ of its age. It is hard to see how these comparisons help anyone, and dumb the text down to the level of a moderately interesting BBC documentary. Anyone who has read the first seventy pages will understand that Venice had been transformed into a great business centre by the end of the fifteenth century, and had adopted Johan Gutenburg’s printing press before many other places, and will thus not need such childless parallels.The First section of the book is a biography of Luca Pacioli, the first man to set down the alla viniziana, or ‘Venetian way’ of (double entry accounting). Gleeson-White should be given credit here for her thorough research on the subject. The drawing together of the strands of mathematics and of the other famous people with whom Pacioli shared his time is extremely interesting.By the end of the second section, however, Gleeson-White has moved away from the development of double entry accounting and has begun to make some pretty radical claims. Following the analysis of the German economist Werner Sombart and others surrounding the origins of the word ‘capitalism’, the author asserts that double entry accounting was responsible for the birth of our modern commercial system. She goes on to claim, really rather ludicrously, that “the accounts it generates are… designed to convince an audience of something: for example, of a business’s solidity, as with saw with the Royal Bank of Scotland, or of its ongoing success, as in the case of Enron.” This is absurd; ignoring the fact that private wealth has existed for millennia – can double entry accounting be blamed for the famously unscrupulous manner in which Pompey Magnus accumulated his wealth? – there are thousands, millions even, of examples of the results of double entry accounting helping managers to make decisions. Though the rational markets hypothesis has been widely discredited, the accounting system which began in Italy in the fourteenth century has provided untold numbers of balanced accounts which, while not providing anyone with as sensational a story as RBS or Enron, have underpinned the business decisions which have led to modern prosperity. The depths of the authors ‘analysis’ come when she asserts that “this profit-driven way of thinking encouraged by double entry is… destroying the world beneath our feet.” By this point I was sorely tempted to abandon a work that had promised so much and was delivering nothing but a straw man to beat down; but I persisted, if only to see if the author could redeem the book.The third section includes a chapter called ‘The Rise and Rise of a Scandalous Profession’. The evidence Gleeson-White uses to damn the entire accounting profession is thin at best. In retaliation, perhaps we could claim that a few poor authors damn the entire profession? Nonsense. Accounting, it could be argued, is a more important vocation, and failings within more damaging to society, but whatever number of accounting scandals Gleeson-White can draw on there are thousands and thousands of cases in which double entry accounting has been used and no scandal or failure was the result. The author even states that, “Section 1102 of the [Sabanes-Oxley] Act [regulating financial practice and corporate governance in the United States] outlines fines and prison terms for those who tamper with the transactional records of a firm.” So the method of accounting is innocent indeed; it is the tampering with statements that is to blame.Gleeson-White then goes on to berate the use of GDP as a cover-all for the measurement of economic health and growth, a subject about which myriad papers have been written. Economists generally accept that this measure is inadequate at doing the job that it has been given, and, it is economists, not accountants, who introduced and continue to promote and use GDP.Man has sought profit since the beginning of days. Capitalism has its own set of unique failings, the majority of which are well known and abundantly documented. That a few companies should abuse an accounting system to further their goals – fine for Enron, but something which RBS simply did not do, it simply did not know how to accurately value what it owned – is natural, if wrong. Blaming an accounting system for the fact that in many countries financial statements are inadequately regulated, however, is as absurd as blaming either the inventor of writing or Johannes Gutenburg for the fact that Gleeson-White makes such utterly ludicrous claims in print.That Jane Gleeson-White’s ‘Double Entry’ is a weak attack on modern capitalism wearing the thinnest of veils in the form of a work of history can be no better demonstrated than the fact that the front cover gives the sub-title “how the merchants of Venice created modern finance,” while the back cover claims that “a simple system of measuring profit… underpins modern finance, with destructive consequences.” The author’s claim that “the collapse of massive enterprises… raises serious questions about the culture” that exists in such organisations is much closer to the truth; few would argue that the culture of some large corporations was damaging. To implicate double entry accounting simply because Pacioli’s system simplifies financial recording and reporting and made accounting easier, however, is a flight of fancy and nothing more. It would be difficult to argue that capitalism is not destructive; it is nigh-on impossible to argue that double entry accounting is the root cause of that: Gleeson-White has tried, but she has failed dismally. Yes, the complexity in modern finance needs to be guarded against, regulated, and better audited; no, the basic accounting system cannot be held responsible.‘Double Entry’ began as a history of how an accounting system developed and the effect that it had on Renaissance Italy, and insomuch as that was the aim of the author, the first third of the book succeeds absolutely. Lucid, interesting, and thoroughly researched, section one is a joy to read. However, it rapidly descends into a shambling criticism of capitalism as whole which, while not without merit, approaches the topic from the narrowest of angles, introduces nothing new whatsoever to the debate, and attacks a whole profession based on the failings of a few. How anyone can seriously write a book that sets out to investigate ‘how the merchants of Venice created modern finance’ and have the subject matter career off into environmentalism while blaming an accounting method for the world’s ills is baffling. As a history lover, especially of Renaissance Italy, as someone interested in economics, and as an accountant, nobody can be more disappointed with how this book turned out than me.

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