Finance in History: Here’s to the Bean Counters

A slur to finance folks and accountants, the term has a noble past.

“Bean counting” has long been an insulting term for what finance professionals and accountants do. Often it’s been used to tar CFOs as transaction processors — a role largely relegated to the back office. What’s more, people like to use the phrase to ratchet up the pedestrian aspects of finance by tagging practitioners as “mere” bean counters or “little more than” bean counters or “simply” bean counters. Such clichés get tossed around a lot.

Given how often the expression is used as a glib putdown, though, the origin of the term may come as a surprise. Let’s set the historic record straight and redeem the lot of the bean and its interpreters, since the scrutiny of beans was anything but simple or prosaic. Indeed, the expression sprung from the birthplace of democracy, ancient Greece, some 2,500 years ago. More exactly, it comes from the city-state of Athens, the site of what some historians call “radical” democracy.

Knowing that, you might guess beans were used for voting. Furthermore, you might think the advantage of using beans — say beans colored black and white — is their utter lack of ambiguity. At a glance, you know which pile to put which bean in: one bean, one vote.

The historical record, however, doesn’t corroborate that. It describes various means of voting used by the Greeks, including a show of hands, voice acclamation, voting according to roll call, voting done with pebbles placed in front of officials on a table, even preliminary balloting with olive leaves. In especially serious matters, voters were required to congregate in groups with others voting the same way. Since the Athenian assembly gathered thousands of citizens for decisions of city policy, that meant for a lot of milling about.

Using beans, on the contrary, was not one of the voting methods. The Athenians did not choose their officials using beans; rather, the beans chose the officials for them.

It turns out the Greeks selected many minor public officials — and jurors — using an elaborate system based on random drawings. That’s where they used black and white beans. Although the Greeks had a participatory democracy, it was not for everyone: the only people eligible to serve in office, or on a jury, were native-born men who owned property. To ensure impartiality among them, beans and fate were employed to make final, definitive selections. Their process was so elaborate that it was nearly impossible to rig the results. Aristotle describes the process in his Constitution of Athens, and modern archaeologists have unearthed a number of the Athenians’ bean machines.

The choice of office holders involved at least three random steps. First, two people were chosen in a random drawing to be responsible for running the bean machine. Next, candidates put their names on pieces of paper that were then randomly drawn, one by one, by the two officials. Each drawn name was inserted in a column of slots in the machine according to the order in which they were picked.

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