Finance in History: Here’s to the Bean Counters

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

After all the candidates’ names were lined up, beans were poured into a conical opening at the top of the machine. All the beans were black, with the exception of a single white one. As the beans passed through the conical opening, they rolled into a narrow tube attached to the machine. The beans were then released one at a time from the bottom of the tube. The first bean corresponded to the first candidate whose name was drawn and had been placed in the uppermost slot; the second bean corresponded to the second candidate, and so on. Should a black bean appear when it was your turn, it meant no job for you. When the white bean appeared, the gods had spoken: politicians were known to say: “I owe my seat to the bean.”

The actual act of bean counting came before the beans were poured into the machine. If a seat in the Athenian assembly had 100 candidates vying for it, the officials presiding had to count out exactly 99 black beans to go with the 1 white bean. Thus, as all can see, bean counters were guardians of democracy. And they were divine intermediaries, helping bring forth the will of the gods.

Nevertheless, the Greek mathematician Pythagoras disliked the method — he is supposed to have said: “Have nothing to do with the bean.” Some think he was saying: “Have nothing to do with politics,” but he may also have said it because he believed beans held the souls of people waiting to be reincarnated.

Which may be another reason beans were used to choose a candidate’s lot. Not only were they cheap, plentiful, colorful, smooth, and of uniform size, but they were thought by some to be souls in transition. In the case of city office, they served to bring citizens from an embryonic state — that of mere candidate — to the actual, honorable task of representing the city for a year.

Sadly, one fateful day when Pythagoras found himself pursued by enemies, he refused to cut across a bean field to escape and was overtaken and slain: such was his ill-considered aversion to the bean. As one of history’s greatest mathematicians, how could he not have known that the shortest distance between two points is a beeline?

The use of random drawings to choose public officials made its reappearance some 2,000 years later in Renaissance Italy. The Italians distrusted the motives of those of their fellow citizens who were eager to grasp at public office, so for a time they resorted to choosing them by lot. Campaigning, vote-buying, and other political chicanery was effectively rendered pointless.

So there you have it. What the Greeks invented — democracy and clean elections — can be attributed to the bean. And to average citizens who were chosen to act as the much-respected, high-minded bean counter.


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