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Creative Moral Accounting 101: Tips for "Going Forward"

Creative Moral Accounting 101: Tips for "Going Forward" in 2011

by David Thompson

The New Year draws nigh. ’Tis the season both to review and to resolve, as we put the old year with all its empty vows and failed resolutions behind us, and look forward to a shiny new one, full of good intentions.

Sincerity would traditionally require that we account for our shortcomings in 2010 before committing to a fresh crop of New Year’s resolutions for 2011. And call me pathologically sincere or a compulsive confessor – OK: I admit it already! – but I for one would by nature be inclined to plead guilty on all counts.

Thankfully though, nature can be improved. The modern soul comes bundled with a number of chic accounting “apps” that let us sidestep the bitter squall of self-loathing to which really sincere self-examination opens the door.

Using a little Creative Moral Accounting, you too can adjust the year’s losses to your ethical net worth. Hey presto, you will find yourself smiling at a far more pleasant moral bottom line for your 2010 self-report before you can even say “Sincerity, shmincerity”.

So, watch and learn from some creative sleight of hand with the ledger of my own accounts.

On the credit side of my ledger for 2010? Politically, I fulfilled my citizenly duty to vote in the local body elections. I even read all the candidate statements before rationalising my original gut preferences and/or resorting to an Ouija Board on the really complex STV questions.

Personally, from having literally been the obese elephant in the room, I liberated the small republic of thin people falsely imprisoned inside me and shed 15kg. This brings my BMI to comfortably under 40.

Temptations were resisted. I did not personally invade any small, unarmed countries. I didn’t steal the identity of any dead babies. Nor can I definitively be fingered for either the financial collapse of South Canterbury or the seismic collapse of all Canterbury.

Earning green credentials, I sometimes took a bike instead of a car. In 2009 I had joined Greenpeace and spent an hour one Sunday banging a saucepan lid in a prominent local park with hirsute but gentle people to issue a global wake-up call on climate change.

In 2010, I endeavoured to go vegetarian. The advertising promised it would “downsize my carbon footprint while upsizing my humanity”. So I accompanied a number of the same gentle people, in loose clothes, to mass-purchase a winter’s worth of dried beans from an organic co-op. By co-op I mean a wooden shed, tucked away unsuspected amid gardens in a fashionable suburb, and freely ranged over by wandering chooks, apparently displaced Amish people and the survivors of some cataclysm that had wiped out barbers and left follicles not merely intact but invigorated.

I donated to the starving child victims of the Pakistan floods, though less than I spent monthly on re-training my gluttony with binges on low-cal peaches and low-fat yoghurt. Only the donations were dropped into conversation.
And on the debit side? What about good old-fashioned sins? Counting up these is when the real creativity begins.

This year I omitted to: bring peace to the Middle East (again); donate my liver; or divert some peaches and yoghurt spending towards keeping starving children alive for an extra month. This list is just a start.

But in tallying my misdeeds, I am immediately assisted by my subtle use of the three classic tricks of moral accounting. You shouldn’t try these at home. Then again, I shouldn’t have either. These are: the Trick of Redefinition; the Trick of the Token Confession; and the Trick of Terms of Reference.

Journalists would normally denounce politicians for performing these tricks, but this journalist at least is well in touch with his own inner politician and would have to ’fess up to identical charges.

The Trick of Redefinition simply means you re-engineer the definition of a sin so whatever you’ve done falls conveniently just outside it. People who “avoid” tax aren’t guilty of tax “evasion”, for example, albeit they may still run foul of a more subtly drafted statute in the fine print. Redefinition, see?

I have often snuck through red lights on my bike to beat a traffic jam. The statute book says that’s an offence. My bad. In my book, however, such actions are innocent because: a) no lives were endangered; so b) any crime was victimless; and c) hey, I wasn’t caught.

Unfortunately, my sceptical conscience remains a notorious tightwad when it comes to parting with absolution.

The second trick is the Token Confession. Strategically offer up a small sin and fall on your sword in what – like repentant MPs or mayoral candidates – you hope is a non-fatal place to satisfy the thirst for blood of the media/your conscience. Then they might not sniff out any uglier secrets you’re sitting on.
It’s like owning up to prima facie traffic infringements but not letting on that you once stole secrets for the Russians and remain a closet fan of Wham!
The third trick I have named in honour of Ministers of the Crown who want kudos for diligently prosecuting error or inefficiency, but not to answer any tricky questions that may arise on said. A ministerial enquiry is one thing, but the devil’s in how far the terms of reference stunt the range of the probe. “Dear Officials, please investigate my Ministerial travel spending but not my Parliamentary allowance.” Or, “Count up New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions but skip agricultural methane.” After all, methane’s only hugely abundant and 25 times more potent than CO2.

Note to self: resolve in 2011 to cut down on personal methane emissions. Maybe that mega-bean purchase wasn’t such a good idea.

As usual, this year’s terms of reference for my moral stock-take will exclude sins of omission.

That is, the good things that we could have done but didn’t. There are always more things we’re not doing than things we are doing, but there is such a thing as neglected responsibilities.

These can range widely, from the soothingly remote to the painfully close to home. The nearer our path that innocent victims or good causes lie, the more discomfiting they are for even medium-good Samaritans to pass by. Folk who re-engineer their whole route to actively seek out and help the needy are saints.

Of course, there is a fourth trick: Compulsive Confession. It goes like this: “Forgive me, Father, for I did burn the toast.”

Plead guilty to a mind-numbing multiplicity of self-imposed charges, and chances are that people won’t call you on the few important ones. Nor will you call yourself on them.

By deploying this gamut of subterfuge to creatively account for your sins, I can personally guarantee you a blameless 2011.

And I still haven’t said “Sincerity, shmincerity.” How’s that for accountability?

* David Thompson is an Auckland-based legal editor

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