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Tomgram: Rebecca Gordon, Can Bean Counters Save the World from Trump?

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

Recently, I visited New York's Guggenheim Museum for a show of conceptual art by Danh Vo, whose family fled Vietnam as the American war there ended in 1975. He was four years old when he became a refugee and, through a series of flukes, found himself in Denmark, which has been his home ever since. Much of his work is focused on that grim war and the colonial history leading up to it. Among the eerie exhibits at the Guggenheim are two chairs (stripped down and exhibited in bits and pieces) that originally came from the White House cabinet room. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and President John F. Kennedy used them while discussing key Vietnam decisions. Jackie Kennedy gave them to McNamara after her husband's death (and Vo bought them at a Sotheby's auction). There are also a series of notes that Henry Kissinger, President Richard Nixon's national security adviser and then secretary of state, a man deeply involved in the horrors of that same war, sent to the New York Post's Broadway gossip columnist Leonard Lyons. In those letters, successively framed on a wall, Dr. K responds to offers of free ballet and Broadway show tickets that Lyons seems to have regularly dangled in front of him. They capture the smallest scale form of corruption imaginable but are no less eerie for that. In perhaps the creepiest one, Kissinger writes Lyons jokingly in May 1970, "Dear Leonard, You must be a fiend. I would choose your ballet over contemplation of Cambodia any day -- if only I were given the choice. Keep tempting me; one day perhaps I will succumb." Keep in mind that this was just months after he had transmitted a presidential order to the U.S. military to intensify the devastating secret bombing of that land with these words: "A massive bombing campaign in Cambodia. Anything that flies on anything that moves." Ballet indeed.

Those ticket offers, of course, were something less than a Teapot Dome scandal, but they certainly should be considered a reminder that Washington has been and remains a swamp in every sense of the word. In his 2016 campaign, Donald Trump swore that he would drain that very swamp, shut down K Street lobbying activities, and bring that city's myriad revolving doors to a halt. Instead, a year and a quarter into his presidency, he and his administration are already involved in a staggering set of activities guaranteed to swamp the drain in Washington. We don't know about ballet or theater tickets for Trump administration figures yet. (That will perhaps await some conceptual artist of the mid-twenty-first century.) We do, however, already know about a veritable deluge of everyday corruption at the highest levels, ranging from condo rentals to plane flights to dining room furniture -- and that's just the churn at the edges of that drain. There are already at least 10 investigations of, for instance, Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt's profligate spending habits. And at the center of that vortex of corruption lies the president and his family, the man whose taxes remain an American mystery and who couldn't even get them in on time this year. He's brought his family operation directly into the Oval Office, along with his daughter and son-in-law, and they've all but raised his Golden Letters over the building. So I'm sure you won't be surprised that his new hotel, just down Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, has become a must-stop spot for every lobbyist, foreign diplomat, or anyone else who cares to influence the Oval Office.

The question, of course, is: Who exactly will find the ultimate piece of tape on the latch of the Trump Organization's basement door? TomDispatch regular Rebecca Gordon, author of American Nuremberg: The U.S. Officials Who Should Stand Trial for Post-9/11 War Crimes, suspects that it's likely to be a classic "bean counter" and, with that in mind, she's written a paean of prospective praise to the one or ones who will someday take down the president. Think of it as an ode not on a Grecian urn, but on a gimlet-eyed accountant. Tom

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Want to Bring Down Donald Trump?
Follow the People Who Follow the Money
By Rebecca Gordon

They call people like us "bean counters" -- the soulless ones beavering away in some windowless accounting department, the living calculators who don't care about desperation or aspirations, who just want you to turn in your expense report on time and explain those perfectly legitimate charges on the company credit card. We're the ones whose demands are mere distractions from any organization's or government agency's true mission.

But maybe bookkeepers and accountants deserve a little more respect. They're often the ones who actually bring down corrupt officials through dogged attention to those "irrelevant" distractions. It wasn't for nothing that Washington Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein decided to "follow the money" when they were trying to unravel the mystery of the Watergate scandal. By following that infamous money trail, the two journalists were indeed able to discover secret campaign funds used to pay off the people who had burglarized Democratic Party offices in the Watergate building, along with the men who later covered it up. Eventually that money trail led all the way to Richard Nixon's reelection campaign, and uncovering it brought down a corrupt president.

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If, one of these days, Donald Trump is taken down, it may well be the bean counters who ultimately do it. When it comes to draining the Trumpian swamp, they've already done a pretty good job on several of his appointees. Think, for instance of Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt's $43,000 soundproof booth and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson's $31,000 customized dining room set.

The Keys to the Kingdom

I'm old, as I like to tell the students I now teach, so I've done a lot of things in my life. For some years, almost by accident, I made my living as a bookkeeper and accountant. (The difference between the two isn't actually a legal one; often it's more a question of gender than anything else, with a bookkeeper more likely to be a woman and an accountant a man. A certified public accountant is a licensed professional who has the authority to audit an organization's books. A regular accountant is anyone who understands debits and credits.)

When I was young, there were generally three career paths open to a woman with a bachelor's degree: teacher, nurse, and secretary. As a college student in those ancient days before computers took over, I'd refused to learn touch-typing because I was determined never to be a secretary. However, after a stint packing ice cream cones in a factory and a few years as a clerk in Oregon's state-run liquor stores, I found myself at a temp agency looking for something that might pay a little better. As it turned out, there was a 25-cents-per-hour differential in pay between a "general office worker" and an "accounting clerk." The latter, however, had to know how to run a 10-key calculator by touch. I admit it: I lied and swore that I could. Eventually, after clicking those keys often enough, I learned how to do it pretty well.

Later, a friend initiated me into the mysteries of double-entry bookkeeping. I learned why debits (and expenses) are positive and credits (and income) negative, and how at any given moment the whole system should total up to a beautiful zero. I worked by hand in those days, making entries in journals with actual pages. The company's general ledger was an actual ledger: a big, leather-bound book. When it came time to transfer my skills to computerized systems, I counted myself lucky to have a physical, kinesthetic understanding of accounting.

Eventually, I used those skills to give nonprofits a hand in grasping one of the keys to power: understanding their own money. I helped them stay out of trouble with the IRS and avoid fines from the California Fair Political Practices Commission. I showed them that their much-coveted 501(c)(3) status did not mean that they had to eschew all political work -- that they could, for example, focus on ballot initiatives. I taught immigrant women how to control their own organization's budget and understand what their financial statements could tell them about where their money came from and how they were spending it.

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Who invented this brilliant system of debits and credits? Arguments over this still rage -- albeit in dusty corners of the academic world. It seems clear that a fifteenth-century Italian mathematician, Luca Pacioli, wrote the first formal treatise on the subject of accounting, laying out the system pretty much in its modern form. But claims have been made for earlier origins in disparate parts of the medieval world, including India, the Islamic empire in northern Africa and the Iberian Peninsula (today's Spain and Portugal), and imperial China.

It's clear at least that, without Arabic numerals (courtesy of the medieval Arab mathematicians, who also gave us algebra), double-entry bookkeeping would have been impossible. Without systematic double-entry bookkeeping -- to accurately record not only what an enterprise receives and spends but what it is owed and owes -- capitalism itself would have been almost inconceivable. Today, understanding how money is counted and accounted for offers those of us who seek to expose capitalism's plundering and exploitation a powerful tool for laying bare thieves of state like Donald Trump.

Counting Beans

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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