NYT Excerpt: Radical Accounting And The Value Of Ideas
In his New York Times Magazine column this week, Adam Davidson writes about the challenges of measuring productivity in today's economy. Here's an excerpt.
Like a lot of accountants, Jason Blumer never really wanted to be an accountant; he wanted to play guitar in a hair-metal band. But like most guys who want to play guitar in a hair-metal band, Blumer eventually realized that there wasn't much money in touring bars and being paid in beer-smeared $20 bills. So he changed gears and decided to follow his dad into what seemed like one of the more steady businesses around. After college, he bought some suits, joined a midsize firm in South Carolina and processed his clients' payroll and tax returns. He billed them by the hour. He hated every second of it.
Blumer, 42, wanted to infuse a bit more rock 'n' roll into his industry. So when he eventually took over his father's small firm, he made his own rules: There would be no time sheets, no dress code and, most radical of all, no billable hours. He was convinced, in fact, that the billable hour was part of a series of mistakes that took all the fun out of his profession. To him, it seemed like a relic of a dying economic age and one that was depriving his industry of billions in profit....
So he identified a niche — creative professionals who struggled to manage their finances as their start-ups became mature businesses — and he endeavored to help his clients make (and save) enough money that they would gladly pay a significant fee without asking about the hours it took him to figure out what to do. Blumer has been so successful in his approach that he has become a leading voice among a national band of accountants who call themselves the Cliff Jumpers. Many Cliff Jumpers have abandoned the traditional bill-by-the-hour approach to focus on noncommodity accounting solutions for specific client groups. One focuses on entrepreneurs hoping to sell their new businesses; several work with people who are terrified about starting a small business.
Perhaps without realizing it, the Cliff Jumpers are at the forefront of one of the great challenges of modern economics. Measuring productivity is central to economic policy — it's especially crucial in the decisions made by the Federal Reserve — but we are increasingly flying blind. It's relatively easy to figure out if steel companies can make a ton of steel more efficiently than in the past (they can, by a lot), but we have no idea how to measure the financial value of ideas and the people who come up with them. "Compared with the mid-1900s, goods production is not as important a part of our economy, but we continue to devote about 90 percent of our statistical resources to measuring it," says Barry Bosworth, a Brookings Institution economist who is a leading thinker on productivity in the service sector.