The Sex of a Hippopotamus: A Unique History of Taxes and Accounting

BY VALRIE CHAMBERS

by Jay Starkman
Twinset Inc., 2008, 456 pp.

The Sex of a Hippopotamus by Jay Starkman is a well-documented and interesting read for professionals in the accounting and tax fields. In particular, this book is appealing to instructors, retirees, recent accounting graduates and the hard-to-buy-for CPA.

The book begins with anecdotes of accounting careers, then documents the role of accounting in the world (with special emphasis on U.S. history), and ends with tax anecdotes of the rich and famous. Career chapters address accounting and pop culture myths such as the long hours (“in every 24 hours, there are three perfectly good eighthour chargeable days”), strict dress code, charitable requirements and difficult work environment. From Harry Potter to the Beatles song “Taxman,” artistic depiction of accountants ranges from boring to oppressive. Separating myth from reality takes experience and perspective.

Starkman would know. He is a recognized, practicing CPA in Atlanta with nearly 40 years of work experience in the field including audit, fraud and tax. Having worked for most of the Big Four firms and currently running his own public accounting firm, Starkman can be controversial. He compares the hours of a career in public accounting to the Japanese concept of karoshi, which loosely translates to “death from overwork,” repeating the saying, “Let’s go home while it’s still dark.” He addresses abusive tax shelters and internal control weaknesses for electronic tax filing. He evaluates changes to professional ethics over time, including changes in the ability to accept referral fees, continuing education requirements and the reliability of prepackaged tax software.

Similarly, the history of tax and accounting is not sugarcoated. He includes a discussion of California’s 1850 tax on foreign laborers (primarily Chinese and Latinos), highlights Russian ruler Peter the Great’s tax levied on beards, and European taxation of Jews from medieval times through World War II. For better or worse, Starkman names names.

Underneath it all, though, is a strong ethical reckoning. “Can an honest accountant succeed?” asks Starkman (implying the answer is, “Yes, but not without being tested”). Nearly every reader will find some parts of the book drier than others. Accounting historians may trivialize some of the personal experiences, whereas practitioners may only be generally interested in the Turkish capital tax. But there is enough of each area of accounting to make buying this book worthwhile and its reading enjoyable.

By Valrie Chambers, CPA, Ph.D., associate professor of accounting, Texas A&M University–Corpus Christi

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