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Bean Counters and the Dawning of Democracy

Bean Counters and the Dawning of Democracy


bean counter noun [informal] Beans are a cheap commodity so to count them is a rather silly thing to do. A “bean counter” is one who nitpicks over small things in order to save costs. It is a derogatory term for accountants, bankers and anyone who holds a financial interest in an endeavor. (Urban Dictionary)

Well then...that's certainly not the definition we'd use to describe ourselves here at FA Bean Counters.

Because that disparaging definition of “bean counter” simply won’t suffice, we’ve decided to shine a light on our noble history in this blog post. (The entire weight of the democratic process may have fallen on our shoulders at one point in time, no big deal.) 

Although “bean counting” has long been an insulting term for what financial professionals and accountants do (often compounding the insult by adding “mere” bean counters and “nothing more than” bean counters), the origin of the term may come as a surprise.

Let’s set the record straight and redeem the bean counters of the world! It appears that the expression sprung from voting practices in the birthplace of democracy—yup, we’re talking about Ancient Greece—some 2,500 years ago.

The Ancient Greeks used a variety of voting means, including a show of hands, voice acclamation, roll call, voting with pebbles, and balloting with olive leaves. The Greeks selected many minor public officials using an elaborate system based on random drawings using black and white beans. To ensure impartiality, beans were used to make final, definitive selections. The process was so elaborate that it was nearly impossible to rig the results.

Here’s how it worked: First, two people (aka bean counters) were chosen in a random drawing to run the bean machine (try saying that with a straight face). Note that it was an extreme honor to be chosen as a bean counter.

Next, candidates put their names on pieces of paper that were randomly drawn and then inserted into a column of slots in the bean machine according to the order in which they were picked. 

After all the names of the candidates were lined up, beans were poured into an opening at the top of the machine and then filtered down. All the beans were black, except for one white bean. 

The beans were released one at a time from the bottom of the tube. The first bean corresponded to the first candidate in the first slot; the second bean corresponded to the second candidate, and so on.

If a black bean appeared when it was your turn, it meant you lost. When the white bean appeared, a winner was declared. Politicians were known to say, “I owe my seat to the bean.”

The actual bean counting came before the beans were poured into the machine. If there were 100 candidates vying for a job, the bean counters counted out 99 black beans and one white bean.

So, let’s review. Bean counters were originally highly respected, intelligent citizens entrusted with guarding and perpetuating the democratic process. Here at FA Bean Counters, we concur that life (as we know it today) would not be possible without the noble bean counter.

As always, we would love to talk to you about how we here at FA Bean Counters can help your business.

Click here to contact the Bean Team! 

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