Lessons from Joseph Smith, Lehi, and the Recent Accounting Scandals
If you don’t remember anything else I say, please remember the following three points: First, happily ever after doesn’t happen without continuing effort. Second, we shouldn’t get discouraged when our careful plans and solutions don’t always lead to calm, clear sailing. And third, don’t assume that the lives of those around you are cloudless and sunny just because the sun is shining where you are.
Learning from the Recent Accounting Scandals
I teach accounting. I love accounting. The corporate accounting scandals of the past couple years have generated both good news and bad news for accountants. The bad news is that the entire field of accounting has now been tainted. For example, the name Arthur Andersen, which for eighty-nine years represented professionalism and excellence, is now the punch line of late-night comedians’ jokes.
In my home, there has been a subtle but troubling increase in scrutiny from my children when asking me for lunch money or payment for household jobs. They will still take a check from my wife, but with my being tainted by this whole accounting thing, my credit rating is down in their eyes, and they prefer cash payments.
The silver lining for accountants in all of this is that everyone has been reminded how important accounting and accountants are. Without accurate, timely, and unbiased financial reports, our capitalist system doesn’t work well. For example, without reliable financial reports, bankers are more uncertain about the ability of a company to repay a loan; this increased risk makes it harder for companies, especially small companies, to get loans.
In addition, the crisis in investor confidence sparked by the relentless barrage of accounting scandals in 2001 and 2002 helped lower stock values in the United States by more than 20 percent, eliminating nearly $2 trillion in wealth for U.S. investors. Those of you who have dismissed accountants as “bean counters” must now acknowledge that those are pretty important beans.
What were the underlying causes of these recent accounting scandals? Among the many candidates, let me mention two: first, greed and second, bad accounting rules.
Greed has been with us for a long time. In Moses 5:31, we read that Cain learned from his mentor, Satan, that he might “murder and get gain.” After Cain slew his brother Abel, he gloried in what he had accomplished and said in Moses 5:33: “I am free; surely the flocks of my brother falleth into my hands.” With his ill-gotten wealth, Cain saw himself as being financially free from money worries. But this feeling of freedom was surely short lived. Greed is insatiable, and it probably was not long before Cain looked with envy on other flocks and fields. In fact, his greed ensured that he would never be financially free.
With the accounting scandals, we have seen greed in the corporate boardroom, greed among bankers who have knowingly financed some pretty unsavory plans, and greed among employees who have been more than willing to turn a blind eye to rampant corporate deceit because that deceit was helping boost the value of the company and their 401(k) retirement plans. We have seen greed among auditors who didn’t blow the whistle on financial reporting fraud for fear of losing the business of lucrative clients. And we have seen greed from attorneys who chalked up many billable hours advising their corporate clients how to carefully structure deceptive financial dealings. These same attorneys then chalked up more billable hours helping the companies clean up the mess they helped create.
For government regulators and a concerned business community eager to “fix” the corporate accounting scandals, greed is not a very promising target. Greed is with us for the long haul and cannot be legislated or regulated out of existence. So, if greed can’t be eliminated, the next alternative is to improve the accounting rules and the auditing practices. The most visible result of this effort is the Sarbanes-Oxley Act passed by Congress in 2002. Provisions of Sarbanes-Oxley include requirements that all large U.S. companies develop a code of executive ethics and that the head of each company personally vouch for the reliability of the company’s financial reports. In addition to Sarbanes-
Oxley, the detailed accounting rules governing U.S. companies have been actively reexamined in order to close loopholes that the accounting scandals revealed.
The hope in all of this is that the accounting problems will be solved and that the U.S. business community can live happily ever after. This is wishful thinking. Sarbanes-Oxley and the individual efforts of good businesspeople and accountants around the country have made things better. But let’s not kid ourselves; there will be more accounting scandals. The underlying problem of greedy managers still exists, and these managers will find ways to circumvent and exploit any set of accounting rules.
So, is there no hope? Of course there is hope, if we remember that happily ever after doesn’t happen through a single event, a single congressional act, or a one-time overhaul of the accounting rules. As the economic environment evolves, creative accountants cook up new ways to deceive, and a new generation of investors forgets the expensive lessons of the past. Accordingly, Congress, the regulators, and the accounting profession have to actively seek out and solve new problems as they arise.
We make a mistake by getting discouraged when a past answer proves unable to satisfy all future questions. Life is about learning from the past and relishing the opportunity to generate new answers to new questions as they arise. Ultimately, the reliability of our financial reports will be enhanced by our experiences with Enron, WorldCom, Arthur Andersen, and the rest—not so much by the one-time corrections made in direct response to the scandals, but more through continuing application of the lessons learned from the scandals.
Following the Examples of Joseph Smith and Lehi
As a fourteen-year-old boy in 1820, Joseph Smith had what he thought was a fairly straightforward question to ask the Lord. He wanted to know which religion he should join. I believe Joseph wanted to join a church and live happily ever after. Instead, he was told that he “must join none of them” (Joseph Smith—History 1:19). Not only did Joseph not get a final resolution to the “which church is right” question, but now he had the added challenge of ridicule because he had a vision.
Three years later, Joseph again went to the Lord with a straightforward request, as follows: “After I had retired to my bed for the night, I betook myself to prayer and supplication to Almighty God for forgiveness of all my sins and follies, and also for a manifestation to me, that I might know of my state and standing before him” (Joseph Smith—History 1:29). Joseph simply wanted to know where he stood with the Lord, and he certainly wasn’t expecting a visit from Moroni to tell him of “a book deposited, written upon gold plates” (Joseph Smith—History 1:34).
The life of Joseph Smith seems to be a series of these unforeseeable developments, each of which Joseph had to accept on faith without fully understanding where it would lead—from New York to Ohio to Missouri to Illinois to martyrdom. And when Joseph cried out to the Lord to better understand his rocky path, he was told: “All these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good. . . . Thy days are known, and thy years shall not be numbered less; therefore, fear not what man can do, for God shall be with you forever and ever” (Doctrine and Covenants 122:7–9).
What can we learn from Joseph’s experiences? Yes, he did live happily ever after, but he had to wrestle with scoffers, false brethren, wickedness, laziness, and disbelief until his death. How foolish and tragic it would have been if Joseph gave up in discouragement in 1825 because his heavenly manifestations had not removed all of his challenges.
The prophet Lehi also exemplified great faith in the face of many unexpected events in his life. He lived in a time of great wickedness in the city of Jerusalem. People mocked God, polluted churches, and persecuted prophets. Lehi prayed for his people—his family, his friends, and all of the people of Jerusalem (1 Nephi 1:5). I’m sure he hoped the Lord would direct him to “fix” this problem, once and for all. He was willing to do whatever the Lord directed. Well, what the Lord directed did not turn out to be a one-time “fix,” but instead resulted in a lifetime of preaching, teaching, and traveling.
Years later, in his new home in the promised land, across the sea thousands of miles from Jerusalem, Lehi must have looked back and smiled at the completely unexpected way in which that initial prayer was answered: he was called to preach to a murderously wicked people in Jerusalem, then instructed to flee into the wilderness with his family, then to travel across the most barren section of the Saudi Arabian peninsula being led by a mysterious compass, and then to trust the fate of his family to an ocean voyage on a boat built by a first-time shipbuilder named Nephi.
Yes, Lehi did live happily ever after. However, remember that this was not without relentless effort. Lehi and his party were faced with a lack of food, and this problem wasn’t solved once and for all when Nephi made his new bow and arrows. Lehi sorrowed because of the rebelliousness of Laman and Lemuel, and he had to watch them repent and then rebel again and again, but he continued preaching to his wayward sons right to the end.
Lehi knew that there is no end to the works of the Lord (Moses 1:38), and so there is no end to the work of His servants. Lehi pressed forward with faith in the answer to the prayer he offered in 1 Nephi 1:14: “Great and marvelous are thy works, O Lord God Almighty. . . . And, because thou are merciful, thou wilt not suffer those who come unto thee that they shall perish!” Lehi did come unto the Lord, and because he continued to come to the Lord throughout his life, in spite of unforeseen hardship and discouragement, he lived happily ever after.
Now, think of some of those happily ever after moments in our lives: temple marriage, the arrival of a child, the acceptance of a mission call, or the baptism of a child or a new convert.
Rearing a child is hard. Serving as a full-time missionary is hard. Being married and learning to set aside your selfishness for the good of the eternal partnership is hard.
We sometimes make these precious activities harder by unreasonably believing that we are failures unless every day of our lives is an error-free, fun-filled extravaganza leading us on a straight course, without any dips or turbulence, directly to the celestial kingdom. Sometimes there are dips. Sometimes there is a substantial amount of turbulence. Dips and turbulence are normal and are not signs of personal character weakness.
Being Aware of Others’ Challenges:
Looking Beyond Our Own Circumstances
Just as it is important for us to remember that happily ever after is an ongoing process for us, we should also remember that it is an ongoing process for everyone we meet. This is hard to remember because people don’t go out of their way to show us the storms and struggles in their lives. Our optimism and faith about our ability to deal with our own challenges sometimes makes us overly philosophical about the challenges faced by others.
To illustrate this point, I will tell you a sailing story. My wife’s brother, Ray, had a twenty-foot sailboat that he kept on Lake Ontario in upstate New York. He consented to my accompanying him on a cruise from Braddock’s Bay, a little west of Rochester, to Sodus Bay, about thirty miles east of Rochester. We set out on a beautiful, sunny summer morning. The winds were light, and to my inexperienced eye it looked like a perfect day for sailing. However, because the winds had been steady out of the west for several days, the surface of the lake was undulating in long, lazy swells.
After a couple of hours of rhythmically going up and down, I was seasick and growing increasingly apathetic about the cruise. Ray saw the signs of distress and wisely put me to work manning the rudder. I had to be alert because the long swells had a tendency to push the back of the boat, stern, to the right, or starboard. This would put us crossways to the swells, slowing our progress and, in my novice opinion, threatening to tip us over.
I gallantly manned my post at the rudder until, to my mild surprise, the rudder came loose from its attachment points on the stern of the boat. I pulled the wooden rudder up into the boat and intelligently called to Ray: “Is this supposed to come loose like this?” He scrambled back to me, grabbed the rudder, and leaned out over the stern to try to reattach the thing. His haste stemmed from the fact that we were only about three hundred yards from shore, and those gentle, lazy swells were now driving the rudderless sailboat inexorably toward the rocks.
I remember those anxious moments very well. There wasn’t anything I could do to help, so I had plenty of time to look around and think. Looming large in my thoughts was the fact that I didn’t know how to swim. I looked around at the lake and the shore. I was struck by what a beautiful day it was. We were close enough to the shore that I could see people pulled off the road having picnics. They were probably looking out at us with envy, saying, “Look at those two guys out on that sailboat. What a beautiful day for a sail.” Meanwhile, a short distance away, we were on the boat fighting for our lives.
Well, we lived. Ray fixed the rudder, and we made it to Sodus Bay. But we had been in real danger when that rudder came loose. And the fact that other people were happily picnicking just three hundred yards away, admiring our sailboat, didn’t lessen our danger at all. If your life is currently in the picnic phase and all things are going well, don’t assume that all is well in those pretty sailboats surrounding you. The sun may be shining, but the people in those boats could still be in extreme danger. And they may not feel comfortable coming out on deck and shouting for help. Sometimes our personal optimism causes us to overlook the struggles going on in the lives of people around us.
To conclude, allow me to review my three main points.
1) Happily ever after does not happen without continuing effort. For example, the financial reporting system in the United States has been improved because of the recent accounting scandals, but regulators, accountants, and the investing public must be forever watchful to counteract the development of new techniques for fraud and accounting deception.
2) We should not get discouraged when our careful plans and solutions don’t always lead to calm, clear sailing. Joseph Smith, Lehi, and even the Stice family have learned that happily ever after means pressing forward with faith, not discouragement, while experiencing life’s unforeseeable twists and turns.
3) Don’t assume that the lives of those around you are cloudless and sunny just because the sun is shining where you are. Look up from your own peaceful picnic and be sensitive to the Spirit to tell you which of those nearby sailboats could really use some help.
May we all live happily ever after is my prayer.
Speech by Earl Kay Stice
Photography by Bradley H. Slade
About the Speaker
Earl Kay Stice is the Marriott School PricewaterhouseCoopers Professor of Accounting. He is the author of three accounting textbooks and has taught at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, Rice University, the University of Arizona, and Cornell University. He received his BS and MAcc from BYU and his MS and PhD from Cornell University.
This article is adapted from Stice’s BYU Devotional address, 27 May 2003.