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The Accounting System
History Overview: The Coin Age

April 18, 2013
by William P. Meyers

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Previous: The Accounting System Introduction

Once upon a time there was no Accounting System except Nature itself.

We do not know exactly when in history humans began counting in earnest. We know that some animals have some ability to count, for instance to notice when a child has gone missing. We also know that most animals can see the difference between "more" and "less."

By the time of the early urban civilizations we know about (Egypt, Palestine and Mesopotamia, and China for example) counting and keeping records of counts was a well-established set of skills. Rulers wanted to know how many cows were in their herds, how many soldiers were available for battle, and whether subordinates had contributed their fair share of grain to the royal stores. Merchants needed to track their inventories, as did anyone who farmed on a large scale. This keeping of records of counts of things is the earliest manifestation of The Accounting System.

The ledger, or written record of counts, thus preceded what we now call cash and coin. Coin is generally treated as having inherent value, and for that reason tended over the millennia to standardize on three metals: gold, silver, and copper. Coin stands as a way station between bartering (directly trading one kind of good or service for another) and systemic accounting through modern record keeping.

People counted coins, and thus accounting and bookkeeping seemed to be the art of coin counting. This was the case with the improved accounting systems of early Renaissance Italy. This led to misconceptions, both popular and among the professional accountants, which persist to this day.

Counting things other than coin did not go away, but accountants and ordinary people came to start measuring all things by their value in coin. To keep his books straight, a farmer might count his cows, multiply by a set value per cow, and account for the total as an asset in units of currency.

During the Coin Age (roughly 1400 to 1900) other aspects of the accounting system evolved and expanded. People, from peasants to kings, still needed to count their things. The most important thing to count was land, but that was somewhat more complicated than counting cows or shillings. It required a title system (note the term likely evolved from titles such as duke, lord, sir, and mister) and surveys, and a legal system as well. People who lived on land but had no legal title to it lost it over the centuries. This was particularly obvious in the Americas, where the natives were dispossessed of almost all of their tribal land. Today the land title system extends to every part of the world except the Antarctic.

The human identity system also expanded during the Coin Age. We know that ancient kings took censuses of their subjects. Various forms of identity papers evolved, particularly in Europe. Passports and visas were required for travel. Birth certificates evolved from baptismal records into a pervasive system that came to account for most births. Place of birth was attached to nationality, and the various national identity systems, including Social Security numbers, drivers licenses, and death certificates in the United States, evolved into a system that accounts for each individual human living and dead.

The rapid rise of industrialism, including the rise of industrial methods of agriculture, and parallel expansion of the global human population, put strains on the economic systems of the Coin Age.

In a throwback to the Platonic (or medieval Scholastic) system of intellectual architectures that don't reflect reality, Gold was declared by many people to be the only "real" money. This proved to be impractical to the point of economic disaster.  At times the supply of gold did not grow as fast as the economy, leading to recessions and depressions. At other times the supply of gold from new discoveries grew rapidly, leading to inflation (it took increasing amounts of gold to buy other goods like cows, houses, and services).

Next: Banks, Credit, and Gold Cycles

[The Accounting System, Your Fate is in the Cloud, is a work in progress by William P. Meyers, ©2013]

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