A Proposal to Managing Partners

The following article was originally published in October 1997, in the Total Quality Client Service Newsletter, published by Harcourt Brace.

Remember, time is money

–Benjamin Franklin: Advice to a Young Tradesman, 1748

Dear Colleagues,

When we see the advocates of alternative pricing boldly disseminating their doctrine, and maintaining that the right to value price is included in the basic human freedoms, we may quite properly feel serious concern about the fate of our profession; for what use will the American consumer put their hands and their minds when they live under a system of alternative pricing?

The professional organizations that you have honored with your confidence have been obliged to concern themselves with so grave a situation––that is, the death of hourly billing––and have sought in their wisdom to discover a means of protection that might be substituted for the present one, which seems endangered.

I propose that you forbid all of your firm’s associates to use their right hands.

Fellow colleagues, do not do me the injustice of thinking that I have lightly adopted a measure that at first sight may seem bizarre. Deep study of the hourly billing system has revealed to us this syllogism, upon which the whole of it is based:

  • Time is money.
  • The more hours one works, the richer one is.
  • The more difficulties one has to overcome, the more hours one works.
  • Ergo, the more difficulties one has to overcome, the richer one is.

What, in fact, is hourly billing, if not an ingenious application of this line of reasoning.  What, you may ask, is the purpose of forbidding the use of the right hand? As for the efficacy of the measure, it is incontestable. It is difficult, much more difficult than people think, to do with the left hand what one is accustomed to doing with the right. You will be convinced of this if you will deign to put my system to the test in performing some act that is familiar to you, such as, for instance, the dialing of the telephone. We can, therefore, flatter ourselves on opening to CPAs everywhere an unlimited number of job––and billing––opportunities.

Once the associates in every branch of your firm are restricted to the use of their left hands alone, imagine the immense number of billable hours that will be needed to meet the present demand for your firm’s services! So prodigious a demand for billable hours cannot fail to bring about a considerable rise in firm profits, and pauperism will disappear from the firm as if by magic.
As soon as all firms adopt my proposal, as soon as all right hands are either cut off or tied down, things will change. Twenty times, thirty times as many assistants, staff, managers and partners will not suffice to meet the national demand for CPAs. Yes, we may picture a touching scene of prosperity in the CPA profession. Such bustling about! Such activity! Such a rise in all billable hours!

Each tax return will busy a hundred fingers instead of ten. No young CPA will any longer be idle, and we have no need to indicate to your perspicacity the moral consequences of this great revolution. Not only will more young CPAs be employed, but each of them will earn more, for all of them together will be unable to satisfy the demand; and if competition reappears (such as from American Express Tax and Business Services), it will not be a threat because we, alone, will have the competitive advantage of, at least, twice the number of billable hours per professional.

You see, dear colleagues, my proposal is not only in accord with the economic tradition of hourly billing, but is essentially moral and democratic as well. In order to appreciate its consequences, let us assume that is has been put into effect, and, transporting ourselves in imagination into the future, let us imagine that the system has been in operation for twenty years. Nonbillable hours have been banished from all CPA firms; steady billable hours have brought affluence, harmony, contentment, and morality to every CPA firm; low realization rates, write-downs and low profits per partner are things of the past.

The left hand being very clumsy to work with, jobs are superabundant, and the pay is above-market. Everything has been organized on this basis; consequently, CPA firms are thronged with willing associates. Is it not true that if at such a time utopian dreamers were suddenly to appear, demanding freedom for the right hand, they would throw the profession into a panic? Is it not true that this supposed reform would upset everyone’s life? Hence, my system must be good, since it cannot be destroyed without causing suffering.

And yet I have a gloomy foreboding that one day there will be formed a CPA firm that may allow its associates to use their right hands. I have the feeling that we can already hear the advocates of freedom for the right hand. Therefore, it will not be inappropriate for the proponents of left-hand CPAs to intermingle a few threats, among their fine theories––such as time is money––to these radical both-hand CPA advocates.

“What! You wish to substitute the billable hours of the right hand for that of the left, and thus force down, if not entirely abolish, time, the sole and most important road to success and wealth? And this at a time when increased competition is already imposing painful sacrifices upon CPAs, causing them to worry about their futures, and making them more readily disposed to listen to bad advice and to abandon the wise course of conduct to which they have hitherto adhered!”

I am confident that, armed with such cogent reasoning, if it comes to a battle, the left hand will emerge the victor. If that fails, however, we’ll need appropriate regulations, to be enforced by the rule of law––promulgated by the various state’s board of accountancy––and backed up with severely harsh punishments meted out to those CPAs who refuse to use only their left hands.

Nevertheless, I do not intend to conceal from my fellow colleagues that there is one respect in which my project is vulnerable. We may be told that in twenty years all left hands will be as skillful as right hands are now, and it will then no longer be possible to count on left-handedness to increase the number of billable hours, jobs, income and profits, in CPA firms across the country.

My reply to this is that, according to learned doctors, the left side of the human body has a natural weakness that is completely reassuring for the future of CPA’s prosperity. If, then, fellow colleagues, you consent to abide by this proposal, a great principal will be established: All wealth stems from the intensity of labor.

It will be easy for us to extend and vary its applications. We shall ordain, for example, that it shall no longer be permissible to work except with the foot. Men and women have even been know to write without using either hands or feet. You see, fellow colleagues, that we shall not be lacking in means of increasing the number of billable hours in your firms. As a last resort, we should take recourse to the limitless possibilities of amputation.

Finally, fellow colleagues, if this proposal were not intended for publication, I should call your attention to the great influence that all measures of the kind I am proposing to you are likely to confer upon men and women in positions of power. But this is a matter that I prefer to reserve for a private audience.

Author’s Note Adopted from Economic Sophisms, by Frederic Bastiat (1801-1850),  Second Series, Chapter 16, “The Right Hand and the Left,” (New York: The Foundation for Economic Education, Inc., 1996).

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