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Hire Purpose: Jacob Soll

Count Him In

By Pamela J. Johnson
May 7, 2013

Jacob Soll, professor of history who arrived Summer of 2012, has a joint appointment with the USC Leventhal School of Accounting. A MacArthur fellow in 2011 and Guggenheim fellow from 2009 to 2010, Soll was recruited from Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. Illustration by Bill Sanderson.

Jacob Soll, professor of history who arrived Summer of 2012, has a joint appointment with the USC Leventhal School of Accounting. A MacArthur fellow in 2011 and Guggenheim fellow from 2009 to 2010, Soll was recruited from Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. Illustration by Bill Sanderson.

You’re at a dinner party and the vichyssoise is a mere memory, the smoked velouté of partridge is gone and you’re deep into the butterscotch budino. What’s the one subject that has not been broached? Accounting.

“Accounting freaks people out,” Soll said. “It makes them nervous. It reminds you of getting audited, of facing your books.”

And facing your books has proven to be of upmost importance considering the recent brink of economic collapse. The understanding of accounting, or lack thereof, is responsible for our nation’s financial woes, Soll said.

“Here we have a country with a disastrous mortgage bubble we are not out of yet. Household debt is enormous, and debates are carried out in accounting numbers that no one understands and couldn’t verify if they wanted to.”

Soll is blazing the trail by combining the history of politics and accounting — from a leather pouch filled with money to a full-fledged financial plan by the 19th century, and what this means today.

Studying at the French National Library, Soll learned that 17th-century officials handled state functions, from the royal household to new public buildings, with serious accounting.

Jean-Baptiste Colbert, who served as France’s minister of finances from 1661 to 1683 under King Louis XIV, was an accountant first and foremost. Colbert used libraries, accounting, classical scholarship and national science to create an information network and build a modern state. 

“First of all: Wow,” Soll said. “There, in the archives, this is all accounting talk. There is nothing in history books about this. Who would ever explain the great history of industrialization, the West and modern government through accounting?”

Soll decided he would be the first.