Science, Public Goods, and the Monetization of Commodities

Though I haven’t read Philip Mirowski’s new book yet (Science-Mart: Privatizing American Science. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), a statement in the cover blurb given at Amazon.com got me thinking. I can’t help but wonder if there is another way of interpreting neoliberal ideology’s “radically different view of knowledge and discovery: [that] the fruits of scientific investigation are not a public good that should be freely available to all, but are commodities that could be monetized”?

Corporations and governments are not the only ones investing in research and new product development, and they are not the only ones who could benefit from the monetization of the fruits of scientific investigation. Individuals make these investments as well, and despite ostensible rights to private ownership, no individuals anywhere have access to universally comparable, uniformly expressed, and scientifically valid information on the quantity or quality of the literacy, health, community, or natural capital that is rightfully theirs. They accordingly also then do not have any form of demonstrable legal title to these properties. In the same way that corporations have successfully advanced their economic interests by seeing that patent and intellectual property laws were greatly strengthened, so, too, ought individuals and communities advance their economic interests by, first, expanding the scope of weights and measures standards to include intangible assets, and second, by strengthening laws related to the ownership of privately held stocks of living capital.

The nationalist and corporatist socialization of research will continue only as long as social capital, human capital, and natural capital are not represented in the universally uniform common currencies and transparent media that could be provided by an intangible assets metric system. When these forms of capital are brought to economic life in fungible measures akin to barrels, bushels, or kilowatts, then they will be monetized commodities in the full capitalist sense of the term, ownable and purchasable products with recognizable standard definitions, uniform quantitative volumes, and discernable variations in quality. Then, and only then, will individuals gain economic control over their most important assets. Then, and only then, will we obtain the information we need to transform education, health care, social services, and human and natural resource management into industries in which quality is appropriately rewarded. Then, and only then, will we have the means for measuring genuine progress and authentic wealth in ways that correct the insufficiencies of the GNP/GDP indexes.

The creation of efficiently functioning markets for all forms of capital is an economic, political, and moral necessity (see Ekins, 1992 and others). We say we manage what we measure, but very little effort has been put into measuring (with scientific validity and precision in universally uniform and accessible aggregate terms) 90% of the capital resources under management: human abilities, motivations, and health; social commitment, loyalty, and trust; and nature’s air and water purification and ecosystem services (see Hawken, Lovins, & Lovins, 1999, among others). All human suffering, sociopolitical discontent, and environmental degradation are rooted in the same common cause: waste (see Hawken, et al., 1999). To apply lean thinking to removing the wasteful destruction of our most valuable resources, we must measure these resources in ways that allow us to coordinate and align our decisions and behaviors virtually, at a distance, with no need for communicating and negotiating the local particulars of the hows and whys of our individual situations. For more information on these ideas, search “living capital metrics” and see works like the following:

Ekins, P. (1992). A four-capital model of wealth creation. In P. Ekins & M. Max-Neef (Eds.), Real-life economics: Understanding wealth creation (pp. 147-15). London: Routledge.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2009). Invariance and traceability for measures of human, social, and natural capital: Theory and application. Measurement, 42(9), 1278-1287.

Hawken, P., Lovins, A., & Lovins, H. L. (1999). Natural capitalism: Creating the next industrial revolution. New York: Little, Brown, and Co.

Latour, B. (1987). Science in action: How to follow scientists and engineers through society. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the social: An introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. (Clarendon Lectures in Management Studies). Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Miller, P., & O’Leary, T. (2007). Mediating instruments and making markets: Capital budgeting, science and the economy. Accounting, Organizations, and Society, 32(7-8), 701-34.

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LivingCapitalMetrics Blog by William P. Fisher, Jr., Ph.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
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