Archive for September, 2011

Reimagining Capitalism Again, Part III: Reflections on Greider’s “Bold Ideas” in The Nation

September 10, 2011

And so, The Nation’s “Bold Ideas for a New Economy” is disappointing for not doing more to start from the beginning identified by its own writer, William Greider. The soul of capitalism needs to be celebrated and nourished, if we are to make our economy “less destructive and domineering,” and “more focused on what people really need for fulfilling lives.” The only real alternative to celebrating and nourishing the soul of capitalism is to kill it, in the manner of the Soviet Union’s failed experiments in socialism and communism.

The article speaks the truth, though, when it says there is no point in trying to persuade the powers that be to make the needed changes. Republicans see the market as it exists as a one-size-fits-all economic panacea, when all it can accomplish in its current incomplete state is the continuing externalization of anything and everything important about human, social, and environmental decency. For their part, Democrats do indeed “insist that regulation will somehow fix whatever is broken,” in an ever-expanding socialistic micromanagement of every possible exception to the rules that emerges.

To date, the president’s efforts at a nonpartisan third way amount only to vacillations between these opposing poles. The leadership that is needed, however, is something else altogether. Yes, as The Nation article says, capitalism needs to be made to serve the interests of society, and this will require deep structural change, not just new policies. But none of the contributors of the “bold ideas” presented propose deep structural changes of a kind that actually gets at the soul of capitalism. All of the suggestions are ultimately just new policies tweaking superficial aspects of the economy in mechanical, static, and very limited ways.

The article calls for “Democratizing reforms that will compel business and finance to share decision-making and distribute rewards more fairly.” It says the vision has different names but “the essence is a fundamental redistribution of power and money.” But corporate distortions of liability law, the introduction of boardroom watchdogs, and a tax on financial speculation do not by any stretch of the imagination address the root causes of social and environmental irresponsibility in business. They “sound like obscure technical fixes” because that’s what they are. The same thing goes for low-cost lending from public banks, the double or triple bottom lines of Benefit Corporations, new anti-trust laws, calls for “open information” policies, added personal stakes for big-time CEOs, employee ownership plans, the elimination of tax subsidies for, new standards for sound investing, new measures of GDP, and government guarantees of full employment.

All of these proposals sound like what ought to be the effects and outcomes of efforts addressing the root causes of capitalisms’ shortcomings. Instead, they are band aids applied to scratched fingers and arms when multiple by-pass surgery is called for. That is, what we need is to understand how to bring the spirit of capitalism to life in the new domains of human, social, and environmental interests, but what we’re getting are nothing but more of the same piecemeal ways of moving around the deck chairs on the Titanic.

There is some truth in the assertion that what really needs reinventing is our moral and spiritual imagination. As someone (Einstein or Edison?) is supposed to have put it, originality is simply a matter of having a source for an analogy no one else has considered. Ironically, the best model is often the one most taken for granted and nearest to hand. Such is the case with the two-sided scientific and economic effects of standardized units of measurement. The fundamental moral aspect here is nothing other than the Golden Rule, independently derived and offered in cultures throughout history, globally. Individualized social measurement is nothing if not a matter of determining whether others are being treated in the way you yourself would want to be treated.

And so, yes, to stress the major point of agreement with The Nation, “the new politics does not start in Washington.” Historically, at their best, governments work to keep pace with the social and technical innovations introduced by their peoples. Margaret Mead said it well a long time ago when she asserted that small groups of committed citizens are the only sources of real social change.

Not to be just one of many “advocates with bold imaginations” who wind up marginalized by the constraints of status quo politics, I claim my personal role in imagining a new economic future by tapping as deeply as I can into the positive, pre-existing structures needed for a transition into a new democratic capitalism. We learn through what we already know. Standards are well established as essential to commerce and innovation, but 90% of the capital under management in our economy—the human, social, and natural capital—lacks the standards needed for optimal market efficiency and effectiveness. An intangible assets metric system will be a vitally important way in which we extend what is right and good in the world today into new domains.

To conclude, what sets this proposal apart from those offered by The Nation and its readers hinges on our common agreement that “the most threatening challenge to capitalism is arguably the finite carrying capacity of the natural world.” The bold ideas proposed by The Nation’s readers respond to this challenge in ways that share an important feature in common: people have to understand the message and act on it. That fact dooms all of these ideas from the start. If we have to articulate and communicate a message that people then have to act on, we remain a part of the problem and not part of the solution.

As I argue in my “The Problem is the Problem” blog post of some months ago, this way of defining problems is itself the problem. That is, we can no longer think of ourselves as separate from the challenges we face. If we think we are not all implicated through and through as participants in the construction and maintenance of the problem, then we have not understood it. The bold ideas offered to date are all responses to the state of a broken system that seek to reform one or another element in the system when what we need is a whole new system.

What we need is a system that so fully embodies nature’s own ecological wisdom that the medium becomes the message. When the ground rules for economic success are put in place such that it is impossible to earn a profit without increasing stocks of human, social, and natural capital, there will be no need to spell out the details of a microregulatory structure of controlling new anti-trust laws, “open information” policies, personal stakes for big-time CEOs, employee ownership plans, the elimination of tax subsidies, etc. What we need is precisely what Greider reported from Innovest in his book: reliable, high quality information that makes human, social, and environmental issues matter financially. Situated in a context like that described by Bernstein in his 2004 The Birth of Plenty, with the relevant property rights, rule of law, scientific rationality, capital markets, and communications networks in place, it will be impossible to stop a new economic expansion of historic proportions.

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Reimagining Capitalism Again, Part II: Scientific Credibility in Improving Information Quality

September 10, 2011

The previous posting here concluded with two questions provoked by a close consideration of a key passage in William Greider’s 2003 book, The Soul of Capitalism. First, how do we create the high quality, solid information markets need to punish and reward relative to ethical and sustainable human, social, and environmental values? Second, what can we learn from the way we created that kind of information for property and manufactured capital? There are good answers to these questions, answers that point in productive directions in need of wide exploration and analysis.

The short answer to both questions is that better, more scientifically rigorous measurement at the local level needs to be implemented in a context of traceability to universally uniform standards. To think global and act local simultaneously, we need an efficient and transparent way of seeing where we stand in the world relative to everyone else. Having measures expressed in comparable and meaningful units is an important part of how we think global while acting local.

So, for markets to punish and reward businesses in ways able to build human, social, and environmental value, we need to be able to price that value, to track returns on investments in it, and to own shares of it. To do that, we need a new intangible assets metric system that functions in a manner analogous to the existing metric system and other weights and measures standards. In the same way these standards guarantee high quality information on volume, weight, thermal units, and volts in grocery stores and construction sites, we need a new set of standards for human abilities, performances, and health; for social trust, commitment, and loyalty; and for the environment’s air and water processing services, fisheries, gene pools, etc.

Each industry needs an instrumentarium of tools and metrics that mediate relationships universally within its entire sphere of production and/or service. The obvious and immediate reaction to this proposal will likely be that this is impossible, that it would have been done by now if it was possible, and that anyone who proposes something like this is simply unrealistic, perhaps dangerously so. So, here we have another reason to add to those given in the June 8, 2011 issue of The Nation ( as to why bold ideas for a new economy cannot gain any traction in today’s political discourse.

So what basis in scientific authority might be found for this audacious goal of an intangible assets metric system? This blog’s postings offer multiple varieties of evidence and argument in this regard, so I’ll stick to more recent developments, namely, last week’s meeting of the International Measurement Confederation (IMEKO) in Jena, Germany. Membership in IMEKO is dominated by physicists, engineers, chemists, and clinical laboratorians who work in private industry, academia, and government weights and measures standards institutes.

Several IMEKO members past and present are involved with one or more of the seven or eight major international standards organizations responsible for maintaining and improving the metric system (the Systeme Internationale des Unites). Two initiatives undertaken by IMEKO and these standards organizations take up the matter at issue here concerning the audacious goal of standard units for human, social, and natural capital.

First, the recently released third edition of the International Vocabulary of Measurement (VIM, 2008) expands the range of the concepts and terms included to encompass measurement in the human and social sciences. This first effort was not well informed as to the nature of widely realized state of the art developments in measurement in education, health care, and the social sciences. What is important is that an invitation to further dialogue has been extended from the natural to the social sciences.

That invitation was unintentionally accepted and a second initiative advanced just as the new edition of the VIM was being released, in 2008. Members of three IMEKO technical committees (TC 1-7-13; those on Measurement Science, Metrology Education, and Health Care) cultivate a special interest in ideas on the human and social value of measurement. At their 2008 meeting in Annecy, France, I presented a paper (later published in revised form as Fisher, 2009) illustrating how, over the previous 50 years and more, the theory and practice of measurement in the social sciences had developed in ways capable of supporting convenient and useful universally uniform units for human, social, and natural capital.

The same argument was then advanced by my fellow University of Chicago alum, Nikolaus Bezruczko, at the 2009 IMEKO World Congress in Lisbon. Bezruczko and I both spoke at the 2010 TC 1-7-13 meeting in London, and last week our papers were joined by presentations from six of our colleagues at the 2011 IMEKO TC 1-7-13 meeting in Jena, Germany. Another fellow U Chicagoan, Mark Wilson, a long time professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Berkeley, gave an invited address contrasting four basic approaches to measurement in psychometrics, and emphasizing the value of methods that integrate substantive meaning with mathematical rigor.

Examples from education, health care, and business were then elucidated at this year’s meeting in Jena by myself, Bezruczko, Stefan Cano (University of Plymouth, England), Carl Granger (SUNY, Buffalo; paper presented by Bezruczko, a co-author), Thomas Salzberger (University of Vienna, Austria), Jack Stenner (MetaMetrics, Inc., Durham, NC, USA), and Gordon Cooper (University of Western Australia, Crawley, WA, Australia; paper presented by Fisher, a co-author).

The contrast between these presentations and those made by the existing IMEKO membership hinges on two primary differences in focus. The physicists and engineers take it for granted that all instrument calibration involves traceability to metrological reference standards. Dealing as they are with existing standards and physical or chemical materials that usually possess deterministically structured properties, issues of how to construct linear measures from ordinal observations never come up.

Conversely, the social scientists and psychometricians take it for granted that all instrument calibration involves evaluations of the capacity of ordinal observations to support the construction of linear measures. Dealing as they are with data from tests, surveys, and rating scale assessments, issues of how to relate a given instrument’s unit to a reference standard never come up.

Thus there is significant potential for mutually instructive dialogue between natural and social scientists in this context. Many areas of investigation in the natural sciences have benefited from the introduction of probabilistic concepts in recent decades, but there are perhaps important unexplored opportunities for the application of probabilistic measurement, as opposed to statistical, models. By taking advantage of probabilistic models’ special features, measurement in education and health care has begun to realize the benefit of broad generalizations of comparable units across grades, schools, tests, and curricula.

Though the focus of my interest here is in the capacity of better measurement to improve the efficiency of human, social, and natural capital markets, it may turn out that as many or more benefits will accrue in the natural sciences’ side of the conversation as in the social sciences’ side. The important thing for the time being is that the dialogue is started. New and irreversible mutual understandings between natural and social scientists have already been put on the record. It may happen that the introduction of a new supply of improved human, social, and natural capital metrics will help articulate the largely, as yet, unstated but nonetheless urgent demand for them.

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

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Reimagining Capitalism Again, Part I: Reflections on Greider’s Soul of Capitalism

September 10, 2011

In his 2003 book, The Soul of Capitalism, William Greider wrote, “If capitalism were someday found to have a soul, it would probably be located in the mystic qualities of capital itself” (p. 94). The recurring theme in the book is that the resolution of capitalism’s deep conflicts must grow out as organic changes from the roots of capitalism itself.

In the book, Greider quotes Innovest’s Michael Kiernan as suggesting that the goal has to be re-engineering the DNA of Wall Street (p. 119). He says the key to doing this is good reliable information that has heretofore been unavailable but which will make social and environmental issues matter financially. The underlying problems of exactly what solid, high quality information looks like, where it comes from, and how it is created are not stated or examined, but the point, as Kiernan says, is that “the markets are pretty good at punishing and rewarding.” The objective is to use “the financial markets as an engine of reform and positive change rather than destruction.”

This objective is, of course, the focus of multiple postings in this blog (see especially this one and this one). From my point of view, capitalism indeed does have a soul and it is actually located in the qualities of capital itself. Think about it: if a soul is a spirit of something that exists independent of its physical manifestation, then the soul of capitalism is the fungibility of capital. Now, this fungibility is complex and ambiguous. It takes its strength and practical value from the way market exchange are represented in terms of currencies, monetary units that, within some limits, provide an objective basis of comparison useful for rewarding those capable of matching supply with demand.

But the fungibility of capital can also be dangerously misconceived when the rich complexity and diversity of human capital is unjustifiably reduced to labor, when the irreplaceable value of natural capital is unjustifiably reduced to land, and when the trust, loyalty, and commitment of social capital is completely ignored in financial accounting and economic models. As I’ve previously said in this blog, the concept of human capital is inherently immoral so far as it reduces real human beings to interchangeable parts in an economic machine.

So how could it ever be possible to justify any reduction of human, social, and natural value to a mere number? Isn’t this the ultimate in the despicable inhumanity of economic logic, corporate decision making, and, ultimately, the justification of greed? Many among us who profess liberal and progressive perspectives seem to have an automatic and reactionary prejudice of this kind. This makes these well-intentioned souls as much a part of the problem as those among us with sometimes just as well-intentioned perspectives that accept such reductionism as the price of entry into the game.

There is another way. Human, social, and natural value can be measured and made manageable in ways that do not necessitate totalizing reduction to a mere number. The problem is not reduction itself, but unjustified, totalizing reduction. Referring to all people as “man” or “men” is an unjustified reduction dangerous in the way it focuses attention only on males. The tendency to think and act in ways privileging males over females that is fostered by this sense of “man” shortchanges us all, and has happily been largely eliminated from discourse.

Making language more inclusive does not, however, mean that words lose the singular specificity they need to be able to refer to things in the world. Any given word represents an infinite population of possible members of a class of things, actions, and forms of life. Any simple sentence combining words into a coherent utterance then multiplies infinities upon infinities. Discourse inherently reduces multiplicities into texts of limited lengths.

Like any tool, reduction has its uses. Also like any tool, problems arise when the tool is allowed to occupy some hidden and unexamined blind spot from which it can dominate and control the way we think about everything. Critical thinking is most difficult in those instances in which the tools of thinking themselves need to be critically evaluated. To reject reduction uncritically as inherently unjustified is to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Indeed, it is impossible to formulate a statement of the rejection without simultaneously enacting exactly what is supposed to be rejected.

We have numerous ready-to-hand examples of how all reduction has been unjustifiably reduced to one homogenized evil. But one of the results of experiments in communal living in the 1960s and 1970s, as well as of the fall of the Soviet Union, was the realization that the centralized command and control of collectively owned community property cannot compete with the creativity engendered when individuals hold legal title to the fruits of their labors. If individuals cannot own the results of the investments they make, no one makes any investments.

In other words, if everything is owned collectively and is never reduced to individually possessed shares that can be creatively invested for profitable returns, then the system is structured so as to punish innovation and reward doing as little as possible. But there’s another way of thinking about the relation of the collective to the individual. The living soul of capitalism shows itself in the way high quality information makes it possible for markets to efficiently coordinate and align individual producers’ and consumers’ collective behaviors and decisions. What would happen if we could do that for human, social, and natural capital markets? What if “social capitalism” is more than an empty metaphor? What if capital institutions can be configured so that individual profit really does become the driver of socially responsible, sustainable economics?

And here we arrive at the crux of the problem. How do we create the high quality, solid information markets need to punish and reward relative to ethical and sustainable human, social, and environmental values? Well, what can we learn from the way we created that kind of information for property and manufactured capital? These are the questions taken up and explored in the postings in this blog, and in my scientific research publications and meeting presentations. In the near future, I’ll push my reflection on these questions further, and will explore some other possible answers to the questions offered by Greider and his readers in a recent issue of The Nation.

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