Knowledge and skills as the currency of 21st-century economies

In his March 11, 2012 New York Times column, Thomas Friedman quotes the OECD’s Andreas Schleicher as saying, “knowledge and skills have become the global currency of 21st-century economies, but there is no central bank that prints this currency. Everyone has to decide on their own how much they will print.” This is a very interesting thing to say, especially because it reveals some common misconceptions about currency, capital, economics, and the institutions in which they are situated.

The question raised in many of the posts in this blog concerns just what kind of bank would print this currency, and what the currency would look like. The issue is of central economic importance, as Schleicher recognizes when he says that economic stimulus certainly has a place in countering a prolonged recession, but “the only sustainable way is to grow our way out by giving more people the knowledge and skills to compete, collaborate and connect in a way that drives our countries forward.”

Following through on the currency metaphor, obvious concerns that arise from Schleicher’s comments stem from the way he conflates the idea of a currency with the value it is supposed to represent. When he says individuals have to decide how much of the currency to print, what he means is they have to decide how much education they want to accrue. This is, of course, far different from simply printing money, which, when this is done and there is no value to back it up, is a sure way to bring about rampant inflation, as Germany learned in the 1920s. Schleicher and Friedman both know this, but the capacity of the metaphor to mislead may not be readily apparent.

Another concern that comes up is why there is no central bank printing the currency for us. Of course, it might seem as though we don’t need banks to print it for us, since, if individuals can print it, then why complicate things by bringing the banks into it? But note, again, that the focus here is on the currency, and nothing is said about the unit in which it is denominated.

The unit of value is the key to the deeper root problem, which is less one of increasing people’s stocks of skills and knowledge (though that is, of course, a great thing to do) and more one of creating the institutions and systems through which we can make order-of-magnitude improvements in the way people invest in and profit from their skills and knowledge. In other words, the problem is in having as many different currencies as there are individuals.

After all, what kind of an economy would we have if the value of the US dollars I hold was different from yours, and from everyone else’s? What if we all printed our own dollars and their value changed depending on who held them (or on how many we each printed)? Everyone would pay different amounts in the grocery store. We’d all spend half our time figuring out how to convert our own currency into someone else’s.

And this is pretty much what we do when it comes to trading on the value of our investments in stocks of knowledge, skills, health, motivations, and trust, loyalty, and commitment, some of the major forms of human and social capital. When we’re able, we put a recognized name brand behind our investments by attending a prestigious university or obtaining care at a hospital known for its stellar outcomes. But proxies like these just aggregate the currencies’ values at a bit higher level of dependence on the company you keep. It doesn’t do anything to solve the problem of actually providing transferable representations you can count on to retain a predictable value in any given exchange.

The crux of the problem is that today’s institutions define the markets in which we trade human and social capital in ways that make certain assumptions, and those assumptions are counterproductive relative to other assumptions that might be made. That is, the dominant form of economic discourse takes it for granted that markets are formed by the buying and selling activities of consumers and producers, which in turn dictates the form of institutions. But this gets the process backwards (Miller and O’Leary, 2007). Markets cannot form in the absence of institutions that define the roles, rules, and relationships embodied in economic exchange, as has been pointed out by Douglass North (1981, 1990), and a very large literature on institutional economics that has emerged from the work of North and his colleagues since the late 1970s.

And so, once again, this is why I keep repeating ad nauseum the same old lines in different ways. In this case, the repetition focuses on the institutions that “print” (so to speak) the currencies in which we express and trade economic and scientific values for mass or weight (kilograms and pounds), length (meters and yards), temperature (degrees Celsius and Fahrenheit), energy (kilowatts), etc. Economic growth and growth in scientific knowledge simultaneously erupted in the 19th century after metrological systems were created to inform trade in commodities and ideas. What we need today is a new investment of resources in the creation of a new array of standardized units for human, social, and natural capital. For more information, see prior posts in this blog, and the publications listed below.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (1997). Physical disability construct convergence across instruments: Towards a universal metric. Journal of Outcome Measurement, 1(2), 87-113.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (1999). Foundations for health status metrology: The stability of MOS SF-36 PF-10 calibrations across samples. Journal of the Louisiana State Medical Society, 151(11), 566-578.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2000). Objectivity in psychosocial measurement: What, why, how. Journal of Outcome Measurement, 4(2), 527-563 [].

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2002, Spring). “The Mystery of Capital” and the human sciences. Rasch Measurement Transactions, 15(4), 854 [].

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2003). The mathematical metaphysics of measurement and metrology: Towards meaningful quantification in the human sciences. In A. Morales (Ed.), Renascent pragmatism: Studies in law and social science (pp. 118-53). Brookfield, VT: Ashgate Publishing Co.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2003). Measurement and communities of inquiry. Rasch Measurement Transactions, 17(3), 936-8 [].

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2004, Thursday, January 22). Bringing capital to life via measurement: A contribution to the new economics. In  R. Smith (Chair), Session 3.3B. Rasch Models in Economics and Marketing. Second International Conference on Measurement in Health, Education, Psychology, and Marketing: Developments with Rasch Models, The International Laboratory for Measurement in the Social Sciences, School of Education, Murdoch University, Perth, Western Australia.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2004, Wednesday, January 21). Consequences of standardized technical effects for scientific advancement. In  A. Leplège (Chair), Session 2.5A. Rasch Models: History and Philosophy. Second International Conference on Measurement in Health, Education, Psychology, and Marketing: Developments with Rasch Models, The International Laboratory for Measurement in the Social Sciences, School of Education, Murdoch University, Perth, Western Australia.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2004, October). Meaning and method in the social sciences. Human Studies: A Journal for Philosophy and the Social Sciences, 27(4), 429-54.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2004, Friday, July 2). Relational networks and trust in the measurement of social capital. Presented at the Twelfth International Objective Measurement Workshops, Cairns, Queensland, Australia: James Cook University.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2005). Daredevil barnstorming to the tipping point: New aspirations for the human sciences. Journal of Applied Measurement, 6(3), 173-179 [].

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2005, August 1-3). Data standards for living human, social, and natural capital. In Session G: Concluding Discussion, Future Plans, Policy, etc. Conference on Entrepreneurship and Human Rights [], Pope Auditorium, Lowenstein Bldg, Fordham University.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2006). Commercial measurement and academic research. Rasch Measurement Transactions, 20(2), 1058 [].

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2007, Summer). Living capital metrics. Rasch Measurement Transactions, 21(1), 1092-3 [].

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2007). Vanishing tricks and intellectualist condescension: Measurement, metrology, and the advancement of science. Rasch Measurement Transactions, 21(3), 1118-1121 [].

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2008, 3-5 September). New metrological horizons: Invariant reference standards for instruments measuring human, social, and natural capital. Presented at the 12th IMEKO TC1-TC7 Joint Symposium on Man, Science, and Measurement, Annecy, France: University of Savoie.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2009, November 19). Draft legislation on development and adoption of an intangible assets metric system. Retrieved 6 January 2011, from

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.

Fisher, W. P.. Jr. (2009). NIST Critical national need idea White Paper: metrological infrastructure for human, social, and natural capital (Tech. Rep. No. Washington, DC: National Institute for Standards and Technology.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2011). Bringing human, social, and natural capital to life: Practical consequences and opportunities. Journal of Applied Measurement, 12(1), 49-66.

Fisher, W. P.. Jr. (2010, June 13-16). Rasch, Maxwell’s method of analogy, and the Chicago tradition. In  G. Cooper (Chair), Https:// Probabilistic models for measurement in education, psychology, social science and health: Celebrating 50 years since the publication of Rasch’s Probabilistic Models.., University of Copenhagen School of Business, FUHU Conference Centre, Copenhagen, Denmark.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2010). The standard model in the history of the natural sciences, econometrics, and the social sciences. Journal of Physics: Conference Series, 238(1),

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2011). Stochastic and historical resonances of the unit in physics and psychometrics. Measurement: Interdisciplinary Research & Perspectives, 9, 46-50.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2012). Measure local, manage global: Intangible assets metric standards for sustainability. In J. Marques, S. Dhiman & S. Holt (Eds.), Business administration education: Changes in management and leadership strategies (p. in press). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2012, May/June). What the world needs now: A bold plan for new standards. Standards Engineering, 64, in press.

Fisher, W. P., Jr., Eubanks, R. L., & Marier, R. L. (1997, May). Health status measurement standards for electronic data sharing: Can the MOS SF36 and the LSU HSI physical functioning scales be equated?. Presented at the American Medical Informatics Association, San Jose, California.

Fisher, W. P., Jr., Harvey, R. F., & Kilgore, K. M. (1995). New developments in functional assessment: Probabilistic models for gold standards. NeuroRehabilitation, 5(1), 3-25.

Fisher, W. P., Jr., Harvey, R. F., Taylor, P., Kilgore, K. M., & Kelly, C. K. (1995, February). Rehabits: A common language of functional assessment. Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, 76(2), 113-122.

Fisher, W. P., Jr., & Stenner, A. J. (2005, Tuesday, April 12). Creating a common market for the liberation of literacy capital. In  R. E. Schumacker (Chair), Rasch Measurement: Philosophical, Biological and Attitudinal Impacts. American Educational Research Association, Rasch Measurement SIG, Montreal, Canada.

Fisher, W. P., Jr., & Stenner, A. J. (2011, January). Metrology for the social, behavioral, and economic sciences (Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences White Paper Series). Retrieved 25 October 2011, from National Science Foundation:

Fisher, W. P., Jr., & Stenner, A. J. (2011, August 31 to September 2). A technology roadmap for intangible assets metrology. In Fundamentals of measurement science. International Measurement Confederation (IMEKO) TC1-TC7-TC13 Joint Symposium,, Jena, Germany.

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

North, D. C. (1981). Structure and change in economic history. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

North, D. C. (1990). Institutions, institutional change, and economic performance. New York: Cambridge University Press.

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