Living Capital Metrics for Financial and Sustainability Accounting Standards

I was very happy a few days ago to come across Jane Gleeson-White’s new book, Six Capitals, or Can Accountants Save the Planet? Rethinking Capitalism for the 21st Century. The special value for me in this book comes in the form of an accessible update on what’s been going on in the world of financial accounting standards. Happily, there’s been a lot of activity (check out, for instance, Amato & White, 2013; Rogers & White, 2015). Less fortunately, the activity seems to be continuing to occur in the same measurement vacuum it always has, despite my efforts in this blog to broaden the conversation to include rigorous measurement theory and practice.

But to back up a bit, recent events around sustainability metric standards don’t seem to be connected to previous controversies around financial standards and economic modeling, which were more academically oriented to problems of defining and expressing value. Gleeson-White doesn’t cite any of the extensive literature in those areas (for instance, Anielski, 2007; Baxter, 1979; Economist, 2010; Ekins, 1992, 1999; Ekins, Dresner, & Dahlstrom, 2008; Ekins, Hillman, & Hutchins, 1992; Ekins & Voituriez, 2009; Fisher, 2009b, 2009c, 2011; Young & Williams, 2010). Valuation is still a problem, of course, as is the analogy between accounting standards and scientific standards (Baxter, 1979). But much of the sensitivity of the older academic debate over accounting standards seems to have been lost in the mad, though well-intentioned, rush to devise metrics for the traditionally externalized nontraditional forms of capital.

Before addressing the thousands of metrics in circulation and the science that needs to be brought to bear on them (the ongoing theme of posts in this blog), some attention to terminology is important. Gleeson-White refers to six capitals (manufactured, liquid, intellectual, human, social, and natural), in contrast with Ekins (1992; Ekins, et al., 2008), who describes four (manufactured, human, social, and natural). Gleeson-White’s liquid capital is cash money, which can be invested in capital (a means of producing value via ongoing services) and which can be extracted as a return on capital, but is not itself capital, as is shown by the repeated historical experience in many countries of printing money without stimulating economic growth and producing value. Of her remaining five forms of capital, intellectual capital is a form of social capital that can satisfactorily be categorized alongside the other forms of organization-level properties and systems involving credibility and trust.

On pages 209-227, Gleeson-White takes up questions relevant to the measurement and information quality topics of this blog. The context here is informed by the International Integrated Reporting Council’s (IIRC) December 2013 framework for accounting reports integrating all forms of capital (Amato & White, 2013), and by related efforts of the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB) (Rogers & White, 2015). Following the IIRC, Gleeson-White asserts that

“Not all the new capitals can be quantified, yet or perhaps ever–for example, intellectual, human and social capital, much of natural capital–and so integrated reports are not expected to provide quantitative measures of each of the capitals.”

Of course, this opinion flies in the face of established evidence and theory accepted by both metrologists (weights and measures standards engineers and physicists) and psychometricians as to the viability of rigorous measurement standards for the outcomes of education, health care, social services, natural resource management, etc. (Fisher, 2009b, 2011, 2012a, 2012b; Fisher & Stenner, 2011a, 2013, 2015; Fisher & Wilson, 2015; Mari & Wilson, 2013; Pendrill, 2014; Pendrill & Fisher, 2013, 2015; Wilson, 2013; Wilson, Mari, Maul, & Torres Irribarra, 2015). Pendrill (2014, p. 26), an engineer, physicist, and past president of the European Association of National Metrology Institutes, for instance, states that “The Rasch approach…is not simply a mathematical or statistical approach, but instead [is] a specifically metrological approach to human-based measurement.” As is repeatedly shown in this blog, access to scientific measures sets the stage for a dramatic transformation of the potential for succeeding in the goal of rethinking capitalism.

Next, Gleeson-White’s references to several of the six capitals as the “living” capitals (p. 193) is a literal reference to the fact that human, social, and natural capital are all carried by people, organizations/communities, and ecosystems. The distinction between dead and living capital elaborated by De Soto (2000) and Fisher (2002, 2007, 2010b, 2011), which involves making any form of capital fungible by representing it in abstract forms negotiable in banks and courts of law, is not taken into account, though this would seem to be a basic requirement that must be fulfilled before the rethinking of capitalism could said to have been accomplished.

Gleeson-White raises the pointed question as to exactly how integrated reporting is supposed to provoke positive growth in the nontraditional forms of capital. The concept of an economic framework integrating all forms of capital relative to the profit motive, as described in Ekins’ work, for instance, and as is elaborated elsewhere in this blog, seems just over the horizon, though repeated mention is made of natural capitalism (Hawken, Lovins, & Lovins, 1999). The posing of the questions provided by Gleeson-White (pp. 216-217) is priceless, however:

“…given integrated reporting’s purported promise to contribute to sustainable development by encouraging more efficient resource allocation, how might it actually achieve this for natural and social capitals on their own terms? It seems integrated reporting does nothing to address a larger question of resource allocation….”

“To me the fact that integrated reporting cannot address such questions suggests that as with the example of human capital, its promise to foster efficient resource allocation pertains only to financial capital and not to the other capitals. If we accept that the only way to save our societies and planet is to reconceive them in terms of capital, surely the efficient valuing and allocation of all six capitals must lie at the heart of any economics and accounting for the planet’s scarce resources in the twenty-first century.
“There is a logical inconsistency here: integrated reporting might be the beginning of a new accounting paradigm, but for the moment it is being practiced by an old-paradigm corporation: essentially, one obliged to make a return on financial capital at the cost of the other capitals.”

The goal requires all forms of capital to be integrated into the financial bottom line. Where accounting for manufactured capital alone burns living capital resources for profit, a comprehensive capital accounting framework defines profit in terms of reduced waste. This is a powerful basis for economics, as waste is the common root cause of human suffering, social discontent and environmental degradation (Hawken, Lovins, & Lovins, 1999).

Multiple bottom lines are counter-productive, as they allow managers the option of choosing which stakeholder group to satisfy, often at the expense of the financial viability of the firm (Jensen, 2001; Fisher, 2010a). Economic sustainability requires that profits be legally, morally, and scientifically contingent on a balance of powers distributed across all forms of capital. Though the devil will no doubt lurk in the details, there is increasing evidence that such a balance of powers can be negotiated.

A key point here not brought up by Gleeson-White concerns the fact that markets are not created by exchange activity, but rather by institutionalized rules, roles, and responsibilities (Miller & O’Leary, 2007) codified in laws, mores, technologies, and expectations. Translating historical market-making activities as they have played out relative to manufactured capital in the new domains of human, social, and natural capital faces a number of significant challenges, adapting to a new way of thinking about tests, assessments, and surveys foremost among them (Fisher & Stenner, 2011b).

One of the most important contributions advanced measurement theory and practice (Rasch, 1960; Wright, 1977; Andrich, 1988, 2004; Fisher & Wright, 1994; Wright & Stone, 1999; Bond & Fox, 2007; Wilson, 2005; Engelhard, 2012; Stenner, Fisher, Stone, & Burdick, 2013) can make to the process of rethinking capitalism involves the sorting out of the myriad metrics that have erupted in the last several years. Gleeson-White (p. 223) reports, for instance, that the Bloomberg financial information network now has over 750 ESG (Environmental, Social, Governance) data fields, which were extracted from reports provided by over 5,000 companies in 52 countries.  Similarly, Rogers and White (2015) say that

“…today there are more than 100 organizations offering more than 400 corporate sustainability ratings products that assess some 50,000 companies on more than 8,000 metrics of environmental, social and governance (ESG) performance.”

As is also the case with the UN Millennium Development Goals (Fisher, 2011b), the typical use of these metrics as single-item “quantities” is based in counts of relevant events. This procedure misses the basic point that counts of concrete things in the world are not measures. Is it not obvious that I can have ten rocks to your two, and you can still have more rock than I do? The same thing applies to any kind of performance ratings, survey responses, or test scores. We assign the same numeric increase to every addition of one more count, but hardly anyone experimentally tests the hypothesis that the counts all work together to measure the same thing. Those who think there’s no need for precision science in this context are ignoring the decades of successful and widespread technical work in this area, at their own risk.

The repetition of history here is fascinating. As Ashworth (2004, p. 1,314) put it, historically, “The requirements of increased trade and the fiscal demands of the state fuelled the march toward a regular form of metrology.” For instance, in 1875 it was noted that “the existence of quantitative correlations between the various forms of energy, imposes upon men of science the duty of bringing all kinds of physical quantity to one common scale of comparison” (Everett, 1875, p. 9). The moral and economic  value of common scales was recognized during the French revolution, when, Alder (2002, p. 32) documents, it was asked:

“Ought not a single nation have a uniform set of measures, just as a soldier fought for a single patrie? Had not the Revolution promised equality and fraternity, not just for France, but for all the people of the world? By the same token, should not all of the world’s people use a single set of weights and measures to encourage peaceable commerce, mutual understanding, and the exchange of knowledge? That was the purpose of measuring the world.”

The value of rigorously measuring human, social and natural capital includes meaningfully integrating qualitative substance with quantitative convenience, reduced data volume, augmenting measures with uncertainty and consistency indexes, and the capacity to take missing data into account (making possible instrument equating, item banking, etc.)  In contrast with the usual methods, rigorous science demands that experiments determine which indicators cohere to measure the same thing by repeatedly giving the same values across samples, over time and space, and across subsets of indicators. Beyond such data-based results, advanced theory makes it possible to arrive at explanatory, predictive methods that add a whole new layer of efficiency to the generation of indicators (de Boeck & Wilson, 2004; Stenner, et al., 2013).

Finally, Gleeson-White (pp. 220-221) reports that “In July 2011, the SASB [Sustainability Accounting Standards Board] was launched in the United States to create standardized measures for the new capitals.” “Founded by environmental engineer and sustainability expert Jean Rogers in San Francisco, SASB is creating a full set of industry-specific standards for sustainability accounting, with the aim of making this information more consistent and comparable.” As of May 2014, the SASB vice chair is Mary Schapiro, former SEC chair, and the chairman of SASB is Michael Bloomfield, former mayor of NYC and founder of the financial information empire. The “SASB is developing nonfinancial standards for eighty-nine industries grouped in ten different sectors and aims to have completed this grueling task by February 2015. It is releasing each set of metrics as they are completed.”

Like the SASB and other groups, Gleeson-White (p. 222) reports, Bloomberg

“aims to use its metrics to start ‘standardizing the discourse around sustainability, so we’re all talking about the same things in the same way,’ as Bloomberg’s senior sustainability strategist Andrew Park put it. What companies ‘desperately want,’ he says, is ‘a legitimate voice’ to tell them: ‘This is what you need to do. You exist in this particular sector. Here are the metrics that you need to be reporting out on. So SASB will provide that. And we think that’s important, because that will help clean up the metrics that ultimately the finance community will start using.’
“Bloomberg wants to price environmental, social and governance externalities to legitimize them in the eyes of financial capital.”

Gleeson-White (p. 225) continues, saying

“Bloomberg wants to do more generally what Trucost did for Puma’s natural capital inputs: create standardized measures for the new capitals–such as ecosystem services and social impacts–so that this information can be aggregated and used by investors. Park and Ravenel call the failure to value clean air, water, stable coastlines and other environmental goods ‘as much a failure to measure as it is a market failure per se–one that could be addressed in part by providing these ‘unpriced’ resources with quantitative parameters that would enable their incorporation into market mechanisms. Such mechanisms could then appropriately ‘regulate’ the consumption of those resources.'”

Integrating well-measured living capitals into the context of appropriately configured institutional rules, roles, and responsibilities for efficient markets (Fisher, 2010b) should indeed involve a capacity to price these resources quantitatively, though this capacity alone would likely prove insufficient to the task of creating the markets (Miller & O’Leary, 2007; Williamson, 1981, 1991, 2005). Rasch’s (1960, pp. 110-115) deliberate patterning of his measurement models on the form of Maxwell’s equations for Newton’s Second Law provides a mathematical basis for connecting psychometrics with both geometry and natural laws, as well as with the law of supply and demand (Fisher, 2010c, 2015; Fisher & Stenner, 2013a).

This perspective on measurement is informed by an unmodern or amodern, post-positivist philosophy (Dewey, 2012; Latour, 1990, 1993), as opposed to a modern and positivist, or postmodern and anti-positivist, philosophy (Galison, 1997). The essential difference is that neither a universalist nor a relativist perspective is necessary to the adoption of practices of traceability to metrological standards. Rather, focusing on local, situated, human relationships, as described by Wilson (2004) in education, for instance, offers a way of resolving the false dilemma of that dichotomous contrast. As Golinski (2012, p. 35) puts it, “Practices of translation, replication, and metrology have taken the place of the universality that used to be assumed as an attribute of singular science.” Haraway (1996, pp. 439-440) harmonizes, saying “…embedded relationality is the prophylaxis for both relativism and transcendance.” Latour (2005, pp. 228-229) elaborates, saying:

“Standards and metrology solve practically the question of relativity that seems to intimidate so many people: Can we obtain some sort of universal agreement? Of course we can! Provided you find a way to hook up your local instrument to one of the many metrological chains whose material network can be fully described, and whose cost can be fully determined. Provided there is also no interruption, no break, no gap, and no uncertainty along any point of the transmission. Indeed, traceability is precisely what the whole of metrology is about! No discontinuity allowed, which is just what ANT [Actor Network Theory] needs for tracing social topography. Ours is the social theory that has taken metrology as the paramount example of what it is to expand locally everywhere, all while bypassing the local as well as the universal. The practical conditions for the expansion of universality have been opened to empirical inquiries. It’s not by accident that so much work has been done by historians of science into the situated and material extension of universals. Given how much modernizers have invested into universality, this is no small feat.
“As soon as you take the example of scientific metrology and standardization as your benchmark to follow the circulation of universals, you can do the same operation for other less traceable, less materialized circulations: most coordination among agents is achieved through the dissemination of quasi-standards.”

As Rasch (1980: xx) understood, “this is a huge challenge, but once the problem has been formulated it does seem possible to meet it.” Though some metrologically informed traceability networks have begun to emerge in education and health care (for instance, Fisher & Stenner, 2013, 2015; Stenner & Fisher, 2013), virtually everything remains to be done to make the coordination across stakeholders as fully elaborated as the standards in the natural sciences.

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One Response to “Living Capital Metrics for Financial and Sustainability Accounting Standards”

  1. With Reich in spirit, but with a different sense of the problem and its solution | Livingcapitalmetrics's Blog Says:

    […] we do not measure them in a common language built into scientifically, economically, legally and financially accountable titles, deeds, and other […]

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