Archive for the ‘capitalism’ Category

Why economic growth can and inevitably will be green

October 1, 2018

So, approaching matters once again from yet another point of view, we have Jason Hickel explaining a couple of weeks ago “Why Growth Can’t Be Green.” This article provides yet another example of how the problem is the problem. That is, the way we define problems sets up particular kinds of solutions in advance, and sometimes, as Einstein famously pointed out, problems cannot be solved from within the same conceptual framework that gave rise to them. I’ve expanded on this theme in a number of previous posts, for instance, here.

Hickel takes up the apparent impossibility of aligning economic growth with environmental values. He speaks directly to what he calls the rebound effect, the way that “improvements in resource efficiency drive down prices and cause demand to rise—thus canceling out some of the gains.” But that rebound can happen only as long as the economy remains defined and limited by the alignment of manufactured capital and finance, ignoring the largely unexamined and unconsidered possibility that human, social, and natural capital could be measured well enough to be also aligned with finance.

Hence, as I say, the problem is the problem. Broadening one’s conceptualization of the problem opens up new opportunities that otherwise never come into view.

The Hickel article’s entire focus is then on top-down policy impositions like taxes or a Genuine Progress Index. These presume human, social, and natural capital can only ever exist in dead formations that have to be micromanaged and concretely manipulated, and that efficient markets bringing them to life are inherently and literally unthinkable. (See a short article here for an explanation of the difference between dead and living capital. There’s a lot more where that came from, as is apparent in the previous posts here in this blog.)

The situation could be vastly different than what Hickel imagines. If we could own, buy, and sell products in efficient markets we could reward the production of human, social, and environmental value. In that scenario, when improvements in environmental resource efficiency are obtained, demand for that new environmental value will rise and its price will go down, not the resource’s price.

We ought to be creative enough to figure out how to configure markets so that prices for environmental resources (oil, farmland, metals, etc.) can stay constant or fall without increasing demand for them, as could happen if that demand is counterbalanced and absorbed by rising human, social, and environmental quality capital values.

The question is how to absorb the rebound effect in other forms of capital that grow in demand while holding demand for the natural resource base in check. The vital conceptual distinction is between socialistic centralized planning and control of actual physical entities (people, communities, the environment, and manufactured items), on the one hand, and capitalistic decentralized distributed network effects on abstract transferable representations, on the other. Everyone defaults to the socialist scenario without ever considering there might be a whole other arena in which fruitful possibilities might be imagined.

What if, for instance, we could harness the profit motive to promote growth in genuine human, social, and environmental value? What if we were able to achieve qualitatively meaningful increases in authentic wealth that were economically contingent on reduced natural resource consumption? What if the financial and substantive value profits that could be had meant that resource consumption could be reduced by the same kinds of factors as have been realized in the context of Moore’s Law? What if a human economics of genuine value could actually result in humanity being able to adjust the global thermostat up or down in small increments by efficiently rewarding just the right combinations of policies and practices at the right times and places in the right volumes?

The only way that could ever happen is if people are motivated to do the right thing for the earth and for humanity because it is the right thing for them and their families. They have to be able to own their personal shares of their personal stocks of human, social, and natural capital. They have to be able to profit from investments in their own and others’ shares. They will not act on behalf of the earth and humanity only because it is the right thing to do. There has to be evidence and explanations of how everyone is fairly held accountable to the same standards, and has the same opportunities for profit and loss as anyone else. Then, and only then, it seems, will human, social, and environmental value become communicable in a viral contagion of good will.

Socialism has been conclusively proven unworkable, for people, communities, and the environment, as well as financially. But a human, social, and natural capitalism has hardly even been articulated, much less tried out. How do we make human, social, and natural capital fungible? How might the economy transcend its traditional boundaries and expand itself beyond the existing alignment of manufactured capital and finance?

It’s an incredibly complex proposal, but also seems like such a simple thing. The manufactured capital economy uses the common language of good measurement to improve quality, to simplify management communications, and to lower transaction costs in efficient markets. So what should we do if we want to correct the imbalanced negative impacts on people, communities, and the environment created by the misplaced emphasis on aligning only manufactured capital and financial capital?

As has been repeatedly proposed for years in this blog, maybe we should use the manufactured capital markets as a model and use good measurement to improve the quality of human, social, and environmental capital, to simplify communications and management, to lower transaction costs, and to align the genuine human, social, and environmental value created with financial value in efficient markets.

Of course, grasping that as viable, feasible, and desirable requires understanding that substantively meaningful precision measurement is something quite different from what usually passes for quantification. And that is an entirely different story, though one taken up repeatedly in previous entries in this blog, of course….

 

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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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A Yet Simpler Take on Making Sustainability Self-Sustaining

September 1, 2018

The point of focusing on sustainability is to balance human interests with a long term view of life on earth. Depleting resources as though they will be always available plainly is no way to plan for a safe and pleasant future. But it seems to me something is missing in the way we approach sustainability. Every time I see any efforts aimed at rebalancing resource usage with a long term view of the Earth’s capacity to support us, what do I see? I see solutions that cost a lot, and people saying that the costs are the price we have to pay for the mistakes that have been made, and for a viable future. And so I also see a lot of procrastination, delays, and reluctance to commit to sustainable policies and practices.

Why? Because, first, there are a great many people who cannot afford to live in the world as it is, right now, simply bearing their existing day-to-day costs. Even in the richest countries, huge proportions of people live hand to mouth, or very nearly so. Second, it’s hard to detect and punish freeloaders. Many people, companies, and governments are willing to hold off committing to sustainability in the hope that some technological fix will come along and spare them avoidable costs.

So, my question is, and I do not say this at all in jest or with any sense of irony or sarcasm: how do we make sustainability fun and profitable? How can we make sustainability economically self-sustaining? How can we make sustainability into a growth industry?

My answer to those questions is, by improving the quality of information on sustainability impacts. What does that mean? Why should that have anything to do with making sustainability fun and profitable? What improving the quality of information on sustainability impacts means is measuring it well, using methods and models that have been used in research and practice for more than 90 years. What we need is a Human, Social, and Natural Capital Metric System. or an International System of Units for Human, Social, and Natural Capital.

As we all know from the existing SI (metric system) units, high quality information makes it much easier to communicate value. Easier communication means lower transaction costs, and lower transaction costs mean that it becomes very inexpensive to find out how much of a sustainability impact is available, and what quality it is. High quality information enables grassroots bottom up efforts coordinating the decisions and behaviors of everyone everywhere. Managers would be able to dramatically improve quality in domains of human, social, and environmental value the way they do now for manufactured value. And investors would be able to reward innovation in those areas in ways they currently cannot.

For instance, with high quality sustainability impact measures, you’d be able to buy shares of stock in a new global carbon reduction effort that realistically projects it is on track to reverse climate change back its 1980 status. If someone came out with a better carbon reduction product that would make it possible to get the job done faster or at lower cost, we would have the information we need to quickly shift the flow of resources to the better product.

Speaking to other components of the UN’s Sustainability Development Goals, maybe people need to wonder why they cannot go buy 250 units of additional literacy right now? Why can’t you get a good price on a specific amount of literacy gain for your ten-year-old child from a few minutes of competitive shopping? And while you’re at it, maybe you could catch a special sale on 470 units of improved physical functionality for your great aunt who just had a hip replacement. Oh, she doesn’t need it because she’s got herself listed in a health capital investment bond likely to pay a 6% return? Well, maybe you should sink some funds into one of those contracts!

To take up the SDG 16.1 issue, if efforts to reduce armed violence were measured with the same level of information quality as kilowatt hours, that form of social capital product would be available in market transactions just the same way manufactured capital products like electricity are now. Conversely, your personal efforts at reducing armed violence, or improving someone’s literacy, or helping your great aunt with gains in physical functionality—all of these are investments of your skills and abilities that will pay back cash value to you. And because having fun with the kids, and getting out for recreational activities, are healthful things to do, enjoyment also should pay dividends.

Maybe this focus on fun and profit in making sustainability economically self-sustaining might finally find some traction for efforts in this area. Sustainability commerce could be a way of talking about these issues that will speak to matters more directly and practically. We’ll see how that works out as I try it on people in the near future.

 

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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.
Based on a work at livingcapitalmetrics.wordpress.com.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at http://www.livingcapitalmetrics.com.

 

Metrics, Stocks, Shares, and Secure Ledger Accounts for Living Capital: Getting the Information into the Hands of Individual Decision Makers

August 30, 2018

Individual investments in, and returns from, shares of various kinds of human, social, and natural capital stocks will be tracked in secure online accounting ledgers, often referred to generically using the Blockchain brand name. A largely unasked and unanswered question is just what kind of data would best be tracked in secure ledgers. To be meaningful, entries in such accounts will have to stand for something real in the world that is represented in a common language interpretable to anyone capable of reading the relevant signs and symbols. Since we are talking about amounts of things that vary, measurement will unavoidably be a factor.

High quality measurement is essential to the manageability and profitability of investments of all kinds, whether in manufactured capital and property, or in literacy, numeracy, mental and physical health, sociability, and environmental quality (human, social, and natural capital). The measurability and manageability of these intangible factors has achieved significant levels of scientific precision and rigor over the last 90 and more years.

This development is of increasing interest to economists and accountants who have long envisioned ways of reinventing capitalism that do not assume the only alternative is some form of socialism or communism (see references listed below). Many of today’s economic problems may follow from capitalism’s incompleteness. More specifically, we may be suffering from the way in which manufactured capital alone has been been brought to life, economically speaking, while human, social, and natural capital have not (Fisher, 2002, 2007, 2009a/b, 2010a/b, 2011a/b, 2012ab, 2014, etc.).

One in particular who speaks directly to an essential issue that must be addressed in creating an economy of authentic wealth and genuine productivity is Paul Hawken (2007, pp. 21-22), who says that Friedrich Hayek foresaw

“a remedy for the basic expression of the totalitarian impulse: ensuring that information and the right to make decisions are co-located. To achieve this, one can either move the information to the decision makers, or move decision making rights to the information. The movement strives to do both. The earth’s problems are everyone’s problems, and what modern technology and the movement can achieve together is to distribute problem solving tools.”

Hayek (1945, 1948, 1988; Frantz & Leeson, 2013) is well known for his focus on a distinction between a mechanical definition of individuals as uniform and homogenous, and a more vital sense of economic “true individuals” as complex and interdependent. To create efficient markets for the production of authentic wealth, we need to figure out how to extend the “true individuals” of manufactured capital markets into new markets for human, social, and natural capital (Fisher, 2014).

The distributed problem solving tools we need to support the decision making of “true” individuals are secure online ledgers accounting for investments in measured amounts of authentic wealth. Efficient markets are functions of individual processes that create wholes greater than their sums. The multiplier effect that makes this possible depends on transparent communication. Words, including number words, have to mean something specific and distinct. This is where the value of systematic measurement and metrology comes to bear. This is why we need an Intangible Assets Metric System.

For as long as economists have been concerned with markets, philosophers have been pointing out that society is an effect of shared symbol systems. In both cases, economists and philosophers are focused on the fact that it is only when people have a common language that an idea, a meme, can go viral, that a market can seem to have a mind of its own, and science can maintain an ever-increasing pace of technical innovation.

Our aim is to create the information that will populate the entries in the secure ledger accounts people use to track and manage their investments in literacy, numeracy, health, social, and natural capital. These entries will be posted right alongside their existing entries for investments in manufactured capital and property, which includes everything from groceries to autos to electronics to homes.

But the new ledger accounts will be different from today’s in important ways. Many current accounting entries are ultimately written off as costs producing untracked and unaccountable returns. We simply spend the money on groceries or school tuition or a doctor visit. The income is logged, and so are the expenses. We can see that, yes, buying groceries is an investment of a kind, since we profit from it by enjoying the processes of cooking, sharing, and eating tasty food, by avoiding hunger, and by sustaining good health.

Investments are tracked in a different way, though. Money is not just spent and kissed goodbye. Instead, investment funds are loaned to or leased by someone else who is expected to be able to increase the value of those funds. There are often no guarantees of an increase, but the invested value is associated with a proportionate share in the total value of the business. As the business grows or fails, so does the investment.

In much the same way, if we had the information available to us, we could track the returns on the investments we make in food, education, or health care. If we track the impacts of our dietary choices, we would be able to see if and when the investments we make result in healthy outcomes. The information brought to bear will have to include systematic advice relevant to one’s age, sex, pre-existing conditions, genetic propensities, etc. Additional information on the returns on one’s investments in a healthy diet should also be made available, as might be found in the expected income or expenses associated with the consequences of what is eaten, and how much of it. Sometimes there will be room for improvement, for example, if the foods we eat are too sugary or fatty, or if we eat too much. Other times, maintaining a healthy, varied diet may be all that is needed to see a consistent positive return on investment.

Public reports will allow us all to learn from one another. The ability to communicate in a common language and to see what has worked for others will enable everyone to experiment with new ways of doing things. People with common food interests or problems, for instance, will be able quickly evaluate the relevance and benefits of other people’s approaches or solutions. Because of the ways in which communication and community go together, it may be reasonable to hope that new levels of innovation, diversity, tolerance, and respect will follow.

Many aspects of work, education and health care are already undergoing transformations that move their processes out of the usual office, school and hospital environments. These changes will be accelerated as distributed network effects take hold in each of these various markets.

It is easy to see how the Internet of things may evolve to be the medium in which we manage relationships of all kinds, from education and school to health and safety to work and career. Secure ledgers immune from hacking will be essential. And an important health factor will be to know how much relationship management is enough, and when it’s time to get out into the world. That balancing factor will be a key aspect of a successful approach to connecting information on authentic wealth with the individual decision makers growing it and living it.

References

Andriessen, D. (2003). Making sense of intellectual capital: Designing a method for the valuation of intangibles. Oxford, England: Butterworth-Heinemann.

Anielski, M. (2007). The economics of happiness: Building genuine wealth. Gabriola, British Columbia: New Society Publishers.

Cadman, D. (1986). Money as if people mattered. In P. Ekins &  Staff of The Other Economic Summit (Eds.), The living economy: A new economics in the making (pp. 204-210). London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Eisler, R. (2007). The real wealth of nations: Creating a caring economics. San Francisco, California: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Ekins, P. (1992). A four-capital model of wealth creation. In P. Ekins & M. Max-Neef (Eds.), Real-life economics: Understanding wealth creation (pp. 147-155). London: Routledge.

Ekins, P. (1999). Economic growth and environmental sustainability: The prospects for green growth. New York: Routledge.

Ekins, P., Dresner, S., & Dahlstrom, K. (2008, March/April). The four-capital method of sustainable development evaluation. European Environment, 18(2), 63-80.

Ekins, P., Hillman, M., & Hutchison, R. (1992). The Gaia atlas of green economics (Foreword by Robert Heilbroner). New York: Anchor Books.

Ekins, P., & Max-Neef, M. A. (Eds.). (1992). Real-life economics: Understanding wealth creation. London: Routledge.

Ekins, P., & Voituriez, T. (2009). Trade, globalization and sustainability impact assessment: A critical look at methods and outcomes. London, England: Earthscan Publications Ltd.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2002, Spring). “The Mystery of Capital” and the human sciences. Rasch Measurement Transactions, 15(4), 854 [http://www.rasch.org/rmt/rmt154j.htm].

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2007, Summer). Living capital metrics. Rasch Measurement Transactions, 21(1), 1092-1093 [http://www.rasch.org/rmt/rmt211.pdf].

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

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2009b). NIST Critical national need idea White Paper: metrological infrastructure for human, social, and natural capital (Tech. Rep., http://www.nist.gov/tip/wp/pswp/upload/202_metrological_infrastructure_for_human_social_natural.pdf). Washington, DC: National Institute for Standards and Technology.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2010a). Measurement, reduced transaction costs, and the ethics of efficient markets for human, social, and natural capital., Bridge to Business Postdoctoral Certification, Freeman School of Business, Tulane University (p. https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2340674).

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2010b, 13 January). Reinventing capitalism: Diagramming living capital flows in a green, sustainable, and responsible economy. Retrieved from LivingCapitalMetrics.com: https://livingcapitalmetrics.wordpress.com/2010/01/13/reinventing-capitalism/.

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

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2011b). Measuring genuine progress by scaling economic indicators to think global & act local: An example from the UN Millennium Development Goals project. LivingCapitalMetrics.com. Retrieved 18 January 2011, from Social Science Research Network: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1739386.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2012a). Measure and manage: Intangible assets metric standards for sustainability. In J. Marques, S. Dhiman & S. Holt (Eds.), Business administration education: Changes in management and leadership strategies (pp. 43-63). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2012b, May/June). What the world needs now: A bold plan for new standards [Third place, 2011 NIST/SES World Standards Day paper competition]. Standards Engineering, 64(3), 1 & 3-5 [http://ssrn.com/abstract=2083975].

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2014, Autumn). The central theoretical problem of the social sciences. Rasch Measurement Transactions, 28(2), 1464-1466.

Frantz, R., & Leeson, R. (Eds.). (2013). Hayek and behavioral economics. (Archival Insights Into the Evolution of Economics). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Gleeson-White, J. (2015). Six capitals, or can accountants save the planet? Rethinking capitalism for the 21st century. New York: Norton.

Greider, W. (2003). The soul of capitalism: Opening paths to a moral economy. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Griliches, Z. (1994, March). Productivity, R&D, and the data constraint. American Economic Review, 84(1), 1-23.

Grootaert, C. (1998). Social capital: The missing link? (Vol. 3). Social Capital Intiative Working Paper). Washington, D.C.: The World Bank.

Hand, J. R. M., & Lev, B. (Eds.). (2003). Intangible assets: Values, measures, and risks. Oxford Management Readers). Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Hart, S. L. (2005). (2007). Capitalism at the crossroads: Aligning business, earth, and humanity (Foreword by Al Gore) (2nd ed.). Wharton School Publishing.

Hawken, P. (1993). The ecology of commerce: A declaration of sustainability. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

Hawken, P. (2007). Blessed unrest: How the largest movement in the world came into being and why no one saw it coming. New York: Viking Penguin.

Hayek, F. A. (1945, September). The use of knowledge in society. American Economic Review, 35, 519-530. (Rpt. in Individualism and economic order (pp. 77-91). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.)

Hayek, F. A. (1955). The counter revolution of science. Glencoe, Illinois: Free Press.

Hayek, F. A. (1988). The fatal conceit: The errors of socialism (W. W. Bartley, III, Ed.) (Vol. I). The Collected Works of F. A. Hayek. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Korten, D. (2009). Agenda for a new economy: From phantom wealth to real wealth. San Francisco: Berret-Koehler Publishing.

Krueger, A. B. (Ed.). (2009). Measuring the subjective well-being of nations: National accounts of time use and well-being. National Bureau of Economic Research Conference Reports). Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.

Swann, G. M. P. (2001). “No Wealth But Life”: When does conventional wealth create Ruskinian wealth. European Research Studies, 4(3-4), 5-18.

Vemuri, A. W., & Costanza, R. (2006, 10 June). The role of human, social, built, and natural capital in explaining life satisfaction at the country level: Toward a National Well-Being Index. Ecological Economics, 58(1), 119-133.

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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.
Based on a work at livingcapitalmetrics.wordpress.com.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at http://www.livingcapitalmetrics.com.

Self-Sustaining Sustainability

August 6, 2018

After decades of efforts and massive resources expended in trying to create a self-sustaining sustainable economy, perhaps it is time to wonder if we are going about it the wrong way. There seems to be truly significant and widespread desire for change, but the often inspiring volumes of investments and ingenuity applied to the problem persistently prove insufficient to the task. Why?

I’ve previously and repeatedly explained how finding the will to change is not the issue. This time I’ll approach my proposed solution in a different way.

Q: How do we create a self-sustaining sustainable economy?

A: By making sustainability profitable in monetary terms as well as in the substantive real terms of the relationships we live out with each other and the earth. Current efforts in this regard focus solely on reducing energy costs enough to compensate for investments in advancing the organizational mission. We need far more comprehensively designed solutions than that.

Q: How do we do that?

A: By financially rewarding improved sustainability at every level of innovation, from the individual to the community to the firm.

Q: How do we do that?

A: By instituting rights to the ownership of human, social, and natural capital properties, and by matching the demand for sustainability with the supply of it in a way that will inform arbitrage and pricing.

Q: How do we do that?

A: By lowering the cost of the information needed to be able to know how many shares of human, social, and natural capital stocks are owned, and to match demand with supply.

Q: How could that be done?

A: By investing as a society in improving the quality and distribution of the available information.

Q: What does that take?

A: Creating dependable and meaningful tools for ascertaining the quantity, quality, and type of sustainability impacts on human, social, and natural capital being offered.

Q: Can that be done?

A: The technical art and science of measurement needed for creating these tools is well established, having been in development for almost 100 years.

Q: How do we start?

A: An important lesson of history is that building the infrastructure and its array of applications follows in the wake of, and cannot precede, the institution of the constitutional ideals. We must know what the infrastructure and applications will look like in their general features, but nothing will ever be done if we think we have to have them in place before instantiating the general frame of reference. The most general right to own legal title to human, social, and natural capital can be instituted, and the legal status of new metric system units can be established, before efforts are put into unit standards, traceability processes, protocols for intralaboratory ruggedness tests and interlaboratory round robin trials, conformity assessments, etc.

Q: It sounds like an iterative process.

A: Yes, one that must attend from the start to the fundamental issues of information coherence and complexity, as is laid out in my recent work with Emily Oon, Spencer Benson, Jack Stenner, and others.

Q: This sounds highly technical, utilitarian, and efficient. But all the talk of infrastructure, standards, science, and laboratories sounds excessively technological. Is there any place in this scheme for ecological values, ethics, and aesthetics? And how are risk and uncertainty dealt with?

A: We can take up each of these in turn.

Ecological values: To use an organic metaphor, we know the DNA of the various human, social, and natural capital forms of life, or species, and we know their reproductive and life cycles, and their ecosystem requirements. What we have not done is to partner with each of these species in relationships that focus on maximizing the quality of their habitats, their maturation, and the growth of their populations. Social, psychological, and environmental relationships are best conceived as ecosystems of mutual interdependencies. Being able to separate and balance within-individual, between-individual, and collective levels of complexity in these interdependencies will be essential to the kinds of steward leadership needed for creating and maintaining new sociocognitive ecosystems. Our goal here is to become the change we want to institute, since caterpillar to butterfly metamorphoses come about only via transformations from within.

Ethics: The motivating intention is to care simultaneously and equally effectively for both individual uniqueness and global humanity. In accord with the most fundamental ethical decision, we choose discourse over violence, and we do so by taking language as the model for how things come into words. Language is itself alive in the sense of the collective processes by which new meanings come into it. Language moreover has the remarkable capacity of supporting local concrete improvisations and creativity at the same time that it provides navigable continuity and formal ideals. Care for the unity and sameness of meaning demands a combination of rigorous conceptual determinations embodied in well-defined words with practical applications of those words in local improvisations. That is how we support the need to make decisions with inevitably incomplete and inconsistent information while not committing the violence of the premature conclusion. The challenge is one of finding a balance between openness and boundaries that allows language and our organizational cultures to be stable while also evolving. Our technical grasp of complex adaptive systems, autopoiesis, and stochastic measurement information models is advanced enough to meet these ethical requirements of caring for ourselves, each other, and the earth.

Aesthetics: An aesthetic desire for and love of beauty roots the various forms of life inhabiting diverse niches in the proposed knowledge ecosystem and information infrastructure, and does so in the ground of the ethical choice of discourse and meaning over violence. The experience of beauty teaches us how to understand meaning. The attraction to beauty is a unique human phenomenon because it combines apparent opposites into a single complex feeling. Even when the object of desire is possessed as fully as possible, desire is not eliminated, and even when one feels the object of desire to be lost or completely out of touch, its presence and reality is still felt. So, too, with meaning: no actual instance of anything in the world ever embodies the fullness of an abstract conceptual ideal. This lesson of beauty is perhaps most plainly conveyed in music, where artists deliberately violate the standards of instrument tuning to create fascinating and absorbing combinations of harmony and dissonance from endlessly diverse ensembles. Some tunings persist beyond specific compositions to become immediately identifiable trademark sounds. In taking language as a model, the aesthetic combination of desire and possession informs the ethics of care for the unity and sameness of meaning, and vice versa. And ecological values, ethics, and aesthetics stand on par with the technical concerns of calibration and measurement.

Risk and uncertainty: Calibrating a tool relative to a unit standard is by itself already a big step toward reducing uncertainty and risk. Instead of the chaos of dozens of disconnected sustainability indicators, or the cacophony of hundreds or thousands of different tests, assessments, or surveys measuring the same things, we will have data and theory supporting interpretation of reproducible patterns. These patterns will be, and in many cases already are, embodied in instruments that further reduce risk by defining an invariant unit of comparison, simplifying interpretation, reducing opportunities for mistakes, by quantifying uncertainty, and by qualifying it in terms of the anomalous exceptions that depart from expectations. Each of these is a special feature of rigorously defined measurement that will eventually become the expected norm for information on sustainability.

For more on these themes, see my other blog posts here, my various publications, and my SSRN page.

 

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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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What is the point of sustainability impact investing?

June 10, 2018

What if the sustainability impact investing problem is not just a matter of judiciously supporting business policies and practices likely to enhance the long term viability of life on earth? What if the sustainability impact investing problem is better conceived in terms of how to create markets that function as self-sustaining ecosystems of diverse forms of economic life?

The crux of the sustainability problem from this living capital metrics point of view is how to create efficient markets for virtuous cycles of productive value creation in the domains of human, social, and natural capital. Mainstream economics deems this an impossible task because its definition of measurement makes trade in these forms of capital unethical and immoral forms of slavery.

But what if there is another approach to measurement? What if this alternative approach is scientific in ways unimagined in mainstream economics? What if this alternative approach has been developing in research and practice in education, psychology, health care, sociology, and other fields for over 90 years? What if there are thousands of peer-reviewed publications supporting its validity and reliability? What if a wide range of commercial firms have been successfully employing this alternative approach to measurement for decades? What if this alternative approach has been found legally and scientifically defensible in ways other approaches have not? What if this alternative approach enables us to be better stewards of our lives together than is otherwise possible?

Put another way, measuring and managing sustainability is fundamentally a problem of harmonizing relationships. What do we need to harmonize our relationships with each other, between our communities and nations, and with the earth? How can we achieve harmonization without forcing conformity to one particular scale? How can we tune the instruments of a sustainability art and science to support as wide a range of diverse ensembles and harmonies as exists in music?

Positive and hopeful answers to these questions follow from the fact that we have at our disposal a longstanding, proven, and advanced art and science of qualitatively rich measurement and instrument calibration. The crux of the message is that this art and science is poised to be the medium in which sustainability impact investing and management fulfills its potential and transforms humanity’s capacities to care for itself and the earth.

The differences between the quality of information that is available, and the quality of information currently in use in sustainability impact investing, are of such huge magnitudes that they can only be called transformative. Love and care are the power behind these transformative differences. Choosing discourse over violence, considerateness for the vulnerabilities we share with others, and care for the unity and sameness of meaning in dialogue are all essential to learning the lesson Diotima taught Socrates in Plato’s Symposium. These lessons can all be brought to bear in creating the information and communications systems we need for sustainable economies.

The current world of sustainability impact investing’s so-called metrics lead to widespread complaints of increased administrative and technical burdens, and resulting distractions that lead away from pursuit of the core social mission. The maxim, “you manage what you measure,” becomes a cynical commentary on red tape and bureaucracy instead of a commendable use of tools fit for purpose.

In contrast with the cumbersome and uninterpretable masses of data that pass for sustainability metrics today, the art and science of measurement establishes the viability and feasibility of efficient markets for human, social, and natural capital. Instead of counting paper clips in mindless accounting exercises, we can instead be learning what comes next in the formative development of a student, a patient, an employee, a firm, a community, or the ecosystem services of watersheds, forests, and fisheries.

And we can moreover support success in those developments by means of information flows that indicate where the biggest per-dollar human, social, and natural capital value returns accrue. Rigorous measurability of those returns will make it possible to price them, to own them, to make property rights legally enforceable, and to thereby align financial profits with the creation of social value. In fact, we could and should set things up so that it will be impossible to financially profit without creating social value. When that kind of system of incentives and rewards is instituted, then the self-sustaining virtuous cycle of a new ecological economy will come to life.

Though the value and originality of the innovations making this new medium possible are huge, in the end there’s really nothing new under the sun. As the French say, “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” Or, as Whitehead put it, philosophically, the innovations in measurement taking hold in the world today are nothing more than additional footnotes to Plato. Contrary to both popular and most expert opinion, it turns out that not only is a moral and scientific art of human measurement possible, Plato’s lessons on how experiences of beauty teach us about meaning provide what may well turn out to be the only way today’s problems of human suffering, social discontent, and environmental degradation will be successfully addressed.

We are faced with a kind of Chinese finger-puzzle: the more we struggle, the more trapped we become. Relaxing into the problem and seeing the historical roots of scientific reasoning in everyday thinking opens our eyes to a new path. Originality is primarily a matter of finding a useful model no one else has considered. A long history of innovations come together to point in a new direction plainly recognizable as a variation on an old theme.

Instead of a modern focus on data and evidence, then, and instead of the postmodern focus on the theory-dependence of data, we are free to take an unmodern focus on how things come into language. The chaotic complexity of that process becomes manageable as we learn to go with the flow of adaptive evolving processes stable enough to support meaningful communication. Information infrastructures in this linguistic context are conceived as ecosystems alive to changeable local situations at the same time they do not compromise continuity and navigability.

We all learn through what we already know, so it is essential that we begin from where we are at. Our first lessons will then be drawn from existing sustainability impact data, using the UN SDG 17 as a guide. These data were not designed from the principles of scientifically rigorous measurement, but instead assume that separately aggregated counts of events, percentages, and physical measures of volume, mass, or time will suffice as measures of sustainability. Things that are easy to count are not, however, likely to work as satisfactory measures. We need to learn from the available data to think again about what data are necessary and sufficient to the task.

The lessons we will learn from the data available today will lead to more meaningful and rigorous measures of sustainability. Connecting these instruments together by making them metrologically traceable to standard units, while also illuminating local unique data patterns, in widely accessible multilevel information infrastructures is the way in which we will together work the ground, plant the seeds, and cultivate new diverse natural settings for innovating sustainable relationships.

 

A truly ambitious plan to tackle climate change 

December 3, 2015

A recent story in the NY Times asks just what a truly ambitious plan to tackle climate change would look like. Pledges of emissions cuts being made in Paris this month are projected to fall short of what is needed to solve the problem of climate change. Calls for mass mobilization on the scale of the U.S.’s entry into WWII are met with skepticism at the same time that leaders are signing on for stronger terms in the Paris agreement than their countries have agreed to.

One crucial assumption is made across the full range of the proposals for more stringent standards and innovative technologies. That assumption is that solving the problem of climate change is a matter of marshaling the will to get the job done. On the face of it, of course, it seems inane to consider something as important as will power to be part of the problem. If people don’t want to do something, how could it possibly ever get done?

But as I’ve pointed out in a number of previous posts in this blog, complex problems sometimes cannot be solved from within the conceptual framework that engendered them. We are in this situation in large part because our overall relation to the earth is based on assuming it to be a bottomless well of resources, with the only limitation being the creativity we bring to bear in tapping those resources. Though many of us, perhaps a majority, are seriously committed to reconceiving our relation to the earth in sustainable terms, practical results are nearly impossible to produce within the existing institutional framework. Our economic, legal, accounting, education, etc. systems are all set up to support a consumer ethos that hobbles and undercuts almost all efforts intended to support an alternative sustainability ethos. It is both ironic and counterproductive to formulate solutions to the problem of climate change without first changing the institutional background assumptions informing the rules, roles and responsibilities through which we conceptualize and implement those solutions.

Insight into this problem is provided by recent work on standards for sustainability accounting. It shows that, by definition, efforts targeting change in economic externalities like environmental concerns cannot be scaled up in ways that are needed. This happens simply because balancing mission and margin demands maintenance of the bottom line. Giving away the business in the name of saving the planet might be a noble gesture but it is the opposite of sustainable and more importantly does not provide a viable model for the future.

So how do we model a new kind of bottom line that balances mission and margin in a new way? A way in which institutional rules, roles and responsibilities are themselves configured into the sustainable ecological relations we need? A way in which means and ends are unified? How do we become the change we want to see? How can we mobilize an international mass movement focused on doing what needs to be done to solve the problem of climate change? What possibilities do we have for catalyzing the increasingly saturated solution of global discontent and desire for a new relation to the earth? Can natural social processes of leaderless self organizing systems be seeded and guided to fruition? What would that seeding and guidance look like?

For proposed answers to these questions and more on what a model of a truly ambitious plan to tackle climate change might look like, see other posts in this blog here, here, here, and here.

With Reich in spirit, but with a different sense of the problem and its solution

October 4, 2015

In today’s editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle, Robert Reich seeks some way of defining a solution to the pressing problems of how globalization and technological changes have made American workers less competitive. He rightly says that “reversing the scourge of widening inequality requires reversing the upward distributions [of income] within the rules of the market, and giving average people the bargaining power they need to get a larger share of the gains from growth.”

But Reich then says that the answer to this problem lies in politics, not economics. As I’ve pointed out before in this blog, focusing on marshaling political will is part of the problem, not part of the solution. Historically, politicians do not lead, they follow. As is demonstrated across events as diverse as the Arab Spring and the Preemption Act of 1841, mass movements of people have repeatedly demanded ways of cutting through the Gordian knots of injustice. And just as the political “leadership” across the Middle East and in the early U.S. dragged its feet, obstructed, and violently opposed change until it was already well underway, so, too, will that pattern repeat itself again in the current situation of inequitable income distribution.

The crux of the problem is that no one can give average people anything, not freedom (contra Dylan’s line in Blowin’ in the Wind about “allowing” people to be free) and certainly not a larger share of the gains from growth. As the old saying goes, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. People have to take what’s theirs. They have to want it, they have to struggle for it, and they have to pay for it, or they cannot own it and it will never be worth anything to them.

It is well known that a lack of individual property rights doomed communism and socialism because when everything is owned collectively by everyone, no one takes responsibility for it. The profit motive has the capacity to drive people to change things. The problem is not in profit itself. If birds and bees and trees and grasses did not profit from the sun, soil, and rain, there would be no life. The problem is in finding how to get a functional, self-sustaining economic ecology off the ground, not in unrealistically trying to manipulate and micromanage every detail.

The fundamental relevant characteristic of the profits being made today from intellectual property rights is that our individual rights to our own human and social capital are counter-productively restricted and undeveloped. How can it be that no one has any idea how much literacy or health capital they have, or what it is worth?! We have a metric system that tells us how much real estate and manufactured capital we own, and we can price it. But despite the well-established scientific facts of decades of measurement science research and practice, none of us can say, “I own x number of shares of stock in intellectual, literacy, or community capital, that have a value of x dollars in today’s market.” We desperately need an Intangible Assets Metric System, and the market rules, roles, and responsibilities that will make it impossible to make a profit while destroying human, social, and natural capital.

In this vein, what Reich gets absolutely correct is hidden inside his phrase, “within the rules of the market.” As I’ve so often repeated in this blog, capitalism is not inherently evil; it is, rather, unfinished. The real evil is in prolonging the time it takes to complete it. As was so eloquently stated by Miller and O’Leary (2007, p. 710):

“Markets are not spontaneously generated by the exchange activity of buyers and sellers. Rather, skilled actors produce institutional arrangements, the rules, roles and relationships that make market exchange possible. The institutions define the market, rather than the reverse.”

We have failed to set up the institutional arrangements needed to define human, social, and natural capital markets. The problem is that we cannot properly manage three of the four major forms of capital (human, social, and natural, with the fourth being manufactured/property) because we do not measure them in a common language built into scientifically, economically, legally and financially accountable titles, deeds, and other instruments.

And so, to repeat another one of my ad nauseum broken record nostrums, the problem is the problem. As long as we keep defining problems in the way we always have, as matters of marshalling political will, we will inadvertently find ourselves contributing more to prolonging tragic and needless human suffering, social discontent, and environmental degradation.

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), 701-734.

Living Capital Metrics for Financial and Sustainability Accounting Standards

May 1, 2015

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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Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2012a). Measure and manage: Intangible assets metric standards for sustainability. In J. Marques, S. Dhiman & S. Holt (Eds.), Business administration education: Changes in management and leadership strategies (pp. 43-63). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2012b, May/June). What the world needs now: A bold plan for new standards [Third place, 2011 NIST/SES World Standards Day paper competition]. Standards Engineering, 64(3), 1 & 3-5 [http://ssrn.com/abstract=2083975].

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2015). A Rasch perspective on the law of supply and demand. Rasch Measurement Transactions, in press.

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. (2011a, January). Metrology for the social, behavioral, and economic sciences (Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences White Paper Series). Retrieved 12 January 2014, from National Science Foundation: http://www.nsf.gov/sbe/sbe_2020/submission_detail.cfm?upld_id=36.

Fisher, W. P., Jr., & Stenner, A. J. (2011b, 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, http://www.db-thueringen.de/servlets/DerivateServlet/Derivate-24493/ilm1-2011imeko-018.pdf, Jena, Germany.

Fisher, W. P., Jr., & Stenner, A. J. (2013a). On the potential for improved measurement in the human and social sciences. In Q. Zhang & H. Yang (Eds.), Pacific Rim Objective Measurement Symposium 2012 Conference Proceedings (pp. 1-11). Berlin, Germany: Springer-Verlag.

Fisher, W. P., Jr., & Stenner, A. J. (2013b). Overcoming the invisibility of metrology: A reading measurement network for education and the social sciences. Journal of Physics: Conference Series, 459(012024), http://iopscience.iop.org/1742-6596/459/1/012024.

Fisher, W. P., Jr., & Stenner, A. J. (2015). The role of metrology in mobilizing and mediating the language and culture of scientific facts. Journal of Physics Conference Series, 588(012043).

Fisher, W. P., Jr., & Stenner, A. J. (2015). Theory-based metrological traceability in education: A reading measurement network. Measurement, in review.

Fisher, W. P., Jr., & Wilson, M. (2015). Building a productive trading zone in educational assessment research and practice. Pensamiento Educativo, in review.

Fisher, W. P., Jr., & Wright, B. D. (1994). Introduction to probabilistic conjoint measurement theory and applications (W. P. Fisher, Jr., & B. D. Wright, Eds.) [Special issue]. International Journal of Educational Research, 21(6), 559-568.

Galison, P. (1997). Image and logic: A material culture of microphysics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Gleeson-White, J. (2015). Six capitals, or can accountants save the planet? Rethinking capitalism for the 21st century. New York: Norton.

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Jensen, M. C. (2001, Fall). Value maximization, stakeholder theory, and the corporate objective function. Journal of Applied Corporate Finance, 14(3), 8-21.

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

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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), 701-734.

Pendrill, L. (2014, December). Man as a measurement instrument [Special Feature]. NCSLI Measure: The Journal of Measurement Science, 9(4), 22-33.

Pendrill, L., & Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2013). Quantifying human response: Linking metrological and psychometric characterisations of man as a measurement instrument. Journal of Physics: Conference Series, 459, http://iopscience.iop.org/1742-6596/459/1/012057.

Pendrill, L., & Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2015). Counting and quantification: Comparing psychometric and metrological perspectives on visual perceptions of number. Measurement, p. in press. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.measurement.2015.04.010.

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Stenner, A. J., & Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2013). Metrological traceability in the social sciences: A model from reading measurement. Journal of Physics: Conference Series, 459(012025), http://iopscience.iop.org/1742-6596/459/1/012025.

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Another Take on the Emerging Paradigm Shift

November 8, 2014

Over the course of human history, people have usually been able to rely on some stable source of authority and control in their lives, be it religion, the king or queen, or the social order itself. However benevolent or malevolent a regime might be, usually there have been clear lines along which blame or credit can be assigned.

So, even though the complexity and scale of success and failure in today’s world provide ample evidence that no one exerts centralized control over events, it is not surprising that many people today still find it comforting to think some individuals or groups must be manipulating others to their own ends. There is, however, an alternative point of view that may provide a more productive path toward effective action.

After all, efforts to date that have focused on the removal and replacement of any given group that appears to be in control have simply resulted in an alteration of the system, and not the institution of a fundamentally new system. Thus, socialist and communist governments have failed in large part because they were unable to manage resources as effectively as capitalist systems do (which is, of course, not all that well). That is, despite the appearance of having put in place a radically different system of priorities, the constraints of socioeconomics themselves did not change in the context of socialist and communist regimes.

The individual incumbents of social and economic positions have nothing whatsoever to do with the creation of the socioeconomic system’s likelihoods of success and failure, and if they had not accepted their roles in that system, others would have. Changing the system is much more difficult, both conceptually and practically, than merely assigning blame and replacing an individual or group with another individual or group. To the extent the system remains the same, changing the occupants within it makes little difference.

The idea is much the same as was realized in industry when it shifted from quality control’s “tail-chopping” methods to continuous quality improvement’s “curve-shifting” methods. In the former, a certain ratio of acceptable to malformed parts is dictated by the system’s materials and processes. Quality control simply removes the bad parts from the production line and does nothing to change the system. Since quality is often normally distributed, taking the statistical shape of a bell curve, it is accordingly inevitable that cutting off the bad end of that distribution (tail-chopping) only results in it being filled in again in the next production cycle.

Continuous quality improvement methods, in contrast, focus on changing the system and on reducing the likelihood of producing bad parts. Efforts of these kind move the entire quality distribution up the scale so that no parts fall in the previous distribution’s bad tail at all. Of course, the outcomes of our socioeconomic system’s processes are very different from the manufacturing of machine parts. The point of this simple illustration is only that there is remarkable value in thinking less about removing undesired individuals from a process and in thinking more about changing the process itself.

There is no denying that those who seem to be in control benefit disproportionately from others’ efforts. But even though they have had little or nothing to do with creating the system that confers these benefits on them, they certainly do have a vested interest in maintaining that system. This fact reveals another important aspect of any solution that will prove truly viable: the new system must provide benefits not available under the old one. The shift from old to new cannot be a matter of mere will power or organizational efficiency. It must come about as a result of the attractions offered by the new system, which motivate behavior changes universally with little or no persuasion. Qualitatively different classes of opportunities and rewards can come about only by integrating into the system features of the environment that were excluded from the previous system. The central problem of life today is how to provoke this kind of shift and its new integrations.

We can begin to frame this problem in its proper context when we situate it horizontally as an ecological problem and vertically as an evolutionary one. In the same way that ecological niches define the evolutionary opportunities available to species of plants and animals, historical and cultural factors set up varying circumstances to which human societies must adapt. Biological and social adaptations both become increasingly complex over time, systematically exhibiting characteristic patterns in the ways matter, energy, and information are functionally integrated.

The present form of contemporary global society has evolved largely in terms of the Western European principles of modern science, capitalism, and democracy. These principles hinge on the distinction between a concrete, solid, and objective world and an impressionistic, intuitive, and subjective mind. For instance, science and economics focus traditionally on measuring and managing material things and processes, like volts, meters, kilograms, barrels, degrees Celsius, liters, speed, flows, etc. Human, social, and environmental issues are treated statistically, not in terms of standardized metric units, and they are economically regarded as “externalities” excluded from profit and loss calculations.

So, if qualitatively different classes of opportunities and rewards can come about only by integrating into the system features of the environment that were excluded from the previous system, what can we do to integrate the subjective with the objective, and to also then incorporate standardized metric units for the externalities of human, social, and environmental capital into science and economics? The question demands recognition of a) a new system of ecological niches with their own unique configurations of horizontal relationships, and b) the evolution of new species capable of adapting to life in these niches.

The problem is compounded by the complexity of seeing the new system of niches as emerging from the existing system of ecological relationships. Economically speaking, today’s cost centers will be tomorrow’s profit drivers. Scientifically speaking, sources of new repeatable and stable phenomena will have to be identified in what are today assumed to be unrepeatable and unstable phenomena, and will then have to be embodied in instrumental ensembles.

The immediate assumption, which we will have to strive to overcome, is that any such possibilities for new economic and scientific opportunities could hardly be present in the world today and not be widely known and understood. A culturally ingrained presupposition we all share to some extent is that objective facts are immediately accessible and become universally adopted for their advantages as soon as they are recognized. Claims to the contrary can safely be ignored, even if, or perhaps especially if, they represent a truly original potential for system change.

This assumption is an instance of what behavioral economists like Simon and Kahnemann refer to as bounded rationality, which is the idea that language and culture prethink things for us in ways we are usually unaware of. Research has shown that many decisions in daily life are tinged with emotion, such that a certain kind of irrationality takes an irrefutable place in how we think. Examples include choices involving various combinations of favorable and unfavorable odds of profiting from some exchange. Small but sure profits are often ignored in favor of larger and less sure profits, or mistaken calculations are assumed correct, to the disadvantage of the decision maker. There is surely method in the madness, but the pure rationality of an ideal thought process can no longer be accommodated.

Given the phenomenon of bounded rationality, and the complexity of the metasystematic shift that’s needed, how is change to be effected? As Einstein put it, problems of a certain kind cannot be solved from within the same framework that gave rise to them. As long as we continue to think in terms of marshalling resources to apply to the solution of a problem we have failed in conceiving the proper magnitude and scope of the problem we face.

We must instead think in terms of problem-solution units that themselves embody a new evolutionary species functioning within a new system of ecological niches. And these species-niche combinations must be born fully functional and viable, like birds from lizard eggs, caught up in the flow and play of their matter, energy and information streams from the moment of their arrival.

A vitally important aspect of this evolutionary leap is that the new system emerge of its own accord, seemingly with a will of its own. But it will not take shape as a result of individuals or groups deliberately executing a comprehensive design. There will be no grand master architect, though the co-incidence of multiple coordinations and alignments will seem so well planned that many may assume one exists.

It may be, however, that a new spontaneously self-organizing culture might be grown from a few well-placed spores or seeds. The seeds themselves need to be viable in terms of their growth potential and the characteristics of the particular species involved. But equally important are the characteristics of the environment in which the seeds are planted. Bernstein (2004) describes four conditions necessary to the birth of plenty in the modern world:

  1. Property rights: those who might create new forms of value need to own the fruits of their labors.
  2. Scientific rationalism: innovation requires a particular set of conceptual tools and a moral environment in which change agents need not fear retribution.
  3. Capital markets: investors must be able to identify entrepreneurs and provide them with the funds they need to pursue their visions.
  4. Transportation/communications: new products and the information needed to produce and market them must have efficient channels in which to move.

If we take the new emerging culture as unmodern, nonmodern, or amodern, might a new paradigm of plenty similarly take shape as these four conditions are applied not just to manufactured capital, land, and labor, but to human capital (abilities, health, performance), social capital (trust, honesty, dependability, etc.), and natural capital (the environmental services of watersheds, fisheries, estuaries, forests, etc.)? Should not we own legal title to defined shares of each form of capital? Should not science be systematically employed in research on each form of capital? Should not investments in each form of capital be accountable? Should not each form of capital be mobile and fungible within established networks? Should not there be common languages serving as common currencies for the exchange of each form of capital? Instead of assuming the answers to these questions are uniformly “No,” should not we at least entertain them long enough to firmly establish why they cannot be “Yes”?

An Entrepreneurial Investment Model Alternative to Picketty’s Taxation Approach to Eliminating Wealth Disparities

May 14, 2014

Is taxation the only or the best solution to inequality? The way discussions of wealth disparities inevitably focus on variations in how, whom or what to tax, it is easy to assume there are no viable alternatives to taxation. But if the point is to invest in those with the most potential for making significant gains in productivity, so as to maximize the returns we realize, do we not wrongly constrain the domain of possible solutions when we misconceive an entrepreneurial problem in welfare terms?

Why can’t we require minimum levels of investment in social capital stocks and bonds offered by schools, hospitals, NGOs, etc? In human capital instruments offered by individuals? Why should not we expect those investments to be used to create new value? What supposed law of nature says it is impossible to associate new human, social and environmental value with stable and meaningful prices? And if there is such a law (such as Kenneth Arrow (1963) proposed), how can we break it? Why can’t we reconceive human and social capital stocks and flows in new ways?

There is one very good reason why we cannot now make such requirements, and it is the same reason why liberals (including me) had better become accustomed to accepting the failure of their agenda. That reason is this: social and environmental externalities. Inequality is inevitable only as long as we do not change the ways we deal with externalities. They can no longer be measured and managed in the same ways. They must be put on the books, brought into the models, measured scientifically, and traded in efficient markets. We have to invent accountability and accounting systems that harness the energy of the profit motive for the greater good—that actually grow authentic wealth and not mere money—and we have to do this far more effectively than has ever been done before.

It’s a tall order. But there are resources available to us that have not yet been introduced into the larger conversation. There are options to consider that need close study and creative experimentation. Proceeding toward the twin futilities of premature despair or unrealistic taxation will only set up another round of self-fulfilling prophecies inexorably grinding to yet another unforeseen but fully foretold disaster. Conversations about how to shape the roles, rules and institutions that make markets what they are (Miller and O’Leary, 2007) need to take place for human, social, and natural capital (Fisher and Stenner, 2011b). Indeed, those conversations are already well underway, as can be seen in the prior entries in this blog and in the sources listed below.

Arrow, K. J. (1963). Uncertainty and the welfare economics of medical care. American Economic Review, 53, 941-973.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2007). Living capital metrics. Rasch Measurement Transactions, 21(1), 1092-1093 [http://www.rasch.org/rmt/rmt211.pdf].

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

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2009b). NIST Critical national need idea White Paper: Metrological infrastructure for human, social, and natural capital (http://www.nist.gov/tip/wp/pswp/upload/202_metrological_infrastructure_for_human_social_natural.pdf). Washington, DC: National Institute for Standards and Technology (11 pages).

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2010a, 22 November). Meaningfulness, measurement, value seeking, and the corporate objective function: An introduction to new possibilities. Sausalito, California: LivingCapitalMetrics.com (http://ssrn.com/abstract=1713467).

Fisher, W. P. J. (2010b). Measurement, reduced transaction costs, and the ethics of efficient markets for human, social, and natural capital (http://ssrn.com/abstract=2340674). Bridge to Business Postdoctoral Certification, Freeman School of Business: Tulane University.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2010c, June 13-16). Rasch, Maxwell’s method of analogy, and the Chicago tradition. In G. Cooper (Ed.), https://conference.cbs.dk/index.php/rasch/Rasch2010/paper/view/824. Probabilistic models for measurement in education, psychology, social science and health: Celebrating 50 years since the publication of Rasch’s Probabilistic Models. FUHU Conference Centre, Copenhagen, Denmark: University of Copenhagen School of Business.

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

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2011b, Thursday, September 1). Measurement, metrology and the coordination of sociotechnical networks. In S. Bercea (Ed.), New Education and Training Methods. International Measurement Confederation (IMEKO). Jena, Germany: http://www.db-thueringen.de/servlets/DerivateServlet/Derivate-24491/ilm1-2011imeko-017.pdf.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2012a). Measure and manage: Intangible assets metric standards for sustainability. In J. Marques, S. Dhiman & S. Holt (Eds.), Business administration education: Changes in management and leadership strategies (pp. 43-63). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2012b, May/June). What the world needs now: A bold plan for new standards [Third place, 2011 NIST/SES World Standards Day paper competition]. Standards Engineering, 64(3), 1 & 3-5 [http://ssrn.com/abstract=2083975].

Fisher, W. P., Jr., & Stenner, A. J. (2011a, January). Metrology for the social, behavioral, and economic sciences. http://www.nsf.gov/sbe/sbe_2020/submission_detail.cfm?upld_id=36.

Fisher, W. P., Jr., & Stenner, A. J. (2011b, 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: http://www.db-thueringen.de/servlets/DerivateServlet/Derivate-24493/ilm1-2011imeko-018.pdf.

Fisher, W. P., Jr., & Stenner, A. J. (2013a). On the potential for improved measurement in the human and social sciences. In Q. Zhang & H. Yang (Eds.), Pacific Rim Objective Measurement Symposium 2012 Conference Proceedings (pp. 1-11). Berlin, Germany: Springer-Verlag.

Fisher, W. P., Jr., & Stenner, A. J. (2013b). Overcoming the invisibility of metrology: A reading measurement network for education and the social sciences. Journal of Physics: Conference Series, 459(012024), http://iopscience.iop.org/1742-6596/459/1/012024.

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), 701-734.