Archive for the ‘capitalism’ Category

Cartesian problems cannot be solved by Cartesian solutions, no matter where those solutions originate

April 13, 2019

Trying to persuade or educate individuals to change the way they think and act, by pointing to the facts or by making emotional or moral appeals, seems always and everywhere to be the default go-to solution for those interested in addressing social and environmental problems. I suppose that approach works to varying degrees for different issues, but behavior change never occurs on as massive a scale as when it is mediated by a technology that enables people to do something they value.

The meaning of McLuhan’s expression, “the medium is the message,” and the long history of the many ways in which technologies transform cultures, for better and for worse, all seem utterly lost and forgotten when it comes to efforts aimed at provoking culture change. The ongoing discourses of environmental and social justice inevitably always seem to come back to targeting individual decisions and behaviors as the only recourse for effecting change.

But history teaches us that, if we want to change our values, we have to figure out how to embed the new terms in virally communicable metaphors that enthrall imaginations and captivate people’s attention and interest. Cultures turn on shared meanings that make some behaviors more likely than others. Good metaphors (“love is a rose;” “God is love”) organize experience in ways that allow infinite creative variations on the theme while also lending just a bit of structure and predictability to how things play out. We need to root new metaphors embodying shared human values in information infrastructures that operationalize consensus standards as the common currencies in which those values circulate.

Though the ongoing culture wars seem to suggest wildly divergent values in play across communities, research in developmental psychology strongly indicates that these differences are not what they seem. No matter what their politics, people need to feel valued, to have stable identities, to be recognized as someone of worth, to have a place of dignity in a community, to be trusted, and to see that others enjoy all of these qualities as well. Experience shows that these conditions cannot be implemented by a simple decree or force of will. Broad general conditions have to be cultivated in ways that make the emergence of abundant social capital resources more likely.

A point of entry into thinking about how those conditions might be created is provided by a 2010 quote in the Miami Herald from Gus Speth, former Dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies (http://tinyurl.com/y7mqtzzn). Speth recounts his sense that scientific solutions to ecosystem and climate problems are insufficient because the actual causes of the problems are greed, selfishness, and apathy. So he appeals to religious leaders for help.

But Speth’s moral diagnosis is as misconceived and uninformed as his original scientific one. As has been the topic of multiple posts in this blog, many of today’s problems cannot be solved using the same kind of Cartesian dualist thinking that was used in creating those problems. Voluminous citations in those earlier posts tap a large literature in the philosophy, history, and social studies of science describing a diverse array of examples of nondualist ecosystem thinking and acting (for instance, see references below). These works show how technological media fuse, embody, distribute, and enact social, moral, aesthetic, economic, and scientific values in complex multilevel metasystems (systems of systems). Moral values of fairness, for instance, are embedded in the quantitative values of measurement technologies exported from laboratories into markets where they inform economic values in trade.

Our task is to learn from these examples so that we can develop and deploy new languages that resonate with new values in analogous ways across similarly diverse cultural domains. Beauty, meaning, and poetry have to be as important as logic, mathematics, and science. Readily available theory and evidence already show how all of these are playing their roles in the evolving cultural transformation.

And, fortunately for humanity as well as for the earth, the new nondualist noncartesian solutions will not and cannot be primarily an outcome of deliberate intentions and conscious willpower. On the contrary, these integrated problem-solution monads are living, organic, self-organizing embodiments of ideas that captivate imaginations and draw creative, entrepreneurial energies in productive directions.

Of course, this kind of thing has happened many times in the past, though it has not previously emerged as a result of the kind of cultivated orchestration occurring today. Williamson, North, Ostrom, Coase, and others describe the roles institutions have played in setting up the rules, roles, and responsibilities of efficient markets. Today, new institutions are arising in a context of reproducible scientific results supporting ownership of, investments in, and profits harvested from sustainable impacts measured and managed via virally communicable media spreading social contagions of love and care. This is coming about because we all seek and value meaning and beauty right along with the capacity to enjoy life, liberty, and prosperity. However differently we each define and experience meaning and beauty, caring for the unity and sameness of the objects of the conversations that we are enables us to balance harmonies and dissonances in endless variations performed by every imaginable kind of rhythmic and melodic musical ensemble.

So instead of expecting different results from repeated applications of the same dualistic thinking that got us into today’s problems, we need to think and act nondualistically. Instead of assuming that solutions do not themselves already presuppose and embody problems of a certain type, we need to think in terms of integrated problem-solution monads deployed throughout ecosystems like species in symbiotic relationships. This is precisely what’s happened historically with the oil-automobile-highway-plastics-engineering ecosystem, and with the germ-disease-pharmaceutical-public health-medicine ecosystem. In each case, financial, market, accounting, regulatory, legal, educational, and other institutions evolved in tandem with the emerging sociotechnical ecology.

Now we face urgent needs to think and act on previously unheard of scales and levels of complexity. We have to work together and coordinate efforts in social and psychological domains with no previous history of communications capable of functioning at the needed efficiencies.

But merely urging people to live differently will never result in the changes that must be brought about. No matter how compelling the facts, no matter how persuasive the emotional power, and no matter how inspirational the moral argument, individual people and small groups simply cannot create new shared standards of behavior out of thin air. We are all products of our times and our sociocultural environments. People cannot be expected to simply wake up one day and spontaneously transform their habits by an effort of will. Instead, the values of fairness, equity, inclusion, and justice we say we live by must be embedded within the very fabric of everyday life, the way hours, meters, liters, degrees, grams, and volts are now.

That is, measurements read off instruments calibrated in fair units of comparison—measurements mathematically equivalent to those made with the scales of justice, measurements expressed in the common metrics of a new international system of units, and measurements as adaptable to local individual improvisations as they are generally comparable and navigable—have to be built into every institution in just the same way existing units of measurement are. Education, health care, social services, human resource management, environmental solutions—all of these and more need to attend closely to ways in which the objects of conversation can be more systematically expressed in meaningful words. Ecosystem thinking demands that everyone and everything in a system of relationships must be consistently kept in proportionate contact, within ranges of reported uncertainty, instead of being disconnected off into separate incommensurable universes of discourse, as occurs in today’s institutions.

These are all monumentally huge challenges. But much of the hardest work has been underway for decades, with important results and resources spreading into widely used applications often taken for granted in the background of largely unexamined assumptions. These results are now well enough established, and the associated social and environmental problems are so serious, that more can and should be done to put them to use.

The need for new values is indeed urgent, but empty talk and doing more of the same is getting us nowhere, at best, and more often is worsening conditions. Conceptual determinations of reproducible mathematical values embodying people’s lived social and moral values in fungible economic values are not just theoretical possibilities or provisional experimental results. They are longstanding, widely available, and practical, as well as beautiful and meaningful. With attentive cultivation and nurturing, there are abundant reasons for believing in a safe, healthy, happy, and prosperous future for humanity and life on earth.

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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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Making sustainability impacts universally identifiable, individually owned, efficiently exchanged, and profitable

February 2, 2019

Sustainability impacts plainly and obviously lack common product definitions, objective measures, efficient markets, and associated capacities for competing on improved quality. The absence of these landmarks in the domain of sustainability interests is a result of inattention and cultural biases far more than it is a result of the inherent characteristics or nature of sustainability itself. Given the economic importance of these kinds of capacities and the urgent need for new innovations supporting sustainable development, it is curious how even those most stridently advocating new ways of thinking seem to systematically ignore well-established opportunities for advancing their cause. The wealth of historical examples of rapidly emerging, transformative, disruptive, and highly profitable innovations would seem to motivate massive interest in how extend those successes in new directions.

Economists have long noted how common currencies reduce transaction costs, support property rights, and promote market efficiencies (for references and more information, see previous entries in this blog over the last ten years and more). Language itself is well known for functioning as an economical labor-saving device in the way that useful concepts representing things in the world as words need not be re-invented by everyone for themselves, but can simply be copied. In the same ways that common languages ease communication, and common currencies facilitate trade, so, too, do standards for common product definitions contribute to the creation of markets.

Metrologically traceable measurements make it possible for everyone everywhere to know how much of something in particular there is. This is important, first of all, because things have to be identifiable in shared ways if we are to be able to include them in our lives, socially. Anyone interested in obtaining or producing that kind of thing has to be able to know it and share information about it as something in particular. Common languages capable of communicating specifically what a thing is, and how much of it there is, support claims to ownership and to the fruits of investments in entrepreneurial innovations.

Technologies for precision measurement key to these communications are one of the primary products of science. Instruments measuring in SI units embody common currencies for the exchange of scientific capital. The calibration and distribution of such instruments in the domain of sustainability impact investing and innovation ought to be a top-level priority. How else will sustainable impacts be made universally identifiable, individually owned, efficiently exchanged, and profitable?

The electronics, computer, and telecommunications industries provide ample evidence of precision measurement’s role in reducing transaction costs, establishing common product definitions, and reaping huge profits. The music industry’s use of these technologies combines the science and economics of precision measurement with the artistic creativity of intensive improvisations constructed from instruments tuned to standardized scales that achieve wholly unique levels of individual innovation.

Much stands to be learned, and even more to be gained, in focusing sustainability development on ways in which we can harness the economic power of the profit motive by combining collective efforts with individual imaginations in the domains of human, social, and natural capital. Aligning financial, monetary wealth with the authentic wealth and genuine productivity of gains in human, community, and environmental value ought to be the defining mission of this generation. The time to act is now.

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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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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.
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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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