Archive for the ‘economy’ Category

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.

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 [].

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 ( 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: (

Fisher, W. P. J. (2010b). 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.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2010c, June 13-16). Rasch, Maxwell’s method of analogy, and the Chicago tradition. In G. Cooper (Ed.), 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:

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 [].

Fisher, W. P., Jr., & Stenner, A. J. (2011a, January). Metrology for the social, behavioral, and economic sciences.

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:

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),

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.

Comment on Kerrey and Leeds in WSJ

November 20, 2013

Writing in today’s Wall Street Journal, Bob Kerrey and Jeffery T. Leeds note the unintended consequences likely to follow from new higher education regulations proposed by the U.S. Department of Education. Cutting to the chase, Kerrey and Leeds’ key points (emphases added) are that:

  • “Absent innovative, competitive—and, yes, disruptive—pressure to raise quality and lower costs, all the well-intentioned federal regulation in the world will not make college more accessible.”
  • “He [Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan] should insist on real and significant disclosure. Colleges should be required to post their graduation rates, job-placement rates, the average debt of their students upon graduation, their tax status and any and all information that will enable Americans to make informed decisions when choosing a school.”
  • “The department should also work with schools and colleges to address the fundamental causes of rising tuition, and hold schools accountable for student outcomes instead of their debt.”

These are, of course, exactly the themes repeatedly raised in this blog. Measurement quality is unavoidably implicated in holding schools accountable for student outcomes, in enabling consumers to make informed purchasing decisions, and in raising quality and lowering costs.

To meet the challenges we face, measurement quality must be far more than just a matter of precision and rigor. Quality must also speak to relevance, efficiency, and meaningfulness. Recent history has brought home the lesson that annual tests used solely for accountability purposes will not enable rebalanced quality/cost equations, informed consumer decisions, or fair accountability results. But how might these disparate purposes be efficiently and meaningfully realized?

It is essential that, if teachers are to be responsible for student outcomes and for raising the overall quality of education, formative measuring tools must provide the qualitative and quantitative information they need to be able to act responsibly. The irony is, of course, that the way to overcome the problems of a purely summative focus for educational measurement is to measure more! Now, measuring more need not involve devoting more time exclusively to taking tests. Instead, computerized and online assessments are increasingly integrated into instruction so that measures are made in the course of studying (Cheng and Mok, 2007; Wilson, 2004). Measures are thereby continuously updated, and are plotted in growth charts relative to long range outcome goals.

Furthermore, the qualitative information provided by the measurement process is used to inform teachers and students about what comes next in the individualized curriculum, as well as about special strengths and weaknesses. This information has been shown to be unparalleled in its value for advancing learning in the classroom (Black and Wiliam, 1998, 2009; Hattie, 2008).

But formative assessment alone will not be sufficient to the larger tasks of raising quality and lowering costs. For that, systematic quality improvement methods in schools will need to be joined with comparable outcome measures parents and students can use to inform school choice decisions (Fisher, 2013; Lunenberg, 2010).

Kerrey and Leeds rightly seek an infrastructure capable of disruptive effects, of transforming the inflationary economy of education (and health care). To state again a recurring theme in this blog, the command and control hierarchies of regulatory systems can and should be replaced with a metrological infrastructure of common metrics with the scientific, legal, and financial status of common currencies for the exchange of value. Only when such currencies are in place will we be able to set out clear paths for the informed decisions, improved quality, lower costs, and accountability for outcomes that we seek.


Black, P., & Wiliam, D. (1998). Assessment and classroom learning. Assessment in Education, 5(1), 7-74.

Black, P., & Wiliam, D. (2009). Developing the theory of formative assessment. Educational Assessment, Evaluation and Accountability, 21, 5-31.

Cheng, Y. C., & Mok, M. M. C. (2007). School-based management and paradigm shift in education: An empirical study. International Journal of Educational Management, 21(6), 517-542.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2013). Imagining education tailored to assessment as, for, and of learning: Theory, standards, and quality improvement. Assessment and Learning, 2, in press.

Hattie, J. (2008). Visible learning. New York: Routledge.

Lunenberg, F. C. (2010). Total Quality Management applied to schools. Schooling, 1(1), 1-6.

Wilson, M. (Ed.). (2004). Towards coherence between classroom assessment and accountability. (Vol. 103, Part II, National Society for the Study of Education Yearbooks). Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.

What the Economy Needs?

September 5, 2012

Expanding on remarks made by Thomas Friedman in the course of an interview with Charlie Rose broadcast on August 31, 2012…

Friedman broke the problem down to three key points. We have to have 1) a plan, 2) a fair tax contribution from the rich, and 3) aspirations for improving the overall quality of life, economically and  democratically.

The plan outlined from various points of view in this blog is to create a scientific and market infrastructure for intangible assets (human, social and natural capital), assets amounting to at least 90%of the capital under management.

The plan is fair in its advancement of equal opportunity to invest in and realize returns from one’s skills, motivations, health and trustworthiness. Everyone will be able to invest in, and receive their share of the profits from, the human, social, and natural capital stocks of individuals, communities, schools, hospitals, social service agencies, firms, etc. The rich will then both contribute to the advancement of the greater good at the same time they are able to profit from the growth in the authentic wealth created by improvements to human, community, and environmental value.

The plan aspires to great accomplishments in the depth and breadth of the innovation it will facilitate, its fulfillment of democratic principles, and the new economic growth it promises.

And so I would now like to raise a couple of sets of questions. What if all the money put into Medicare, Medicaid, education, HUD, food stamps, the EPA, etc. was instead invested in an infrastructure for intangible assets metrology and HSN capital stocks (individual, organizational–school, hospital, nonprofit, NGO, firm–and community)? Usually, talk of letting the market solve social and environmental problems is nothing but a self-serving excuse for allowing greed to rule at the expense of the greater good. Those so-called market solutions do nothing to actually shape the institutions, rules, and roles by which markets are created, and so the end result would be catastrophic. But there is an essential and unnoticed inconsistency in previously proposed approaches that involves the double standards used in defining and actualizing the various forms of capital.

As previous posts (like this one or this one) in this blog, and several of my publications, have argued, manufactured capital and property have long since been brought to life by transferable representations (titles, deeds, precision quantity measures, etc.) and the various legal, financial, educational, and scientific institutions built up around them. Human, social, and natural capital have not been brought to life and so we remain unable to take proper possession of our own properties, the ones that we most value and on which life, liberty, and happiness are most dependent.

But what if we created the needed market institutions, rules, and roles? What if everyone knew how many shares of community capital they owned, and what the current price of those shares in the market was? What if tuition for an advanced degree was denominated in the shares of literacy capital one obtained, as evident in the increased literacy measures achieved? What if taxes were abolished and minimum investments in human, social, and natural capital stocks were required? What if real, efficient, functional markets in intangible assets were created, and the associated governmental programs and departments were abolished? How much would the federal budget decrease? How much would government shrink? How much might the economy grow if that much money was invested in human, social, and natural capital stocks paying even a minimal reasonable profit?

Another round of questions asks whether we have the optimal social safety net in the current institutional context, or if perhaps that safety net could be significantly improved by following through on the concepts of impact investing and outcome-based budgeting to create a truly sustainable and socially responsible economic system? What if everyone held known numbers of tradable shares of their intangible assets (their skills, motivation, health, trust)? What if the value of those shares was common public knowledge? What if the investment paths to increasing the number and value of shares held were all well known? What if monetary profit could be derived–and could only be derived–by increasing the value of human, social, and natural capital shares? What if groups of people joined together in various kinds of organizations (schools, hospitals, businesses) to collectively grow the value of their authentic wealth? What if lean thinking was applied to the 90% of the capital under management (the human, social, and natural capital) that is currently nearly unmanageable because it is not measured in universally uniform scientific units?

The balance scale is a common symbol of justice. We do not usually aspire to take that symbol as seriously as we could. We ought to have a plan for economic justice that does not have to coerce anyone to acknowledge, pay back, and re-invest in the broad support they received en route to becoming successful. And we ought to have a plan that reinvigorates the aspirations for equal opportunity and freedom that have become a model for people all over the world. Friedman got the broad strokes right. Now’s the time to start filling in the details.

Open Letter on New Infrastructure as a Platform for Economic Growth and Scientific Innovation

December 21, 2011

Dear Thought Leaders Everywhere,

As you are no doubt well aware, one issue in particular is being brought to a head by the lingering economic malaise and the continuing situation in Europe: the austerity measures needed for countering debt problems are going to severely limit growth potentials, if they do not lead straight to recession or depression, unless sources of new efficiencies are found. Given the huge existing levels of debt, it is increasingly difficult to justify the capital injections the economy needs, so thinkers from Paul Krugman to Bill Clinton have proposed the possibility that some new technical infrastructure could provide a platform for new growth, much as the Internet has.

Energy might be a productive area to focus on, for instance. Others go straight to immediately available technologies, and speak of investments in existing infrastructure, such as roads and bridges. But even if a program for bringing that kind of concrete engineering up to full capacity was put in place, it would provide only a small fraction of the jobs and growth actually needed.

The basic idea is right on the mark, though no one seems to realize there are types of infrastructure beyond tangible assets like energy, or roads and bridges. Stop a second and think about it. We say we manage what we measure. Standardized weights and measures are widely recognized as an essential core feature of productivity and innovation in science, engineering, and the economy. But existing standardized metrics are exclusively focused on physics and chemistry, machines and tools, and property. And that’s the problem: manufactured capital and property make up only about 10% of all the capital under management.

What’s the other 90%? Human capital: skills, motivations, health. Social capital: trust, commitment, loyalty. Natural capital: water and air purification services, genetic variation, fisheries. Why don’t we have standardized weights and measures for managing these essential core areas of education, health care, human and natural resource management, social services, etc.? After all, if we manage what we measure, and we lack measures for the vast majority of the capital in the economy, we are probably lucky to be doing as well as we are. Our faith in efficient markets is not misplaced as much as we have not yet really made it central to the economics of every form of capital.

There are a lot of reasons why we don’t have standardized metrics for measuring individual amounts of intangible assets like human, social, and natural capital, but the supposed “subjectivity” of those forms of capital is NOT one of them. Decades of research and practice prove the viability of the technology needed for unifying the measurement of everything from literacy capital to health capital, from social capital to natural capital. What stands in our way as a society has much more to do with preconceptions and unexamined assumptions than with the supposed “soft” nature of the social sciences and psychology.

White papers published online by NIST and NSF, and a recent award-winning essay forthcoming in Standards Engineering (full references are listed below), provide rational justifications for a new research agenda focused on developing and implementing an intangible assets metric system. Such a system would enable us to act on the truth that we can accomplish far more working together cooperatively in a common framework than we can as individuals.

Better measurement is essential to better management. In the context of today’s pressing economic and social issues, new questions about the way we manage every form of resource need to be raised. You are in a position from which these questions can be effectively put forward for consideration by thought leaders across a wide array of disciplines and industries. We hope you will see fit to do so. If we can be of any further assistance, please do not hesitate to let us know. Thank you.


William P. Fisher, Jr., Ph.D.

A. Jackson Stenner, Ph.D.

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

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2012). What the world needs now: A bold plan for new standards. Standards Engineering, forthcoming. For the ANSI press release, see

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

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

September 10, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 10, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 10, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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New Opportunities for Job Creation and Prosperity

August 17, 2011

What can be done to create jobs and revive the economy? There is no simple, easy answer to this question. Creating busywork is nonsense. We need fulfilling occupations that meet the world’s demand for products and services. It is not easy to see how meaningful work can be systematically created on a broad scale. New energy efficiencies may lead to the cultivation of significant job growth, but it may be unwise to put all of our eggs in this one basket.

So how are we to solve this puzzle? What other areas in the economy might be ripe for the introduction of a new technology capable of supporting a wave of new productivity, like computers did in the 1980s, or the Internet in the 1990s? In trying to answer this question, simplicity and elegance are key factors in keeping things at a practical level.

For instance, we know we accomplish more working together as a team than as disconnected individuals. New jobs, especially new kinds of jobs, will have to be created via innovation. Innovation in science and industry is a team sport. So the first order of business in teaming up for job creation is to know the rules of the game. The economic game is played according to the rules of law embodied in property rights, scientific rationality, capital markets, and transportation/communications networks (see William Bernstein’s 2004 book, The Birth of Plenty). When these conditions are met, as they were in Europe and North America at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the stage is set for long term innovation and growth on a broad scale.

The second order of business is to identify areas in the economy that lack one or more of these four conditions, and that could reasonably be expected to benefit from their introduction. Education, health care, social services, and environmental management come immediately to mind. These industries are plagued with seemingly interminable inflationary spirals, which, no doubt, are at least in part caused by the inability of investors to distinguish between high and low performers. Money cannot flow to and reward programs producing superior results in these industries because they lack common product definitions and comparable measures of their results.

The problems these industries are experiencing are not specific to each of them in particular. Rather, the problem is a general one applicable across all industries, not just these. Traditionally, economic thinking focuses on three main forms of capital: land, labor, and manufactured products (including everything from machines, roads, and buildings to food, clothing, and appliances). Cash and credit are often thought of as liquid capital, but their economic value stems entirely from the access they provide to land, labor, and manufactured products.

Economic activity is not really, however, restricted to these three forms of capital. Land is far more than a piece of ground. What are actually at stake are the earth’s regenerative ecosystems, with the resources and services they provide. And labor is far more than a pair of skilled hands; people bring a complex mix of abilities, motivations, and health to bear in their work. Finally, this scheme lacks an essential element: the trust, loyalty, and commitment required for even the smallest economic exchange to take place. Without social capital, all the other forms of capital (human, natural, and manufactured, including property) are worthless. Consistent, sustainable, and socially responsible economic growth requires that all four forms of capital be made accountable in financial spreadsheets and economic models.

The third order of business, then, is to ask if the four conditions laying out the rules for the economic game are met in each of the four capital domains. The table below suggests that all four conditions are fully met only for manufactured products. They are partially met for natural resources, such as minerals, timber, fisheries, etc., but not at all for nature’s air and water purification systems or broader genetic ecosystem services.


Existing Conditions Relevant to Conceiving a New Birth of Plenty, by Capital Domains





Property rights





Scientific rationality





Capital markets





Transportation & communication networks





That is, no provisions exist for individual ownership of shares in the total available stock of air and water, or of forest, watershed, estuary, and other ecosystem service outcomes. Nor do any individuals have free and clear title to their most personal properties, the intangible abilities, motivations, health, and trust most essential to their economic productivity. Aggregate statistics are indeed commonly used to provide a basis for policy and research in human, social, and natural capital markets, but falsifiable models of individually applicable unit quantities are not widely applied. Scientifically rational measures of our individual stocks of intangible asset value will require extensive use of these falsifiable models in calibrating the relevant instrumentation.

Without such measures, we cannot know how many shares of stock in these forms of capital we own, or what they are worth in dollar terms. We lack these measures, even though decades have passed since researchers first established firm theoretical and practical foundations for them. And more importantly, even when scientifically rational individual measures can be obtained, they are never expressed in terms of a unit standardized for use within a given market’s communications network.

So what are the consequences for teams playing the economic game? High performance teams’ individual decisions and behaviors are harmonized in ways that cannot otherwise be achieved only when unit amounts, prices, and costs are universally comparable and publicly available. This is why standard currencies and exchange rates are so important.

And right here we have an insight into what we can do to create jobs. New jobs are likely going to have to be new kinds of jobs resulting from innovations. As has been detailed at length in recent works such as Surowiecki’s 2004 book, The Wisdom of Crowds, innovation in science and industry depends on standards. Standards are common languages that enable us to multiply our individual cognitive powers into new levels of collective productivity. Weights and measures standards are like monetary currencies; they coordinate the exchange of value in laboratories and businesses in the same way that dollars do in the US economy.

Applying Bernstein’s four conditions for economic growth to intangible assets, we see that a long term program for job creation then requires

  1. legislation establishing human, social, and natural capital property rights, and an Intangible Assets Metrology System;
  2. scientific research into consensus standards for measuring human, social, and natural capital;
  3. venture capital educational and marketing programs; and
  4. distributed information networks and computer applications through which investments in human, social, and natural capital can be tracked and traded in accord with the rule of law governing property rights and in accord with established consensus standards.

Of these four conditions, Bernstein (p. 383) points to property rights as being the most difficult to establish, and the most important for prosperity. Scientific results are widely available in online libraries. Capital can be obtained from investors anywhere. Transportation and communications services are available commercially.

But valid and verifiable means of representing legal title to privately owned property is a problem often not yet solved even for real estate in many Third World and former communist countries (see De Soto’s 2000 book, The Mystery of Capital). Creating systems for knowing the quality and quantity of educational, health care, social, and environmental service outcomes is going to be a very difficult process. It will not be impossible, however, and having the problem identified advances us significantly towards new economic possibilities.

We need leaders able and willing to formulate audacious goals for new economic growth from ideas such as these. We need enlightened visionaries able to see our potentials from a new perspective, and who can reflect our new self-image back at us. When these leaders emerge—and they will, somewhere, somehow—the imaginations of millions of entrepreneurial thinkers and actors will be fired, and new possibilities will unfold.

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Science, Public Goods, and the Monetization of Commodities

August 13, 2011

Though I haven’t read Philip Mirowski’s new book yet (Science-Mart: Privatizing American Science. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), a statement in the cover blurb given at got me thinking. I can’t help but wonder if there is another way of interpreting neoliberal ideology’s “radically different view of knowledge and discovery: [that] the fruits of scientific investigation are not a public good that should be freely available to all, but are commodities that could be monetized”?

Corporations and governments are not the only ones investing in research and new product development, and they are not the only ones who could benefit from the monetization of the fruits of scientific investigation. Individuals make these investments as well, and despite ostensible rights to private ownership, no individuals anywhere have access to universally comparable, uniformly expressed, and scientifically valid information on the quantity or quality of the literacy, health, community, or natural capital that is rightfully theirs. They accordingly also then do not have any form of demonstrable legal title to these properties. In the same way that corporations have successfully advanced their economic interests by seeing that patent and intellectual property laws were greatly strengthened, so, too, ought individuals and communities advance their economic interests by, first, expanding the scope of weights and measures standards to include intangible assets, and second, by strengthening laws related to the ownership of privately held stocks of living capital.

The nationalist and corporatist socialization of research will continue only as long as social capital, human capital, and natural capital are not represented in the universally uniform common currencies and transparent media that could be provided by an intangible assets metric system. When these forms of capital are brought to economic life in fungible measures akin to barrels, bushels, or kilowatts, then they will be monetized commodities in the full capitalist sense of the term, ownable and purchasable products with recognizable standard definitions, uniform quantitative volumes, and discernable variations in quality. Then, and only then, will individuals gain economic control over their most important assets. Then, and only then, will we obtain the information we need to transform education, health care, social services, and human and natural resource management into industries in which quality is appropriately rewarded. Then, and only then, will we have the means for measuring genuine progress and authentic wealth in ways that correct the insufficiencies of the GNP/GDP indexes.

The creation of efficiently functioning markets for all forms of capital is an economic, political, and moral necessity (see Ekins, 1992 and others). We say we manage what we measure, but very little effort has been put into measuring (with scientific validity and precision in universally uniform and accessible aggregate terms) 90% of the capital resources under management: human abilities, motivations, and health; social commitment, loyalty, and trust; and nature’s air and water purification and ecosystem services (see Hawken, Lovins, & Lovins, 1999, among others). All human suffering, sociopolitical discontent, and environmental degradation are rooted in the same common cause: waste (see Hawken, et al., 1999). To apply lean thinking to removing the wasteful destruction of our most valuable resources, we must measure these resources in ways that allow us to coordinate and align our decisions and behaviors virtually, at a distance, with no need for communicating and negotiating the local particulars of the hows and whys of our individual situations. For more information on these ideas, search “living capital metrics” and see works like the following:

Ekins, P. (1992). A four-capital model of wealth creation. In P. Ekins & M. Max-Neef (Eds.), Real-life economics: Understanding wealth creation (pp. 147-15). London: Routledge.

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

Hawken, P., Lovins, A., & Lovins, H. L. (1999). Natural capitalism: Creating the next industrial revolution. New York: Little, Brown, and Co.

Latour, B. (1987). Science in action: How to follow scientists and engineers through society. New York: Cambridge University Press.

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

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

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