Archive for the ‘environmental management’ 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.

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Another Take on the Emerging Paradigm Shift

November 8, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Question Authority: Queries In the Back of the Wall Street Demonstrators’ Minds

October 2, 2011

I think the Wall Street demonstrators’ lack of goals and the admission of not having a solution is very important. All solutions offered so far are band-aids at best, and most are likely to do more harm than good.

I think I have an innovative way of articulating the questions people have on their minds. I thought of scattering small pieces of paper anywhere there are these demonstrations going on, with questions like these on them:

Feeling robbed of the trust, loyalty, and commitment you invested?

Unable to get a good return on your investment in your education?

Feeling robbed of your share of the world’s natural resources?

How many shares of social capital do you own?

How many shares of literacy capital do you have on the market?

How many shares of health capital do you own?

How many shares of natural capital do you own?

Wishing there was an easy way to know what return rate you get on your health investments?

Wishing there was an easy way to know what return rate you get on your education investments?

Why don’t you have legal title to your literacy capital shares?

Why don’t you have legal title to your social capital shares?

Why don’t you have legal title to your health capital shares?

Why don’t you have legal title to your natural capital shares?

Why don’t you know how many literacy capital shares are rightfully yours?

Why don’t you know how many social capital shares are rightfully yours?

Why don’t you know how many health capital shares are rightfully yours?

Why don’t you know how many natural capital shares are rightfully yours?

Why is there no common currency for trading on your literacy capital?

Why is there no common currency for trading on your health capital?

Why is there no common currency for trading on your social capital?

Why is there no common currency for trading on your natural capital?

Why aren’t corporations accountable for their impacts on your literacy capital investments?

Why aren’t corporations accountable for their impacts on your natural capital investments?

Why aren’t corporations accountable for their impacts on your social capital investments?

Why aren’t corporations accountable for their impacts on your health capital investments?

Why aren’t governments accountable for their impacts on your literacy capital investments?

Why aren’t governments accountable for their impacts on your natural capital investments?

Why aren’t governments accountable for their impacts on your social capital investments?

Why aren’t governments accountable for their impacts on your health capital investments?

Why are educational outcomes not comparable in a common metric?

Why are health care outcomes not comparable in a common metric?

Why are social program outcomes not comparable in a common metric?

Why are natural resource management program outcomes not comparable in a common metric?

Why do accounting and economics focus on land, labor, and manufactured capital instead of putting the value of ecosystem services, and health, literacy, and social capital, on the books and in the models, along with property and manufactured capital?

If we truly do manage what we measure, why don’t we have a metric system for literacy capital?

Can we effectively manage literacy capital if we don’t have a universally recognized and accepted metric for it?

If we truly do manage what we measure, why don’t we have a metric system for health capital?

Can we effectively manage health capital if we don’t have a universally recognized and accepted metric for it?

If we truly do manage what we measure, why don’t we have a metric system for social capital?

Can we effectively manage social capital if we don’t have a universally recognized and accepted metric for it?

If we truly do manage what we measure, why don’t we have a metric system for natural capital?

Can we effectively manage natural capital if we don’t have a universally recognized and accepted metric for it?

How is our collective imagination being stifled by the lack of a common language for literacy capital?

How is our collective imagination being stifled by the lack of a common language for health capital?

How is our collective imagination being stifled by the lack of a common language for social capital?

How is our collective imagination being stifled by the lack of a common language for natural capital?

How can the voice of the people be heard without common languages for things that are important to us?

How do we know where we stand as individuals and as a society if we can’t track the value and volume of our literacy, health, social, and natural capital shares?

Why don’t NIST and NSF fund new research into literacy, health, social, and natural capital metrics?

Why aren’t banks required to offer literacy, health, social, and natural capital accounts?

If we want to harmonize relationships between people, within and between societies, and between culture and nature, why don’t we tune the instruments on which we play the music of our lives?

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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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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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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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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 (http://www.thenation.com/article/161267/reimagining-capitalism-bold-ideas-new-economy) 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.

 Table

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

Human

Social

Natural

Manufactured

Property rights

No

No

Partial

Yes

Scientific rationality

Partial

Partial

Partial

Yes

Capital markets

Partial

Partial

Partial

Yes

Transportation & communication networks

Partial

Partial

Partial

Yes

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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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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Debt, Revenue, and Changing the Way Washington Works: The Greatest Entrepreneurial Opportunity of Our Time

July 30, 2011

“Holding the line” on spending and taxes does not make for a fundamental transformation of the way Washington works. Simply doing less of one thing is just a small quantitative change that does nothing to build positive results or set a new direction. What we need is a qualitative metamorphosis akin to a caterpillar becoming a butterfly. In contrast with this beautiful image of natural processes, the arguments and so-called principles being invoked in the sham debate that’s going on are nothing more than fights over where to put deck chairs on the Titanic.

What sort of transformation is possible? What kind of a metamorphosis will start from who and where we are, but redefine us sustainably and responsibly? As I have repeatedly explained in this blog, my conference presentations, and my publications, with numerous citations of authoritative references, we already possess all of the elements of the transformation. We have only to organize and deploy them. Of course, discerning what the resources are and how to put them together is not obvious. And though I believe we will do what needs to be done when we are ready, it never hurts to prepare for that moment. So here’s another take on the situation.

Infrastructure that supports lean thinking is the name of the game. Lean thinking focuses on identifying and removing waste. Anything that consumes resources but does not contribute to the quality of the end product is waste. We have enormous amounts of wasteful inefficiency in many areas of our economy. These inefficiencies are concentrated in areas in which management is hobbled by low quality information, where we lack the infrastructure we need.

Providing and capitalizing on this infrastructure is The Greatest Entrepreneurial Opportunity of Our Time. Changing the way Washington (ha! I just typed “Wastington”!) works is the same thing as mitigating the sources of risk that caused the current economic situation. Making government behave more like a business requires making the human, social, and natural capital markets more efficient. Making those markets more efficient requires reducing the costs of transactions. Those costs are determined in large part by information quality, which is a function of measurement.

It is often said that the best way to reduce the size of government is to move the functions of government into the marketplace. But this proposal has never been associated with any sense of the infrastructural components needed to really make the idea work. Simply reducing government without an alternative way of performing its functions is irresponsible and destructive. And many of those who rail on and on about how bad or inefficient government is fail to recognize that the government is us. We get the government we deserve. The government we get follows directly from the kind of people we are. Government embodies our image of ourselves as a people. In the US, this is what having a representative form of government means. “We the people” participate in our society’s self-governance not just by voting, writing letters to congress, or demonstrating, but in the way we spend our money, where we choose to live, work, and go to school, and in every decision we make. No one can take a breath of air, a drink of water, or a bite of food without trusting everyone else to not carelessly or maliciously poison them. No one can buy anything or drive down the street without expecting others to behave in predictable ways that ensure order and safety.

But we don’t just trust blindly. We have systems in place to guard against those who would ruthlessly seek to gain at everyone else’s expense. And systems are the point. No individual person or firm, no matter how rich, could afford to set up and maintain the systems needed for checking and enforcing air, water, food, and workplace safety measures. Society as a whole invests in the infrastructure of measures created, maintained, and regulated by the government’s Department of Commerce and the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST). The moral importance and the economic value of measurement standards has been stressed historically over many millennia, from the Bible and the Quran to the Magna Carta and the French Revolution to the US Constitution. Uniform weights and measures are universally recognized and accepted as essential to fair trade.

So how is it that we nonetheless apparently expect individuals and local organizations like schools, businesses, and hospitals to measure and monitor students’ abilities; employees’ skills and engagement; patients’ health status, functioning, and quality of care; etc.? Why do we not demand common currencies for the exchange of value in human, social, and natural capital markets? Why don’t we as a society compel our representatives in government to institute the will of the people and create new standards for fair trade in education, health care, social services, and environmental management?

Measuring better is not just a local issue! It is a systemic issue! When measurement is objective and when we all think together in the common language of a shared metric (like hours, volts, inches or centimeters, ounces or grams, degrees Fahrenheit or Celsius, etc.), then and only then do we have the means we need to implement lean strategies and create new efficiencies systematically. We need an Intangible Assets Metric System.

The current recession in large part was caused by failures in measuring and managing trust, responsibility, loyalty, and commitment. Similar problems in measuring and managing human, social, and natural capital have led to endlessly spiraling costs in education, health care, social services, and environmental management. The problems we’re experiencing in these areas are intimately tied up with the way we formulate and implement group level decision making processes and policies based in statistics when what we need is to empower individuals with the tools and information they need to make their own decisions and policies. We will not and cannot metamorphose from caterpillar to butterfly until we create the infrastructure through which we each can take full ownership and control of our individual shares of the human, social, and natural capital stock that is rightfully ours.

We well know that we manage what we measure. What counts gets counted. Attention tends to be focused on what we’re accountable for. But–and this is vitally important–many of the numbers called measures do not provide the information we need for management. And not only are lots of numbers giving us low quality information, there are far too many of them! We could have better and more information from far fewer numbers.

Previous postings in this blog document the fact that we have the intellectual, political, scientific, and economic resources we need to measure and manage human, social, and natural capital for authentic wealth. And the issue is not a matter of marshaling the will. It is hard to imagine how there could be more demand for better management of intangible assets than there is right now. The problem in meeting that demand is a matter of imagining how to start the ball rolling. What configuration of investments and resources will start the process of bursting open the chrysalis? How will the demand for meaningful mediating instruments be met in a way that leads to the spreading of the butterfly’s wings? It is an exciting time to be alive.

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LivingCapitalMetrics Blog by William P. Fisher, Jr., Ph.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
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A Second Simple Example of Measurement’s Role in Reducing Transaction Costs, Enhancing Market Efficiency, and Enables the Pricing of Intangible Assets

March 9, 2011

The prior post here showed why we should not confuse counts of things with measures of amounts, though counts are the natural starting place to begin constructing measures. That first simple example focused on an analogy between counting oranges and measuring the weight of oranges, versus counting correct answers on tests and measuring amounts of ability. This second example extends the first by, in effect, showing what happens when we want to aggregate value not just across different counts of some one thing but across different counts of different things. The point will be, in effect, to show how the relative values of apples, oranges, grapes, and bananas can be put into a common frame of reference and compared in a practical and convenient way.

For instance, you may go into a grocery store to buy raspberries and blackberries, and I go in to buy cantaloupe and watermelon. Your cost per individual fruit will be very low, and mine will be very high, but neither of us will find this annoying, confusing, or inconvenient because your fruits are very small, and mine, very large. Conversely, your cost per kilogram will be much higher than mine, but this won’t cause either of us any distress because we both recognize the differences in the labor, handling, nutritional, and culinary value of our purchases.

But what happens when we try to purchase something as complex as a unit of socioeconomic development? The eight UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) represent a start at a systematic effort to bring human, social, and natural capital together into the same economic and accountability framework as liquid and manufactured capital, and property. But that effort is stymied by the inefficiency and cost of making and using measures of the goals achieved. The existing MDG databases (http://data.un.org/Browse.aspx?d=MDG), and summary reports present overwhelming numbers of numbers. Individual indicators are presented for each year, each country, each region, and each program, goal by goal, target by target, indicator by indicator, and series by series, in an indigestible volume of data.

Though there are no doubt complex mathematical methods by which a philanthropic, governmental, or NGO investor might determine how much development is gained per million dollars invested, the cost of obtaining impact measures is so high that most funding decisions are made with little information concerning expected returns (Goldberg, 2009). Further, the percentages of various needs met by leading social enterprises typically range from 0.07% to 3.30%, and needs are growing, not diminishing. Progress at current rates means that it would take thousands of years to solve today’s problems of human suffering, social disparity, and environmental quality. The inefficiency of human, social, and natural capital markets is so overwhelming that there is little hope for significant improvements without the introduction of fundamental infrastructural supports, such as an Intangible Assets Metric System.

A basic question that needs to be asked of the MDG system is, how can anyone make any sense out of so much data? Most of the indicators are evaluated in terms of counts of the number of times something happens, the number of people affected, or the number of things observed to be present. These counts are usually then divided by the maximum possible (the count of the total population) and are expressed as percentages or rates.

As previously explained in various posts in this blog, counts and percentages are not measures in any meaningful sense. They are notoriously difficult to interpret, since the quantitative meaning of any given unit difference varies depending on the size of what is counted, or where the percentage falls in the 0-100 continuum. And because counts and percentages are interpreted one at a time, it is very difficult to know if and when any number included in the sheer mass of data is reasonable, all else considered, or if it is inconsistent with other available facts.

A study of the MDG data must focus on these three potential areas of data quality improvement: consistency evaluation, volume reduction, and interpretability. Each builds on the others. With consistent data lending themselves to summarization in sufficient statistics, data volume can be drastically reduced with no loss of information (Andersen, 1977, 1999; Wright, 1977, 1997), data quality can be readily assessed in terms of sufficiency violations (Smith, 2000; Smith & Plackner, 2009), and quantitative measures can be made interpretable in terms of a calibrated ruler’s repeatedly reproducible hierarchy of indicators (Bond & Fox, 2007; Masters, Lokan, & Doig, 1994).

The primary data quality criteria are qualitative relevance and meaningfulness, on the one hand, and mathematical rigor, on the other. The point here is one of following through on the maxim that we manage what we measure, with the goal of measuring in such a way that management is better focused on the program mission and not distracted by accounting irrelevancies.

Method

As written and deployed, each of the MDG indicators has the face and content validity of providing information on each respective substantive area of interest. But, as has been the focus of repeated emphases in this blog, counting something is not the same thing as measuring it.

Counts or rates of literacy or unemployment are not, in and of themselves, measures of development. Their capacity to serve as contributing indications of developmental progress is an empirical question that must be evaluated experimentally against the observable evidence. The measurement of progress toward an overarching developmental goal requires inferences made from a conceptual order of magnitude above and beyond that provided in the individual indicators. The calibration of an instrument for assessing progress toward the realization of the Millennium Development Goals requires, first, a reorganization of the existing data, and then an analysis that tests explicitly the relevant hypotheses as to the potential for quantification, before inferences supporting the comparison of measures can be scientifically supported.

A subset of the MDG data was selected from the MDG database available at http://data.un.org/Browse.aspx?d=MDG, recoded, and analyzed using Winsteps (Linacre, 2011). At least one indicator was selected from each of the eight goals, with 22 in total. All available data from these 22 indicators were recorded for each of 64 countries.

The reorganization of the data is nothing but a way of making the interpretation of the percentages explicit. The meaning of any one country’s percentage or rate of youth unemployment, cell phone users, or literacy has to be kept in context relative to expectations formed from other countries’ experiences. It would be nonsense to interpret any single indicator as good or bad in isolation. Sometimes 30% represents an excellent state of affairs, other times, a terrible one.

Therefore, the distributions of each indicator’s percentages across the 64 countries were divided into ranges and converted to ratings. A lower rating uniformly indicates a status further away from the goal than a higher rating. The ratings were devised by dividing the frequency distribution of each indicator roughly into thirds.

For instance, the youth unemployment rate was found to vary such that the countries furthest from the desired goal had rates of 25% and more(rated 1), and those closest to or exceeding the goal had rates of 0-10% (rated 3), leaving the middle range (10-25%) rated 2. In contrast, percentages of the population that are undernourished were rated 1 for 35% or more, 2 for 15-35%, and 3 for less than 15%.

Thirds of the distributions were decided upon only on the basis of the investigator’s prior experience with data of this kind. A more thorough approach to the data would begin from a finer-grained rating system, like that structuring the MDG table at http://mdgs.un.org/unsd/mdg/Resources/Static/Products/Progress2008/MDG_Report_2008_Progress_Chart_En.pdf. This greater detail would be sought in order to determine empirically just how many distinctions each indicator can support and contribute to the overall measurement system.

Sixty-four of the available 336 data points were selected for their representativeness, with no duplications of values and with a proportionate distribution along the entire continuum of observed values.

Data from the same 64 countries and the same years were then sought for the subsequent indicators. It turned out that the years in which data were available varied across data sets. Data within one or two years of the target year were sometimes substituted for missing data.

The data were analyzed twice, first with each indicator allowed its own rating scale, parameterizing each of the category difficulties separately for each item, and then with the full rating scale model, as the results of the first analysis showed all indicators shared strong consistency in the rating structure.

Results

Data were 65.2% complete. Countries were assessed on an average of 14.3 of the 22 indicators, and each indicator was applied on average to 41.7 of the 64 country cases. Measurement reliability was .89-.90, depending on how measurement error is estimated. Cronbach’s alpha for the by-country scores was .94. Calibration reliability was .93-.95. The rating scale worked well (see Linacre, 2002, for criteria). The data fit the measurement model reasonably well, with satisfactory data consistency, meaning that the hypothesis of a measurable developmental construct was not falsified.

The main result for our purposes here concerns how satisfactory data consistency makes it possible to dramatically reduce data volume and improve data interpretability. The figure below illustrates how. What does it mean for data volume to be drastically reduced with no loss of information? Let’s see exactly how much the data volume is reduced for the ten item data subset shown in the figure below.

The horizontal continuum from -100 to 1300 in the figure is the metric, the ruler or yardstick. The number of countries at various locations along that ruler is shown across the bottom of the figure. The mean (M), first standard deviation (S), and second standard deviation (T) are shown beneath the numbers of countries. There are ten countries with a measure of just below 400, just to the left of the mean (M).

The MDG indicators are listed on the right of the figure, with the indicator most often found being achieved relative to the goals at the bottom, and the indicator least often being achieved at the top. The ratings in the middle of the figure increase from 1 to 3 left to right as the probability of goal achievement increases as the measures go from low to high. The position of the ratings in the middle of the figure shifts from left to right as one reads up the list of indicators because the difficulty of achieving the goals is increasing.

Because the ratings of the 64 countries relative to these ten goals are internally consistent, nothing but the developmental level of the country and the developmental challenge of the indicator affects the probability that a given rating will be attained. It is this relation that defines fit to a measurement model, the sufficiency of the summed ratings, and the interpretability of the scores. Given sufficient fit and consistency, any country’s measure implies a given rating on each of the ten indicators.

For instance, imagine a vertical line drawn through the figure at a measure of 500, just above the mean (M). This measure is interpreted relative to the places at which the vertical line crosses the ratings in each row associated with each of the ten items. A measure of 500 is read as implying, within a given range of error, uncertainty, or confidence, a rating of

  • 3 on debt service and female-to-male parity in literacy,
  • 2 or 3 on how much of the population is undernourished and how many children under five years of age are moderately or severely underweight,
  • 2 on infant mortality, the percent of the population aged 15 to 49 with HIV, and the youth unemployment rate,
  • 1 or 2 the poor’s share of the national income, and
  • 1 on CO2 emissions and the rate of personal computers per 100 inhabitants.

For any one country with a measure of 500 on this scale, ten percentages or rates that appear completely incommensurable and incomparable are found to contribute consistently to a single valued function, developmental goal achievement. Instead of managing each separate indicator as a universe unto itself, this scale makes it possible to manage development itself at its own level of complexity. This ten-to-one ratio of reduced data volume is more than doubled when the total of 22 items included in the scale is taken into account.

This reduction is conceptually and practically important because it focuses attention on the actual object of management, development. When the individual indicators are the focus of attention, the forest is lost for the trees. Those who disparage the validity of the maxim, you manage what you measure, are often discouraged by the the feeling of being pulled in too many directions at once. But a measure of the HIV infection rate is not in itself a measure of anything but the HIV infection rate. Interpreting it in terms of broader developmental goals requires evidence that it in fact takes a place in that larger context.

And once a connection with that larger context is established, the consistency of individual data points remains a matter of interest. As the world turns, the order of things may change, but, more likely, data entry errors, temporary data blips, and other factors will alter data quality. Such changes cannot be detected outside of the context defined by an explicit interpretive framework that requires consistent observations.

-100  100     300     500     700     900    1100    1300
|-------+-------+-------+-------+-------+-------+-------|  NUM   INDCTR
1                                 1  :    2    :  3     3    9  PcsPer100
1                         1   :   2    :   3            3    8  CO2Emissions
1                    1  :    2    :   3                 3   10  PoorShareNatInc
1                 1  :    2    :  3                     3   19  YouthUnempRatMF
1              1   :    2   :   3                       3    1  %HIV15-49
1            1   :   2    :   3                         3    7  InfantMortality
1          1  :    2    :  3                            3    4  ChildrenUnder5ModSevUndWgt
1         1   :    2    :  3                            3   12  PopUndernourished
1    1   :    2   :   3                                 3    6  F2MParityLit
1   :    2    :  3                                      3    5  DebtServExpInc
|-------+-------+-------+-------+-------+-------+-------|  NUM   INDCTR
-100  100     300     500     700     900    1100    1300
                   1
       1   1 13445403312323 41 221    2   1   1            COUNTRIES
       T      S       M      S       T

Discussion

A key element in the results obtained here concerns the fact that the data were about 35% missing. Whether or not any given indicator was actually rated for any given country, the measure can still be interpreted as implying the expected rating. This capacity to take missing data into account can be taken advantage of systematically by calibrating a large bank of indicators. With this in hand, it becomes possible to gather only the amount of data needed to make a specific determination, or to adaptively administer the indicators so as to obtain the lowest-error (most reliable) measure at the lowest cost (with the fewest indicators administered). Perhaps most importantly, different collections of indicators can then be equated to measure in the same unit, so that impacts may be compared more efficiently.

Instead of an international developmental aid market that is so inefficient as to preclude any expectation of measured returns on investment, setting up a calibrated bank of indicators to which all measures are traceable opens up numerous desirable possibilities. The cost of assessing and interpreting the data informing aid transactions could be reduced to negligible amounts, and the management of the processes and outcomes in which that aid is invested would be made much more efficient by reduced data volume and enhanced information content. Because capital would flow more efficiently to where supply is meeting demand, nonproducers would be cut out of the market, and the effectiveness of the aid provided would be multiplied many times over.

The capacity to harmonize counts of different but related events into a single measurement system presents the possibility that there may be a bright future for outcomes-based budgeting in education, health care, human resource management, environmental management, housing, corrections, social services, philanthropy, and international development. It may seem wildly unrealistic to imagine such a thing, but the return on the investment would be so monumental that not checking it out would be even crazier.

A full report on the MDG data, with the other references cited, is available on my SSRN page at http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1739386.

Goldberg, S. H. (2009). Billions of drops in millions of buckets: Why philanthropy doesn’t advance social progress. New York: Wiley.

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