Archive for the ‘externalities’ Category

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”?

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

May 14, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fisher, W. P., Jr., & Stenner, A. J. (2011b, August 31 to September 2). A technology roadmap for intangible assets metrology. In Fundamentals of measurement science. International Measurement Confederation (IMEKO) TC1-TC7-TC13 Joint Symposium. Jena, Germany: http://www.db-thueringen.de/servlets/DerivateServlet/Derivate-24493/ilm1-2011imeko-018.pdf.

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

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

Miller, P., & O’Leary, T. (2007, October/November). Mediating instruments and making markets: Capital budgeting, science and the economy. Accounting, Organizations, and Society, 32(7-8), 701-734.

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

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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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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Subjectivity, Objectivity, Performance Measurement and Markets

April 23, 2011

Though he attributes his insight to a colleague (George Baker), Michael Jensen has once more succinctly stated a key point I’ve repeatedly tried to convey in my blog posts. As Jensen (2003, p. 397) puts it,

…any activity whose performance can be perfectly measured objectively does not belong inside the firm. If its performance can be adequately measured objectively it can be spun out of the firm and contracted for in a market transaction.

YES!! Though nothing is measured perfectly, my message has been a series of variations on precisely this theme. Well-measured property, services, products, and commodities in today’s economy are associated with scientific, legal and financial structures and processes that endow certain representations with meaningful indications of kind, amount, value and ownership. It is further well established that the ownership of the products of one’s creative endeavors is essential to economic advancement and the enlargement of the greater good. Markets could not exist without objective measures, and thus we have the central commercial importance of metric standards.

The improved measurement of service outcomes and performances is going to create an environment capable of supporting similar legal and financial indications of value and ownership. Many of the causes of today’s economic crises can be traced to poor quality information and inadequate measures of human, social, and natural value. Bringing publicly verifiable scientific data and methods to bear on the tuning of instruments for measuring these forms of value will make their harmonization much simpler than it ever could be otherwise. Social and environmental costs and value have been relegated to the marginal status of externalities because they have not been measured in ways that made it possible to bring them onto the books and into the models.

But the stage is being set for significant changes. Decades of research calibrating objective measures of a wide variety of performances and outcomes are inexorably leading to the creation of an intangible assets metric system (Fisher, 2009a, 2009b, 2011). Meaningful and rigorous individual-level universally available uniform metrics for each significant intangible asset (abilities, health, trustworthiness, etc.) will

(a) make it possible for each of us to take full possession, ownership, and management control of our investments in and returns from these forms of capital,

(b) coordinate the decisions and behaviors of consumers, researchers, and quality improvement specialists to better match supply and demand, and thereby

(c) increase the efficiency of human, social, and natural capital markets, harnessing the profit motive for the removal of wasted human potential, lost community coherence, and destroyed environmental quality.

Jensen’s observation emerges in his analysis of performance measures as one of three factors in defining the incentives and payoffs for a linear compensation plan (the other two being the intercept and the slope of the bonus line relating salary and bonus to the performance measure targets). The two sentences quoted above occur in this broader context, where Jensen (2003, pp. 396-397) states that,

…we must decide how much subjectivity will be involved in each performance measure. In considering this we must recognize that every performance measurement system in a firm must involve an important amount of subjectivity. The reason, as my colleague George Baker has pointed out, is that any activity whose performance can be perfectly measured objectively does not belong inside the firm. If its performance can be adequately measured objectively it can be spun out of the firm and contracted for in a market transaction. Thus, one of the most important jobs of managers, complementing objective measures of performance with managerial subjective evaluation of subtle interdependencies and other factors is exactly what most managers would like to avoid. Indeed, it is this factor along with efficient risk bearing that is at the heart of what gives managers and firms an advantage over markets.

Jensen is here referring implicitly to the point Coase (1990) makes regarding the nature of the firm. A firm can be seen as a specialized market, one in which methods, insights, and systems not generally available elsewhere are employed for competitive advantage. Products are brought to market competitively by being endowed with value not otherwise available. Maximizing that value is essential to the viability of the firm.

Given conflicting incentives and the mixed messages of the balanced scorecard, managers have plenty of opportunities for creatively avoiding the difficult task of maximizing the value of the firm. Jensen (2001) shows that attending to the “managerial subjective evaluation of subtle interdependencies” is made impossibly complex when decisions and behaviors are pulled in different directions by each stakeholder’s particular interests. Other research shows that even traditional capital structures are plagued by the mismeasurement of leverage, distress costs, tax shields, and the speed with which individual firms adjust their capital needs relative to leverage targets (Graham & Leary, 2010). The objective measurement of intangible assets surely seems impossibly complex to those familiar with these problems.

But perhaps the problems associated with measuring traditional capital structures are not so different from those encountered in the domain of intangible assets. In both cases, a particular kind of unjustified self-assurance seems always to attend the mere availability of numeric data. To the unpracticed eye, numbers seem to always behave the same way, no matter if they are rigorous measures of physical commodities, like kilowatts, barrels, or bushels, or if they are currency units in an accounting spreadsheet, or if they are percentages of agreeable responses to a survey question. The problem is that, when interrogated in particular ways with respect to the question of how much of something is supposedly measured, these different kinds of numbers give quite markedly different kinds of answers.

The challenge we face is one of determining what kind of answers we want to the questions we have to ask. Presumably, we want to ask questions and get answers pertinent to obtaining the information we need to manage life creatively, meaningfully, effectively and efficiently. It may be useful then, as a kind of thought experiment, to make a bold leap and imagine a scenario in which relevant questions are answered with integrity, accountability, and transparency.

What will happen when the specialized expertise of human resource professionals is supplanted by a market in which meaningful and comparable measures of the hireability, retainability, productivity, and promotability of every candidate and employee are readily available? If Baker and Jensen have it right, perhaps firms will no longer have employees. This is not to say that no one will work for pay. Instead, firms will contract with individual workers at going market rates, and workers will undoubtedly be well aware of the market value of their available shares of their intangible assets.

A similar consequence follows for the social safety net and a host of other control, regulatory, and policing mechanisms. But we will no longer be stuck with blind faith in the invisible hand and market efficiency, following the faith of those willing to place their trust and their futures in the hands of mechanisms they only vaguely understand and cannot control. Instead, aggregate effects on individuals, communities, and the environment will be tracked in publicly available and critically examined measures, just as stocks, bonds, and commodities are tracked now.

Previous posts in this blog explore the economic possibilities that follow from having empirically substantiated, theoretically predictable, and instrumentally mediated measures embodying broad consensus standards. What we will have for human, social, and natural capital will be the same kind of objective measures that have made markets work as well as they have thus far. It will be a whole new ball game when profits become tied to human, social, and environmental outcomes.

References

Coase, R. (1990). The firm, the market, and the law. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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

Fisher, W. P.. Jr. (2009b). NIST Critical national need idea White Paper: metrological infrastructure for human, social, and natural capital (Tech. Rep. No. http://www.livingcapitalmetrics.com/images/FisherNISTWhitePaper2.pdf). New Orleans: LivingCapitalMetrics.com.

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

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

Graham, J. R., & Leary, M. T. (2010, 21 December). A review of empirical capital structure research and directions for the future. Available at http://ssrn.com/abstract=1729388.

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

Jensen, M. C. (2003). Paying people to lie: The truth about the budgeting process. European Financial Management, 9(3), 379-406.

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The Moral Implications of the Concept of Human Capital: More on How to Create Living Capital Markets

March 22, 2011

The moral reprehensibility of the concept of human capital hinges on its use in rationalizing impersonal business decisions in the name of profits. Even when the viability of the organization is at stake, the discarding of people (referred to in some human resource departments as “taking out the trash”) entails degrees of psychological and economic injury no one should have to suffer, or inflict.

There certainly is a justified need for a general concept naming the productive capacity of labor. But labor is far more than a capacity for work. No one’s working life should be reduced to a job description. Labor involves a wide range of different combinations of skills, abilities, motivations, health, and trustworthiness. Human capital has then come to be broken down into a wide variety of forms, such as literacy capital, health capital, social capital, etc.

The metaphoric use of the word “capital” in the phrase “human capital” referring to stocks of available human resources rings hollow. The traditional concept of labor as a form of capital is an unjustified reduction of diverse capacities in itself. But the problem goes deeper. Intangible resources like labor are not represented and managed in the forms that make markets for tangible resources efficient. Transferable representations, like titles and deeds, give property a legal status as owned and an economic status as financially fungible. And in those legal and economic terms, tangible forms of capital give capitalism its hallmark signification as the lifeblood of the cycle of investment, profits, and reinvestment.

Intangible forms of capital, in contrast, are managed without the benefit of any standardized way of proving what is owned, what quantity or quality of it exists, and what it costs. Human, social, and natural forms of capital are therefore managed directly, by acting in an unmediated way on whomever or whatever embodies them. Such management requires, even in capitalist economies, the use of what are inherently socialistic methods, as these are the only methods available for dealing with the concrete individual people, communities, and ecologies involved (Fisher, 2002, 2011; drawing from Hayek, 1948, 1988; De Soto, 2000).

The assumption that transferable representations of intangible assets are inconceivable or inherently reductionist is, however, completely mistaken. All economic capital is ultimately brought to life (conceived, gestated, midwifed, and nurtured to maturity) as scientific capital. Scientific measurability is what makes it possible to add up the value of shares of stock across holdings, to divide something owned into shares, and to represent something in a court or a bank in a portable form (Latour, 1987; Fisher, 2002, 2011).

Only when you appreciate this distinction between dead and living capital, between capital represented on transferable instruments and capital that is not, then you can see that the real tragedy is not in the treatment of labor as capital. No, the real tragedy is in the way everyone is denied the full exercise of their rights over the skills, abilities, health, motivations, trustworthiness, and environmental resources that are rightly their own personal, private property.

Being homogenized at the population level into an interchangeable statistic is tragic enough. But when we leave the matter here, we fail to see and to grasp the meaning of the opportunities that are lost in that myopic world view. As I have been at pains in this blog to show, statistics are not measures. Statistical models of interactions between several variables at the group level are not the same thing as measurement models of interactions within a single variable at the individual level. When statistical models are used in place of measurement models, the result is inevitably numbers without a soul. When measurement models of individual response processes are used to produce meaningful estimates of how much of something someone possesses, a whole different world of possibilities opens up.

In the same way that the Pythagorean Theorem applies to any triangle, so, too, do the coordinates from the international geodetic survey make it possible to know everything that needs to be known about the location and disposition of a piece of real estate. Advanced measurement models in the psychosocial sciences are making it possible to arrive at similarly convenient and objective ways of representing the quality and quantity of intangible assets. Instead of being just one number among many others, real measures tell a story that situates each of us relative to everyone else in a meaningful way.

The practical meaning of the maxim “you manage what you measure” stems from those instances in which measures embody the fullness of the very thing that is the object of management interest. An engine’s fuel efficiency, or the volume of commodities produced, for instance, are things that can be managed less or more efficiently because there are measures of them that directly represent just what we want to control. Lean thinking enables the removal of resources that do not contribute to the production of the desired end result.

Many metrics, however, tend to obscure and distract from what need to be managed. The objects of measurement may seem to be obviously related to what needs to be managed, but dealing with each of them piecemeal results in inefficient and ineffective management. In these instances, instead of the characteristic cycle of investment, profit, and reinvestment, there seems only a bottomless pit absorbing ever more investment and never producing a profit. Why?

The economic dysfunctionality of intangible asset markets is intimately tied up with the moral dysfunctionality of those markets. Drawing an analogy from a recent analysis of political freedom (Shirky, 2010), economic freedom has to be accompanied by a market society economically literate enough, economically empowered enough, and interconnected enough to trade on the capital stocks issued. Western society, and increasingly the entire global society, is arguably economically literate and sufficiently interconnected to exercise economic freedom.

Economic empowerment is another matter entirely. There is no economic power without fungible capital, without ways of representing resources of all kinds, tangible and intangible, that transparently show what is available, how much of it there is, and what quality it is. A form of currency expressing the value of that capital is essential, but money is wildly insufficient to the task of determining the quality and quantity of the available capital stocks.

Today’s education, health care, human resource, and environmental quality markets are the diametric opposite of the markets in which investors, producers, and consumers are empowered. Only when dead human, social, and natural capital is brought to life in efficient markets (Fisher, 2011) will we empower ourselves with fuller degrees of creative control over our economic lives.

The crux of the economic empowerment issue is this: in the current context of inefficient intangibles markets, everyone is personally commodified. Everything that makes me valuable to an employer or investor or customer, my skills, motivations, health, and trustworthiness, is unjustifiably reduced to a homogenized unit of labor. And in the social and environmental quality markets, voting our shares is cumbersome, expensive, and often ineffective because of the immense amount of work that has to be done to defend each particular living manifestation of the value we want to protect.

Concentrated economic power is exercised in the mass markets of dead, socialized intangible assets in ways that we are taught to think of as impersonal and indifferent to each of us as individuals, but which is actually experienced by us as intensely personal.

So what is the difference between being treated personally as a commodity and being treated impersonally as a commodity? This is the same as asking what it would mean to be empowered economically with creative control over the stocks of human, social, and natural capital that are rightfully our private property. This difference is the difference between dead and living capital (Fisher, 2002, 2011).

Freedom of economic communication, realized in the trade of privately owned stocks of any form of capital, ought to be the highest priority in the way we think about the infrastructure of a sustainable and socially responsible economy. For maximum efficiency, that freedom requires a common meaningful and rigorous quantitative language enabling determinations of what exactly is for sale, and its quality, quantity, and unit price. As I have ad nauseum repeated in this blog, measurement based in scientifically calibrated instrumentation traceable to consensus standards is absolutely essential to meeting this need.

Coming in at a very close second to the highest priority is securing the ability to trade. A strong market society, where people can exercise the right to control their own private property—their personal stocks of human, social, and natural capital—in highly efficient markets, is more important than policies, regulations, and five-year plans dictating how masses of supposedly homogenous labor, social, and environmental commodities are priced and managed.

So instead of reacting to the downside of the business cycle with a socialistic safety net, how might a capitalistic one prove more humane, moral, and economically profitable? Instead of guaranteeing a limited amount of unemployment insurance funded through taxes, what we should have are requirements for minimum investments in social capital. Instead of employment in the usual sense of the term, with its implications of hiring and firing, we should have an open market for fungible human capital, in which everyone can track the price of their stock, attract and make new investments, take profits and income, upgrade the quality and/or quantity of their stock, etc.

In this context, instead of receiving unemployment compensation, workers not currently engaged in remunerated use of their skills would cash in some of their accumulated stock of social capital. The cost of social capital would go up in periods of high demand, as during the recent economic downturns caused by betrayals of trust and commitment (which are, in effect, involuntary expenditures of social capital). Conversely, the cost of human capital would also fluctuate with supply and demand, with the profits (currently referred to as wages) turned by individual workers rising and falling with the price of their stocks. These ups and downs, being absorbed by everyone in proportion to their investments, would reduce the distorted proportions we see today in the shares of the rewards and punishments allotted.

Though no one would have a guaranteed wage, everyone would have the opportunity to manage their capital to the fullest, by upgrading it, keeping it current, and selling it to the highest bidder. Ebbing and flowing tides would more truly lift and drop all boats together, with the drops backed up with the social capital markets’ tangible reassurance that we are all in this together. This kind of a social capitalism transforms the supposedly impersonal but actually highly personal indifference of flows in human capital into a more fully impersonal indifference in which individuals have the potential to maximize the realization of their personal goals.

What we need is to create a visible alternative to the bankrupt economic system in a kind of reverse shock doctrine. Eleanor Roosevelt often said that the thing we are most afraid of is the thing we most need to confront if we are to grow. The more we struggle against what we fear, the further we are carried away from what we want. Only when we relax into the binding constraints do we find them loosened. Only when we channel overwhelming force against itself or in a productive direction can we withstand attack. When we find the courage to go where the wild things are and look the monsters in the eye will we have the opportunity to see if their fearful aspect is transformed to playfulness. What is left is often a more mundane set of challenges, the residuals of a developmental transition to a new level of hierarchical complexity.

And this is the case with the moral implications of the concept of human capital. Treating individuals as fungible commodities is a way that some use to protect themselves from feeling like monsters and from being discarded as well. Those who find themselves removed from the satisfactions of working life can blame the shortsightedness of their former colleagues, or the ugliness of the unfeeling system. But neither defensive nor offensive rationalizations do anything to address the actual problem, and the problem has nothing to do with the morality or the immorality of the concept of human capital.

The problem is the problem. That is, the way we approach and define the problem delimits the sphere of the creative options we have for solving it. As Henry Ford is supposed to have said, whether you think you can or you think you cannot, you’re probably right. It is up to us to decide whether we can create an economic system that justifies its reductions and actually lives up to its billing as impersonal and unbiased, or if we cannot. Either way, we’ll have to accept and live with the consequences.

References

DeSoto, H. (2000). The mystery of capital: Why capitalism triumphs in the West and fails everywhere else. New York: Basic Books.

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

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2011, Spring). Bringing human, social, and natural capital to life: Practical consequences and opportunities. Journal of Applied Measurement, 12(1), in press.

Hayek, F. A. (1948). Individualism and economic order. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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

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

Shirky, C. (2010, December 20). The political power of social media: Technology, the public sphere, and political change. Foreign Affairs, 90(1), http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/67038/clay-shirky/the-political-power-of-social-media.

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