Archive for the ‘instruments’ Category

Excerpts and Notes from Goldberg’s “Billions of Drops…”

December 23, 2015

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

p. 8:
Transaction costs: “…nonprofit financial markets are highly disorganized, with considerable duplication of effort, resource diversion, and processes that ‘take a fair amount of time to review grant applications and to make funding decisions’ [citing Harvard Business School Case No. 9-391-096, p. 7, Note on Starting a Nonprofit Venture, 11 Sept 1992]. It would be a major understatement to describe the resulting capital market as inefficient.”

A McKinsey study found that nonprofits spend 2.5 to 12 times more raising capital than for-profits do. When administrative costs are factored in, nonprofits spend 5.5 to 21.5 times more.

For-profit and nonprofit funding efforts contrasted on pages 8 and 9.

p. 10:
Balanced scorecard rating criteria

p. 11:
“Even at double-digit annual growth rates, it will take many years for social entrepreneurs and their funders to address even 10% of the populations in need.”

p. 12:
Exhibit 1.5 shows that the percentages of various needs served by leading social enterprises are barely drops in the respective buckets; they range from 0.07% to 3.30%.

pp. 14-16:
Nonprofit funding is not tied to performance. Even when a nonprofit makes the effort to show measured improvement in impact, it does little or nothing to change their funding picture. It appears that there is some kind of funding ceiling implicitly imposed by funders, since nonprofit growth and success seems to persuade capital sources that their work there is done. Mediocre and low performing nonprofits seem to be able to continue drawing funds indefinitely from sympathetic donors who don’t require evidence of effective use of their money.

p. 34:
“…meaningful reductions in poverty, illiteracy, violence, and hopelessness will require a fundamental restructuring of nonprofit capital markets. Such a restructuring would need to make it much easier for philanthropists of all stripes–large and small, public and private, institutional and individual–to fund nonprofit organizations that maximize social impact.”

p. 54:
Exhibit 2.3 is a chart showing that fewer people rose from poverty, and more remained in it or fell deeper into it, in the period of 1988-98 compared with 1969-1979.

pp. 70-71:
Kotter’s (1996) change cycle.

p. 75:
McKinsey’s seven elements of nonprofit capacity and capacity assessment grid.

pp. 94-95:
Exhibits 3.1 and 3.2 contrast the way financial markets reward for-profit performance with the way nonprofit markets reward fund raising efforts.

Financial markets
1. Market aggregates and disseminates standardized data
2. Analysts publish rigorous research reports
3. Investors proactively search for strong performers
4. Investors penalize weak performers
5. Market promotes performance
6. Strong performers grow

Nonprofit markets
1. Social performance is difficult to measure
2. NPOs don’t have resources or expertise to report results
3. Investors can’t get reliable or standardized results data
4. Strong and weak NPOs spend 40 to 60% of time fundraising
5. Market promotes fundraising
6. Investors can’t fund performance; NPOs can’t scale

p. 95:
“…nonprofits can’t possibly raise enough money to achieve transformative social impact within the constraints of the existing fundraising system. I submit that significant social progress cannot be achieved without what I’m going to call ‘third-stage funding,’ that is, funding that doesn’t suffer from disabling fragmentation. The existing nonprofit capital market is not capable of [p. 97] providing third-stage funding. Such funding can arise only when investors are sufficiently well informed to make big bets at understandable and manageable levels of risk. Existing nonprofit capital markets neither provide investors with the kinds of information needed–actionable information about nonprofit performance–nor provide the kinds of intermediation–active oversight by knowledgeable professionals–needed to mitigate risk. Absent third-stage funding, nonprofit capital will remain irreducibly fragmented, preventing the marshaling of resources that nonprofit organizations need to make meaningful and enduring progress against $100 million problems.”

pp. 99-114:
Text and diagrams on innovation, market adoption, transformative impact.

p. 140:
Exhibit 4.2: Capital distribution of nonprofits, highlighting mid-caps

pages 192-3 make the case for the difference between a regular market and the current state of philanthropic, social capital markets.

p. 192:
“So financial markets provide information investors can use to compare alternative investment opportunities based on their performance, and they provide a dynamic mechanism for moving money away from weak performers and toward strong performers. Just as water seeks its own level, markets continuously recalibrate prices until they achieve a roughly optimal equilibrium at which most companies receive the ‘right’ amount of investment. In this way, good companies thrive and bad ones improve or die.
“The social sector should work the same way. .. But philanthropic capital doesn’t flow toward effective nonprofits and away from ineffective nonprofits for a simple reason: contributors can’t tell the difference between the two. That is, philanthropists just don’t [p. 193] know what various nonprofits actually accomplish. Instead, they only know what nonprofits are trying to accomplish, and they only know that based on what the nonprofits themselves tell them.”

p. 193:
“The signs that the lack of social progress is linked to capital market dysfunctions are unmistakable: fundraising remains the number-one [p. 194] challenge of the sector despite the fact that nonprofit leaders divert some 40 to 60% of their time from productive work to chasing after money; donations raised are almost always too small, too short, and too restricted to enhance productive capacity; most mid-caps are ensnared in the ‘social entrepreneur’s trap’ of focusing on today and neglecting tomorrow; and so on. So any meaningful progress we could make in the direction of helping the nonprofit capital market allocate funds as effectively as the private capital market does could translate into tremendous advances in extending social and economic opportunity.
“Indeed, enhancing nonprofit capital allocation is likely to improve people’s lives much more than, say, further increasing the total amount of donations. Why? Because capital allocation has a multiplier effect.”

“If we want to materially improve the performance and increase the impact of the nonprofit sector, we need to understand what’s preventing [p. 195] it from doing a better job of allocating philanthropic capital. And figuring out why nonprofit capital markets don’t work very well requires us to understand why the financial markets do such a better job.”

p. 197:
“When all is said and done, securities prices are nothing more than convenient approximations that market participants accept as a way of simplifying their economic interactions, with a full understanding that market prices are useful even when they are way off the mark, as they so often are. In fact, that’s the whole point of markets: to aggregate the imperfect and incomplete knowledge held by vast numbers of traders about much various securities are worth and still make allocation choices that are better than we could without markets.
“Philanthropists face precisely the same problem: how to make better use of limited information to maximize output, in this case, social impact. Considering the dearth of useful tools available to donors today, the solution doesn’t have to be perfect or even all that good, at least at first. It just needs to improve the status quo and get better over time.
“Much of the solution, I believe, lies in finding useful adaptations of market mechanisms that will mitigate the effects of the same lack of reliable and comprehensive information about social sector performance. I would even go so far as to say that social enterprises can’t hope to realize their ‘one day, all children’ visions without a funding allociation system that acts more like a market.
“We can, and indeed do, make incremental improvements in nonprofit funding without market mechanisms. But without markets, I don’t see how we can fix the fragmentation problem or produce transformative social impact, such as ensuring that every child in America has a good education. The problems we face are too big and have too many moving parts to ignore the self-organizing dynamics of market economics. As Thomas Friedman said about the need to impose a carbon tax at a time of falling oil prices, ‘I’ve wracked my brain trying to think of ways to retool America around clean-power technologies without a price signal–i.e., a tax–and there are no effective ones.”

p. 199:
“Prices enable financial markets to work the way nonprofit capital markets should–by sending informative signals about the most effective organizations so that money will flow to them naturally..”

p. 200:
[Quotes Kurtzman citing De Soto on the mystery of capital. Also see p. 209, below.]
“‘Solve the mystery of capital and you solve many seemingly intractable problems along with it.'”
[That’s from page 69 in Kurtzman, 2002.]

p. 201:
[Goldberg says he’s quoting Daniel Yankelovich here, but the footnote does not appear to have anything to do with this quote:]
“‘The first step is to measure what can easily be measured. The second is to disregard what can’t be measured, or give it an arbitrary quantitative value. This is artificial and misleading. The third step is to presume that what can’t be measured easily isn’t very important. This is blindness. The fourth step is to say that what can’t be easily measured really doesn’t exist. This is suicide.'”

Goldberg gives example here of $10,000 invested witha a 10% increase in value, compared with $10,000 put into a nonprofit. “But if the nonprofit makes good use of the money and, let’s say, brings the reading scores of 10 elementary school students up from below grade level to grade level, we can’t say how much my initial investment is ‘worth’ now. I could make the argument that the value has increased because the students have received a demonstrated educational benefit that is valuable to them. Since that’s the reason I made the donation, the achievement of higher scores must have value to me, as well.”

p. 202:
Goldberg wonders whether donations to nonprofits would be better conceived as purchases than investments.

p. 207:
Goldberg quotes Jon Gertner from the March 9, 2008, issue of the New York Times Magazine devoted to philanthropy:

“‘Why shouldn’t the world’s smartest capitalists be able to figure out more effective ways to give out money now? And why shouldn’t they want to make sure their philanthropy has significant social impact? If they can measure impact, couldn’t they get past the resistance that [Warren] Buffet highlighted and finally separate what works from what doesn’t?'”

p. 208:
“Once we abandon the false notions that financial markets are precision instruments for measuring unambiguous phenomena, and that the business and nonproft sectors are based in mutually exclusive principles of value, we can deconstruct the true nature of the problems we need to address and adapt market-like mechanisms that are suited to the particulars of the social sector.
“All of this is a long way (okay, a very long way) of saying that even ordinal rankings of nonprofit investments can have tremendous value in choosing among competing donation opportunities, especially when the choices are so numerous and varied. If I’m a social investor, I’d really like to know which nonprofits are likely to produce ‘more’ impact and which ones are likely to produce ‘less.'”

“It isn’t necessary to replicate the complex working of the modern stock markets to fashion an intelligent and useful nonprofit capital allocation mechanism. All we’re looking for is some kind of functional indication that would (1) isolate promising nonprofit investments from among the confusing swarm of too many seemingly worthy social-purpose organizations and (2) roughly differentiate among them based on the likelihood of ‘more’ or ‘less’ impact. This is what I meant earlier by increasing [p. 209] signals and decreasing noise.”

p. 209:
Goldberg apparently didn’t read De Soto, as he says that the mystery of capital is posed by Kurtzman and says it is solved via the collective intelligence and wisdom of crowds. This completely misses the point of the crucial value that transparent representations of structural invariance hold in market functionality. Goldberg is apparently offering a loose kind of market for which there is an aggregate index of stocks for nonprofits that are built up from their various ordinal performance measures. I think I find a better way in my work, building more closely from De Soto (Fisher, 2002, 2003, 2005, 2007, 2009a, 2009b).

p. 231:
Goldberg quotes Harvard’s Allen Grossman (1999) on the cost-benefit boundaries of more effective nonprofit capital allocation:

“‘Is there a significant downside risk in restructuring some portion of the philanthropic capital markets to test the effectiveness of performance driven philanthropy? The short answer is, ‘No.’ The current reality is that most broad-based solutions to social problems have eluded the conventional and fragmented approaches to philanthropy. It is hard to imagine that experiments to change the system to a more performance driven and rational market would negatively impact the effectiveness of the current funding flows–and could have dramatic upside potential.'”

p. 232:
Quotes Douglas Hubbard’s How to Measure Anything book that Stenner endorsed, and Linacre and I didn’t.

p. 233:
Cites Stevens on the four levels of measurement and uses it to justify his position concerning ordinal rankings, recognizing that “we can’t add or subtract ordinals.”

pp. 233-5:
Justifies ordinal measures via example of Google’s PageRank algorithm. [I could connect from here using Mary Garner’s (2009) comparison of PageRank with Rasch.]

p. 236:
Goldberg tries to justify the use of ordinal measures by citing their widespread use in social science and health care. He conveniently ignores the fact that virtually all of the same problems and criticisms that apply to philanthropic capital markets also apply in these areas. In not grasping the fundamental value of De Soto’s concept of transferable and transparent representations, and in knowing nothing of Rasch measurement, he was unable to properly evaluate to potential of ordinal data’s role in the formation of philanthropic capital markets. Ordinal measures aren’t just not good enough, they represent a dangerous diversion of resources that will be put into systems that take on lives of their own, creating a new layer of dysfunctional relationships that will be hard to overcome.

p. 261 [Goldberg shows here his complete ignorance about measurement. He is apparently totally unaware of the work that is in fact most relevant to his cause, going back to Thurstone in 1920s, Rasch in the 1950s-1970s, and Wright in the 1960s to 2000. Both of the problems he identifies have long since been solved in theory and in practice in a wide range of domains in education, psychology, health care, etc.]:
“Having first studied performance evaluation some 30 years ago, I feel confident in saying that all the foundational work has been done. There won’t be a ‘eureka!’ breakthrough where someone finally figures out the one true way to guage nonprofit effectiveness.
“Indeed, I would venture to say that we know virtually everything there is to know about measuring the performance of nonprofit organizations with only two exceptions: (1) How can we compare nonprofits with different missions or approaches, and (2) how can we make actionable performance assessments common practice for growth-ready mid-caps and readily available to all prospective donors?”

p. 263:
“Why would a social entrepreneur divert limited resources to impact assessment if there were no prospects it would increase funding? How could an investor who wanted to maximize the impact of her giving possibly put more golden eggs in fewer impact-producing baskets if she had no way to distinguish one basket from another? The result: there’s no performance data to attract growth capital, and there’s no growth capital to induce performance measurement. Until we fix that Catch-22, performance evaluation will not become an integral part of social enterprise.”

pp. 264-5:
Long quotation from Ken Berger at Charity Navigator on their ongoing efforts at developing an outcome measurement system. [wpf, 8 Nov 2009: I read the passage quoted by Goldberg in Berger’s blog when it came out and have been watching and waiting ever since for the new system. wpf, 8 Feb 2012: The new system has been online for some time but still does not include anything on impacts or outcomes. It has expanded from a sole focus on financials to also include accountability and transparency. But it does not yet address Goldberg’s concerns as there still is no way to tell what works from what doesn’t.]

p. 265:
“The failure of the social sector to coordinate independent assets and create a whole that exceeds the sum of its parts results from an absence of.. platform leadership’: ‘the ability of a company to drive innovation around a particular platform technology at the broad industry level.’ The object is to multiply value by working together: ‘the more people who use the platform products, the more incentives there are for complement producers to introduce more complementary products, causing a virtuous cycle.'” [Quotes here from Cusumano & Gawer (2002). The concept of platform leadership speaks directly to the system of issues raised by Miller & O’Leary (2007) that must be addressed to form effective HSN capital markets.]

p. 266:
“…the nonprofit sector has a great deal of both money and innovation, but too little available information about too many organizations. The result is capital fragmentation that squelches growth. None of the stakeholders has enough horsepower on its own to impose order on this chaos, but some kind of realignment could release all of that pent-up potential energy. While command-and-control authority is neither feasible nor desirable, the conditions are ripe for platform leadership.”

“It is doubtful that the IMPEX could amass all of the resources internally needed to build and grow a virtual nonprofit stock market that could connect large numbers of growth-capital investors with large numbers of [p. 267] growth-ready mid-caps. But it might be able to convene a powerful coalition of complementary actors that could achieve a critical mass of support for performance-based philanthropy. The challenge would be to develop an organization focused on filling the gaps rather than encroaching on the turf of established firms whose participation and innovation would be required to build a platform for nurturing growth of social enterprise..”

p. 268-9:
Intermediated nonprofit capital market shifts fundraising burden from grantees to intermediaries.

p. 271:
“The surging growth of national donor-advised funds, which simplify and reduce the transaction costs of methodical giving, exemplifies the kind of financial innovation that is poised to leverage market-based investment guidance.” [President of Schwab Charitable quoted as wanting to make charitable giving information- and results-driven.]

p. 272:
Rating agencies and organizations: Charity Navigator, Guidestar, Wise Giving Alliance.
Online donor rankings: GlobalGiving, GreatNonprofits, SocialMarkets
Evaluation consultants: Mathematica

Google’s mission statement: “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”

p. 273:
Exhibit 9.4 Impact Index Whole Product
Image of stakeholders circling IMPEX:
Trading engine
Listed nonprofits
Data producers and aggregators
Trading community
Researchers and analysts
Investors and advisors
Government and business supporters

p. 275:
“That’s the starting point for replication [of social innovations that work]: finding and funding; matching money with performance.”

[WPF bottom line: Because Goldberg misses De Soto’s point about transparent representations resolving the mystery of capital, he is unable to see his way toward making the nonprofit capital markets function more like financial capital markets, with the difference being the focus on the growth of human, social, and natural capital. Though Goldberg intuits good points about the wisdom of crowds, he doesn’t know enough about the flaws of ordinal measurement relative to interval measurement, or about the relatively easy access to interval measures that can be had, to do the job.]


Cusumano, M. A., & Gawer, A. (2002, Spring). The elements of platform leadership. MIT Sloan Management Review, 43(3), 58.

De Soto, 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 [].

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2003). Measurement and communities of inquiry. Rasch Measurement Transactions, 17(3), 936-8 [].

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2005). Daredevil barnstorming to the tipping point: New aspirations for the human sciences. Journal of Applied Measurement, 6(3), 173-9 [].

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2007, Summer). Living capital metrics. Rasch Measurement Transactions, 21(1), 1092-3 [].

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2009a). Bringing human, social, and natural capital to life: Practical consequences and opportunities. In M. Wilson, K. Draney, N. Brown & B. Duckor (Eds.), Advances in Rasch Measurement, Vol. Two (p. in press []). Maple Grove, MN: JAM Press.

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

Garner, M. (2009, Autumn). Google’s PageRank algorithm and the Rasch measurement model. Rasch Measurement Transactions, 23(2), 1201-2 [].

Grossman, A. (1999). Philanthropic social capital markets: Performance driven philanthropy (Social Enterprise Series 12 No. 00-002). Harvard Business School Working Paper.

Kotter, J. (1996). Leading change. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard Business School Press.

Kurtzman, J. (2002). How the markets really work. New York: Crown Business.

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), 701-34.

Measuring Instruments as Media for the Expression of Creative Passions in Education

June 26, 2015

Measurement is often viewed as a reduction of complex phenomena to numbers. It is accordingly also often conceived as mechanical, and disconnected from the world of life. Educational examinations are seen by many as an especially egregious form of inappropriate reduction. This perspective is contradicted, however, by a perspective that sees an analogy between educational assessment and music. Calibrated instruments, mathematical scales, and high technology play key roles in the production of music, which, ironically, is widely considered the most alive, captivating and emotionally powerful of the arts. Though behavioral psychology has indeed learned how to use music to manipulate consumer purchasing decisions, music is unabashedly accepted nonetheless as the highest expression of passion in art.

The question then arises as to if and how measurement in other areas, such as in education, might be conceived, designed, and practiced as a medium for the expression and fulfillment of creative passions. Key issues involved in substantively realizing a musical metaphor in human and social measurement include capacities to tune instruments, to define common scales, to score performances, to orchestrate harmonious relationships, to enhance choral grace note effects, and to combine elements in unique but pleasing and recognizable rhythmic arrangements.

Practical methods for making educational measurement the medium for the expression of creative passions for learning are in place in thousands of schools nationally and internationally. With such tools in hand, formative applications of integrated instruction and assessment could be conceived as intuitive media for composing and conducting expressions of creative passions. Student outcomes in reading, mathematics, and other domains may then come to be seen in terms of portfolios of works akin to those produced by musicians, sculptors, film makers, or painters.

Hundreds of thousands of books and millions of articles tuned to the same text complexity scale, for instance, provide readers an extensive palette of colorful tones and timbres for expressing their desires and capacities for learning. Graphical presentations of individual students’ outcomes, as well as outcomes aggregated by classroom, school, district, etc., could be presented, interpreted and experienced as public performances of artful developmental narratives enabling dramatic performances of personal uniqueness and social generality.

Measurement instrumentation in education is able to capture, aggregate, and organize literacy, numeracy, socio-emotional intelligence, and other performances into special portfolios documenting the play and dance of emerging new understandings. As in any creative process, accidents, errors, and idiosyncratic patterns of strengths and weaknesses may evoke powerful and dramatic expressions of beauty, and human and social value. And just as members of musical ensembles may complement one another’s skills, using rhythm and harmony to improve each others’ playing abilities in practice, so, too, instruments of formative assessment tuned to the same scale can be used to coordinate and enhance individual student and teacher skill levels.

Possibilities for orchestrating such performances across educational, health care, social service, environmental management, and other fields could similarly take advantage of existing instrument calibration and measurement technologies.

Measurement as a Medium for the Expression of Creative Passions in Education

April 23, 2014

Measurement is often viewed as a purely technical task involving a reduction of complex phenomena to numbers. It is accordingly also experienced as mechanical in nature, and disconnected from the world of life. Educational examinations are often seen as an especially egregious form of inappropriate reduction.

This perspective on measurement is contradicted, however, by the essential roles of calibrated instrumentation, mathematical scales, and high technology in the production of music, which, ironically, is widely considered the most alive, captivating and emotionally powerful of the arts.

The question then arises as to if and how measurement in other areas, such as in education, might be conceived, designed, and practiced as a medium for the expression and fulfillment of creative passions. Key issues involved in substantively realizing a musical metaphor in human and social measurement include capacities to tune instruments, to define common scales, to orchestrate harmonious relationships, to enhance choral grace note effects, and to combine elements in unique but pleasing and recognizable forms.

Practical methods of this kind are in place in hundreds of schools nationally and internationally. With such tools in hand, formative applications of integrated instruction and assessment could be conceived as intuitive media for composing and conducting expressions of creative passions.

Student outcomes in reading, mathematics, and other domains may then come to be seen in terms of portfolios of works akin to those produced by musicians, sculptors, film makers, or painters. Hundreds of thousands of books and millions of articles tuned to the same text complexity scale provide readers an extensive palette of colorful tones and timbres for expressing their desires and capacities for learning. Graphical presentations of individual students’ outcomes, as well as outcomes aggregated by classroom, school, district, etc., may be interpreted and experienced as public performances of artful developmental narratives enabling dramatic performances of personal uniqueness and social generality.

Technical canvases capture, aggregate, and organize literacy performances into special portfolios documenting the play and dance of emerging new understandings. As in any creative process, accidents, errors, and idiosyncratic patterns of strengths and weaknesses may evoke powerful expressions of beauty, and human and social value. Just as members of musical ensembles may complement one another’s skills, using rhythm and harmony to improve each others’ playing abilities in practice, so, too, instruments of formative assessment tuned to the same scale can be used to enhance individual teacher skill levels.

Possibilities for orchestrating such performances across educational, health care, social service, environmental management, and other fields could similarly take advantage of existing instrument calibration and measurement technologies.

Creatively Expressing How Love Matters for Justice: Setting the Stage and Tuning the Instruments

April 16, 2014

Nussbaum (2013) argues about the political importance of connecting with our bodies without shame and disgust, and of the relevance musical and poetic public expressions of varieties of love offer to conceptions of justice. Institutions embodying principles of loving justice require media integrating emotional expression with technical calculation, in exactly the same way music does. Being able to dance at the revolution demands instruments tuned to shared scales, no matter if equal temperament, just intonation, meantone tuning, or any of a variety of other well, or irregular, temperaments are chosen.

The physicality of dancing, so often evoking romance and courtship, provides a point of entry to a metaphoric logic of reproduction applicable to the Socratic midwifery of ideas and to the products of social intercourse. Tuning the instruments of the human, social, and environmental arts and sciences to harmonize and choreograph relationships may then enable formulation of nonreductionist approaches to the problem of how to reconcile political emotions with physical or geometrical accounts of the scales of justice.

Historical accounts of (musical, medical, electrical, etc.) metrological standards describe ways in which passionate concern for shared vulnerabilities and common joys have sometimes succeeded in deploying systems realizing higher forms of just relations (Alder, 2002; Berg and Timmermans, 2000;  Isacoff, 2001; Schaffer, 1992). The question of the day is whether we will succeed in creating yet new forms of such relations in the many areas of life where they are needed.

Yes, as Nussbaum (2013, p. 396) admits, the demand for love is a tall order, and unrealistic. But all heuristic fictions, from Pythagorean triangles to the mathematical pendulum, are unrealistic and are never actually observed in practice, as has been pointed out by a number of historians and philosophers (Butterfield 1957, pp. 16-17; Heidegger, 1967, p. 89; Rasch, 1960, pp. 37-38, 1973/2011). These fictions are, however, eminently useful as guides, goals, and as coherent ways of telling our stories, and that is the criterion by which they should be judged.


Alder, K. (2002). The measure of all things: The seven-year odyssey and hidden error that transformed the world. New York: The Free Press.

Berg, M., & Timmermans, S. (2000). Order and their others: On the constitution of universalities in medical work. Configurations, 8(1), 31-61.

Butterfield, H. (1957). The origins of modern science (revised edition). New York: The Free Press.

Heidegger, M. (1967). What is a thing? (W. B. Barton, Jr. & V. Deutsch, Trans.). South Bend, Indiana: Regnery/Gateway.

Isacoff, S. M. (2001). Temperament: The idea that solved music’s greatest riddle. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Nussbaum, M. (2013). Political emotions: Why love matters for justice. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Rasch, G. (1960). Probabilistic models for some intelligence and attainment tests (Reprint, with Foreword and Afterword by B. D. Wright, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980). Copenhagen, Denmark: Danmarks Paedogogiske Institut.)

Rasch, G. (1973/2011, Spring). All statistical models are wrong! Comments on a paper presented by Per Martin-Löf, at the Conference on Foundational Questions in Statistical Inference, Aarhus, Denmark, May 7-12, 1973. Rasch Measurement Transactions, 24(4), 1309 [].

Schaffer, S. (1992). Late Victorian metrology and its instrumentation: A manufactory of Ohms. In R. Bud & S. E. Cozzens (Eds.), Invisible connections: Instruments, institutions, and science (pp. 23-56). Bellingham, WA: SPIE Optical Engineering Press.

The New Information Platform No One Sees Coming

December 6, 2012

I’d like to draw your attention to a fundamentally important area of disruptive innovations no one seems to see coming. The biggest thing rising in the world of science today that does not appear to be on anyone’s radar is measurement. Transformative potential beyond that of the Internet itself is available.

Realizing that potential will require an Intangible Assets Metric System. This system will connect together all the different ways any one thing is measured, bringing common languages for representing human, social, and economic value into play everywhere. We need these metrics on the front lines of education, health care, social services, and in human, reputation, and natural resource management, as well as in the economic models and financial spreadsheets informing policy, and in the scientific research conducted in dozens of fields.

All reading ability measures, for instance, should be transparently, inexpensively, and effortlessly expressed in a universally uniform metric, in the same way that standardized measures of weight and volume inform grocery store purchasing decisions. We have made starts at such systems for reading, writing, and math ability measures, and for health status, functionality, and chronic disease management measures. There oddly seems to be, however, little awareness of the full value that stands to be gained from uniform metrics in these areas, despite the overwhelming human, economic, and scientific value derived from standardized units in the existing economy. There has accordingly been virtually no leadership or investment in this area.

Measurement practice in business is woefully out of touch with the true paradigm shift that has been underway in psychometrics for years, even though the mantra “you manage what you measure” is repeated far and wide. In a fascinating twist, practically the only ones who notice the business world’s conceptual shortfall in measurement practice are the contrarians who observe that quantification can often be more of a distraction from management than the medium of its execution—but this is true only when measures are poorly conceived, designed, and implemented.

Demand for better measurement—measurement that reduces data volume not only with no loss of information but with the addition of otherwise unavailable interstitial information; that supports mass customized comparability for informed purchasing and quality improvement decisions; and that enables common product definitions for outcomes-based budgeting—is growing hand in hand with the spread of resilient, nimble, lean, and adaptive business models, and with the ongoing geometrical growth in data volume.

An even bigger source of demand for the features of advanced measurement is the increasing dependence of the economy on intangible assets, those forms of human, social, and natural capital that comprise 90% or more of the total capital under management. We will bring these now economically dead forms of capital to life by systematically standardizing representations of their quality and quantity. The Internet is the planetary nervous system through which basic information travels, and the Intangible Assets Metric System will be the global cerebrum, where higher order thinking takes place.

It will not be possible to realize the full potential of lean thinking in the information- and service-based economy without an Intangible Assets Metric System. Given the long-proven business value of standards and the role of measurement in management, it seems self-evident that our ongoing economic difficulties stem largely from our failure to develop and deploy an Intangible Assets Metric System providing common currencies for the exchange of authentic wealth. The future of sustainable and socially responsible business practices must surely depend extensively on universal access to flexible and practical uniform metrics for intangible assets.

Of course, for global intangible assets standards to be viable, they must be adaptable to local business demands and conditions without compromising their comparability. And that is just what is most powerfully disruptive about contemporary measurement methods: they make mass customization a reality. They’ve been doing so in computerized testing since the 1970s. Isn’t it time we started putting this technology to systematic use in a wide range of applications, from human and environmental resource management to education, health care, and social services?

Comments on the New ANSI Human Capital Investor Metrics Standard

April 16, 2012

The full text of the proposed standard is available here.

It’s good to see a document emerge in this area, especially one with such a broad base of support from a diverse range of stakeholders. As is stated in the standard, the metrics defined in it are a good place to start and in many instances will likely improve the quality and quantity of the information made available to investors.

There are several issues to keep in mind as the value of standards for human capital metrics becomes more widely appreciated. First, in the context of a comprehensively defined investment framework, human capital is just one of the four major forms of capital, the other three being social, natural, and manufactured (Ekins, 1992; Ekins, Dresden, and Dahlstrom, 2008). To ensure as far as possible the long term stability and sustainability of their profits, and of the economic system as a whole, investors will certainly want to expand the range of the available standards to include social and natural capital along with human capital.

Second, though we manage what we measure, investment management is seriously compromised by having high quality scientific measurement standards only for manufactured capital (length, weight, volume, temperature, energy, time, kilowatts, etc.). Over 80 years of research on ability tests, surveys, rating scales, and assessments has reached a place from which it is prepared to revolutionize the management of intangible forms of capital (Fisher, 2007, 2009a, 2009b, 2010, 2011a, 2011b; Fisher & Stenner, 2011a, 2011b; Wilson, 2011; Wright, 1999). The very large reductions in transaction costs effected by standardized metrics in the economy at large (Barzel, 1982; Benham and Benham, 2000) are likely to have a similarly profound effect on the economics of human, social, and natural capital (Fisher, 2011a, 2012a, 2012b).

The potential for dramatic change in the conceptualization of metrics is most evident in the proposed standard in the sections on leadership quality and employee engagement. For instance, in the section on leadership quality, it is stated that “Investors will be able to directly compare all organizations that are using the same vendor’s methodology.” This kind of dependency should not be allowed to stand as a significant factor in a measurement standard. Properly constructed and validated scientific measures, such as those that have been in wide use in education, psychology and health care for several decades (Andrich, 2010; Bezruzcko, 2005; Bond and Fox, 2007; Fisher and Wright, 1994; Rasch, 1960; Salzberger, 2009; Wright, 1999), are equated to a common unit. Comparability should never depend on which vendor is used. Rather, any instrument that actually measures the construct of interest (leadership quality or employee engagement) should do so in a common unit and within an acceptable range of error. “Normalizing” measures for comparability, as is suggested in the standard, means employing psychometric methods that are 50 years out of date and that are far less rigorous and practical than need be. Transparency in measurement means looking through the instrument to the thing itself. If particular instruments color or reshape what is measured, or merely change the meaning of the numbers reported, then the integrity of the standard as a standard should be re-examined.

Third, for investments in human capital to be effectively managed, each distinct aspect of it (motivations, skills and abilities, health) needs to be measured separately, just as height, weight, and temperature are. New technologies have already transformed measurement practices in ways that make the necessary processes precise and inexpensive. Of special interest are adaptively administered precalibrated instruments supporting mass customized—but globally comparable—measures (for instance, see the examples at and that were presented at the recent Pearson Global Research Conference in Fremantle, Australia; also see Wright and Bell 1984, Lunz, Bergstrom, and Gershon, 1994, Bejar, et al., 2003).

Fourth, the ownership of human capital needs clarification and legal status. If we consider each individual to own their abilities, health, and motivations, and to be solely responsible for decisions made concerning the disposition of those properties, then, in accord with their proven measured amounts of each type of human capital, everyone ought to have legal title to a specific number of shares or credits of each type. This may transform employment away from wage-based job classification compensation to an individualized investment-based continuous quality improvement platform. The same kind of legal titling system will, of course, need to be worked out for social and natural capital, as well.

Fifth, given scientific standards for each major form of capital, practical measurement technologies, and legal title to our shares of capital, we will need expanded financial accounting standards and tools for managing our individual and collective investments. Ongoing research and debates concerning these standards and tools (Siegel and Borgia, 2006; Young and Williams, 2010) have yet to connect with the larger scientific, economic, and legal issues raised here, but developments in this direction should be emerging in due course.

Sixth, a number of lingering moral, ethical and political questions are cast in a new light in this context. The significance of individual behaviors and decisions is informed and largely determined by the context of the culture and institutions in which those behaviors and decisions are executed. Many of the morally despicable but not illegal investment decisions leading to the recent economic downturn put individuals in the position of either setting themselves apart and threatening their careers or doing what was best for their portfolios within the limits of the law. Current efforts intended to devise new regulatory constraints are misguided in focusing on ever more microscopically defined particulars. What is needed is instead a system in which profits are contingent on the growth of human, social, and natural capital. In that framework, legal but ultimately unfair practices would drive down social capital stock values, counterbalancing ill-gotten gains and making them unprofitable.

Seventh, the International Vocabulary of Measurement, now in its third edition (VIM3), is a standard recognized by all eight international standards accrediting bodies (BIPM, etc.). The VIM3 ( and forthcoming VIM4 are intended to provide a uniform set of concepts and terms for all fields that employ measures across the natural and social sciences. A new dialogue on these issues has commenced in the context of the International Measurement Confederation (IMEKO), whose member organizations are the weights and standards measurement institutes from countries around the world (Conference note, 2011). The 2012 President of the Psychometric Society, Mark Wilson, gave an invited address at the September 2011 IMEKO meeting (Wilson, 2011), and a member of the VIM3 editorial board, Luca Mari, is invited to speak at the July, 2012 International Meeting of the Psychometric Society. I encourage all interested parties to become involved in efforts of these kinds in their own fields.


Andrich, D. (2010). Sufficiency and conditional estimation of person parameters in the polytomous Rasch model. Psychometrika, 75(2), 292-308.

Barzel, Y. (1982). Measurement costs and the organization of markets. Journal of Law and Economics, 25, 27-48.

Bejar, I., Lawless, R. R., Morley, M. E., Wagner, M. E., Bennett, R. E., & Revuelta, J. (2003, November). A feasibility study of on-the-fly item generation in adaptive testing. The Journal of Technology, Learning, and Assessment, 2(3), 1-29;

Benham, A., & Benham, L. (2000). Measuring the costs of exchange. In C. Ménard (Ed.), Institutions, contracts and organizations: Perspectives from new institutional economics (pp. 367-375). Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar.

Bezruczko, N. (Ed.). (2005). Rasch measurement in health sciences. Maple Grove, MN: JAM Press.

Bond, T., & Fox, C. (2007). Applying the Rasch model: Fundamental measurement in the human sciences, 2d edition. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Conference note. (2011). IMEKO Symposium: August 31- September 2, 2011, Jena, Germany. Rasch Measurement Transactions, 25(1), 1318.

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

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

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2007). Living capital metrics. Rasch Measurement Transactions, 21(1), 1092-3 [].

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

Fisher, W. P.. Jr. (2009b). NIST Critical national need idea White Paper: metrological infrastructure for human, social, and natural capital ( Washington, DC: National Institute for Standards and Technology.

Fisher, W. P.. Jr. (2010). Rasch, Maxwell’s method of analogy, and the Chicago tradition. In G. Cooper (Chair), Probabilistic models for measurement in education, psychology, social science and health: Celebrating 50 years since the publication of Rasch’s Probabilistic Models.., University of Copenhagen School of Business, FUHU Conference Centre, Copenhagen, Denmark.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2011a). Bringing human, social, and natural capital to life: Practical consequences and opportunities. In N. Brown, B. Duckor, K. Draney & M. Wilson (Eds.), Advances in Rasch Measurement, Vol. 2 (pp. 1-27). Maple Grove, MN: JAM Press.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2011b). Measurement, metrology and the coordination of sociotechnical networks. In  S. Bercea (Chair), New Education and Training Methods. International Measurement Confederation (IMEKO),, Jena, Germany.

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

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2012b). What the world needs now: A bold plan for new standards. Standards Engineering, 64, in press.

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

Fisher, W. P., Jr., & Stenner, A. J. (2011b). A technology roadmap for intangible assets metrology. In Fundamentals of measurement science. International Measurement Confederation (IMEKO) TC1-TC7-TC13 Joint Symposium,, Jena, Germany.

Fisher, W. P., Jr., & Wright, B. D. (Eds.). (1994). Applications of probabilistic conjoint measurement. International Journal of Educational Research, 21(6), 557-664.

Lunz, M. E., Bergstrom, B. A., & Gershon, R. C. (1994). Computer adaptive testing. International Journal of Educational Research, 21(6), 623-634.

Rasch, G. (1960). Probabilistic models for some intelligence and attainment tests (Reprint, with Foreword and Afterword by B. D. Wright, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980). Copenhagen, Denmark: Danmarks Paedogogiske Institut.

Salzberger, T. (2009). Measurement in marketing research: An alternative framework. Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar.

Siegel, P., & Borgia, C. (2006). The measurement and recognition of intangible assets. Journal of Business and Public Affairs, 1(1).

Wilson, M. (2011). The role of mathematical models in measurement: A perspective from psychometrics. In L. Mari (Chair), Plenary lecture. International Measurement Confederation (IMEKO),, Jena, Germany.

Wright, B. D. (1999). Fundamental measurement for psychology. In S. E. Embretson & S. L. Hershberger (Eds.), The new rules of measurement: What every educator and psychologist should know (pp. 65-104 []). Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Wright, B. D., & Bell, S. R. (1984, Winter). Item banks: What, why, how. Journal of Educational Measurement, 21(4), 331-345 [].

Young, J. J., & Williams, P. F. (2010, August). Sorting and comparing: Standard-setting and “ethical” categories. Critical Perspectives on Accounting, 21(6), 509-521.

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2011 IMEKO Conference Papers Published Online

January 13, 2012

Papers from the Joint International IMEKO TC1+ TC7+ TC13 Symposium held August 31st to September 2nd,  2011, in Jena, Germany are now available online at The following will be of particular interest to those interested in measurement applications in the social sciences, education, health care, and psychology:

Nikolaus Bezruczko
Foundational Imperatives for Measurement with Mathematical Models

Nikolaus Bezruczko, Shu-Pi C. Chen, Connie Hill, Joyce M. Chesniak
A Clinical Scale for Measuring Functional Caregiving of Children Assisted with Medical Technologies

Stefan Cano, Anne F. Klassen, Andrea L. Pusic, Andrea
From Breast-Q © to Q-Score ©: Using Rasch Measurement to Better Capture Breast Surgery Outcomes

Gordon A. Cooper, William P. Fisher, Jr.
Continuous Quantity and Unit; Their Centrality to Measurement

William P. Fisher, Jr.
Measurement, Metrology and the Coordination of Sociotechnical Networks

William .P Fisher, Jr., A. Jackson Stenner
A Technology Roadmap for Intangible Assets Metrology

Carl V. Granger, Nikolaus Bezruczko
Body, Mind, and Spirit are Instrumental to Functional Health: A Case Study

Thomas Salzberger
The Quantification of Latent Variables in the Social Sciences: Requirements for Scientific Measurement and Shortcomings of Current Procedures

A. Jackson Stenner, Mark Stone, Donald Burdick
How to Model and Test for the Mechanisms that Make Measurement Systems Tick

Mark Wilson
The Role of Mathematical Models in Measurement: A Perspective from Psychometrics

Also of interest will be Karl Ruhm’s plenary lecture and papers from the Fundamentals of Measurement Science session and the Special Session on the Role of Mathematical Models in Measurement:

Karl H. Ruhm
From Verbal Models to Mathematical Models – A Didactical Concept not just in Metrology

Alessandro Giordani, Luca Mari
Quantity and Quantity Value

Eric Benoit
Uncertainty in Fuzzy Scales Based Measurements

Susanne C.N. Töpfer
Application of Mathematical Models in Optical Coordinate Metrology

Giovanni Battista Rossi
Measurement Modelling: Foundations and Probabilistic Approach

Sanowar H. Khan, Ludwik Finkelstein
The Role of Mathematical Modelling in the Analysis and Design of Measurement Systems

Roman Z. Morawski
Application-Oriented Approach to Mathematical Modelling of Measurement Processes

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

September 10, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Path to a New Consensus: A Practical Procedure for Resolving the Opposition Between Absolute and Relative Standards

August 26, 2011

The possibility of a new nonpartisan consensus on social and economic issues has been raised from time to time lately. I’ve had some ideas fermenting in this area for a while, and it seems like they might be ready for recording here. What I want to take up concerns one of the more contentious aspects of the cultural and political disputes of recent decades. There are important differences between those who want to impose one or another kind of moral or religious standard on society as a whole and those who contend that, within certain limits, such standards are arbitrary and must be determined by each individual or group according to its own values and sense of what makes a community.The oppositions here might seem to be irreconcilable, but is that actually true?

Resolving deep-seated disagreements on this scale requires that all parties accept some baseline rules of engagement. And herein lies the rub, eh? For even something as seemingly obvious and simple as defining factual truth has proven beyond the abilities of some highly skilled and deeply motivated negotiators. So, of course, those who adhere rigidly to preconceived notions automatically remove themselves from dialogue, and I cannot presume to address them here. But for those willing to entertain possibilities following from ideas and methods with which they may be unfamiliar, I say, read on.

What I want to propose differs in several fundamental respects from what has come before, and it is very similar in one fundamental respect. The similarity stems from the realization that essentially the same thing can be authoritatively stated at different times and place by different people using different words and different languages in relation to different customs and traditions. For instance, the versions of the Golden Rule given in the Gospels of Matthew or Luke are conceptually identical with the sentiment expressed in the Hindu Mahabarata, the Confucian Analects, the Jewish Talmud, the Muslim 13th Hadith, and the Buddhist Unada-Varga (;

So, rather than defining consensus in terms of strict agreement (with no uncertainty) on the absolute value of various propositions, it should be defined in terms of probabilities of consistent agreement (within a range of uncertainty) on the relative value of various propositions. Instead of evaluating isolated and decontextualized value statements one at a time, I propose evaluating value statements hypothesized to cohere with one another within a larger context together, as a unit.Instead of demanding complete data on a single set of propositions, I propose requiring and demonstrating that the same results be obtained across different sets of propositions addressing the same thing. Instead of applying statistical models of group level inter-variable relations to these data, I propose applying measurement models of individual level within-variable relations. Instead of setting policy on the basis of centrally controlled analytic results that vary incommensurably across data sets I propose setting policy on the basis of decentralized, distributed results collectively produced by networks of individuals whose behaviors and decisions are coordinated and aligned by calibrated instruments measuring in common commensurable units. All of these proposals are described in detail in previous posts here, and in the references included in those posts.

What I’m proposing is rooted in and extends existing practical solutions to the definition and implementation of standards. And though research across a number of fields suggests that a new degree of consensus on some basic issues seems quite possible, that consensus will not be universal and it should not be used as a basis for compelling conformity. Rather, the efficiencies that stand to be gained by capitalizing (literally) on existing but unrecognized standards of behavior and performance are of a magnitude that would easily support generous latitude in allowing poets, nonconformists, and political dissenters to opt out of the system at little or no cost to themselves or anyone else.

That is, as has been described and explained at length in previous posts here, should we succeed in establishing an Intangible Assets Metric System and associated genuine progress indicator or happiness index, we would be in the position of harnessing the power of the profit motive as an economic driver of growth in human, social, and natural capital. Instead of taking mere monetary profits as a measure of improved quality of life, we would set up economic systems in which the measurement and the management of quality of life determines monetary profits. The basic idea is that individual ownership of and accountability for what is, more than anything else, our rightful property–our own abilities, motivations, health, trustworthiness, loyalty, etc.–ought to be a significant factor in promoting the conservation and growth of these forms of capital.

In this context, what then might serve as a practical approach to resolving disputes between those who advocate standards and those who reject them, or between those who trust in our capacity to function satisfactorily as a society without standards and those who do not? Such an approach begins by recognizing the multitude of ways in which all of us rely on standards every day. We do not need to concern ourselves with the technical issues of electronics or manufacturing, though standards are essential here. We do not need even to take up the role of standards as guides to grocery or clothing store purchasing decisions or to planning meetings or travel across time zones.

All we need to think about is something as basic as communication. The alphabet, spelling, pronunciation, and grammatical rules, dictionaries, and educational curricula are all forms of standards that must be accepted, recognized and adhered to before the most basic communication can be achieved. The shapes of various letters or symbols, and the sounds associated with them, are all completely arbitrary. They are conventions that arose over centuries of usage that passed long before the rules were noted, codified, and written down. And spoken languages remain alive, changing in ways that break the rules and cause them to be rewritten, as when new words emerge, or previously incorrect constructions become accepted.

But what is the practical value for a new consensus in recognizing our broad acceptance of linguistic standards? Contrary to the expectations of l’Academie Francaise, for instance, we cannot simply make up new rules and expect people to follow them. No, the point of taking language as a key example goes deeper than that. We noted that usage precedes the formulation of rules, and so it must also be in finding our way to a basis for a new consensus. The question is, what are the lawful patterns by which we already structure behavior and decisions, patterns that might be codified in the language of a social science?

These patterns are being documented in research employing probabilistic measurement models. The fascinating thing about these patterns is that they often retain their characteristic features across different samples of people being measured, across time and space, and across different sets of questions on tests, surveys, or assessments designed to measure the same ability, behavior, attitude, or performance. The stability and constancy of these patterns are such that it appears possible to link all of the instruments measuring the same things to common units of measurement, so that everyone everywhere could think and act together in a common language.

And it is here, in linking instruments together in an Intangible Assets Metric System, that we arrive at a practical way of resolving some disputes between absolutists and relativists. Though we should and will take issue with his demand for certainty, Latour (2005, p. 228) asks the right question, saying,

“Standards and metrology solve practically the question of relativity that seems to intimidate so many people:
Can we obtain some sort of universal agreement? Of course we can! Provided you find a way to hook up your local instrument to one of the many metrological chains whose material network can be fully described, and whose cost can be fully determined. Provided there is also no interruption, no break, no gap, and no uncertainty along any point of the transmission. Indeed, traceability is precisely what the whole of metrology is about!”

Nowhere does Latour show any awareness of what has been accomplished in social research employing probabilistic measurement models, but he nonetheless grasps exactly how the results of that research will not realize its potential unless it is expanded into networks of interconnected instrumentation. He understands that his theory of networked actors coordinated via virtual threads of standardized forms, metrics, vocabularies describes how scientific metrology and standards set the benchmark for universal consensus. Latour stresses that the focus here is on concrete material practices that can be objectively observed and replicated. As he says, when those practices are understood, then you know how to “do the same operation for other less traceable, less materialized circulations” (p. 229).

Latour’s primary concerns are with the constitution of sociology as a science of the social, and with the understanding of the social as networks of actors whose interests are embodied in technical devices that mediate relationships. Throughout his work, he therefore focuses on the description of existing sociotechnical phenomena. Presumably because of his lack of familiarity with social measurement theory and practice, Latour does not speak to ways in which the social sciences could go beyond documenting less traceable and less materialized circulations to creating more traceable and more materialized circulations, ones capable of more closely emulating those found in the natural sciences.

Latour’s results suggest criteria that may show some disputes regarded as unresolvable to have unexplored potentials for negotiation. That potential depends, as Latour says, on calibrating instruments that can be hooked up in a metrological chain in an actual material network with known properties (forms, Internet connections and nodes, a defined unit of measurement with tolerable uncertainty, etc.) and known costs. In the same way that the time cannot be told from a clock disconnected from the chain of connections to the standard time, each individual instrument for measuring abilities, health, quality of life, etc. will also have to be connected to its standard via an unbroken chain.

But however intimidating these problems might be, they are far less imposing than the ignorance that prevents any framing of the relevant issues in the first place. Addressing the need for rigorous measurement in general, Rasch (1980, pp. xx) agreed that “this is a huge challenge, but once the problem has been formulated it does seem possible to meet it.” Naturally enough, the needed work will have to be done by those of us calibrating the instruments of education, health care, sociology, etc. Hence my ongoing involvement in IMEKO, the International Measurement Confederation (


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

Rasch, G. (1960). Probabilistic models for some intelligence and attainment tests (Reprint, with Foreword and Afterword by B. D. Wright, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980). Copenhagen, Denmark: Danmarks Paedogogiske Institut.

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New Opportunities for Job Creation and Prosperity

August 17, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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





Property rights





Scientific rationality





Capital markets





Transportation & communication networks





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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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