Archive for the ‘liberty’ Category

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.
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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 (http://www.thesynthesizer.org/golden.html; http://philosophy.tamu.edu/~gary/bioethics/ethicaltheory/universalizability.html).

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 (http://www.tu-ilmenau.de/fakmb/Home.2382.0.html).

References

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

July 30, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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LivingCapitalMetrics Blog by William P. Fisher, Jr., Ph.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
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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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Crisis and Opportunity

November 21, 2010

Naomi Klein’s 2007 book, Shock doctrine: The rise of disaster capitalism (New York, Picador), provides a great way of framing how the shortcomings of capitalism might be corrected.  What I’m after is what might be called a reverse shock doctrine, though the reversal is not a simple mirror image. (This post assumes familiarity with some of my previously presented arguments, especially How bad…?, Reinventing…, and And here it is…)

Klein calls “orchestrated raids on the public sphere in the wake of catastrophic events, combined with the treatment of the disasters as exciting market opportunities, ‘disaster capitalism'” (p. 6). She traces the origins of disaster capitalism to Milton Friedman’s articulation of:

“contemporary capitalism’s core tactical nostrum, what I have come to understand as the shock doctrine. He [Friedman] observed that ‘only a crisis–actual or perceived–produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.’12 Some people stockpile canned goods and water in preparation for major disasters; Friedmanites stockpile free-market ideas. And once a crisis has struck, the University of Chicago professor was convinced that it was crucial to act swiftly, to impose rapid and irreversible change before the crisis-racked society slipped back into the ‘tyranny of the status quo.’ He estimated that ‘a new administration has some six to nine months in which to achieve major changes; if it does not seize the opportunity to act decisively during that period, it will not have another such opportunity.’13 A variation on Machiavelli’s advice that injuries should be inflicted ‘all at once,’ this proved to be one of Friedman’s most lasting strategic legacies.” (pp. 7-8)

So what I propose is the positive opposite of disaster capitalism and the shock doctrine. The opposition takes two forms. First, what might be called genuine prosperity capitalism or whole wealth capitalism takes advantage of the crises induced by market failures to effect changes that are the diametric opposite of disaster capitalism. In Bolivia in 1985, for instance, the government countered hyperinflation with a shock program that implemented free market principles while incurring huge costs in terms of human suffering, social upheaval, and environmental impacts (Klein’s Chapter 7, pp. 177-193).

This was privatization on a massive scale, with the simultaneous near-complete abandonment of externalized welfare costs previously funded by tax revenues, shifting responsibility for the consequences of an environment more attuned to corporate welfare directly onto the poor. Of course, one of the reasons why this was possible is that no one is responsible for the indirect social and environmental costs. Because the unmeasured and unmanaged dead capital is off the books and not included in the models, it doesn’t count, no matter how essential it is to the overall functioning of the economy.

My plan would do just the opposite, not in the sense of shifting costs off society at large and onto business but in transforming dead capital into living. I propose taking advantage of market failures to internalize social and environmental costs, to follow through on the general capitalist principle that maximizing social welfare depends on having each firm in an economy maximize its total market value. The current (2007-2010) great recession, for instance, has laid bare the need for a new infrastructure of human, social, and natural capital metrics. Universally available uniform measures of each form of living capital would function as common currencies for the exchange of the value of intangible assets.

Such currencies are needed for reducing the astronomical transaction costs associated with 90% of the capital under management in the economy as a whole. It may be impossible to transform economic models and financial standards so completely outside of the context of a widespread disaster, and it may now be too late in the course of this disaster to begin the process. This period may someday be seen in retrospect, however, as the quiet before the real storm, and so I can do no better than to work toward accumulating a stockpile of new ideas that may come to be seen as vital tools essential to making needed changes when the opportunity arises.

Second, in contrast with Klein, rather than seeing the shock doctrine as a pure imposition of power, we would do better to understand the sources of that power and how it is sustained and perpetuated. What I want to consider is not an apology for the injustices, but a coherent narrative, however much it was a case of one step forward and five back.

Though it does not appear to have been intentional, the stage for the 1985 Bolivian crisis was set by the Reagan-era war on drugs, which had cut Bolivia’s export revenues by 50% in 1984 (p. 178). This economic disaster came just as Bolivia was making a political shift from dictatorship to democracy. It is highly ironic that the shock therapy was administered by an elected leftist government, but there is also a kind of consistency to the course of events that lends itself to a narrative of ongoing development.

With 20-20 hindsight, it is obvious that alternative policies, such as the legalization, regulation, and taxation of cocaine, could have prevented to some degree, at least, the tragic consequences of the shock doctrine that were suffered by the Bolivian people. But that does not change the fact that a fundamental level of progress was achieved in abandoning the socially irresponsible, humanly immoral, and economically unsustainable dictatorship, illegal drug trade, and state-owned mining operations. Would not the re-entrenchment of these in 1985 have produced far more suffering, upheaval, and environmental deterioration than actually did occur? After all, though labor and social leaders were temporarily kidnapped while the shock policies were implemented, mass murder was not part of this picture.

Even so, far from relieving anyone of responsibility, this damning with faint praise frames a perspective on a positive way forward. If free market principles had been expanded to include all the forms of capital (human, social, and natural in addition to the existing manufactured, liquid, and property), the shock doctrine might have instead been realized as a soothing, reassuring, care or love doctrine. Opportunities for instituting such a doctrine do not seem to be in short supply. They will apparently continue to offer themselves for as long as capitalism remains in its current incomplete state. And capitalism will remain in that state as long as we do not emulate Friedman’s example and accumulate a stockpile of ideas as to how the profit motive can be harnessed as a source of energy for growing genuine wealth: fulfilled human potential, safe and creative communities, and a thriving natural environment.

All of my work is focused on contributing to the stock of intellectual capital needed for realizing how true it is that love makes the world go round.

—————————————————-
p. 174, Repeats Friedman quote from p. 7:
“‘Only a crisis–actual or perceived–produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.’33 It was to become a kind of mantra for his movement in the new democratic era. Allan Meltzer elaborated on the philosophy: ‘Ideas are alternatives waiting on a crisis to serve as the catalyst of change. Friedman’s model of influence was to legitimize ideas, to make them bearable, and worth trying when the opportunity comes.’34”

p. 175:
“The idea that market crashes can serve as catalysts for revolutionary change has a long history on the far left, most notably in the Bolshevik theory that hyperinflation, by destroying the value of money, takes the masses one step closer to the destruction of capitalism itself.35 This theory explains why a certain breed of sectarian leftist is forever calculating the exact conditions under which capitalism will reach ‘the crisis,’ much as evangelical Christians calibrate signs of the coming Rapture. In the mid-eighties, this Communist idea began to experience a powerful revival, picked up by Chicago School economists who argued that just as market crashes could precipitate left-wing revolutions, so too could they be used to spark right-wing counterrevolutions, a theory that become known as ‘the crisis hypothesis.’36
“Friedman’s interest in crisis was also a clear attempt to learn from the victories of the left after the Great Depression: when the market crashed, Keynes and his disciples, previously voices in the wilderness, had been ready and waiting with their ideas, their New Deal solutions. In the seventies and early eighties, Friedman and his corporate underwriters had attempted to mimic this process with their unique brand of intellectual disaster preparedness. They painstakingly built up a new network of right-wing think tanks, including Heritage and [p. 176] Cato, and produced the most significant vehicle to disseminate Friedman’s views, the ten-part PBS miniseries Free to Choose–underwritten by some of the largest corporations in the world, including Getty Oil, Firestone Tire & Rubber Co., PepsiCo, General Motors, Bechtel, and General Mills.37 When the next crisis hit, Friedman was determined that it would be his Chicago Boys who would be the ones ready with their ideas and their solutions.”

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Modern, Postmodern, or Amodern?

February 17, 2010

A few points of clarification might be in order for those wondering what the fuss is all about in the contrast between the modern and the postmodern (and the amodern, which is really what we ought to be about).

The modern world view takes its perspective from the foundational works of the European Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution. One of its characteristic features is often referred to as the Cartesian duality, or subject-object split, in which we (the subjects) enter the previously-existing objective world as blank slates who deal with reality by adapting to the facts of existence (which are God-given in the full Christian version). Many Marxists, feminists, and postmodernists see modernism as a bastion of white males in positions of political and economic superiority oblivious to the way their ideas were shaped by their times, and happy to take full advantage of their positions for their own gain.

Postmodernism takes a variety of forms and has not yet really jelled into any kind of uniform perspective; in fact, it might not ever do so, as one of its few recurrent themes has to do with the fragmentation of thinking and its local dependence on the particular power relations of different times and places. That said, a wide variety of writers trace out the way we are caught up in the play of the language games that inevitably follow from the mutual implication of subject and object. Subject and object each imply the other in the way language focuses attention selectively and filters out 99% of incoming stimuli. Concepts originate in metaphors that take their meaning from the surrounding social and historical context, and so perception and cognition are constrained by the linguistic or theoretical paradigms dominating the thoughts and behaviors of various communities. We cannot help but find ourselves drawn up into the flow of discourses that always already embody the subject-object unities represented in speaking and writing.

When we choose discourse over violence, we do so on the basis of a desire for meaning (Ricoeur, 1974), of an inescapable attraction to the beautiful (Gadamer, 1989, 1998), of a care that characterizes the human mode of being (Heidegger, 1962), of a considerateness for the human vulnerability of others and ourselves (Habermas, 1995), of an enthrallment with the fecund abundance of sexual difference (Irigaray, 1984), of the joy we experience in recognizing ourselves in each other and the universal (Hegel, 2003), of the irresistible allure of things (Harman, 2005), or of the unavoidable metaphysical necessity that propositions must take particular forms (Derrida, 1978).

All violence is ultimately the violence of the premature conclusion (Ricoeur, 1974), in which discourse is cut off by the imposition of one particularity as representative of a potentially infinite whole. This reductionism is an unjustified reduction of a universal that precludes efforts aimed at determining how well what is said might work to represent the whole transparently. Of course, all reductions of abstract ideals to particular expressions in words, numbers, or other signs are, by definition, of a limited length, and so inevitably pose the potential for being nonsensical, biased, prejudiced, and meaningless. Measures experimentally justifying reductions as meaningfully and usefully transparent are created, maintained, and reinvented via a balance of powers. In science, powers are balanced by the interrelations of theories, instruments, and data; in democracy, by the interrelations of the judicial, legislative, and executive branches of government. Just as science is continuously open to the improvements that might be effected by means of new theories, instrumentation, or data, so, too, are democratic governments continuously reshaped by new court decisions, laws, and executive orders.

An essential idea here is that all thinking takes place in signs; this is not an idea that was invented or that is owned by postmodernists. C. S. Pierce developed the implications of semiotics in his version of pragmatism, and the letters exchanged by William James and Helen Keller explored the world projected by the interrelations of signs at length. The focus on signs, signification, and the play of signifiers does not make efforts at thinking futile or invalidate the search for truth. Things come into language by asserting their independent real existence, and by being appropriated in terms of relations with things already represented in the language. For instance, trees in the forest did not arrive on the scene hallmarked “white pine,” “pin oak,” etc. Rather, names for things emerge via the metaphoric process, which frames new experiences in terms of old, and which leads to a kind of conceptual speciation event that distinguishes cultural, historical, and ecological times and places from each other.

Modernists interpret the cultural relativism that emerges here as reducing all value systems to a false equality and an “anything goes” lack of standards. Unfortunately, the rejection of relativism usually entails the adoption of some form of political or religious fundamentalism in efforts aimed at restoring bellwether moral reference points. One of the primary characteristics of the current state of global crisis is our suspension in this unsustainable tension between equally dysfunctional alternatives of completely relaxed or completely rigid guides to behavior.

But the choice between fundamentalism and relativism is a false dichotomy. Science, democracy, and capitalism have succeeded as well as they have not in spite of, but because of, the social, historic, linguistic, and metaphoric factors that influence and constitute the construction of objective meaning. As Latour (1990, 1993) puts it, we have never actually been modern, so the point is not to be modern or postmodern, but amodern. We need to appropriate new, more workable conceptual reductions from the positive results produced by the deconstruction of the history of metaphysics. Though many postmodernists see deconstruction as an end in itself, and though many modernists see reductionism as a necessary exercise of power, there are other viable ways of proceeding through all three moments in the ontological method (Heidegger, 1982; Fisher, 2010b) that remain to be explored.

The amodern path informs the trajectory of my own work, from the focus on the creation of meaning in language to meaningful measurement (Fisher, 2003a, 2003b, 2004, 2010b), and from there to the use of measurement and metrological networks in bringing human, social, and natural capital to life as part of the completion of the capitalist and democratic projects (Fisher, 2000, 2002, 2005, 2009, 2010a). Though this project will also ultimately amount to nothing more than another failed experiment, perhaps sooner than later, it has its openness to continued questioning and ongoing dialogue in its favor.

References

Derrida, J. (1978). Structure, sign and play in the discourse of the human sciences. In Writing and difference (pp. 278-93). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2000). Objectivity in psychosocial measurement: What, why, how. Journal of Outcome Measurement, 4(2), 527-563 [http://www.livingcapitalmetrics.com/images/WP_Fisher_Jr_2000.pdf].

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. (2003a, December). Mathematics, measurement, metaphor, metaphysics: Part I. Implications for method in postmodern science. Theory & Psychology, 13(6), 753-90.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2003b, December). Mathematics, measurement, metaphor, metaphysics: Part II. Accounting for Galileo’s “fateful omission.” Theory & Psychology, 13(6), 791-828.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2004, October). Meaning and method in the social sciences. Human Studies: A Journal for Philosophy and the Social Sciences, 27(4), 429-54.

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 [http://www.livingcapitalmetrics.com/images/FisherJAM05.pdf].

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

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2010a). Bringing human, social, and natural capital to life: Practical consequences and opportunities. Journal of Applied Measurement, 11, in press.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2010b). Reducible or irreducible? Mathematical reasoning and the ontological method. Journal of Applied Measurement, 11(1), 38-59.

Gadamer, H.-G. (1989). Truth and method (J. Weinsheimer & D. G. Marshall, Trans.) (Rev. ed.). New York: Crossroad (Original work published 1960).

Gadamer, H.-G. (1998). Praise of theory: Speeches and essays ( Foreword by Joel Weinsheimer, Ed.) (C. Dawson, Trans.). New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press.

Habermas, J. (1995). Moral consciousness and communicative action. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Harman, G. (2005). Guerrilla metaphysics: Phenomenology and the carpentry of things. Chicago: Open Court.

Hegel, G. W. F. (2003). Phenomenology of mind (J. B. Baillie, Trans.). New York: Dover (Original work published 1931).

Heidegger, M. (1962). Being and time (J. Macquarrie & E. Robinson, Trans.). New York: Harper & Row (Original work published 1927).

Heidegger, M. (1982). The basic problems of phenomenology (J. M. Edie, Ed.) (A. Hofstadter, Trans.). Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press (Original work published 1975).

Irigaray, L. (1984). An ethics of sexual difference (C. Burke & G. C. Gill, Trans.). Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.

Latour, B. (1990). Postmodern? no, simply amodern: Steps towards an anthropology of science. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 21(1), 145-71.

Latour, B. (1993). We have never been modern. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Ricoeur, P. (1974). Violence and language. In D. Stewart & J. Bien (Eds.), Political and social essays by Paul Ricoeur (pp. 88-101). Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press.

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].

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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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Review of “The Science of Liberty” by Timothy Ferris

February 15, 2010

The topic of Timothy Ferris’ (2010) “The Science of Liberty” is fascinating; the author recounts many entertaining and illuminating historical episodes in science, with their often profound implications for political and economic experimentation. But as Gary Rosen says in his New York Times review, Ferris ultimately gives up “on any real effort to argue for the decisive influence of science as such. He is content to speak of science metaphorically, as the model for openness and experimentalism in all the major realms of liberal-democratic endeavor.” This is unfortunate, as there is much to say and more to be done in documenting and extending the material practices of science into political and economic applications (Ashworth, 2004; Jasanoff, 2004, 2005).

And more than that, Ferris misses two important opportunities that could have made this book into something more compelling. First, the voluminous literature on the co-production of social orders across political, economic, and scientific contexts is almost completely ignored. Worse, when Ferris does touch on it, as he does in the work of Bruno Latour, he turns it into an example of an antiscientific attitude that he is content to “jeer and dismiss,” as Rosen puts it in the Times.

Latour’s work, however, is part of an area of academic research that has emerged in the last 30 years with a focus on the way scientific values embody, insinuate, and disseminate implicit moral, political, and economic values, values that are ineluctably spread and adopted along with the technologies that carry them. The basic idea is expressed in Alder’s (2002) history of the meter:

“Just as the French Revolution had proclaimed universal rights for all people, the savants argued, so too should it proclaim universal measures. And to ensure that their creation would not be seen as the handiwork of any single group or nation, they decided to derive its fundamental unit from the measure of the world itself.” (p. 3)

“Ought not a single nation have a uniform set of measures, just as a soldier fought for a single patrie? Had not the Revolution promised equality and fraternity, not just for France, but for all the people of the world? By the same token, should not all of the world’s people use a single set of weights and measures to encourage peaceable commerce, mutual understanding, and the exchange of knowledge? That was the purpose of measuring the world.” (p. 32)

But instead of capitalizing on this primary theme in Alder’s book, the only mention of it by Ferris (p. 124) is as a source for a contemporary’s comment on the execution of Lavoisier by the Revolutionaries. Hunt (1994), however, points out that this focus on standardization provides the medium through which the material practices and implicit values of science are exported from the laboratory into the broader social world, where they have unintended political and economic effects. Recounting the development of electrical standards, Hunt observes that

“Such standardization—first of resistance coils, then of production materials—is a good example of the process Bruno Latour discusses in the section ‘Metrologies’ in Science in Action. Standardization of instruments and materials enables scientists and engineers to extend their networks of calculation and control by simply making and sending out what are, in effect, little pieces of their laboratories and testing rooms. They can then travel around the world without, in a sense, ever having to leave their laboratories—as long as they are able to put certified copies or extensions of their instruments wherever they have to go.” (p. 56)

Hunt continues, providing more detail on how the social order implied by standard values comes to be constructed:

“As useful as the precision and control afforded by standardization was within a single company’s system, it became even more important when an exchange of materials was involved—when standardization became part of contract specifications. By providing fixed and agreed reference points in which both parties could have confidence, standard resistances were crucial in settling or heading off possible disputes. By enabling engineers to secure the comparability and even uniformity of their copper and gutta-percha, to identify and police deviations, and to reproduce the properties of successful cables in a predictable way, reliable standards were crucial to the growth of the cable manufacturing industry and to the efficient operation and extension of the world cable system.” (p. 57)

Electrical engineers, then, rigorously established the natural properties of resistance as it shows itself in repeated experiments, designed their systems to conform with those properties, earned economic and legal successes by efficiently deploying standard resistances, and worked together to create a global system. In other words, as Ferris himself emphasizes, scientific practices imply and lead toward democratic practices by being antiauthoritarian, self-correcting, meritocratic and collaborative. And every year on World Metrology Day (May 20), the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) repeats the same mantra emphasizing the vital importance of technical standards and common product definitions for free trade and liberal democracy.

The same basic point made by Latour is also made by Schaffer (1992; also see Wise, 1995 and many others), working in the same area of the history of electrical standards as Hunt:

“The physical values which the laboratory fixes are sustained by the social values which the laboratory inculcates. Metrology has not often been granted much historical significance. But in milieux such as those of Victorian Britain the propagation of standards and values was the means through which physicists reckoned they could link their work with technical and economic projects elsewhere in their society. Instrumental ensembles let these workers embody the values which mattered to their culture in their laboratory routines. Intellectualist condescension distracts our attention from these everyday practices, from their technical staff, and from the work which makes results count outside laboratory walls.” (pp. 22-23)

Had Ferris taken the trouble to look at Latour’s 1999 book, Pandora’s Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies, or Latour’s 1990 and 1993 contrasts of the postmodern and amodern, he would have found lengthy replies to exactly those disputes he unknowingly re-provokes. Far from denying that anything exists objectively in nature, as Ferris implies, Latour and the field of science studies examines how we enter into dialogue with nature, and how things come into words as objects of discourse by asserting their independent real existence in very specific and reproducible ways. Ferris commits a gross reductionism in casting as postmodern nonsense this field’s efforts in tracing out the microscopic details of what is said and done, how instruments are read and the readings recorded, and how the recorded values take their places in forms, memos, bills, invoices, laws, accounting spreadsheets, manufacturing specifications, operating instructions, etc. Ferris would have had quite a different book to write if he had followed the implications of networked thinking coordinated via standards and brought them to bear on recent developments in the social sciences and economics (Fisher, 2000, 2005, 2009, 2010a).

Ferris does his “jeer and dismiss” thing again in a second way, instead of engaging substantively with the likes of Heidegger or Derrida. In joining with Gross and Levitt (1994), and Alan Bloom (1987), in their dismissals of Derrida and deconstruction, for instance, Ferris (pp. 258-259) has simply found it easier to project irrational conclusions on writers whose work he cannot be troubled to read carefully enough to understand (as on page 238, where “logocentric” is said to be “a fascist epithet aimed at those who employ logic”). Derrida’s comment that “a critique of what I do is indeed impossible” (quoted on page 242) hardly renders his work “immune to criticism,” as Ferris says. The point is that it is impossible to critique effectively what Derrida does without doing it yourself, which puts you in the unresolvable situation of having to employ the same assumptions as the ones you’re criticizing.

Closer attention to Derrida’s extensive considerations of this issue would show the sensitivity and care that are required in trying, for instance, to be as faithful as Levi-Strauss was to the double intention of being able “to preserve as an instrument something whose truth value he [Levi-Strauss] criticizes” (Derrida, 1978, p. 284). Postmodernism is essentially this kind of a twist on the old maxim about being able to continue thinking critically while holding two mutually exclusive ideas at the same time. This double intention permeates Derrida’s writings from the beginning of his career. In a 1968 discussion of his work, for instance, he said, “I try to place myself at a certain point at which—and this would be the very ‘content’ of what I would like to ‘signify’—the thing signified is no longer easily separable from the signifier” (Wahl, et al., 1988, pp. 88-89). In saying this, the speaker is obviously making an effort at a clear separation of what is signified from the signifiers representing it.

What complicates things is that what are signified in that sentence are precisely the difficulties entailed in effecting the separation referred to. Though this point is lost on those unable or unwilling to do the work of thinking these self-referential recursive patterns through, the discourses of deconstruction often show awareness of the need to assume the convergence and separation of signifier and signified even while specific instances of their inseparability are analyzed (Gasché, 1987; Spivak, 1990, 1993). This follows from the fact that deconstruction is but the third of three moments in the ontological method (Heidegger, 1982, pp. 19-23, 320-330), where the prior two moments are reduction and application (Fisher, 2010b).

Any time things are put into words in spoken or written expressions of limited lengths, reduction takes place. Reductionism occurs when things are misrepresented, when the utility or fairness of the way something is conceptualized is biased, prejudiced, or ineffective. Of course, language is historical and cultural, human attention is inevitably selective, and so words and concepts are always colored by the interests and prejudices of their times. These places in which the meaning of things remains stuck on and inseparable from local particularities may become increasingly apparent over time, as words are applied constructively in creating meaning, socially. Eventually, new distinctions and new aggregations of previously lumped or segregated classifications will be demanded just to be able to continue meaningful communication. And so the cycle progresses through applications to a period of critical evaluation and on to new reductions with new applications.

But this process need not be construed only negatively, since it also stands for nothing more than the fact that there is always room for improvement. Industrial quality improvement methods adopted over the last 60+ years are well-known, for instance, for asserting that there is no best way of doing something, that the standard way of doing something is always flawed in some way. The ontological method comprehensively outlines the life cycle of concepts (Fisher, 2010b), and so offers positive potentials for informing experimental evaluations of new possibilities in science, capitalism, and democracy.

And so, though one could never gather this from reading Ferris, late in his life Derrida diligently urged his critics to read him as closely as he was reading them, saying in one interview (Derrida, 2003) that:

“…people who read me and think I’m playing with or transgressing norms—which I do, of course—usually don’t know what I know: that all of this has not only been made possible by but is constantly in contact with very classical, rigorous, demanding discipline in writing, in ‘demonstrating,’ in rhetoric. …the fact that I’ve been trained in and that I am at some level true to this classical teaching is essential. … When I take liberties, it’s always by measuring the distance from the standards I know or that I’ve been rigorously trained in.” (pp. 62-63)

This is from someone who holds “truly meaningful utterance is impossible” (Gross & Levitt, 1994, p. 76), and who stands as the representative of a movement (deconstruction) that “is the last, predictable, stage in the suppression of reason and the denial of the possibility of truth in the name of philosophy” (Bloom, 1987, p. 387)? Far from defeating or debunking “lackluster scholars,” which is how Ferris (pp. 257-258) credits Gross and Levitt, and Bloom, they actually do nothing but demonstrate their failure to grasp the issues. The situation is again similar to one brought up by Thomas Kuhn regarding the nature of interpretation.

As I’ve noted previously in this blog, Kuhn (1977) recounts an experience from the summer of 1947 that led to his appreciation for an explicit theory of interpretation. He had been completely perplexed by Aristotle’s account of motion, in which Aristotle writes a great many things that appear blatantly absurd. Kuhn was very puzzled and disturbed by this, as Aristotle made many astute observations in other areas, such as biology and political behavior. He eventually came to see what Aristotle was in fact talking about, and he then came to routinely offer the following maxim to his students:

“When reading the works of an important thinker [or anyone else who is held by some to have a modicum of coherence], look first for the apparent absurdities in the text and ask yourself how a sensible person could have written them. When you find an answer, I continue, when those passages make sense, then you may find that more central passages, ones you previously thought you understood, have changed their meaning.” (p. xii)

As Kuhn goes on to say, if his book was addressed primarily to historians, this point wouldn’t be worth making, as historians are in the business of precisely this kind of interpretive back-and-forth, as are many philosophers, literary critics, writers, social scientists, educators, and artists. But as a physicist, Kuhn says that the discovery of hermeneutics not only made history seem consequential, it changed his view of science. As is well known, his skill in practicing hermeneutics changed a great many people’s views of science.

Derrida’s efforts to explain the meaning of his difficult language and prose are not, then, late after-thoughts presented only in response to critics—and to followers who often seem to misunderstand deconstruction as much as those presenting themselves as defenders of truth and reason. His purpose is akin to Kuhn’s in that he is urging people who find absurdities in his writing to reconsider and ask themselves how a sensible person could have written them.

Derrida’s reference to measuring the distance from standards clearly intersects with Latour’s interests in metrology. Standards in rhetoric, grammar, orthography, etc. in fact form an implicit model for metrological standards and their coordinations of thoughts and behaviors on mass scales. This sense of measuring is no empty metaphor, as is plain in Derrida’s (1989) book-length study of Edmund Husserl’s (1970) Origins of Geometry, one of the founding documents of Continental philosophy and postmodernism.

“The mathematical object seems to be the privileged example and most permanent thread guiding Husserl’s reflection… [on phenomenology] because the mathematical object is ideal. Its being is thoroughly transparent and exhausted by its phenomenality” (Derrida, 1989, p. 27).

Accordingly, its “universality and objectivity make the ideal object into the ‘absolute model for any object whatsoever'” (Bernet, 1989, p. 141, quoting Derrida, 1989, p. 66). Heidegger (1967) similarly reflected at length on the mathematical object. He was, after all, Husserl’s student, dealt extensively with mathematical thinking (Heidegger, 1967; Kisiel, 1973), took more courses in mathematics and physics at one point in his studies than he did in philosophy (Kisiel, 2002, p. x), and remained well enough versed in mathematics to serve on dissertation committees for his university (Krell, 1977, p. 12).

Far from being the antiscientific nonsense portrayed by Ferris, there are strong parallels between mathematical logic and the themes being played out in postmodern studies (Tasic, 2001; Fisher, 2003a, 2003b, 2004, 2010b). In direct opposition to Ferris’ characterization of logocentricism as a charge levied against those who use logic, Derrida (1981) wrote that those most guilty of logocentrism are those who resist logic, saying that

“…resistance to logical-mathematical notation has always been the signature of logocentricism and phonologism in the event to which they have dominated metaphysics and the classical semiological and linguistic projects.” (p. 34)

“A grammatology that would break with this system of presuppositions, then, must in effect liberate the mathematization of language, and must also declare that ‘the practice of science in fact has never ceased to protest the imperialism of the Logos, for example by calling upon, from all time, and more and more, nonphonetic writing.’ [see Of Grammatology, pp. 12, 10, 3, 284-6] Everything that has always linked logos to phone’ has been limited by mathematics, whose progress is in absolute solidarity with the practice of nonphonetic inscription. About these ‘grammatological’ principles and tasks there is no possible doubt, I believe. But the extension of mathematical notation, and in general the formalization of writing, must be very slow and very prudent, at least if one wishes it to take over effectively the domains from which it has been excluded so far.” (p. 34)

“The effective progress of mathematical notation goes along with the deconstruction of metaphysics, with the profound renewal of mathematics itself, and the concept of science for which mathematics has always been the model.” (p. 35)

Derrida is here speaking to a form of nonphonetic writing, a kind of mathematical symbolization that effects a transparency inaccessible to forms of notation that stand for words representing some kind of particular thing. Though the problems are complex, the project Derrida describes follows in specific ways from Heidegger (1967; Kisiel, 1973, 2002; Fisher, 2003a, 2003b, 2004) and from other influences on him.

So, contrary to Ferris’ claims (p. 259), Latour, Heidegger, and Derrida have not ignored science as a source of knowledge, reduced it to arbitrary social constructs, or turned their back on learning. In fact, Heidegger (1967) traces the roots of mathematical thinking to learning, to how we learn through what we already know, and to how things that can be taught and learned were the original mathematical objects. There are indeed great potentials for further advancing the impact of science on democracy, but we are needlessly blinded to real possibilities when our ideas are driven more by unexamined prejudices than by the critical application of clear thinking. In this review, I’ve hardly been able to crack open the door to the issues in need of careful study, but I offer it in the hope that others will take the time to stop, study, and think in future work in this area.

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