Archive for the ‘Meaning’ 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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Reimagining Capitalism Again, Part III: Reflections on Greider’s “Bold Ideas” in The Nation

September 10, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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LivingCapitalMetrics Blog by William P. Fisher, Jr., Ph.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
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Reimagining Capitalism Again, Part II: Scientific Credibility in Improving Information Quality

September 10, 2011

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

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

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

Each industry needs an instrumentarium of tools and metrics that mediate relationships universally within its entire sphere of production and/or service. The obvious and immediate reaction to this proposal will likely be that this is impossible, that it would have been done by now if it was possible, and that anyone who proposes something like this is simply unrealistic, perhaps dangerously so. So, here we have another reason to add to those given in the June 8, 2011 issue of The Nation (http://www.thenation.com/article/161267/reimagining-capitalism-bold-ideas-new-economy) as to why bold ideas for a new economy cannot gain any traction in today’s political discourse.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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LivingCapitalMetrics Blog by William P. Fisher, Jr., Ph.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
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Reimagining Capitalism Again, Part I: Reflections on Greider’s Soul of Capitalism

September 10, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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 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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New Opportunities for Job Creation and Prosperity

August 17, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Table

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

Human

Social

Natural

Manufactured

Property rights

No

No

Partial

Yes

Scientific rationality

Partial

Partial

Partial

Yes

Capital markets

Partial

Partial

Partial

Yes

Transportation & communication networks

Partial

Partial

Partial

Yes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Enchantment, Organizations, and Mediating Instruments: Potential for a New Consensus?

August 3, 2011

I just came across something that could be helpful in regaining some forward momentum and expanding the frame of reference for the research on caring in nursing with Jane Sumner (Sumner & Fisher, 2008). We have yet to really work in the failure of Habermas’ hermeneutic objectivism (Kim, 2002; Thompson, 1984) and we haven’t connected what we’ve done with (a) Ricoeur’s (1984, 1985, 1990, 1995) sense of narrative as describing the past en route to prescribing the future (prefiguring, configuring, and refiguring the creation of meaning in discourse) and with (b) Wright’s (1999) sense of learning from past data to efficiently and effectively anticipate new data within a stable inferential frame of reference.

Now I’ve found a recent publication that resonates well with this goal, and includes examples from nursing to boot. Boje and Baskin (2010; see especially pp. 12-17 in the manuscript available at http://peaceaware.com/vita/paper_pdfs/JOCM_Never_Disenchanted.pdf) cite only secondary literature but do a good job of articulating where the field is at conceptually and in tracing the sources of that articulation.  So they make no mention of Ricoeur on narrative (1984, 1985, 1990) and on play and the heuristic fiction (1981, pp. 185-187), and they make no mention of Gadamer on play as the most important clue to methodological authenticity (1989, pp. 101-134). It follows that they then also do not make any use of the considerable volume of other available and relevant work on the metaphysics of allure, captivation, enthrallment, rapture, beauty, or eros.

This is all very important because these issues are highly salient markers of the distinction between a modern, Cartesian, and mechanical worldview destructive of enchantment and play, and the amodern, nonCartesian, and organic worldview in tune with enchantment and play. As I have stressed repeatedly in these posts, the way we frame problems is now the primary problem, in opposition to those who think identifying and applying resources, techniques, or will power is the problem. It is essential that we learn to frame problems in a way that begins from requirements of subject-object interdependence instead of from assumptions of subject-object independence. Previous posts here explore in greater detail how we are all captivated by the desire for meaning. Any time we choose negotiation or patient waiting over violence, we express faith in the ultimate value of trusting our words. So though Boje and Baskin do not document this larger context, they still effectively show exactly where and how work in the nonCartesian paradigm of enchantment connects up with what’s going on in organizational change management theory.

The paper’s focus on narrative as facilitating enchantment and disenchantment speaks to our fundamental absorption into the play of language. Enchantment is described on page 2 as involving positive connection with existence, of being enthralled with the wonder of being endowed with natural and cultural gifts.  Though not described as such, this hermeneutics of restoration, as Ricoeur (1967) calls it, focuses on the way symbols give rise to thought in an unasked-for assertion of meaningfulness. The structure we see emerge of its own accord across multiple different data sets from tests, surveys, and assessments is an important example of this gift through which previously identified meanings re-assert themselves anew (see my published philosophical work, such as Fisher, 2004). The contrast with disenchantment of course arises as a function of the dead and one-sided modern Cartesian effort aimed at controlling the environment, which effectively eliminates wonder and meaning via a hermeneutics of suspicion.

In accord with the work done to date with Sumner on caring in nursing, the Boje and Baskin paper describes people’s variable willingness to accept disenchantment or demand enchantment (p. 13) in terms that look quite like preconventional and postconventional Kohlbergian stages. A nurse’s need to shift from one dominant narrative form to another is described as very difficult because of the way she had used the one to which she was accustomed to construct her identity as a nurse (p. 15). Bi-directionality between nurses and patients is implied in another example of a narrative shift in a hospital (p. 16). Both identity and bi-directionality are central issues in the research with Sumner.

The paper also touches on the conceptual domain of instrumental realism, as this is developed in the works of Ihde, Latour, Heelan and others (on p. 6; again, without citing them), and emphasizes a nonCartesian subject-object unity and belongingness, which is described at length in Ricoeur’s work. At the bottom of page 7 and top of 8, storytelling is theorized in terms of retrospection, presentness, and a bet on future meaning, which precisely echoes Ricoeur’s (1984, 1985, 1990) sense of narrative refiguration, configuration, and prefiguration. A connection with measurement comes here, in that what we want is to:

“reach beyond the data in hand to what these data might imply about future data, still unmet, but urgent to foresee. The first problem is how to predict values for these future data, which, by the meaning of inference, are necessarily missing. This meaning of missing must include not only the future data to be inferred but also all possible past data that were lost or never collected” (Wright, 1999, p. 76).

Properly understood and implemented (see previous posts in this blog), measurement based in models of individual behavior provides a way to systematically create an atmosphere of emergent enchantment. Having developmentally sound narratives rooted in individual measures on multiple dimensions over time gives us a shared written history that we can all find ourselves in, and that we can then use to project a vision of a shared future that has reasonable expectations for what’s possible.

This mediation of past and future by means of technical instruments is being described in a way (Miller & O’Leary, 2007) that to me (Fisher & Stenner, 2011) denotes a vital distinction not just between the social and natural sciences, but between economically moribund and inflationary industries such as education, health care, and social services, on the one hand, and economically vibrant and deflationary industries such as microprocessors, on the other.

It is here, and I say this out loud for the first time here, even to myself, that I begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel, to see a way that I might find a sense of closure and resolution in the project I took up over 30 years ago. My puzzle has been one of understanding in theory and practice how it is that measurement and mathematical thinking are nothing but refinements of the logic used in everyday conversation. It only occurs to me now that, if we can focus the conversations that we are in ways that balance meaningfulness and precision, that situate each of us as individuals relative to the larger wholes of who we have been and who we might be, that encompasses both the welcoming Socratic midwife and the annoying Socratic gadfly as different facets of the same framework, and that enable us to properly coordinate and align technical projects involving investments in intangible capital, well, then, we’ll be in a position to more productively engage with the challenges of the day.

There won’t be any panacea but there will be a new consensus and a new infrastructure that, however new they may seem, will enact yet again, in a positive way, the truth of the saying, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” As I’ve repeatedly argued, the changes we need to implement are nothing but extensions of age-old principles into areas in which they have not yet been applied. We should take some satisfaction from this, as what else could possibly work? The originality of the application does not change the fact that it is rooted in appropriating, via a refiguration, to be sure, a model created for other purposes that works in relation to new purposes.

Another way of putting the question is in terms of that “permanent arbitration between technical universalism and the personality constituted on the ethico-political plane” characteristic of the need to enter into the global technical society while still retaining our roots in our cultural past (Ricoeur, 1974, p. 291). What is needed is the capacity to mediate each individual’s retelling of the grand narrative so that each of us sees ourselves in everyone else, and everyone else in ourselves. Though I am sure the meaning of this is less than completely transparent right now, putting it in writing is enormously satisfying, and I will continue to work on telling the tale as it needs to be told.

 References

Boje, D., & Baskin, K. (2010). Our organizations were never disenchanted: Enchantment by design narratives vs. enchantment by emergence. Journal of Organizational Change Management, 24(4), 411-426.

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., & Stenner, A. J. (2011, August 31 to September 2). A technology roadmap for intangible assets metrology. International Measurement Confederation (IMEKO). Jena, Germany.

Gadamer, H.-G. (1989). Truth and method (J. Weinsheimer & D. G. Marshall, Trans.) (Second revised edition). New York: Crossroad.

Kim, K.-M. (2002, May). On the failure of Habermas’s hermeneutic objectivism. Cultural Studies <–> Critical Methodologies, 2(2), 270-98.

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.

Ricoeur, P. (1967). Conclusion: The symbol gives rise to thought. In R. N. Anshen (Ed.), The symbolism of evil (pp. 347-57). Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press.

Ricoeur, P. (1974). Political and social essays (D. Stewart & J. Bien, Eds.). Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press.

Ricoeur, P. (1981). Hermeneutics and the human sciences: Essays on language, action and interpretation (J. B. Thompson, Ed.) (J. B. Thompson, Trans.). Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Ricoeur, P. (1984, 1985, 1990). Time and Narrative, Vols. 1-3 (K. McLaughlin (Blamey) & D. Pellauer, Trans.). Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.

Ricoeur, P. (1995). Reply to Peter Kemp. In L. E. Hahn (Ed.), The philosophy of Paul Ricoeur (pp. 395-398). Chicago, Illinois: Open Court.

Sumner, J., & Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2008). The moral construct of caring in nursing as communicative action: The theory and practice of a caring science. Advances in Nursing Science, 31(4), E19-E36.

Thompson, J. B. (1981). Critical hermeneutics: A study in the thought of Paul Ricoeur and Jurgen Habermas. New York: Cambridge University Press.

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 [http://www.rasch.org/memo64.htm]). Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

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A Framework for Competitive Advantage in Managing Intangible Assets

July 26, 2011

It has long been recognized that externalities like social costs could be brought into the market should ways of measuring them objectively be devised. Markets, however, do not emerge spontaneously from the mere desire to be able to buy and sell; they are, rather, the products of actors and agencies that define the rules, roles, and relationships within which transaction costs are reduced and from which value, profits, and authentic wealth may be extracted. Objective measurement is necessary to reduced transaction costs but is by itself insufficient to the making of markets. Thus, markets for intangible assets, such as human, social, and natural capital, remain inefficient and undeveloped even though scientific theories, models, methods, and results demonstrating their objective measurability have been available for over 80 years.

Why has the science of objectively measured intangible assets not yet led to efficient markets for those assets? The crux of the problem, the pivot point at which an economic Archimedes could move the world of business, has to do with verifiable trust. It may seem like stating the obvious, but there is much to be learned from recognizing that shared narratives of past performance and a shared vision of the future are essential to the atmosphere of trust and verifiability needed for the making of markets. The key factor is the level of detail reliably tapped by such narratives.

For instance, some markets seem to have the weight of an immovable mass when the dominant narrative describes a static past and future with no clearly defined trajectory of leverageable development. But when a path of increasing technical capacity or precision over time can be articulated, entrepreneurs have the time frames they need to be able to coordinate, align, and manage budgeting decisions vis a vis investments, suppliers, manufacturers, marketing, sales, and customers. For example, the building out of the infrastructure of highways, electrical power, and water and sewer services assured manufacturers of automobiles, appliances, and homes that they could develop products for which there would be ready customers. Similarly, the mapping out of a path of steady increases in technical precision at no additional cost in Moore’s Law has been a key factor enabling the microprocessor industry’s ongoing history of success.

Of course, as has been the theme of this blog since day one, similar paths for the development of new infrastructural capacities could be vital factors for making new markets for human, social, and natural capital. I’ll be speaking on this topic at the forthcoming IMEKO meeting in Jena, Germany, August 31 to September 2. Watch this spot for more on this theme in the near future.

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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.

Creative Commons License
LivingCapitalMetrics Blog by William P. Fisher, Jr., Ph.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at livingcapitalmetrics.wordpress.com.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at http://www.livingcapitalmetrics.com.

A Second Simple Example of Measurement’s Role in Reducing Transaction Costs, Enhancing Market Efficiency, and Enables the Pricing of Intangible Assets

March 9, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Method

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Results

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Discussion

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

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

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

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

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

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LivingCapitalMetrics Blog by William P. Fisher, Jr., Ph.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at livingcapitalmetrics.wordpress.com.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at http://www.livingcapitalmetrics.com.