Archive for the ‘socialism’ Category

With Reich in spirit, but with a different sense of the problem and its solution

October 4, 2015

In today’s editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle, Robert Reich seeks some way of defining a solution to the pressing problems of how globalization and technological changes have made American workers less competitive. He rightly says that “reversing the scourge of widening inequality requires reversing the upward distributions [of income] within the rules of the market, and giving average people the bargaining power they need to get a larger share of the gains from growth.”

But Reich then says that the answer to this problem lies in politics, not economics. As I’ve pointed out before in this blog, focusing on marshaling political will is part of the problem, not part of the solution. Historically, politicians do not lead, they follow. As is demonstrated across events as diverse as the Arab Spring and the Preemption Act of 1841, mass movements of people have repeatedly demanded ways of cutting through the Gordian knots of injustice. And just as the political “leadership” across the Middle East and in the early U.S. dragged its feet, obstructed, and violently opposed change until it was already well underway, so, too, will that pattern repeat itself again in the current situation of inequitable income distribution.

The crux of the problem is that no one can give average people anything, not freedom (contra Dylan’s line in Blowin’ in the Wind about “allowing” people to be free) and certainly not a larger share of the gains from growth. As the old saying goes, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. People have to take what’s theirs. They have to want it, they have to struggle for it, and they have to pay for it, or they cannot own it and it will never be worth anything to them.

It is well known that a lack of individual property rights doomed communism and socialism because when everything is owned collectively by everyone, no one takes responsibility for it. The profit motive has the capacity to drive people to change things. The problem is not in profit itself. If birds and bees and trees and grasses did not profit from the sun, soil, and rain, there would be no life. The problem is in finding how to get a functional, self-sustaining economic ecology off the ground, not in unrealistically trying to manipulate and micromanage every detail.

The fundamental relevant characteristic of the profits being made today from intellectual property rights is that our individual rights to our own human and social capital are counter-productively restricted and undeveloped. How can it be that no one has any idea how much literacy or health capital they have, or what it is worth?! We have a metric system that tells us how much real estate and manufactured capital we own, and we can price it. But despite the well-established scientific facts of decades of measurement science research and practice, none of us can say, “I own x number of shares of stock in intellectual, literacy, or community capital, that have a value of x dollars in today’s market.” We desperately need an Intangible Assets Metric System, and the market rules, roles, and responsibilities that will make it impossible to make a profit while destroying human, social, and natural capital.

In this vein, what Reich gets absolutely correct is hidden inside his phrase, “within the rules of the market.” As I’ve so often repeated in this blog, capitalism is not inherently evil; it is, rather, unfinished. The real evil is in prolonging the time it takes to complete it. As was so eloquently stated by Miller and O’Leary (2007, p. 710):

“Markets are not spontaneously generated by the exchange activity of buyers and sellers. Rather, skilled actors produce institutional arrangements, the rules, roles and relationships that make market exchange possible. The institutions define the market, rather than the reverse.”

We have failed to set up the institutional arrangements needed to define human, social, and natural capital markets. The problem is that we cannot properly manage three of the four major forms of capital (human, social, and natural, with the fourth being manufactured/property) because we do not measure them in a common language built into scientifically, economically, legally and financially accountable titles, deeds, and other instruments.

And so, to repeat another one of my ad nauseum broken record nostrums, the problem is the problem. As long as we keep defining problems in the way we always have, as matters of marshalling political will, we will inadvertently find ourselves contributing more to prolonging tragic and needless human suffering, social discontent, and environmental degradation.

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

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

May 14, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2007). Living capital metrics. Rasch Measurement Transactions, 21(1), 1092-1093 [].

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

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2009b). NIST Critical national need idea White Paper: Metrological infrastructure for human, social, and natural capital ( Washington, DC: National Institute for Standards and Technology (11 pages).

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2010a, 22 November). Meaningfulness, measurement, value seeking, and the corporate objective function: An introduction to new possibilities. Sausalito, California: (

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

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

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

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2011b, Thursday, September 1). Measurement, metrology and the coordination of sociotechnical networks. In S. Bercea (Ed.), New Education and Training Methods. International Measurement Confederation (IMEKO). Jena, Germany:

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

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

Fisher, W. P., Jr., & Stenner, A. J. (2011a, January). Metrology for the social, behavioral, and economic sciences.

Fisher, W. P., Jr., & Stenner, A. J. (2011b, August 31 to September 2). A technology roadmap for intangible assets metrology. In Fundamentals of measurement science. International Measurement Confederation (IMEKO) TC1-TC7-TC13 Joint Symposium. Jena, Germany:

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

Fisher, W. P., Jr., & Stenner, A. J. (2013b). Overcoming the invisibility of metrology: A reading measurement network for education and the social sciences. Journal of Physics: Conference Series, 459(012024),

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

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

September 10, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Science, Public Goods, and the Monetization of Commodities

August 13, 2011

Though I haven’t read Philip Mirowski’s new book yet (Science-Mart: Privatizing American Science. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), a statement in the cover blurb given at got me thinking. I can’t help but wonder if there is another way of interpreting neoliberal ideology’s “radically different view of knowledge and discovery: [that] the fruits of scientific investigation are not a public good that should be freely available to all, but are commodities that could be monetized”?

Corporations and governments are not the only ones investing in research and new product development, and they are not the only ones who could benefit from the monetization of the fruits of scientific investigation. Individuals make these investments as well, and despite ostensible rights to private ownership, no individuals anywhere have access to universally comparable, uniformly expressed, and scientifically valid information on the quantity or quality of the literacy, health, community, or natural capital that is rightfully theirs. They accordingly also then do not have any form of demonstrable legal title to these properties. In the same way that corporations have successfully advanced their economic interests by seeing that patent and intellectual property laws were greatly strengthened, so, too, ought individuals and communities advance their economic interests by, first, expanding the scope of weights and measures standards to include intangible assets, and second, by strengthening laws related to the ownership of privately held stocks of living capital.

The nationalist and corporatist socialization of research will continue only as long as social capital, human capital, and natural capital are not represented in the universally uniform common currencies and transparent media that could be provided by an intangible assets metric system. When these forms of capital are brought to economic life in fungible measures akin to barrels, bushels, or kilowatts, then they will be monetized commodities in the full capitalist sense of the term, ownable and purchasable products with recognizable standard definitions, uniform quantitative volumes, and discernable variations in quality. Then, and only then, will individuals gain economic control over their most important assets. Then, and only then, will we obtain the information we need to transform education, health care, social services, and human and natural resource management into industries in which quality is appropriately rewarded. Then, and only then, will we have the means for measuring genuine progress and authentic wealth in ways that correct the insufficiencies of the GNP/GDP indexes.

The creation of efficiently functioning markets for all forms of capital is an economic, political, and moral necessity (see Ekins, 1992 and others). We say we manage what we measure, but very little effort has been put into measuring (with scientific validity and precision in universally uniform and accessible aggregate terms) 90% of the capital resources under management: human abilities, motivations, and health; social commitment, loyalty, and trust; and nature’s air and water purification and ecosystem services (see Hawken, Lovins, & Lovins, 1999, among others). All human suffering, sociopolitical discontent, and environmental degradation are rooted in the same common cause: waste (see Hawken, et al., 1999). To apply lean thinking to removing the wasteful destruction of our most valuable resources, we must measure these resources in ways that allow us to coordinate and align our decisions and behaviors virtually, at a distance, with no need for communicating and negotiating the local particulars of the hows and whys of our individual situations. For more information on these ideas, search “living capital metrics” and see works like the following:

Ekins, P. (1992). A four-capital model of wealth creation. In P. Ekins & M. Max-Neef (Eds.), Real-life economics: Understanding wealth creation (pp. 147-15). London: Routledge.

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

Hawken, P., Lovins, A., & Lovins, H. L. (1999). Natural capitalism: Creating the next industrial revolution. New York: Little, Brown, and Co.

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

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

Miller, P., & O’Leary, T. (2007). Mediating instruments and making markets: Capital budgeting, science and the economy. Accounting, Organizations, and Society, 32(7-8), 701-34.

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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.


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 [].

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),

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Crisis and Opportunity

November 21, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How to Trade “Global Mush” for Beauty, Meaning, and Value: Reflections on Lanier’s New Book

January 15, 2010

Implicit in many of my recent posts here is the idea that we must learn how to follow through on the appropriation of meaning to proper ownership of the properties characteristic of our own proprietary capital resources: the creativities, abilities, skills, talents, health, motivations, trust, etc.  that make us each reliable citizens and neighbors, and economically viable in being hireable, promotable, productive, and retainable. Individual control of investment in, income from, and returns on our own shares of human, social, and natural capital ought to be a fundamental constitutional human right.

But, just as property rights are constitutionally guaranteed by nations around the world that don’t take the trouble to enforce them or even to provide their necessary infrastructural capacities, so, too, are human rights to equal opportunities widely guaranteed without being properly provided for or enforced. And now in the Internet age, we have succeeded in innovating ever more fluid media for the expression of our individual capacities for making original cultural, technical, and human contributions, but we have yet to figure out how to exert effective control over the returns and income generated by these contributions.

Jaron Lanier’s new book, “You Are Not a Gadget,” is taking up this theme in interesting ways. In his recent Wall Street Journal article, Lanier says:

“There’s a dominant dogma in the online culture of the moment that collectives make the best stuff, but it hasn’t proven to be true. The most sophisticated, influential and lucrative examples of computer code—like the page-rank algorithms in the top search engines or Adobe’s Flash— always turn out to be the results of proprietary development. Indeed, the adored iPhone came out of what many regard as the most closed, tyrannically managed software-development shop on Earth.

Actually, Silicon Valley is remarkably good at not making collectivization mistakes when our own fortunes are at stake. On the one hand we want to avoid physical work and instead benefit from intellectual property. On the other hand, we’re undermining intellectual property so that information can roam around for nothing, or more precisely as bait for advertisements. That’s a formula that leaves no way for our nation to earn a living in the long term.
The “open” paradigm rests on the assumption that the way to get ahead is to give away your brain’s work—your music, writing, computer code and so on—and earn kudos instead of money. You are then supposedly compensated because your occasional dollop of online recognition will help you get some kind of less cerebral work that can earn money. For instance, maybe you can sell custom branded T-shirts.
We’re well over a decade into this utopia of demonetized sharing and almost everyone who does the kind of work that has been collectivized online is getting poorer. There are only a tiny handful of writers or musicians who actually make a living in the new utopia, for instance. Almost everyone else is becoming more like a peasant every day.”
Lanier’s suggestions of revised software structures and micropayment systems in an extension of intellectual property rights correctly recognizes the scope of the challenges we face. He also describes the motivations driving the ongoing collectivization process, saying that “youthful fascination with collectivism is in part simply a way to address perceived ‘unfairness’.” This radical way of enforcing a very low lowest common denominator points straight at the essential problem, and that problem is apparent in the repeated use of the key word, collective.

It was not so long ago that it was impossible to use that word without immediately evoking images of Soviet central planning and committees. The “global mush” of mediocrity Lanier complains about as a direct result of collective thinking is a very good way of describing the failures of socialism that brought down the Soviet Union by undercutting its economic viability. Lanier speaks of growing up and enthusiastically participating various forms of collective life, like food co-ops and shared housing. I, too, have shared those experiences. I saw, as Lanier sees and as the members of communes in the U.S. during the 1960s saw, that nothing gets done when no one owns the process and stands to reap the rewards: when housekeeping is everyone’s responsibility, no one does it.

Further and more to the point, nothing goes right when supply and demand are dictated by a central committee driven by ideological assumptions concerning exactly what does and does not constitute the greater good.  On the contrary, innovation is stifled, inefficiencies are rampant, and no one takes the initiative to do better because there are no incentives for doing so. Though considerable pain is experienced in allowing the invisible hand to coordinate the flux and flows of markets, no better path to prosperity has yet been found. The current struggle is less one of figuring out how to do without markets than it is one of figuring out how to organize them for greater long term stability. As previous posts in this blog endeavor to show, we ought to be looking more toward bringing all forms of capital into the market instead of toward regulating some to death while others ravage the economy, scot-free.

Friedrich von Hayek (1988, 1994) is an economist and philosopher often noted for his on-target evaluations of the errors of socialism. He tellingly focused on the difference between the laborious micromanagement of socialism’s thought police and the wealth-creating liberation of capital’s capacity for self-organization. It is interesting that Lanier describes the effects of demonetized online sharing as driving most of us toward peasant status, as Hayek (1994) describes socialism as a “road to serfdom.” Of course, capitalism itself is far from perfect, since private property, and manufactured and liquid capital, have enjoyed a freedom of movement that too often recklessly tramples human rights, community life, and the natural environment. But as is described in a previous blog I posted on re-inventing capitalism, we can go a long way toward rectifying the errors of capitalism by setting up the rules of law that will lubricate and improve the efficiency of human, social, and natural capital markets.

Now, I’ve always been fascinated with the Latin root shared in words like property, propriety, proprietary, appropriation, proper, and the French propre (which means both clean and one’s own, or belonging to oneself, depending on whether it comes before or after the noun; une maison propre = a clean house and sa propre maison = his/her own house). I was then happy to encounter in graduate school Ricoeur’s (1981) theory of text interpretation, which focuses on the way we create meaning by appropriating it. Real understanding requires that we must make a text our own if we are to be able to give proper evidence of understanding it by restating or summarizing it in our own words.

Such restating is, of course, also the criterion for demonstrating that a scientific theory of the properties of a phenomenon is adequate to the task of reproducing its effects on demand. As Ricoeur (1981, p. 210) says, situating science in a sphere of signs puts the human and natural sciences together on the same footing in the context of linguistically-mediated social relations. This unification of the sciences has profound consequences, not just for philosophy, the social sciences, or economics, but for the practical task of transforming the current “global mush” into a beautiful, meaningful, and effective living creativity system. So, there is real practical significance in realizing what appropriation is and how its processes feed into our conceptualizations of property, propriety, and ownership.

When we can devise a new instrument or measuring method that gives the same results as an existing instrument or method, we have demonstrated theoretical control over the properties of the phenomenon (Heelan, 1983, 2001; Ihde, 1991; Ihde & Selinger, 2003; Fisher, 2004, 2006, 2010b). The more precisely the effects are reproduced, the purer they become, the clearer their representation, and the greater their independence from the local contingencies of sample, instrument, observer, method, etc. When we can package a technique for reproducing the desired effects (radio or tv broadcast/reception, vibrating toothbrushes, or what have you), we can export the phenomenon from the laboratory via networks of distribution, supply, sales, marketing, manufacture, repair, etc. (Latour, 1987). Proprietary methods, instruments, and effects can then be patented and ownership secured.

What we have in the current “global mush” of collective aggregations are nothing at all of this kind. There are specific criteria for information quality and network configuration (Akkerman, et al., 2007; Latour, 1987, pp. 247-257; Latour, 1995; Magnus, 2007; Mandel, 1978; Wise, 1995) that have to be met for collective cognition to realize its potential in the manner described by Surowiecki (2004) or Brafman and Beckstrom (2006), for instance.  The difference is the difference between living and dead capital, between capitalism and socialism, and between scientific measurement and funny numbers that don’t stand for the repetitive additivity of a constant unit (Fisher, 2002, 2009, 2010a). As Lanier notes, Silicon Valley understands very well the nature of this difference, and protects its own interests by vigilantly ensuring that its collective cognitions are based in properly constructed information and networks.

And here we find the crux of the lesson to be learned. We need to focus very carefully on the details of how we create meaningful relationships, of how things come into words, of how instruments are calibrated and linked together in shared systems of signification, and of how economies thrive on the productive efficiencies of well-lubricated markets. Everything we need to turn things around is available, though seeing things for what they are is one of the most daunting and difficult tasks we can undertake.

The postmodern implications of the way appropriation is more a letting-go than a possessing (Ricoeur, 1981, p. 191) will be taken up another time, in the context of the playful flow of signification we are always already caught up within. For now, it is enough to point the way toward the issues raised and examined in other posts in this blog as to how capital is brought to life. We are well on the way toward a convergence of efforts that may well result in exactly the kind of fierce individuals and competing teams able to reap their just due, as Lanier envisions.


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

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

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

von Hayek, F. A. (1994/1944). The road to serfdom (Fiftieth Anniversary Edition; Introduction by Milton Friedman). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Heelan, P. A. (1983, June). Natural science as a hermeneutic of instrumentation. Philosophy of Science, 50, 181-204.

Heelan, P. A. (2001). The lifeworld and scientific interpretation. In S. K. Toombs (Ed.), Handbook of phenomenology and medicine (pp. 47-66). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ihde, D., & Selinger, E. (Eds.). (2003). Chasing technoscience: Matrix for materiality. (Indiana Series in Philosophy of Technology). Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press.
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