Posts Tagged ‘metric system’

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

December 23, 2015

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

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

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

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

p. 10:
Balanced scorecard rating criteria

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2003). Measurement and communities of inquiry. Rasch Measurement Transactions, 17(3), 936-8 [http://www.rasch.org/rmt/rmt173.pdf].

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2005). Daredevil barnstorming to the tipping point: New aspirations for the human sciences. Journal of Applied Measurement, 6(3), 173-9 [http://www.livingcapitalmetrics.com/images/FisherJAM05.pdf].

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2007, Summer). Living capital metrics. Rasch Measurement Transactions, 21(1), 1092-3 [http://www.rasch.org/rmt/rmt211.pdf].

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

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

Garner, M. (2009, Autumn). Google’s PageRank algorithm and the Rasch measurement model. Rasch Measurement Transactions, 23(2), 1201-2 [http://www.rasch.org/rmt/rmt232.pdf].

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

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

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

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

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Living Capital Metrics for Financial and Sustainability Accounting Standards

May 1, 2015

I was very happy a few days ago to come across Jane Gleeson-White’s new book, Six Capitals, or Can Accountants Save the Planet? Rethinking Capitalism for the 21st Century. The special value for me in this book comes in the form of an accessible update on what’s been going on in the world of financial accounting standards. Happily, there’s been a lot of activity (check out, for instance, Amato & White, 2013; Rogers & White, 2015). Less fortunately, the activity seems to be continuing to occur in the same measurement vacuum it always has, despite my efforts in this blog to broaden the conversation to include rigorous measurement theory and practice.

But to back up a bit, recent events around sustainability metric standards don’t seem to be connected to previous controversies around financial standards and economic modeling, which were more academically oriented to problems of defining and expressing value. Gleeson-White doesn’t cite any of the extensive literature in those areas (for instance, Anielski, 2007; Baxter, 1979; Economist, 2010; Ekins, 1992, 1999; Ekins, Dresner, & Dahlstrom, 2008; Ekins, Hillman, & Hutchins, 1992; Ekins & Voituriez, 2009; Fisher, 2009b, 2009c, 2011; Young & Williams, 2010). Valuation is still a problem, of course, as is the analogy between accounting standards and scientific standards (Baxter, 1979). But much of the sensitivity of the older academic debate over accounting standards seems to have been lost in the mad, though well-intentioned, rush to devise metrics for the traditionally externalized nontraditional forms of capital.

Before addressing the thousands of metrics in circulation and the science that needs to be brought to bear on them (the ongoing theme of posts in this blog), some attention to terminology is important. Gleeson-White refers to six capitals (manufactured, liquid, intellectual, human, social, and natural), in contrast with Ekins (1992; Ekins, et al., 2008), who describes four (manufactured, human, social, and natural). Gleeson-White’s liquid capital is cash money, which can be invested in capital (a means of producing value via ongoing services) and which can be extracted as a return on capital, but is not itself capital, as is shown by the repeated historical experience in many countries of printing money without stimulating economic growth and producing value. Of her remaining five forms of capital, intellectual capital is a form of social capital that can satisfactorily be categorized alongside the other forms of organization-level properties and systems involving credibility and trust.

On pages 209-227, Gleeson-White takes up questions relevant to the measurement and information quality topics of this blog. The context here is informed by the International Integrated Reporting Council’s (IIRC) December 2013 framework for accounting reports integrating all forms of capital (Amato & White, 2013), and by related efforts of the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB) (Rogers & White, 2015). Following the IIRC, Gleeson-White asserts that

“Not all the new capitals can be quantified, yet or perhaps ever–for example, intellectual, human and social capital, much of natural capital–and so integrated reports are not expected to provide quantitative measures of each of the capitals.”

Of course, this opinion flies in the face of established evidence and theory accepted by both metrologists (weights and measures standards engineers and physicists) and psychometricians as to the viability of rigorous measurement standards for the outcomes of education, health care, social services, natural resource management, etc. (Fisher, 2009b, 2011, 2012a, 2012b; Fisher & Stenner, 2011a, 2013, 2015; Fisher & Wilson, 2015; Mari & Wilson, 2013; Pendrill, 2014; Pendrill & Fisher, 2013, 2015; Wilson, 2013; Wilson, Mari, Maul, & Torres Irribarra, 2015). Pendrill (2014, p. 26), an engineer, physicist, and past president of the European Association of National Metrology Institutes, for instance, states that “The Rasch approach…is not simply a mathematical or statistical approach, but instead [is] a specifically metrological approach to human-based measurement.” As is repeatedly shown in this blog, access to scientific measures sets the stage for a dramatic transformation of the potential for succeeding in the goal of rethinking capitalism.

Next, Gleeson-White’s references to several of the six capitals as the “living” capitals (p. 193) is a literal reference to the fact that human, social, and natural capital are all carried by people, organizations/communities, and ecosystems. The distinction between dead and living capital elaborated by De Soto (2000) and Fisher (2002, 2007, 2010b, 2011), which involves making any form of capital fungible by representing it in abstract forms negotiable in banks and courts of law, is not taken into account, though this would seem to be a basic requirement that must be fulfilled before the rethinking of capitalism could said to have been accomplished.

Gleeson-White raises the pointed question as to exactly how integrated reporting is supposed to provoke positive growth in the nontraditional forms of capital. The concept of an economic framework integrating all forms of capital relative to the profit motive, as described in Ekins’ work, for instance, and as is elaborated elsewhere in this blog, seems just over the horizon, though repeated mention is made of natural capitalism (Hawken, Lovins, & Lovins, 1999). The posing of the questions provided by Gleeson-White (pp. 216-217) is priceless, however:

“…given integrated reporting’s purported promise to contribute to sustainable development by encouraging more efficient resource allocation, how might it actually achieve this for natural and social capitals on their own terms? It seems integrated reporting does nothing to address a larger question of resource allocation….”

“To me the fact that integrated reporting cannot address such questions suggests that as with the example of human capital, its promise to foster efficient resource allocation pertains only to financial capital and not to the other capitals. If we accept that the only way to save our societies and planet is to reconceive them in terms of capital, surely the efficient valuing and allocation of all six capitals must lie at the heart of any economics and accounting for the planet’s scarce resources in the twenty-first century.
“There is a logical inconsistency here: integrated reporting might be the beginning of a new accounting paradigm, but for the moment it is being practiced by an old-paradigm corporation: essentially, one obliged to make a return on financial capital at the cost of the other capitals.”

The goal requires all forms of capital to be integrated into the financial bottom line. Where accounting for manufactured capital alone burns living capital resources for profit, a comprehensive capital accounting framework defines profit in terms of reduced waste. This is a powerful basis for economics, as waste is the common root cause of human suffering, social discontent and environmental degradation (Hawken, Lovins, & Lovins, 1999).

Multiple bottom lines are counter-productive, as they allow managers the option of choosing which stakeholder group to satisfy, often at the expense of the financial viability of the firm (Jensen, 2001; Fisher, 2010a). Economic sustainability requires that profits be legally, morally, and scientifically contingent on a balance of powers distributed across all forms of capital. Though the devil will no doubt lurk in the details, there is increasing evidence that such a balance of powers can be negotiated.

A key point here not brought up by Gleeson-White concerns the fact that markets are not created by exchange activity, but rather by institutionalized rules, roles, and responsibilities (Miller & O’Leary, 2007) codified in laws, mores, technologies, and expectations. Translating historical market-making activities as they have played out relative to manufactured capital in the new domains of human, social, and natural capital faces a number of significant challenges, adapting to a new way of thinking about tests, assessments, and surveys foremost among them (Fisher & Stenner, 2011b).

One of the most important contributions advanced measurement theory and practice (Rasch, 1960; Wright, 1977; Andrich, 1988, 2004; Fisher & Wright, 1994; Wright & Stone, 1999; Bond & Fox, 2007; Wilson, 2005; Engelhard, 2012; Stenner, Fisher, Stone, & Burdick, 2013) can make to the process of rethinking capitalism involves the sorting out of the myriad metrics that have erupted in the last several years. Gleeson-White (p. 223) reports, for instance, that the Bloomberg financial information network now has over 750 ESG (Environmental, Social, Governance) data fields, which were extracted from reports provided by over 5,000 companies in 52 countries.  Similarly, Rogers and White (2015) say that

“…today there are more than 100 organizations offering more than 400 corporate sustainability ratings products that assess some 50,000 companies on more than 8,000 metrics of environmental, social and governance (ESG) performance.”

As is also the case with the UN Millennium Development Goals (Fisher, 2011b), the typical use of these metrics as single-item “quantities” is based in counts of relevant events. This procedure misses the basic point that counts of concrete things in the world are not measures. Is it not obvious that I can have ten rocks to your two, and you can still have more rock than I do? The same thing applies to any kind of performance ratings, survey responses, or test scores. We assign the same numeric increase to every addition of one more count, but hardly anyone experimentally tests the hypothesis that the counts all work together to measure the same thing. Those who think there’s no need for precision science in this context are ignoring the decades of successful and widespread technical work in this area, at their own risk.

The repetition of history here is fascinating. As Ashworth (2004, p. 1,314) put it, historically, “The requirements of increased trade and the fiscal demands of the state fuelled the march toward a regular form of metrology.” For instance, in 1875 it was noted that “the existence of quantitative correlations between the various forms of energy, imposes upon men of science the duty of bringing all kinds of physical quantity to one common scale of comparison” (Everett, 1875, p. 9). The moral and economic  value of common scales was recognized during the French revolution, when, Alder (2002, p. 32) documents, it was asked:

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

The value of rigorously measuring human, social and natural capital includes meaningfully integrating qualitative substance with quantitative convenience, reduced data volume, augmenting measures with uncertainty and consistency indexes, and the capacity to take missing data into account (making possible instrument equating, item banking, etc.)  In contrast with the usual methods, rigorous science demands that experiments determine which indicators cohere to measure the same thing by repeatedly giving the same values across samples, over time and space, and across subsets of indicators. Beyond such data-based results, advanced theory makes it possible to arrive at explanatory, predictive methods that add a whole new layer of efficiency to the generation of indicators (de Boeck & Wilson, 2004; Stenner, et al., 2013).

Finally, Gleeson-White (pp. 220-221) reports that “In July 2011, the SASB [Sustainability Accounting Standards Board] was launched in the United States to create standardized measures for the new capitals.” “Founded by environmental engineer and sustainability expert Jean Rogers in San Francisco, SASB is creating a full set of industry-specific standards for sustainability accounting, with the aim of making this information more consistent and comparable.” As of May 2014, the SASB vice chair is Mary Schapiro, former SEC chair, and the chairman of SASB is Michael Bloomfield, former mayor of NYC and founder of the financial information empire. The “SASB is developing nonfinancial standards for eighty-nine industries grouped in ten different sectors and aims to have completed this grueling task by February 2015. It is releasing each set of metrics as they are completed.”

Like the SASB and other groups, Gleeson-White (p. 222) reports, Bloomberg

“aims to use its metrics to start ‘standardizing the discourse around sustainability, so we’re all talking about the same things in the same way,’ as Bloomberg’s senior sustainability strategist Andrew Park put it. What companies ‘desperately want,’ he says, is ‘a legitimate voice’ to tell them: ‘This is what you need to do. You exist in this particular sector. Here are the metrics that you need to be reporting out on. So SASB will provide that. And we think that’s important, because that will help clean up the metrics that ultimately the finance community will start using.’
“Bloomberg wants to price environmental, social and governance externalities to legitimize them in the eyes of financial capital.”

Gleeson-White (p. 225) continues, saying

“Bloomberg wants to do more generally what Trucost did for Puma’s natural capital inputs: create standardized measures for the new capitals–such as ecosystem services and social impacts–so that this information can be aggregated and used by investors. Park and Ravenel call the failure to value clean air, water, stable coastlines and other environmental goods ‘as much a failure to measure as it is a market failure per se–one that could be addressed in part by providing these ‘unpriced’ resources with quantitative parameters that would enable their incorporation into market mechanisms. Such mechanisms could then appropriately ‘regulate’ the consumption of those resources.'”

Integrating well-measured living capitals into the context of appropriately configured institutional rules, roles, and responsibilities for efficient markets (Fisher, 2010b) should indeed involve a capacity to price these resources quantitatively, though this capacity alone would likely prove insufficient to the task of creating the markets (Miller & O’Leary, 2007; Williamson, 1981, 1991, 2005). Rasch’s (1960, pp. 110-115) deliberate patterning of his measurement models on the form of Maxwell’s equations for Newton’s Second Law provides a mathematical basis for connecting psychometrics with both geometry and natural laws, as well as with the law of supply and demand (Fisher, 2010c, 2015; Fisher & Stenner, 2013a).

This perspective on measurement is informed by an unmodern or amodern, post-positivist philosophy (Dewey, 2012; Latour, 1990, 1993), as opposed to a modern and positivist, or postmodern and anti-positivist, philosophy (Galison, 1997). The essential difference is that neither a universalist nor a relativist perspective is necessary to the adoption of practices of traceability to metrological standards. Rather, focusing on local, situated, human relationships, as described by Wilson (2004) in education, for instance, offers a way of resolving the false dilemma of that dichotomous contrast. As Golinski (2012, p. 35) puts it, “Practices of translation, replication, and metrology have taken the place of the universality that used to be assumed as an attribute of singular science.” Haraway (1996, pp. 439-440) harmonizes, saying “…embedded relationality is the prophylaxis for both relativism and transcendance.” Latour (2005, pp. 228-229) elaborates, 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! No discontinuity allowed, which is just what ANT [Actor Network Theory] needs for tracing social topography. Ours is the social theory that has taken metrology as the paramount example of what it is to expand locally everywhere, all while bypassing the local as well as the universal. The practical conditions for the expansion of universality have been opened to empirical inquiries. It’s not by accident that so much work has been done by historians of science into the situated and material extension of universals. Given how much modernizers have invested into universality, this is no small feat.
“As soon as you take the example of scientific metrology and standardization as your benchmark to follow the circulation of universals, you can do the same operation for other less traceable, less materialized circulations: most coordination among agents is achieved through the dissemination of quasi-standards.”

As Rasch (1980: xx) understood, “this is a huge challenge, but once the problem has been formulated it does seem possible to meet it.” Though some metrologically informed traceability networks have begun to emerge in education and health care (for instance, Fisher & Stenner, 2013, 2015; Stenner & Fisher, 2013), virtually everything remains to be done to make the coordination across stakeholders as fully elaborated as the standards in the natural sciences.

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Rasch Measurement as a Basis for a New Standards Framework

October 26, 2011

The 2011 U.S. celebration of World Standards Day took place on October 13 at the Fairmont Hotel in Washington, D.C., with the theme of “Advancing Safety and Sustainability Standards Worldwide.” The evening began with a reception in a hall of exhibits from the celebrations sponsors, which included the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST), the Society for Standards Professionals (SES), the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), Microsoft, IEEE, Underwriters Laboratories, the Consumer Electronics Association, ASME, ASTM International, Qualcomm, Techstreet, and many others. Several speakers took the podium after dinner to welcome the 400 or so attendees and to present the World Standards Day Paper Competition Awards and the Ronald H. Brown Standards Leadership Award.

Dr. Patrick Gallagher, Under Secretary of Commerce for Standards and Technology, and Director of NIST, was the first speaker after dinner. He directed his remarks at the value of a decentralized, voluntary, and demand-driven system of standards in promoting innovation and economic prosperity. Gallagher emphasized that “standards provide the common language that keeps domestic and international trade flowing,” concluding that “it is difficult to overestimate their critical value to both the U.S. and global economy.”

James Shannon, President of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), accepted the R. H. Brown Standards Leadership Award in recognition for his work initiating or improving the National Electrical Code, the Life Safety Code, and the Fire Safe Cigarette and Residential Sprinkler Campaigns.

Ellen Emard, President of SES, introduced the paper competition award winners. As of this writing the titles and authors of the first and second place awards are not yet available on the SES web site (http://www.ses-standards.org/displaycommon.cfm?an=1&subarticlenbr=56). I took third place for my paper, “What the World Needs Now: A Bold Plan for New Standards.” Where the other winning papers took up traditional engineering issues concerning the role of standards in advancing safety and sustainability issues, my paper spoke to the potential scientific and economic benefits that could be realized by standard metrics and common product definitions for outcomes in education, health care, social services, and environmental resource management. All three of the award-winning papers will appear in a forthcoming issue of Standards Engineering, the journal of SES.

I was coincidentally seated at the dinner alongside Gordon Gillerman, winner of third place in the 2004 paper competition (http://www.ses-standards.org/associations/3698/files/WSD%202004%20-%203%20-%20Gillerman.pdf) and currently Chief of the Standards Services Division at NIST. Gillerman has a broad range of experience in coordinating standards across multiple domains, including environmental protection, homeland security, safety, and health care. Having recently been involved in a workshop focused on measuring, evaluating, and improving the usability of electronic health records (http://www.nist.gov/healthcare/usability/upload/EHR-Usability-Workshop-2011-6-03-2011_final.pdf), Gillerman was quite interested in the potential Rasch measurement techniques hold for reducing data volume with no loss of information, and so for streamlining computer interfaces.

Robert Massof of Johns Hopkins University accompanied me to the dinner, and was seated at a nearby table. Also at Massof’s table were several representatives of the National Institute of Building Sciences, some of whom Massof had recently met at a workshop on adaptations for persons with low vision disabilities. Massof’s work equating the main instruments used for assessing visual function in low vision rehabilitation could lead to a standard metric useful in improving the safety and convenience of buildings.

As is stated in educational materials distributed at the World Standards Day celebration by ANSI, standards are a constant behind-the-scenes presence in nearly all areas of everyday life. Everything from air, water, and food to buildings, clothing, automobiles, roads, and electricity are produced in conformity with voluntary consensus standards of various kinds. In the U.S. alone, more than 100,000 standards specify product and system features and interconnections, making it possible for appliances to tap the electrical grid with the same results no matter where they are plugged in, and for products of all kinds to be purchased with confidence. Life is safer and more convenient, and science and industry are more innovative and profitable, because of standards.

The point of my third-place paper is that life could be even safer and more convenient, and science and industry could be yet more innovative and profitable, if standards and conformity assessment procedures for outcomes in education, health care, social services, and environmental resource management were developed and implemented. Rasch measurement demonstrates the consistent reproducibility of meaningful measures across samples and different collections of construct-relevant items. Within any specific area of interest, then, Rasch measures have the potential of serving as the kind of mediating instruments or objects recognized as essential to the process of linking science with the economy (Fisher & Stenner, 2011b; Hussenot & Missonier, 2010; Miller & O’Leary, 2007). Recent white papers published by NIST and NSF document the challenges and benefits likely to be encountered and produced by initiatives moving in this direction (Fisher, 2009; Fisher & Stenner, 2011a).

A diverse array of Rasch measurement presentations were made at the recent International Measurement Confederation (IMEKO) meeting of metrology engineers in Jena, Germany (see RMT 25 (1), p. 1318). With that start at a new dialogue between the natural and social sciences, the NIST and NSF white papers, and with the award in the World Standards Day paper competition, the U.S. and international standards development communities have shown their interest in exploring possibilities for a new array of standard units of measurement, standardized outcome product definitions, standard conformity assessment procedures, and outcome product quality standards. The increasing acceptance and recognition of the viability of such standards is a logical consequence of observations like these:

  • “Where this law [relating reading ability and text difficulty to comprehension rate] can be applied it provides a principle of measurement on a ratio scale of both stimulus parameters and object parameters, the conceptual status of which is comparable to that of measuring mass and force. Thus…the reading accuracy of a child…can be measured with the same kind of objectivity as we may tell its weight” (Rasch, 1960, p. 115).
  • “Today there is no methodological reason why social science cannot become as stable, as reproducible, and hence as useful as physics” (Wright, 1997, p. 44).
  • “…when the key features of a statistical model relevant to the analysis of social science data are the same as those of the laws of physics, then those features are difficult to ignore” (Andrich, 1988, p. 22).

Rasch’s work has been wrongly assimilated in social science research practice as just another example of the “standard model” of statistical analysis. Rasch measurement rightly ought instead to be treated as a general articulation of the three-variable structure of natural law useful in framing the context of scientific practice. That is, Rasch’s models ought to be employed primarily in calibrating instruments quantitatively interpretable at the point of use in a mathematical language shared by a community of research and practice. To be shared in this way as a universally uniform coin of the realm, that language must be embodied in a consensus standard defining universally uniform units of comparison.

Rasch measurement offers the potential of shifting the focus of quantitative psychosocial research away from data analysis to integrated qualitative and quantitative methods enabling the definition of standard units and the calibration of instruments measuring in that unit. An intangible assets metric system will, in turn, support the emergence of new product- and performance-based standards, management system standards, and personnel certification standards. Reiterating once again Rasch’s (1960, p. xx) insight, we can acknowledge with him that “this is a huge challenge, but once the problem has been formulated it does seem possible to meet it.”

 References

Andrich, D. (1988). Rasch models for measurement. (Vols. series no. 07-068). Sage University Paper Series on Quantitative Applications in the Social Sciences. Beverly Hills, California: Sage Publications.

Fisher, W. P.. Jr. (2009). Metrological infrastructure for human, social, and natural capital (NIST Critical National Need Idea White Paper Series, Retrieved 25 October 2011 from http://www.nist.gov/tip/wp/pswp/upload/202_metrological_infrastructure_for_human_social_natural.pdf). Washington, DC: National Institute for Standards and Technology.

Fisher, W. P., Jr., & Stenner, A. J. (2011a, January). Metrology for the social, behavioral, and economic sciences (Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences White Paper Series). Retrieved 25 October 2011 from http://www.nsf.gov/sbe/sbe_2020/submission_detail.cfm?upld_id=36. Washington, DC: National Science Foundation.

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

Hussenot, A., & Missonier, S. (2010). A deeper understanding of evolution of the role of the object in organizational process. The concept of ‘mediation object.’ Journal of Organizational Change Management, 23(3), 269-286.

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.

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.

Wright, B. D. (1997, Winter). A history of social science measurement. Educational Measurement: Issues and Practice, 16(4), 33-45, 52 [http://www.rasch.org/memo62.htm].

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

July 30, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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