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'Bankers deserve bonuses'

For the past decade John Roberts has worked within a bank in the City where the annual cash bonus is

Until recently the City has been an opaque place where a strange language is spoken, alien amounts of money earned, largely through unimaginably vast bonuses.

And, I concede, I've not done too badly out of it. But don't get me wrong – by banking standards I'm not one of those big earners.

Not by a longshot.

The securities firm where I work is part of an international banking group one, incidentally, which hasn't received state aid.

The firm comprises two divisions - securities and corporate finance.

The securities division generates commission from dealing in shares for large investors and generates profits from market making – that's a turn on the difference between the price at which the firm offers to buy and sell shares for clients. It also trades in shares with its own funds.

Its analysts publish research on quoted companies, the salesmen talk about this research, together with general news. This joint effort is intended to generate buy and sell orders from pension, investment and hedge fund clients. Market makers and traders buy and sell shares.

The corporate finance division works for companies to earn advisory fees. Fees mainly come from acquisitions and from equity (share) fundraisings (initial public offerings, rights issues and placings), where the corporate finance and securities divisions operate in tandem.

As such, the firm, and the 15-20 London firms like it, thrive in positive market conditions where investors are keen to invest in shares but suffer when negative sentiment prevails.

The business is operationally geared. The overhead – basic salaries, office space, systems and IT – is high but there is little variable cost. Once the overhead's been covered, the vast bulk of additional revenues go straight to operating profit. Revenues in the range of £50-60m represent a reasonable, if unexceptional, year.

More than 100 people work in the firm about a third of whom would see themselves as senior revenue generators or managers. Senior employees earn base salaries of £100-130K.

The bonus pot

Internally, the bonus pot is seen as the purpose of the firm. The potential to double, triple or even quadruple your base salary – not unrealistic for decent performers in benign conditions - is seen as the principal purpose for working. And it makes for a motivating and exciting environment. Few things galvanise effort more than money.

There is a sense that the basic salary is required to get you to turn up and that any reasonable level of performance justifies the payment of a bonus.

The workings of the overall bonus pot in our organisation are in part simple and clear and in part byzantine and opaque.

A simple and clear split is agreed between the owner and firm’s management as to the portion of pre-bonus operating profit which goes into the bonus pot. This generally ranges from a third to a half in this subsector. It is understood throughout the firm that it is in everyone’s interest to maximise the bonus pot. Little or no management is required.

With good momentum in the first half of the year, there is a huge collective effort to build up commissions and fees, particularly in the last quarter.

People understand that improving the overall quality of the business - by attracting good clients - should make maximising the pot easier in the medium term.

So why would businesses like this keep their system for rewarding their employees so opaque?

In theory, the guiding principle should be how much revenue you have brought in or assisted during the year combined with your contribution to the medium term health of the firm through client wins, analyst ranking by investors, deal quality and profile.

In practice, while management talks fluently about transparency, procedure and principles, such an approach would be unworkable.

A clear and transparent procedure would, at best, be used by employees to argue in detail their bonus level and, at worst, to litigate. It helps that no-one else knows what you are awarded.

But here's the downside. Your performance is only part of it. The rest is politics and if your currency is high in the company then you could, in extreme but not uncommon circumstances, get three times the bonus of a similarly performing, though less favoured colleague.

The half a dozen heads of each activity meet to decide what each person should get.

Some of these individuals will fight for their teams. Others may not because they need to think carefully about their own positions. They need to leave a fair chunk of the pot free for themselves.

Giving too much credit to team members could underplay the importance of outstanding management!

In practice, the key markers are the overall size of the pot and what each individual got last year.

The interpretation which most accurately seems to fit the facts is that the heads then seek to pay out as little as they can get away with so as not to unbalance the ship too much whilst leaving as much as possible for the favoured few and themselves.

There are probably three avenues to joining the very small group of super earners, who can pull in more than £400K in non-exceptional years - this is not a highly paid part of the City.

Being very good, means delivering large revenues by quietly getting on with the job, or joining the management group or becoming favoured by management either through politics or making a lot of noise.

Considering the firm, there may be three or four individuals at one time (out of more than 100) who are very good and whose departure would be felt across the company.

These people are usually unremarkable to meet but have the knack of developing strong relationships with big hitting clients. As the firm depends on their earning power, these people need to be well remunerated.

Of the half a dozen heads, no individual directly sets his own bonus but as a member of this group you can frame the discussion and make your case directly.

Becoming part of this group requires good performance early in your career followed by a lot of time and effort politicking – or simply being hired from another firm.

Climbing upwards necessitates stepping on people – and only a minority are willing to embark on this high risk strategy.

More time managing means less client contact and weaker client relationships – ultimately clients pay bills. Life expectancy for a head is not long – generally three to four years maximum. This makes it imperative to squeeze the most out during the years in the sun.

Members of the favoured group are usually very impressive to meet. It is only with a reasonable level of probing and watching their mediocrity becomes apparent.

Joining this group requires a mixture of charm, eloquence and shamelessness. Symptoms include the development of an external profile and regular threats to leave the firm citing attractive job offers.

This is a difficult game to play and, again, requires a certain type of character but has been done very effectively over the years leading to a substantial misallocation of the bonus pot, particularly in boom years.

To continue the criticism, it is possible to cite disasters for both employee and firm which inevitably accompany a secretive bonus procedure that can allow both management and employees to act without scruple.

It is not uncommon for strong performers to be awarded zero bonuses as a result of a mixture of personal animosity and political miscalculation.

Employment lawyers advise that unless some form of discrimination – sex or age - can be demonstrated, the courts are (sensibly) very reluctant to get involved. Bonuses are explicitly discretionary and the employee’s redress is to quit.

And, of course, the system can be worked. For example one of the activity heads secured very substantial bonuses for himself and two colleagues, no doubt citing their irreplaceability.

Inexplicably and against previous practice, the firm agreed not to retain any portion of these bonuses and the day the money hit their bank accounts, he and these colleagues walked and joined a rival firm. Such stories are not uncommon.

All that said, for the genuine stars and the bulk of the team – reasonably good if unexceptional performers – the best policy is to get on with the job of servicing clients and delivering revenue.

Annual cash bonuses work well for businesses which generate annual cash profits. While rewarding performance year by year clearly encourages short termism, most senior employees are in for the medium term and are therefore interested in promoting the ongoing health of the business.

And there's something else. It seems to this avowed capitalist at least that a bonus system where the business owner agrees to share a very material portion of the profits with the employees, who take no capital risks, has a strong socialist dimension.

The approach seems instinctively very fair. And I'd argue with my eyes open to its many imperfections that the bonus culture overall works well. I commend it to other industries making up UK plc.

Of course these waters are muddied just now by the intervention of the government in propping up some of the larger banks and this exposes a curious dilemma.

As part of a large effectively bankrupted institution, employees at RBS are lucky to have jobs at all and the reverse laundering of tax payers money into bankers’s bank accounts must be a non-starter.

On the other hand, it seems grossly inequitable that, where there are profitable and cash generative businesses within it, those people who sweated to create profits and cashflow without which the bank would be in even worse fettle are now left high and dry without the reward they have worked for.

Put it this way, without those efforts made on the promise that bonuses would be awarded the taxpayers’ investment would be in even more peril than it already is.

In addition, restricting bonuses is suicidal for the medium term value of those good businesses within the group.

The answer to that rather knotty dilemma? I don’t know. But perhaps reneging on a promise in order to shoot yourself in the foot is politically necessary sometimes.

John Roberts is not the author's real name

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Fitter, dumber, more productive

How the craze for Apple Watches, Fitbits and other wearable tech devices revives the old and discredited science of behaviourism.

When Tim Cook unveiled the latest operating system for the Apple Watch in June, he described the product in a remarkable way. This is no longer just a wrist-mounted gadget for checking your email and social media notifications; it is now “the ultimate device for a healthy life”.

With the watch’s fitness-tracking and heart rate-sensor features to the fore, Cook explained how its Activity and Workout apps have been retooled to provide greater “motivation”. A new Breathe app encourages the user to take time out during the day for deep breathing sessions. Oh yes, this watch has an app that notifies you when it’s time to breathe. The paradox is that if you have zero motivation and don’t know when to breathe in the first place, you probably won’t survive long enough to buy an Apple Watch.

The watch and its marketing are emblematic of how the tech trend is moving beyond mere fitness tracking into what might one call quality-of-life tracking and algorithmic hacking of the quality of consciousness. A couple of years ago I road-tested a brainwave-sensing headband, called the Muse, which promises to help you quiet your mind and achieve “focus” by concentrating on your breathing as it provides aural feedback over earphones, in the form of the sound of wind at a beach. I found it turned me, for a while, into a kind of placid zombie with no useful “focus” at all.

A newer product even aims to hack sleep – that productivity wasteland, which, according to the art historian and essayist Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is an affront to the foundations of capitalism. So buy an “intelligent sleep mask” called the Neuroon to analyse the quality of your sleep at night and help you perform more productively come morning. “Knowledge is power!” it promises. “Sleep analytics gathers your body’s sleep data and uses it to help you sleep smarter!” (But isn’t one of the great things about sleep that, while you’re asleep, you are perfectly stupid?)

The Neuroon will also help you enjoy technologically assisted “power naps” during the day to combat “lack of energy”, “fatigue”, “mental exhaustion” and “insomnia”. When it comes to quality of sleep, of course, numerous studies suggest that late-night smartphone use is very bad, but if you can’t stop yourself using your phone, at least you can now connect it to a sleep-enhancing gadget.

So comes a brand new wave of devices that encourage users to outsource not only their basic bodily functions but – as with the Apple Watch’s emphasis on providing “motivation” – their very willpower.  These are thrillingly innovative technologies and yet, in the way they encourage us to think about ourselves, they implicitly revive an old and discarded school of ­thinking in psychology. Are we all neo-­behaviourists now?

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The school of behaviourism arose in the early 20th century out of a virtuous scientific caution. Experimenters wished to avoid anthropomorphising animals such as rats and pigeons by attributing to them mental capacities for belief, reasoning, and so forth. This kind of description seemed woolly and impossible to verify.

The behaviourists discovered that the actions of laboratory animals could, in effect, be predicted and guided by careful “conditioning”, involving stimulus and reinforcement. They then applied Ockham’s razor: there was no reason, they argued, to believe in elaborate mental equipment in a small mammal or bird; at bottom, all behaviour was just a response to external stimulus. The idea that a rat had a complex mentality was an unnecessary hypothesis and so could be discarded. The psychologist John B Watson declared in 1913 that behaviour, and behaviour alone, should be the whole subject matter of psychology: to project “psychical” attributes on to animals, he and his followers thought, was not permissible.

The problem with Ockham’s razor, though, is that sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop cutting. And so more radical behaviourists sought to apply the same lesson to human beings. What you and I think of as thinking was, for radical behaviourists such as the Yale psychologist Clark L Hull, just another pattern of conditioned reflexes. A human being was merely a more complex knot of stimulus responses than a pigeon. Once perfected, some scientists believed, behaviourist science would supply a reliable method to “predict and control” the behaviour of human beings, and thus all social problems would be overcome.

It was a kind of optimistic, progressive version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it fell sharply from favour after the 1960s, and the subsequent “cognitive revolution” in psychology emphasised the causal role of conscious thinking. What became cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, owed its impressive clinical success to focusing on a person’s cognition – the thoughts and the beliefs that radical behaviourism treated as mythical. As CBT’s name suggests, however, it mixes cognitive strategies (analyse one’s thoughts in order to break destructive patterns) with behavioural techniques (act a certain way so as to affect one’s feelings). And the deliberate conditioning of behaviour is still a valuable technique outside the therapy room.

The effective “behavioural modification programme” first publicised by Weight Watchers in the 1970s is based on reinforcement and support techniques suggested by the behaviourist school. Recent research suggests that clever conditioning – associating the taking of a medicine with a certain smell – can boost the body’s immune response later when a patient detects the smell, even without a dose of medicine.

Radical behaviourism that denies a subject’s consciousness and agency, however, is now completely dead as a science. Yet it is being smuggled back into the mainstream by the latest life-enhancing gadgets from Silicon Valley. The difference is that, now, we are encouraged to outsource the “prediction and control” of our own behaviour not to a benign team of psychological experts, but to algorithms.

It begins with measurement and analysis of bodily data using wearable instruments such as Fitbit wristbands, the first wave of which came under the rubric of the “quantified self”. (The Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, asked: “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories, where a man may, when he pleases, get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science?” He has his answer: one may now wear such laboratories about one’s person.) But simply recording and hoarding data is of limited use. To adapt what Marx said about philosophers: the sensors only interpret the body, in various ways; the point is to change it.

And the new technology offers to help with precisely that, offering such externally applied “motivation” as the Apple Watch. So the reasoning, striving mind is vacated (perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app) and usurped by a cybernetic system to optimise the organism’s functioning. Electronic stimulus produces a physiological response, as in the behaviourist laboratory. The human being herself just needs to get out of the way. The customer of such devices is merely an opaquely functioning machine to be tinkered with. The desired outputs can be invoked by the correct inputs from a technological prosthesis. Our physical behaviour and even our moods are manipulated by algorithmic number-crunching in corporate data farms, and, as a result, we may dream of becoming fitter, happier and more productive.

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The broad current of behaviourism was not homogeneous in its theories, and nor are its modern technological avatars. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov induced dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they had learned to associate with food. Here, stimulus (the bell) produces an involuntary response (salivation). This is called “classical conditioning”, and it is advertised as the scientific mechanism behind a new device called the Pavlok, a wristband that delivers mild electric shocks to the user in order, so it promises, to help break bad habits such as overeating or smoking.

The explicit behaviourist-revival sell here is interesting, though it is arguably predicated on the wrong kind of conditioning. In classical conditioning, the stimulus evokes the response; but the Pavlok’s painful electric shock is a stimulus that comes after a (voluntary) action. This is what the psychologist who became the best-known behaviourist theoretician, B F Skinner, called “operant conditioning”.

By associating certain actions with positive or negative reinforcement, an animal is led to change its behaviour. The user of a Pavlok treats herself, too, just like an animal, helplessly suffering the gadget’s painful negative reinforcement. “Pavlok associates a mild zap with your bad habit,” its marketing material promises, “training your brain to stop liking the habit.” The use of the word “brain” instead of “mind” here is revealing. The Pavlok user is encouraged to bypass her reflective faculties and perform pain-led conditioning directly on her grey matter, in order to get from it the behaviour that she prefers. And so modern behaviourist technologies act as though the cognitive revolution in psychology never happened, encouraging us to believe that thinking just gets in the way.

Technologically assisted attempts to defeat weakness of will or concentration are not new. In 1925 the inventor Hugo Gernsback announced, in the pages of his magazine Science and Invention, an invention called the Isolator. It was a metal, full-face hood, somewhat like a diving helmet, connected by a rubber hose to an oxygen tank. The Isolator, too, was designed to defeat distractions and assist mental focus.

The problem with modern life, Gernsback wrote, was that the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell “is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts”. Inside the Isolator, however, sounds are muffled, and the small eyeholes prevent you from seeing anything except what is directly in front of you. Gernsback provided a salutary photograph of himself wearing the Isolator while sitting at his desk, looking like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. “The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator,” the caption reads. “Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand.”

Modern anti-distraction tools such as computer software that disables your internet connection, or word processors that imitate an old-fashioned DOS screen, with nothing but green text on a black background, as well as the brain-measuring Muse headband – these are just the latest versions of what seems an age-old desire for technologically imposed calm. But what do we lose if we come to rely on such gadgets, unable to impose calm on ourselves? What do we become when we need machines to motivate us?

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It was B F Skinner who supplied what became the paradigmatic image of ­behaviourist science with his “Skinner Box”, formally known as an “operant conditioning chamber”. Skinner Boxes come in different flavours but a classic example is a box with an electrified floor and two levers. A rat is trapped in the box and must press the correct lever when a certain light comes on. If the rat gets it right, food is delivered. If the rat presses the wrong lever, it receives a painful electric shock through the booby-trapped floor. The rat soon learns to press the right lever all the time. But if the levers’ functions are changed unpredictably by the experimenters, the rat becomes confused, withdrawn and depressed.

Skinner Boxes have been used with success not only on rats but on birds and primates, too. So what, after all, are we doing if we sign up to technologically enhanced self-improvement through gadgets and apps? As we manipulate our screens for ­reassurance and encouragement, or wince at a painful failure to be better today than we were yesterday, we are treating ourselves similarly as objects to be improved through operant conditioning. We are climbing willingly into a virtual Skinner Box.

As Carl Cederström and André Spicer point out in their book The Wellness Syndrome, published last year: “Surrendering to an authoritarian agency, which is not just telling you what to do, but also handing out rewards and punishments to shape your behaviour more effectively, seems like undermining your own agency and autonomy.” What’s worse is that, increasingly, we will have no choice in the matter anyway. Gernsback’s Isolator was explicitly designed to improve the concentration of the “worker”, and so are its digital-age descendants. Corporate employee “wellness” programmes increasingly encourage or even mandate the use of fitness trackers and other behavioural gadgets in order to ensure an ideally efficient and compliant workforce.

There are many political reasons to resist the pitiless transfer of responsibility for well-being on to the individual in this way. And, in such cases, it is important to point out that the new idea is a repackaging of a controversial old idea, because that challenges its proponents to defend it explicitly. The Apple Watch and its cousins promise an utterly novel form of technologically enhanced self-mastery. But it is also merely the latest way in which modernity invites us to perform operant conditioning on ourselves, to cleanse away anxiety and dissatisfaction and become more streamlined citizen-consumers. Perhaps we will decide, after all, that tech-powered behaviourism is good. But we should know what we are arguing about. The rethinking should take place out in the open.

In 1987, three years before he died, B F Skinner published a scholarly paper entitled Whatever Happened to Psychology as the Science of Behaviour?, reiterating his now-unfashionable arguments against psychological talk about states of mind. For him, the “prediction and control” of behaviour was not merely a theoretical preference; it was a necessity for global social justice. “To feed the hungry and clothe the naked are ­remedial acts,” he wrote. “We can easily see what is wrong and what needs to be done. It is much harder to see and do something about the fact that world agriculture must feed and clothe billions of people, most of them yet unborn. It is not enough to advise people how to behave in ways that will make a future possible; they must be given effective reasons for behaving in those ways, and that means effective contingencies of reinforcement now.” In other words, mere arguments won’t equip the world to support an increasing population; strategies of behavioural control must be designed for the good of all.

Arguably, this authoritarian strand of behaviourist thinking is what morphed into the subtly reinforcing “choice architecture” of nudge politics, which seeks gently to compel citizens to do the right thing (eat healthy foods, sign up for pension plans) by altering the ways in which such alternatives are presented.

By contrast, the Apple Watch, the Pavlok and their ilk revive a behaviourism evacuated of all social concern and designed solely to optimise the individual customer. By ­using such devices, we voluntarily offer ourselves up to a denial of our voluntary selves, becoming atomised lab rats, to be manipulated electronically through the corporate cloud. It is perhaps no surprise that when the founder of American behaviourism, John B Watson, left academia in 1920, he went into a field that would come to profit very handsomely indeed from his skills of manipulation – advertising. Today’s neo-behaviourist technologies promise to usher in a world that is one giant Skinner Box in its own right: a world where thinking just gets in the way, and we all mechanically press levers for food pellets.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge