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The voodoo cult of positive thinking

Lessons from Lance Armstrong's disgrace.

He might be disgraced as a sportsman but his advocacy of relentless willpower has brought hope to millions of cancer sufferers. That is the conventional view of Lance Armstrong. Sadly, the doping case against Armstrong is the least of it. Applied to sport, Armstrong’s deification of the power of positive thinking is mere fantasy. When it is applied to the question of life and death it moves into far more dangerous territory.

Armstrong built a brand in answer to the question, “What made the difference, Lance?” He nourished a narrative that apparently began as a lie and hardened into full-scale fantasy. Not talent (though he possessed plenty of that). Not drugs (though his team-mates now say he was a “pioneer of doping”). No, the difference in Armstrong’s view was his mental ability to eliminate human frailty. Armstrong recovered from testicular cancer; he then won seven yellow jerseys in the Tour de France. Those two processes became blurred in his mind – so much so that when people accused him of doping in cycling he would imply they were belittling those who had recovered from cancer.

Fanatical hatred

Does Armstrong still believe he is a genuine champion, unfairly wronged? Many people accused of doping allow themselves some wriggle room, even before they are caught. Armstrong responded to his accusers with fanatical hatred. They were cynics trying to cheat the world of genuine miracles that he, Armstrong, had made real.

Is lying the appropriate word for such a fantasist? Or do fantasists lose possession of those facts that don’t fit the version of events on which their self-image relies? Armstrong’s racing was informed by a simple mantra: I believe, therefore I will win. Armstrong’s doping denials were similarly straightforward: I believe, therefore it is true. Both sport and life had been reduced to a narrative in which willpower could defy any odds.

Armstrong told us to “believe in miracles”. But if you follow his own logic, believing in miracles doesn’t quite capture it. After all, he believed he had the power to make miracles, not just to benefit from them. He was the agent, not just the recipient. There is a term for those who can will miraculous events: gods. That is how Armstrong viewed himself. The rules that govern normal human beings no longer applied to him.

There are echoes of Tiger Woods, who has long regarded his own humanity as something that needs to be overcome rather than embraced. Feelings, emotions, vulnerabilities: they are problems that need to be ironed out, like flaws in a faulty back-swing.

But compare Armstrong’s alleged deceit with the relatively trifling deception of Woods. Woods pretended to be a family man to make a few extra million dollars in easy sponsorship deals. He was exposed but his achievements on the golf course remain valid. With Armstrong, the deceit seems far deeper and sadder.

Armstrong found many willing allies in the promotion of his myth. The public lapped up the Lance legend with hysterical enthusiasm. He was the perfect hero for our times: an icon of willpower. In sport – and in life – self-belief is now routinely invoked as the explanation for almost everything. Commentators blithely assure us that it is “all about who wants it the most”, as though sporting podiums are arranged exactly according to the amount of willpower that went into the struggle. Bronze: considerable self-belief; silver: still stronger self-belief; gold: self-belief on an epic scale.

This is pure nonsense. Inferring an exact and causal relationship between determination and success is a delusional fantasy of a society obsessed by just deserts. The true differentiating factors in elite sport are far more complex. What goes in to the making a champion? It is the subtle interplay of genes, talent, opportunity, hard work, willpower, pure luck and, in some cases, drugs. Willpower is just one factor.  Armstrong’s oversimplification of success becomes even more problematic when it is applied to the question of life and death. The misleading phrase “the battle against cancer” has a lot to answer for. A friend of mine recently died of breast cancer. It would be hard to imagine a braver, stronger-willed woman. But the cancer “won”, as cancers often do. That her death could be interpreted as a failure of willpower or positive thinking is a gross insult.

Modern gods

It is an insult that has been implied by the Armstrong message. The truth about “positive thinking” is much more nuanced. It is often a very good thing. It may even be necessary. But it is never sufficient. The Armstrong philosophy veers dangerously close to the self-help mantra of books such as The Secret. Its author, Rhonda Byrne, mused after the Java tsunami of 2006 that such events only ever afflicted people who were “on the same frequency as the event”. Smile or Die, Barbara Ehrenreich’s exposé of the positive-thinking industry, includes a chilling story from a psychiatrist at a New York cancer clinic: “Patients come in with stories of being told by well-meaning friends, ‘I’ve read all about this – if you got cancer, you must have wanted it.’ ”

Every age has its deities. The medieval mindset placed its blind faith in God. The Enlightenment anointed reason and science. Our own age has indulged a pseudoscientific cult of willpower: the deification of determination. At its best, it is a questionable creed. At its worst, it suggests that all losers must also be weaklings.

With luck, Armstrong’s career – and the legend that surrounded it –will one day be seen as the high-water mark of the voodoo cult of willpower. Paradoxically, Armstrong’s downfall may do more long-term good than his ascent. We now know that pure willpower was only one strand of Armstrong’s career. That corrective applies to all success and, by extension, to all failure. Armstrong spent his career trying to prove that willpower is the whole story. Instead, he has demonstrated that life is always far more complicated than that.

Ed Smith’s “Luck: What It Means and Why It Matters” is published by Bloomsbury (£16.99).

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Autumn politics special

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.