Where on earth are we all going to live?

Our national obsession with property has led us into dangerous waters. At every level of the market

The British have a special relationship with their homes. We lavish attention on them; we fantasise about an extension here, a conservatory there; we willingly pay over the odds for a place to live because, almost regardless of social class, home ownership has become the ultimate national objective.

Now, this live-in liaison is facing its sternest test. In the course of the past decade, house prices have risen inexorably. First-time buyers are unable to get on to the housing ladder until well into their thirties, and there is a worrying lack of available housing - both for key workers and well-off families. Interest rates have risen four times in the past year. No wonder some commentators are predicting a house-price crash. The government is facing a desperate need for more new homes; the issue of extra taxes for buy-to-let landlords; proposals to overhaul Britain's archaic planning system and build over the green belt; and the looming question of how to mop up the mess left after the housing bubble pops. Housing is shaping up to be one of Gordon Brown's biggest headaches.

Britain's property obsession is a relatively new trend. Until the First World War, only a tenth of UK homes were owned by their occupier, compared with almost half in the US. This was partly because much of the property was owned by the richest members of the population, but it was also partly a social phenomenon. Even the wealthiest young men would prefer to take rooms - lodgings - rather than buying or renting their own properties when coming to London. In most circles it was perfectly normal never to own your own house.

Things changed after the world wars, as successive governments embarked on policies to find "homes for heroes". Controls were imposed on landlords and millions of pounds were poured into homebuilding projects. Meanwhile, inequality was falling, meaning many more middle-class families were suddenly able to afford to buy a home.

Amid the postwar optimism of 1950s Britain, home ownership slowly but surely became enshrined as a talismanic social objective, along with free health care, free education and low unemployment. The apogee was Margaret Thatcher's right-to-buy scheme, which saw thousands of council tenants buying their homes. All of this contributed to a sharp rise in home ownership. One government after another introduced lucrative tax breaks on mortgages, with the result that owner occupancy soared, recently reaching an all-time peak of 70 per cent. It was one of the biggest social and economic transformations in British history.

Britain's relationship with housing is not unique. In terms of home ownership, France is fast catching up and we remain far behind Spain. It is true that elsewhere in Europe, such as Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands, more people tend to rent than buy. But this is due less to an ingrained cultural reticence about home-buying than to laws that make it more financially attractive to rent. Few realise just how much Britain's property-owning fixation was engineered by successive government's policies.

As prices have shot up it has slowly dawned on us that, as well as being nice places to live, homes can also make excellent investments, an idea which has only intensified our love affair with property. In the past few years, though, something has changed. After decades in decline, the proportion of people renting rather than buying a house stopped shrinking and is now rising faster and faster.

One reason is that those not yet on the property ladder are finding it all but impossible to afford to buy. But another more intriguing explanation lies in the fact that both Conservative and Labour governments have scaled back and abolished most of the tax breaks that pushed up home ownership in recent decades. Swiftly and silently, they have shifted the economics of property in favour of landlords rather than tenants for the first time since early last century. As a result, the shape of the market is slowly changing. More and more relatively well-off families are investing in property, often because they have seen the value of their pension fall and are looking for an extra source of income when they retire.

Landlords are already provoking resentment and, as their share of the market grows in the coming years, they are likely to become even more unpopular. A buy-to-let backlash seems highly likely in the future - Whitehall, sensitive to this, has already mooted a clampdown on landlords' unpaid tax. The influx of new landlords is not only crowding many potential buyers out of the market, it is also distorting the kind of homes available. Most of the new flats being built these days are targeted directly at buy-to-let investors - utilitarian blocks that are easy to let and cheap to maintain. For a number of years now, too few homes are being built with families in mind. This is intensifying the housing shortage on an island that is rapidly becoming one of the most overpopulated in the world. At the top end of the market, there are not enough homes with more than two bedrooms and even too few palatial properties for the financiers and jet-setters moving to London. Meanwhile, the flats that would only a few years ago have been affordable for the less well-off have shot up in value.

According to the National Housing and Planning Advice Unit, unless more houses are built, prices could be ten times the average buyer's salary within 20 years, compared with around seven at the moment. The average age of a first-time buyer has risen from 26 to 31 in the past decade alone, according to the Council of Mortgage Lenders - a sure sign that millions of young people are being priced out of the market. The Bank of England has reported that the number of new mortgages issued has dropped suddenly, indicating that prices are also simply beyond the reach of many families.

The two key measures that most economists regard as the best gauges of affordability are both flashing red. Mortgage payments are now taking the biggest chunk of salaries since the tail-end of the last crash. Meanwhile, the fact that house prices have dramatically outpaced the growth in rents means anyone thinking of leaping into the buy-to-let sector is likely to have to turn in a loss for at least a couple of years before they start seeing returns. In other words, the financial rationale for homebuying is the weakest it has been in a generation. But, of course, this being a cocktail of love and money, people are still buying - thinking with their hearts rather than their heads.

Many parts of the country are already experiencing a slump. The Yorkshire and Humberside region, for instance, is witnessing the biggest drop in prices for at least seven years. Four interest rate increases by the Bank of England in the past year have simply made many peoples' mortgage payments unaffordable. The fact that taxes and the cost of living have risen sharply has only made things worse. So the demand for housing has dropped suddenly, causing prices to stall. Whether there is a slowdown or a more dramatic crash, it is clear that the decade-long boom is almost over.

As the end of the era approaches, a few conclusions are emerging. If the government wants to arrest the decline in home ownership and cool the market, it must follow the example of its post-war predecessors: build new homes and introduce tax breaks for homebuyers. Waiving stamp duty for first-time buyers would be a simple and relatively cheap initial step. But a more radical option would be to allow home-ownership levels to decline naturally to those found on the Continent.

There are, after all, plenty of reasons to believe our obsession with homeowning is pretty unhealthy. Andrew Oswald, professor of economics at Warwick University, argues that too many of us own our homes. This causes serious damage to the economy, he claims, since it loads us all up with debt and prevents us from moving from city to city when different jobs beckon.

Abandoning the goal of widespread home ownership could be politically dangerous for any government. It would certainly be a bitter pill for the public to swallow. But given how torrid and irrational our relationship with property has become, it looks an increasingly attractive option.

Either way, if house prices do crash, it will be an important reminder for the British public that this love affair will never run smoothly.

Edmund Conway is economics editor of the Daily Telegraph

Case studies

  • Advertising planner Beth, 25 and her boyfriend found the pace of the market forced them to rush buying their first home. “Getting together the money, not only for the deposit but for all the extras, like solicitors and surveys, was difficult. Ideally we would rather have carried on saving in order to accumulate a larger deposit, but seeing house prices rise daily, made us decide to get on the market as quickly as we could. In the end we were very lucky to find a two bedroom maisonette that we could afford, but only because it needed a lot of work doing!”
  • New mother Kate, 32 and her husband may move to Oxford because of the lack of affordable family housing in London. They had hoped to move to a bigger property from their two bedroom house near to where they currently live to make room for their new family “We had a problem with every single house we looked. They had gone within hours. We only managed to get viewings at three houses because they were going so quickly. There's definitely a shortage of good houses, there are houses that need work but to get one in a good state there seems to be nothing below £700,000.”

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Israel, Gaza and a summer of war?

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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