Show Hide image

The Osborne audit: what have we learned?

Ahead of this week’s budget, the economic historian Robert Skidelsky examines how four years of austerity have affected Britain.

George Osborne by Ralph Steadman

On Wednesday, for the first time in four Budgets, George Osborne will be able to claim plausibly that Britain has come out of the Great Recession. Growth was 1.8 per cent in 2013 and is expected to be between 2.4 and 2.8 per cent in 2014. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the economy is still 1.4 per cent smaller than it was in 2008 and 14 per cent smaller than it would have been had the recession not struck.

That lost output, amounting to £210bn, is gone for ever. Every household is almost £2,000 poorer on average than it would have been; the government’s revenue is £70bn less – that is (say) 70 hospitals, 1,000 schools and 250,000 housing units not built. Or, to take another number: 650,000 people now unemployed would have been in employment.

This is not all. Every year of the recession has reduced our growth potential. Economists use the word “hysteresis” to describe the rusting away of economic resources through misuse or underuse. Hysteresis has to do not just with the output lost during the slump but with the potential output lost in the subsequent period of near-zero growth. Headline unemployment is an incomplete measure of such rusting, because it also occurs when people work less than they want to, or are in jobs below their skill level, or just leave the workforce. A physics graduate may be able to find employment as a taxi driver or waiter. But how much physics “potential” will he retain after years of doing such jobs?

These are heavy costs. Just as George Osborne did not cause the recession, he has not caused the recovery. Intertwined economies usually fall and rise together, and Britain has been lifted off the rocks by the global upturn. Yet policy does make a difference – to the speed of recovery, its strength and its durability. On all three counts, the Chancellor’s policy is open to severe criticism.

Fiscal austerity slowed and weakened the recovery; monetary looseness ensured that it would be highly unbalanced and therefore fragile. Significantly, the official independent watchdog, the Office for Budgetary Responsibility (OBR), in its December 2013 Economic and Fiscal Outlook, judged the “surprising” growth surge of the past year to be “cyclical . . . rather than indicating stronger underlying growth potential”. That the bank rate needs to be kept near zero shows that the economy is still on life support. 

Missed budget targets

Let’s start with the targets Osborne set himself in his first Budget of June 2010. He inherited a prospective deficit for 2010-2011 of £149bn, equivalent to 10.1 per cent of GDP. He promised to get this down to £20bn, or 1.1 per cent of GDP, in 2015-2016, mainly through spending cuts. By 2013-2014 the deficit should have been £60bn. In fact, it is projected to be £111bn, or 6.8 per cent of GDP this year. Now the Chancellor must cut spending by another £62bn over the next four years to meet his original target, two years later than promised.

There were no growth targets – those were abandoned years ago – but there were growth forecasts. Fulfilment of Osborne’s budgetary targets depended on the economy growing at 2.3 per cent in 2011, 2.8 per cent in 2012 and 2.9 per cent in 2013. In fact, the growth rates achieved were 0.9 per cent in 2011, 0.1 per cent in 2012 and 1.8 per cent in 2013. In other words, Osborne’s failure to meet his deficit targets was caused by the failure of the economy to grow to expectation.

The official explanation for this failure is “bad luck”. In familiar language, policy was “blown off course” by unexpected events. Chief of these was said to be the eurozone sovereign debt crisis, which started with fears of a Greek default in March 2010 and then spread, by contagion, to Ireland, Spain, Portugal and Italy. For the next three years the eurozone slumped almost as badly as Britain. The eurozone slump, it is argued, stymied the British recovery.

There are two things wrong with this. First, with its own currency and control of its exchange rate, Britain should have done better, not worse, than the members of the eurozone. Second, although the eurozone financial crisis undermined confidence, and hit British exports, the European slump arose in part because European finance ministers were pursuing exactly the same policy as was George Osborne. So it makes more sense to say that the coincident slumps of the eurozone and Britain between 2010 and 2013 were the effects of a single cause: the policy of cutting public spending. The “unexpected” element in the situation was the failure of so-called fiscal consolidation to deliver growth.

Why should anyone expect a policy of cutting public spending in a recession to produce growth? It is counterintuitive. A recession is caused by businesses and households spending less. If the government also spends less, one would expect this to worsen, not reverse, the recession. This, I think, is exactly what happened.

Making the case: George Osborne on his first Budget Day, 2010

Primitive economics

Over the past four years, I kept asking myself: what did Osborne have to believe to convince himself that cutting government spending was necessary to “get the economy moving again”? His core belief, I concluded, is ideological. This is that state spending is heavily wasteful. From this, it follows that the smaller the share of GDP spent by the state, the larger GDP will be, because the private sector allocates resources more efficiently. It’s as simple as that.

This ideological fundament generates three seemingly common-sense, short-run propositions, which I call “primitive economics”. The first, known by the cognoscenti as “real crowding-out”, states that if the government commandeers an extra quantum of “real” resources such as workers and factories this will deprive the private sector of their use.

Second, there is the idea of “financial crowding-out”. If the government borrows additional financial resources (money) to fund its spending, this will force up interest rates and oblige businesses to pay more for their money.

Finally, there is “Ricardian equivalence”. This says that government borrowing is just deferred taxation. Expecting to pay more taxes tomorrow, people increase their savings today. So increased government consumption “crowds out” an equivalent volume of private consumption.

Eighty years ago, John Maynard Keynes pointed out that this trade-off view of the relationship between public and private spending may be valid at full employment, but is quite wrong in a severe recession.

In such a situation, extra government spending does not necessarily “crowd out” real resources. Where there is slack in the economy – the labour supply exceeding labour demand as today – extra government spending can bring into use the idle resources by creating more employment. There is no displacement; the public spending is not done at the expense of private spending. Rather, the public spending compensates for a lack of private spending.

Second, it is not true that whatever the government borrows is a subtraction from a fixed pool of savings that would otherwise be invested by the private sector. Many savings are just lying idle in bank accounts, because the private sector lacks the confidence to invest them. By offering investors a risk-free rate of return, the government can put these savings to active use. And by generating employment, this “crowds in” additional savings.

Finally, “Ricardian equivalence” ignores how government spending can pay for itself, not just by increasing national income (and therefore government revenue) but by investing in projects that create value for the economy, such as schools, houses, transport infrastructure, green energy, and so on.

Probably few policymakers today believe these “crowding-out” stories literally. I doubt whether even George Osborne does. But they believe that governments need to behave as though they believe these ideas in order to retain the “confidence” of the markets.

So, the question is: why do the markets believe them? Why do they scream “Default” whenever government borrowing goes up? Why did Osborne feel that unless he got the deficit under firm control, he would be spooked by the markets?

The reason is that, for the past 30 years, all economically literate or market-savvy persons (who do not generally include politicians) have been slaves to “models” of the economy which ruled out severe recessions by assumption. Even social democrats, who wanted to use the tax system to redistribute the wealth created by the private sector, bought in to the dominant view that, on average, markets do not make mistakes. This was the tragedy of Gordon Brown; it is also why Labour under Ed Miliband has been unable to deploy a convincing case against Osbornite economics.

Consequently, it is not surprising that governments and central banks failed to take precautions against a slump happening; more surprising that they did not thoroughly revise their beliefs when it did happen. To some extent, they did. When the world economy crashed in the winter of 2008 all the main governments came in with bank bailouts and stimulus packages. But as soon as the danger of another Great Depression was removed, the old orthodoxies reasserted themselves. In particular, as it was bound to do, the slump left a legacy of rising deficits and taxpayer liabilities. In this kind of climate, fears about the solvency of governments seemed reasonable.

And mainstream economics offered no help at all. What was going on, the economists said, was just a readjustment of economic life from one optimum equilibrium to another. Thus there was no “output gap” that needed to be filled by extra government spending. Rather, what needed to be done was to cut down state spending in order to make the existing output more productive. The Chancellor is no economist: but this presentation played to his ideological preconceptions. In a world-view of this type, there is no distinction between the short run and the long run. We always live in the long run, and if we leave the long run to the markets, all will be for the best. 

Delusions

A world in which beliefs and facts have come so far apart will be particularly prone to delusionary thinking. The delusion was that policies that made the recession worse would produce recovery. This delusion was abetted by reputable economists. Three years ago, the doctrine of “expansionary fiscal contraction” was all the rage and a huge research effort went into trying to prove its core proposition: that the less the government spends, the faster the economy will grow. The econometricians produced some striking correlations. One claim was that “an increase in government size by 10 percentage points is associated with a 0.5 to 1 per cent lower annual growth”. In April 2010, Alberto Alesina of Harvard University assured European finance ministers that “many even sharp reductions of budget deficits have been accompanied and immediately followed by sustained growth rather than recessions even in the very short run”.

An International Monetary Fund paper in 2012 brought Alesina’s hour of glory to an end. Going through the same data as he had examined, the IMF authors pointed out: “While it is plausible to conjecture that confidence effects have been at play in our sample of consolidations, during downturns they do not seem to have ever been strong enough to make the consolidations expansionary at least in the short run.” Fiscal contraction is contractionary, full stop.

George Osborne has said publicly that he was influenced by Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff. These two Harvard economists claimed that their data showed that countries’ growth slows sharply if their debt-to-GDP ratio exceeds 90 per cent. It turned out that their findings were skewed by the vast overweighting of one country in their sample. But a much more important error was their confusion between correlation and causation, also seen in the work of Alesina. High debt levels may cause lack of growth but a lack of growth may cause high debt levels; or both may be due to some other factor(s). How, one asks, can good statisticians make these kinds of mistakes? Only, I think, because their theory or model already tells them that this is the way the causation has to run, so that their only task is to establish a correlation.

Quantitative easing to the rescue?

With the failure of fiscal “consolidation” to revive the economy, the Chancellor increasingly turned to monetary policy. This fitted his ideology. Orthodox monetary policy works by the central bank targeting short-term market interest rates, providing banks with the reserves needed to keep the rates on target and, by varying the rates (or expectations of future rates), influencing the volume of private-sector lending and borrowing. It bypasses fiscal policy, which is why it is attractive to those who dislike state intervention. Since 2008, monetary policy has been ultra-loose or “unorthodox”. Not only has the bank rate been kept at 0.5 per cent for a record length of time, but the Bank of England has injected £375bn of “new money” into the economy, £225bn of it before Osborne became Chancellor. This is known as “quantitative easing” (QE).

How big a part has QE played in producing a recovery? The quick answer is that no one knows for sure. Unlike government spending, which has a direct effect on the economy, monetary policy works indirectly by inducing private households and businesses to change their behaviour – to save more or spend more. QE is supposed to work through two “transmission channels”: the bank lending channel and the portfolio rebalancing channel.

The central bank activates both channels by buying government bonds (gilts), mainly from non-banks. The sellers of the bonds receive cash; they deposit their extra cash with the commercial banks. In the first transmission channel, this is supposed to increase bank lending. The banks have more cash to lend out, causing them to lower their interest rates. As a result, more money is borrowed by businesses and households; the spending of the loans raises total spending, and therefore output, in the economy.

Early experience of QE showed that this was not happening: the banks were hoarding their cash, not lending it out. The architects of QE had underestimated the damage that banks had suffered as a result of the collapse of their assets in the crash, and therefore their desire to rebuild their reserves. What Osborne then did was to start subsidising bank lending. The Funding for Lending scheme, introduced in July 2012, was supposed to stimulate bank loans to businesses. It failed to do this – business lending is still well down from its pre-crash levels.

Desperate to get something in the economy going up, the Chancellor switched to Help to Buy in April and October 2013, which insured banks for a 15 per cent loss on 95 per cent mortgages. This has certainly contributed to the recent surge in house-buying and the rise in house prices.

It should be noticed, however, that both attempts to boost bank lending are fiscal policy by the back door, as the contingent subsidies are liabilities for the taxpayer.

Because of the disappointing results of bank lending, the Bank of England came to rely more on the second transmission channel, portfolio rebalancing, to stimulate the economy. Bond purchases by the Bank swell the cash deposits of the sellers, encouraging them to spend. Simultaneously, they reduce the supply of gilts in the market, which causes the price of gilts to rise and their yields to fall. The “search for yield” then induces investors to switch from gilts to stock-market securities and other assets, making it easier for businesses to raise capital. The increase in the price of these assets also expands the net wealth of the asset-holders, causing them to spend more. These various effects will result in growing GDP. Certainly the rise in stock-market and house prices has contributed to a “feel-good” factor, which is bolstering the current optimism about future prospects.

Set against these benefits are two costs. By encouraging excessive risk-taking, QE may reignite the pre-crash asset bubble, against which the new governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, has warned. The second is the increase in inequality. Of this, John Kay wrote in the Financial Times: “In the modern financial economy, the main effect of QE is to boost asset prices . . . the one certain outcome of QE is that those with assets benefit relative to those without . . . these policies may not benefit the non-financial economy much, but they are helpful to the financial services sector and those who work in it.”

The trouble with unorthodox monetary policy was that it is not unorthodox enough. Rather than try to increase private-sector cash balances, the Bank should have lent the money directly to the government to spend on public investment. We can be sure the government would not have hoarded the cash! But this operation would have blurred the line between monetary and fiscal policy, and thus the sacred ideological divide between the private and public sectors.

To put the matter crudely: a recovery based on stuffing the mouths of bankers with gold will be weaker and less durable than a recovery based on an upsurge of mass spending power. 

Conclusions

Wealth and income have been growing more unequal in Britain since the 1980s. George Osborne has not created the inequality; but he has exacerbated it by dragging out the slump and using lopsided means to bring about the recovery. Britain may well emerge from the recession with a problem of structural underconsumption. Investment is driven by consumption, so when consumption falls off, so does investment. A tendency to domestic underconsumption – unless offset by a buoyant demand for exports – will result in what economists such as Larry Summers have started to call “secular stagnation”. The chief symptom of this will be rising structural underemployment: a slackening of demand for labour which does not reverse itself with recovery.

This brings us back to the ideological fundament. It is the Chancellor’s firm belief that the government’s share of total spending should be reduced as much as possible. Spending financed by deficits is twice cursed, not just because government spending is wasteful, but because it enables governments to pass on the cost of waste to future generations. Hence Osborne’s pledge to eliminate the Budget deficit entirely. This is tantamount to saying that the government expects to pay out of taxes for all the schools, hospitals, housing and transport systems that it builds. Because all Conservative governments want to reduce taxes as well, this amounts to a vast programme to privatise virtually all public services.

At this point, the ideology destroys sane economics. A sensible view of public spending would distinguish between capital spending and current spending. It would enable one to say that deficits resulting from excessive current spending are bad because they do not generate any revenue and add to the national debt, but deficits that are incurred on capital spending can raise productivity, improving the country’s long-run potential. A sensible Osborne policy would have been to confine cuts to the current account and offset these fully by expanding public investment in green projects, transport infrastructure and social housing, as well as export-oriented small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs). The Business Secretary, Vince Cable, has been arguing this case inside the government; lip-service is paid to the principle, but public investment is still 35 per cent down from the pre-crash levels.

What George Osborne has done is to bring an ideological fervour to a defective theory of macroeconomic policy: the theory that additional government spending can, under no circumstances, move the economy to a better-equilibrium growth path. What may be rational to believe when the economy is fully employed is palpably wrong when resources stand idle.

Moreover, it is not Osborne and his friends and bankers and Top People who suffer. It is the ordinary people of this country, whose lives and prospects are wrecked or diminished. Four years of George Osborne have been four years too many.

Robert Skidelsky is a cross-bench peer and a leading biographer of J M Keynes. His most recent book is “Five Years of Economic Crisis” (Centre for Global Studies, £5)

This article first appeared in the 12 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 4 years of austerity

JOHN DEVOLLE/GETTY IMAGES
Show Hide image

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?

***

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.

***

 

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?

***

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