Webb essay winner: Goodbye to all that

The workhouse is gone, but child poverty demands attention.

Over one hundred years ago Beatrice Webb headed the group that published the Minority Report. Webb claimed that the purpose of the report was 'to secure a national minimum of civilised life open to all alike, of both sexes and all classes', by which she meant 'sufficient nourishment and training when young, a living wage when able-bodied, treatment when sick, and modest but secure livelihood when disabled or aged' . The report represented one of the first attempts to determine and tackle the root causes of poverty. Unfortunately Webb's innovative claims went widely ignored at the time of their publication. The majority consensus remained that poverty was due to a weakness of individual character. Webb was a strong believer in the claim that poverty is a result of systemic factors. She believed that if the systemic factors were addressed then poverty could be ended. Time has allowed for major reforms and today Webb's ideas raise some important questions about what constitutes poverty and how it can be measured within the UK.

Modern day measures of poverty tend to focus on the number of people who earn below 60% of the median income. Income is important and should be considered when addressing poverty, however the individual causes and components of poverty deserve a greater appreciation. As a starting point it is worth using the most popular living standards index that exists today. The Human Development Index (HDI) is very well-known mainly due to its simplicity. It exemplifies how any good index should be easy to understand if it is going to be practical. The HDI has many qualities which suggest that Webb would have used it as a poverty index. The use of literacy rates and gross enrolment ratios are good indicators of 'training when young'. Life expectancy from birth is an all-encompassing indicator as it says something about whether there is 'sufficient nourishment', 'treatment when sick' and a 'modest ... livelihood' being provided within a society. Additionally the income index within the HDI acts as an indicator for the 'living wage when able bodied'.

However one problem with the HDI is that it does not take into account the inequalities that may exist within a seemingly well-functioning society. This means that the HDI does a bad job of addressing Webb's point of any national minimum being 'open to all alike, of both sexes and all classes'. A promising alternative is a disaggregated index. A widely cited example of a disaggregated index is the Gender-related Development Index (GDI). However Webb described her beliefs about wages with the phrase, 'Equal Pay for work of Equal Value in Quantity and Quality'. She stated that her main concern was for the 'national minimum' to be open to men and women alike, rather than men and women necessarily earning the same . However Webb did recognise that the phrase 'Equal Pay for Equal Work' had been used in her time to unfairly prohibit women.

If Webb were alive today she would more likely have preferred a disaggregated HDI that calculates different indexes for different income groups in society . Income inequality is arguably the bigger factor affecting UK poverty today as a citizen's disposable income is what has a greater effect on their ability to take part in social activities and buy necessities for daily life. The disaggregated HDI for the lowest quintile income group would therefore be a good poverty index keeping Webb's beliefs at heart. This type of HDI would identify whether a 'national minimum of civilised life' is being achieved in the UK.

On the other hand there is the question as to whether the equal weighting given to life expectancy and GDP per capita by the HDI is reflective of Webb's views. As life expectancy is such an all-encompassing factor it is only fair that it has greater weight placed on it. Not only that but GDP per capita is also the indicator that most suffers from using a disaggregated HDI. This is because GDP growth is simply an increase in output by a nation. If a nation increases its output in weaponry then this will do little to help the living standards of the poorest fifth of the UK . More specific to Webb is the fact that GDP per capita doesn't say anything about the income for the unemployed, the sick and the elderly. Therefore a better indicator is required.

The indicator that should replace GDP per capita should be one that is more appropriate to poverty. Considering Webb's initial desire for the more helpless members of society to be given support she would probably feel heartened by the claim that she needn't worry about the livelihood of the aged. Recent data suggests that this claim is accurate, going so far as to say that it is less likely for pensioners to live in low-income households than non-pensioners . This is of course something that should be monitored regularly to ensure its validity, but at the moment a UK poverty index doesn't have to make as many allowances for the income of elderly citizens. This conclusion may actually be considered an example of Webb's triumph in impacting modern policy as her consideration for the elderly helped to signal the foundations of pension schemes today.

The outlook is not as bright for the ill and the unemployed though; the original victims of the workhouse. In fact long-term unemployment and illness go hand in hand in some parts of the UK. Statistics have suggested that approximately three quarters of working age people who have been receiving out-of-work benefits for two years or more are either sick or disabled . One of the problems with long-term unemployment as a result of a sickness or disability is that it may lead to a vicious circle whereby the person is never able to fully recover due to their time spent away from professional or social activity. Unemployment in itself is not totally deplorable though. In fact short-term unemployment may actually be viewed as an opportunity for people to find better jobs for themselves. For people in this position there is a Job Seekers Allowance ensuring them a 'living wage' at all times.

However it is long-term unemployment that can contribute to poverty and lower living standards. To some extent even Webb appreciated the Majority's sentiment towards poverty when she advocated 'detention colonies...for able-bodied people who refused either work or training' . This suggests that Webb's desire was for sickly or disabled citizens to be preparing themselves for after treatment when they would be able to get back into work. The onset of citizens defrauding benefit services in modern times makes this an issue that needs addressing.

Therefore the indicator replacing GDP per capita is the percentage by which long-term benefit recipients' increases or decreases over the period of one year. To create an indicator for long-term benefit recipients there should be maximum values of increase and decrease specified which can be used appropriately to create a new component of the poverty index. Similar to the way one creates an index with GDP per capita data to compile the HDI. The only difference is that an increase in the number of long-term benefits recipients pushes the index down whereas an increase in GDP per capita pushes the HDI up.

Webb's use of the phrase 'living-wage' is also important here and is embedded within the motivation to reduce long term benefits recipients. The minimum wage exists in order to mark a level of subsistence that is sufficient for all citizens. This means that getting people working means getting people earning, at the very least, the 'living-wage'.

On the other hand Webb specified the importance of treatment for those who are sick. The current index appears to have more of a focus on ensuring people are working rather than actually improving in health. Fortunately this issue is implicitly dealt with in two ways. The first way is through the fact that the UK has a universal healthcare system which means that treatment is accessible for all regardless of income. The second is the realisation that the long-term benefits recipients' indicator indirectly takes into account the quality of healthcare provision in the UK. If the healthcare system was to deteriorate and patient waiting lists grew longer, rendering more citizens incapable of working, then this would contribute to an increase in the number of long-term benefits recipients.

The final, and possibly most important, issue that the index should address is 'sufficient nourishment ... when young'. The UK has seen a vast increase in the level of child poverty over the years and it is suggested that almost a third of all children in the UK are living in poverty . This means that the UK has a proportionally greater number of children in poverty than many other developed countries. The issue is serious enough to be given an individual indicator within any UK poverty index.

However there is a difficulty that arises in indexing child poverty. One might choose to use an indicator that focuses on the number of children in child poverty, or alternatively one could use an indicator that measures a major cause of child poverty. The latter type of indicator seems more appropriate when one considers Webb's tactic of approaching poverty by looking at structural causes.

The difficulty then arises in determining what causes are sufficiently worthy of being measured. There are numerous causes of child poverty within the UK. The main causes are often the same as the causes of most types of poverty; low income possibly caused by unemployment, lack of institutional support and social division. However there are also causes that are unique to child poverty such as higher divorce rates and greater numbers of teen pregnancies. The proposed index already considers long term unemployment and education levels within the UK which goes some way in raising public awareness about some of the main causes of child poverty.

However the final indicator will focus on causes specific to child poverty. To identify these causes within the realm of Webb's thinking the key word that needs to be recognised is 'nourishment'. Nourishment can refer to physical or emotional factors and when taken in a modern day context it refers to a good standard of living for the young. The indicator will therefore focus on factors that inhibit nourishment. The first factor to be included in the child poverty indicator is the number of underage pregnancies that result in actual births. It is being used because, naturally, young mothers find it extremely difficult to nourish their children in the same way as an older, more settled woman would.

The second factor used is the concentration of poor children in the UK. It is sometimes the case that poverty breeds more poverty. In an area with highly concentrated child poverty the poor children only see other poor children; effectively depriving them of social nourishment. Currently half of the children in the UK who are eligible for free school meals are concentrated in a fifth of the schools . The proposed way of indexing this is by using a technique very similar to the one used when calculating the Gini coefficient. A line of absolute equality is formed which is based on all schools having an even proportion of children on free school meals and then the actual data is plotted. The ratio of the areas between these lines can then be used to create a concentration coefficient.

The third and final factor is the number of lone parents within the UK. Recent data suggests that 46% of children in lone parent households are living in poverty whereas within two-parent families the figure is 22% . The number of lone parents and the number of underage pregnancies that result in actual births would both be indexed in similar ways. The percentage increase or decrease each year is expressed as a fraction of some maximum; similar to the way in which the long-term benefit recipients' indicator is indexed.

These four components can be used in an effective way to increase awareness of poverty. The first component is education and looks at gross enrolment ratios and literacy rates. The second component is living standards and uses the indicator of life expectancy. The third component is unemployment and is considered by the number of long-term benefits recipients. The fourth component is child poverty and uses the number of underage pregnancies that result in birth, the number of lone parents in the UK and the concentration of poor children. The four components are all weighted equally. The three indicators for child poverty are also weighted equally within their respective component.

Additionally the components of education and living standards are disaggregated and only focus on the poorest fifth of the UK; stemming from Webb's intention for a national minimum. After all if the index suggests that the UK's poorest citizens are living longer and learning more then the level of prosperity for the whole UK is either at the level suggested by the index or, more likely, even higher. The remaining components of the index are not disaggregated as they are not as directly affected by income.

The issue of poverty can be promoted by this index in the same way as the HDI. The minimum value possible is 0 and the maximum is 1. If the number given by the index increases one year then poverty, as defined by the components that make up the index, has decreased. Politicians hoping to increase the index number could only do so by increasing how long we live for, getting people back into work, improving access to education or tackling the causes of child poverty.

To conclude, this poverty index is designed with Beatrice Webb's initial vision. However it also recognises that she worked at a time when poverty in the UK was of an absolute nature. Her insight into the UK system with the Minority Report helped to recognise that the poverty people were experiencing was structural and it was up to the state to change it. She helped create the ideas that were behind the welfare state and the universal healthcare system. In doing this she achieved the structural change she had intended and it is because of her efforts that the index suggested in this essay is so particular to the UK. Not many countries can boast being a welfare state, having universal healthcare and a minimum wage. If Webb were alive today to compile her own poverty index for the UK she would probably smile at how UK citizens can keep out of the workhouse and not worry about the Poor Laws, that is, before turning her attention to the problems of child poverty and social cohesion.

This article first appeared in the 02 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, And you thought 2011 was bad ...

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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