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Vince Cable: Beneath the halo

Vince Cable is hailed by right and left as a prophet who predicted the crisis. But is he quite the informed economist of repute? And what about his time at Shell?

 

Is there any politician in Britain more popular or acclaimed than the Honourable Vincent Cable, member of parliament for Twickenham, deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, and Lib Dem shadow chancellor? Cable commands swooning adulation from left and right; he has been nicknamed Prophet Elijah for his supposed prescience in financial matters. A Guardian leader hailed him as "one of the classiest politicians . . . with the confidence of an informed economist". A Daily Mail editorial claimed he was the one political figure who, on this economic crisis, "has consistently outshone his opponents on both sides of the House". "How we need him as our prime minister!" exclaimed the paper's Tory-supporting columnist Peter Oborne. Yet what has Saint Vince done to deserve such praise and admiration? Is he really the nation's Cassandra, or have we simply succumbed to the cult of Cable?

That Vince Cable is a nice man is not in question. Nor can one doubt that he was proved right about the need to nationalise Northern Rock. And he has been correct to call for curbs on bank bonuses. But neither of these positions required him to look into a crystal ball, or actually prophesy the fall of Northern Rock in September 2007, or predict the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008.

So where is the evidence of his omniscience? His supporters would point to the now famous intervention in the Commons in November 2003 when he asked the then chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown: "Is not the brutal truth that with investment, exports and manufacturing output stagnating or falling, the growth of the British economy is sustained by consumer spending pinned against record levels of personal debt, which is secured, if at all, against house prices that the Bank of England describes as well above equilibrium level?"

Brown dodged the question and accused Cable of spreading "alarm, without substance, about the state of the British economy".

That exchange is reprinted triumphally in full in The Storm: the World Economic Crisis and What It Means, Cable's bestseller about the financial crisis. In that same book, however, Cable concedes that Britain's "personal debt" did not, in and of itself, cause the crash. "The trigger for the current global financial crisis was the US mortgage market," he writes.

So the issue is, did the Lib Dem deputy leader have the foresight to draw our collective attention to this particular trigger before publishing his book this year? "No, I didn't. That's quite true," he told Dominic Lawson in a Sunday Times interview in March. "One of the problems of being a British MP," he said, "is that you do tend to get rather parochial and I haven't been to the States for years and years, so I wouldn't claim to have any feel for what's been going on there."

This is a rather strange admission, though honest, for a man who claims to have seen the crisis coming. Not quite the informed economist of media legend.

Then there is the matter of City regulation. It was, in the words of the Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, the "zeal for deregulation [that]set Britain up for a fall". Weak regulators allowed reckless bankers to take enormous risks with astounding sums of money. So one might have expected Cable the political prophet to have been arguing consistently for better, firmer and stronger regulation of the City from the outset.

On the contrary, in June 1999, speaking in a Commons debate on the Financial Services and Markets Bill, Cable endorsed "the liberal market"approach to the regulation of financial services. "No one," he said, "is arguing for an increasingly severe, more onerous and dirigiste system of regulation." Any regulation, he said, should be "done on a light-touch basis".

A decade on, once again with the benefit of hindsight, Cable calls for "radical safety measures" to be built in to a new regulatory architecture for the City. But this is too little too late. You cannot advocate light-touch regulation on the floor of the Commons but then, a decade later, pretend you were ahead of the curve in predicting the ensuing financial crash.

In fact, Cable's denunciations of the excesses of the free market ring hollow precisely because he is a robust free marketeer himself. Having defected from Labour to the Social Democrats in 1981, he is not a leftist. Rather, in the words of one backbench Liberal Democrat MP to whom I spoke, he is a "classic economic liberal". Cable was a prominent contributor in 2004 to the Lib Dems' pro-market Orange Book, which advocated introducing a US-style private health insurance scheme to replace the National Health Service. (Who says Daniel Hannan speaks for right-wing Tories only?)

At the time, the Lib Dem peer and former frontbencher Lord Greaves condemned Cable and his fellow contributors to the Orange Book as "pseudo-Blairites with little following in the wider party". Five years on, one Liberal Democrat frontbencher to whom I spoke told me: "People do regard Cable very well in the party, but among a tier of the party, and including among some of his parliamentary colleagues, he has remained less popular."

Why? Because on Cable's watch, the Lib Dems have lurched to the right, dropping their plans for a 50p-in-the-pound tax rate on high earners and committing, at their party conference in 2008, to combined tax and spending cuts - presumably in order to chase Tory votes at the next election and perhaps even prepare the ground for a coalition with the Conservatives in the event of a hung parliament.

In a pamphlet published in 2005, it was Cable, described to me by one of his frontbench colleagues as "clever and ambitious", who first intimated that the Lib Dems might drop their policy of "equidistance" between the two main parties. As he wrote, "If the pendulum swings, it may swing to a combination of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats."

Cable has strengthened his own support at the right end of the political spectrum by writing a regular column for the Mail on Sunday, in which he has railed against a "public-sector fat-cat culture" as well as the "writhing nest of quangos" - both, it is worth noting, Tory talking points. Interestingly, in the particular week in June when he issued his denunciation of public-sector "fat cats", he wrote a cover story for this magazine in which he attacked bankers' pay. Different audience, different message - the classic Liberal Democrat tactic.

Vince Cable was born in York in 1943, the son of a working-class Tory lecturer. He attended Nunthorpe Grammar School, and then read natural sciences and economics at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, completing a PhD in economics at Glasgow University. Before he entered parliament in 1997, Cable spent three decades as an economic adviser to organisations as varied as the Kenyan government, the think tank Chatham House and the World Bank. But perhaps the peak of his pre-political career was a two-year spell as chief economist for the oil giant Shell in the mid-1990s. In a fawning profile, the Guardian's Michael White wrote: "Please note that is not a job major multinational oil companies give to dumbos they want to shift out of accounts: it is proper work."

Proper work it ay be, but was it the kind of work that a self-described liberal and progressive should have been doing? Cable joined Shell in 1990; he was appointed chief economist in 1995, the same year as the writer Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other leaders of the southern Nigerian Ogoni ethnic group were executed by the Sani Abacha military government. This was after a wave of state-sponsored violence in the south. In May, campaigners accused Shell before a court in New York of complicity in the violence in order to protect its oil interests. The following month, in an out-of-court settlement, Shell agreed to pay the victims' families $15.5m, but refused to accept legal responsibility for the nine deaths.

So has Cable ever spoken out against the firm? The journalist Mark Lynas, who interviewed Cable when he worked at Shell, remembers him as being deeply evasive and avoiding all questions about Saro-Wiwa. Lynas is astonished at Cable's transformation into Britain's favourite politician. "I don't know how anyone could have stayed at Shell during that period and slept at night," he told me. "Because of Shell, I've always questioned his judgement on human rights."

I asked Cable's spokeswoman if he would like to comment on Shell's payout to the victims' families. She told me that "he does not feel that he knows enough about the latest developments to be able to comment".

For a politician who has spoken of his desire to reconcile "economic liberalism with wider moral values and social justice", why the silence about his former employer and this shameful episode in its recent history? Campaigners in Britain and in Nigeria are outraged. "For a former high-ranking Shell official to parade himself as a progressive liberal smacks of rank opportunism and cynicism," Sanya Osha, author of a book on Ken Saro-Wiwa and Ogoniland, told me. "One can't take such a volte-face seriously." But perhaps he had no idea of what was going on in Shell's Nigerian operation? Osha disagrees. "I think it is inconceivable that a chief economist at Shell would be unaware of the activities of the [Nigerian] military regime in relation to the plight of the Ogoni people." Ben Amunwa of the Remember Saro-Wiwa project agrees: "I find it hard to believe that senior Shell staff were free of responsibility for what happened in Nigeria."

It is a sign of the easy ride that the national media give Cable that he has avoided any detailed examination of his time at Shell. These days, however, it is a little local difficulty that is in danger of tarnishing his national halo.

In his Twickenham constituency, Cable seems to be displaying the partisan posturing that has made voters so cynical about politicians - and the lack of leadership for which he once condemned Gordon Brown, comparing him to Mr Bean (a gag he borrowed, incidentally, from a Leo McKinstry column in the Express).

Richmond Council is determined to sell a popular riverside site in Twickenham that is home to a children's playground and a David Bellamy Award-winning garden - to property developers. In a local referendum, nine out of ten residents rejected the council's plans. Cable has said that "while I continue to have a high profile at a national level, I shall continue to be active as a local MP". But he has gone out of his way, campaigners say, to avoid commenting on the development and has failed to attend any meetings of Friends of Twickenham Riverside, a community group opposed to the proposed sell-off. A local reporter told me, "It's the biggest thing that's happened in Twickenham, and people feel he has abandoned them. He seems distracted by national, not local, issues."

“I represent Twickenham in parliament, not on the council," Cable has repeatedly told irate constituents - but residents point to several examples of their MP campaigning against the council when it was run by the Tories. Nowadays Richmond is Lib Dem-controlled.“He won't go against his own council," says Scott Naylor from the Friends of Riverside group. "He may have his national halo, but as a result of this, his local halo has fallen off." Julie Hill, owner of the David Bellamy community garden, says: "Vince Cable promised to 'kick up a fuss' over the council's plan . . . but when the time came, this was one media spotlight he didn't want to be in. World economics mean more to him than voters in his own backyard."

With the town's Conservative candidate trying to capitalise on the row, and with a Tory landslide expected next year, it would be a paradox if his local reputation cost this supposed soothsayer of the crash his place on the national stage.

Mehdi Hasan is senior editor (politics) of the NS. Read his blog at www.newstatesman.com/blogs

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Where next?

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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