In praise of the cash economy

Young Foundation Fellow Sean Carey argues that some

Mauritius has changed. Long feted by economists and political scientists as an example to other African states with its open economy and multi-party democracy, the palm-fringed Indian Ocean island which lies some 600 miles east of Madagascar, has become a victim of its own success and is now officially classified as a "Middle Income" country.

With GDP per capita expected soon to reach $6000 Mauritius, with its population of 1.2 million, finds that it is no longer eligible for the sort of aid provided to the world’s poorest countries. And with guaranteed prices from sugar exports to the EU also about to end there is an urgent need to raise revenue.

All sorts of new taxes have been introduced and Prime Minister Navin Ramgoolam has brought in personnel from abroad to beef up the tax and customs services.

Amongst other things this has resulted in a clampdown on tax avoidance. Even the street vendors who sell snacks from the roadside, bus stations, busy market areas and beaches are feeling the pinch.

In Mauritius snacks are something of a cultural institution and bought by locals from all the island’s ethnic groups of diverse origins - north and south Indian Hindus, Gujarati Muslims, Chinese, French and ethnically mixed Creoles - and more adventurous tourists.

They include samosas, pakora, and gateaux piment, the small marble-sized balls of crushed dal, spring onions and herbs including a good amount of fresh, green chilli which are deep fried and have a wonderful, crunchy texture.

But no list of snacks would be complete without the inclusion of the dholl puri, an Indian-inspired soft, flat bread made from wheat flour, crushed yellow lentils, oil and water which is then wrapped around a dollop of chutney or vegetable curry. It is a Mauritian favourite, the country’s original fast-food.

The street vendors, mainly older men, hail predominantly from the Indian Hindu and Muslim communities and they are not happy.

According to one local commentator Saoud Baccus writing in L’Express, however, if expatriate personnel increase the amount of tax revenue and decrease the level of corruption in the customs service then this is an unreservedly good thing.

Furthermore, the considerable salaries of these new recruits are small when compared to the financial benefits, revenues and sound practices they deliver. "They are doing a wonderful job for the country ... for which we should be grateful", he writes.

It all sounds very plausible. If officers demand to be paid extra from private individuals or companies for clearing and checking goods, or bending the rules in some way, it is not advantageous to anyone -except, of course, themselves and the immediate beneficiaries of their activities.

We can all agree that customs regulation in particular should be a clean, honest and transparent endeavour.

And it is especially important in controlling the importation of illegal supplies of drugs and alcohol.

Comparative evidence suggests that the low cost and easy availability of such substances - particularly as part of an illegal trade - has a disproportionately negative effect on the behaviour and attitudes of members of the poorest sections in society.

It also has a massively adverse impact on their take up of educational and mainstream employment opportunities. This pattern is as true of paradise island Mauritius, which has a small but significant hard drug and alcohol problem among its urban and rural poor, as any other country with an open economy.

However, the issue of taxation is slightly different. Some Mauritian commentators argue that all responsible citizens should pay their fair share of taxes but I am not so sure.

Or rather I am in the case of billionaires and millionaires who, in any case, tend to employ a small army of very good accountants and lawyers to exploit the many and varied loopholes in the taxation system. So I don't feel too sorry for them - they are undoubtedly fair game and play their own game very well.

But I am concerned when the state wants to extend the reach of the bureaucrats to the people like street vendors and others like vegetable and egg sellers who have small cottage industries which supplement other forms of income and who are not rich by any stretch of imagination.

Put simply, I want to defend the little people who probably haven't had the social and educational advantages of the government functionaries who are busily pursuing them but wouldn’t mind securing the futures of their children or grandchildren.

In fact, I am a great admirer of the cash economy. Indeed, I have conducted research and seen at first hand its positive effect in certain sections of the catering sector in London.

The posh restaurants at the top end of the booming London market aren't really part of the cash (notes and coins) economy at all.

These include the Michelin-starred restaurants run by famous British restaurateurs including Gordon Ramsay, Gary Rhodes and Marco Pierre White as well as British-based ethnic minority ones like Vineet Bhatia, Atul Kochhar and Alan Yau.

Nearly all the transactions in these businesses are done by credit card and other forms of electronic payment. These enterprises undoubtedly pay their taxes and make a significant contribution to the advanced service sector of the UK and, thus, to the general welfare of society.

The phenomenal success of these restaurant groups led by celebrity chefs has even meant the appearance of gastronomic outposts in the last four or five years at some of the top-end hotels catering for the well-heeled tourists who visit Mauritius (and comparable destinations around the world).

A particularly good example is provided by Vineet Bhatia who was head chef at Zaika, the first Indian restaurant to win a Michelin star in London (or anywhere else) in 2001. He now owns his own Michelin-starred establishment, Rasoi Vineet Bhatia, in London's Sloane Square and also set up the highly acclaimed Safran restaurant (now run by fellow Indian chef, Atul Kocchar) at Le Touessrok, one of Mauritius' finest hotels.

However, the story is quite different at the other end of the catering sector in London. For example, it would not be possible to keep open all of the restaurants, cafes and take-aways in the ethnic enclaves of inner London and those that punctuate high street locations elsewhere in the capital if everything that was done was legitimate and above board.

These small catering establishments simply couldn’t continue to attract the hungry hordes of locals and tourists who turn up every day if they weren't involved in some creative fiddling, financial and otherwise.

Apart from anything else, the fixed business costs are often too high. Without cash payments to staff (thus avoiding the constraints imposed by the minimum wage) and tax avoidance, huge numbers of cafes and restaurants in the London area (and across the UK) would be forced out of business. And this would undoubtedly have massive and deleterious effects on members of the diverse local communities in the UK’s capital who often depend on the catering trade for work.

Let me be clear, these people really don’t have a choice of jobs. The vast majority come from poorly educated ethnic minority groups who migrated from rural areas unlike, for example, Vineet Bhatia who hails, as he proudly states on his website, from "an educated, middle-class family in Bombay " (although I bet that none of his sons and daughters will be following him into the kitchen).

Don't get me wrong - I don't think tax avoidance is an ideal situation but I don’t think it’s the end of the world either.

The cash economy often creates the social space and momentum for members of migrant and other disadvantaged groups, particularly the younger members, to achieve a degree of upward social mobility that would otherwise be denied to them.

I have long been aware of an interesting social pattern found among some relatively poor ethnic minority communities involved in the UK catering trade whose members have experienced a high level of social mobility.

Part of the economic surplus, legitimate or otherwise, has traditionally been used to pay for extra educational tuition (secular rather than religious) for the children of the family.

More recently, funds have also gone towards the purchase of technologies like the Internet which bring profound educational benefits to the younger (and sometimes to the older) members of the household.

This pattern of consumption is often absent or radically different in socially and economically comparable white families where a much greater emphasis is placed on the fun and leisure aspects of the technology.

An example of exceptional educational and social progress can be found in a section of the British Chinese community, the poor rice farming families who fled Hong Kong’s rice famine in the 1950s and moved into the catering trade.

The parents may still be running the restaurants and take-aways scattered across Britain but most of their children certainly aren’t. They have done very well at school, gone to university and have taken up senior positions from accountancy to law and medicine and all professions in between.

Something similar is beginning to emerge among some of the children in the British Bangladeshi community whose families come from rural Sylhet in the north-east of the country.

The men of the first generation of migrants - fathers and sons - operate around 85 per cent of Britain’s "Indian" restaurants.

Now after a relatively slow start, their children have overtaken Pakistanis in terms of GCSE results and are narrowing the gap with children of Indian origin, the most successful south Asian group whose older members like their Chinese counterparts, are already well represented in the professions.

So the UK can provide Mauritius with a useful lesson: while some areas of a nation's economy, like customs and excise, need a high degree of regulation, other areas are best left alone or very lightly controlled.

Turning a bureaucratic blind eye to financial irregularities in certain areas of the economy is often the smart thing to do and is certainly preferable to some of the possible alternatives - welfare dependency or livelihoods derived from drug, alcohol and prostitution-related crime.

The evidence suggests that too much of the wrong sort of government interference in the lives of a country's citizens stifles enterprise and may well have serious and unintended consequences not envisaged by those who champion the hard-nosed "audit culture".

Of course, another way of addressing these issues would be to reform the tax system so that, instead of focusing on avoidance, it positively encouraged behaviour that tends to generate educational success.

For example, tax relief on computers and fast Internet connections for poor and low income households with direct links to local educational institutions would boost income declaration and promote learning and social mobility in an increasingly information-based, commercial world.

Fleshing out the precise details of such a scheme is another matter and probably best left to financial and educational experts. But the overall direction could certainly be set by politicians - and that lesson is applicable to both Mauritius and the UK.

Now where can I buy a decent dholl puri?

Dr Sean Carey is a Fellow of the Young Foundation

A version of this article first ran in the Mauritius Times

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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