Not Saussure

March 19, 2007

Adam Curtis: The Trap, part 2

Filed under: Politics, UK — notsaussure @ 10:15 pm

The second part of Adam Curtis’ The Trap — available on IndyBay if you missed it, or just click here — I found rather more coherent than the first, though I’m still having trouble pulling together the various strands of economics, psychology and genetics. The material about SSRIs, like Prozac, I thought was particularly contentious; Curtis seemed to be arguing that they’re used to help turn people into ‘simpler’ (the term was several times used), more compliant humans who better fitted the models of game theory, and that this was caused, in no small part, by practitioners using reductive check lists of observable symptoms without making any effort to inquire into why the patient presents the particular symptoms.

I’ve got a bit an interest to declare here, since as far as I’m concerned, SSRIs helped save my sanity after my wife died; indeed they may well have saved my life, because at one point the main thing that kept me from killing myself was that even that seemed too much effort. Morningstar, in his Cynical Chatter From The Underworld, writes about his experience of clinical depression far more courageously and eloquently than could I; it certainly rang very true to my experience, and all I can say is that people who equate clinical depression with feeling ‘depressed’ in the everyday sense of the term really don’t — and they’re very fortunate in this — have much idea of what they’re talking about.

Far from shutting off the normal experience of grief — one of criticisms Curtis made of their use — they enabled me to try to come to terms with it by making it more manageable so I wasn’t so completely overwhelmed that I either shut down completely or self-medicated with vast quantities of Scotch. I’m sure they are over-prescribed, though I have to say that (at least in my case) the initial side-effects, for the first couple of weeks until your system gets used to them, would, I’d have thought, be enough to put people off unless they really were feeling pretty desperate.

‘I know you warned me, but should I be throwing up this much?’
‘Oh, yes; if we told people what to expect, they’d never take them. It’s taken your mind off things a bit, though, hasn’t it?’

God, I hate doctors with a sense of humour at times.

But, more seriously, that’s hardly new. I well recall conversations with medical friends 20 or 30 years ago, well before Prozac became popular, about their misgivings over handing out benzodiazepines to patients. One of my friends in particular was very concerned about the political implications; as he said, his patients had plenty about which to be depressed, like their unemployment and poor housing, and sometimes he felt as if he was helping sedate the workers so Mrs Thatcher could do her worst. But, on the other hand, these were people in real distress, which also affected their families, and his pills could offer some help. And, while he was aware they had their dangers, including addiction, on balance they weren’t as bad as alcohol, and considerably less dangerous than glue-sniffing, which were the local, non-prescription, alternatives.

Turning to the economics and politics of the programme, I find much of what I want to say has already been said by William Boot, of whose Fixed Point I was hitherto unaware, but it’s well worth a read. I particularly liked his point that Curtis’ discussion of the way targets in the public services have been so spectacular a failure in many cases, and of how they’ve led to corruption in private business, suggests, if anything, that people actually do behave as ‘selfish rational maximisers.’ Give people targets to achieve, and make these important enough — people were saying on the programme their annual increment, or even their job from one month to the next, depended on meeting them — and obviously they’ll find creative ways of meeting the targets, even at the expense of what the enterprise is supposed to be about. If your job depends on not having patients waiting on trolleys in hallways, and there’s no obvious way of getting them into beds on wards because you haven’t got enough, then it’s entirely sensible you’ll take the castors off the trolleys, call them beds, declare the corridors are, in fact, wards and thus solve the problem. Similarly, provide directors with sufficient incentives in the form of stock options and obviously at some point the temptation artificially to ramp up the share price will become irresistible.

Mr Boot asks whether he’s the only person watching the programme who interpreted these anecdotes in this way; no, he isn’t — it’s pretty much what I was thinking, along with the reflection that no sane person would think to behave that way under normal circumstances; I mean, if a Chief Constable were to announce that, of his own initiative, he’d come up with a master-plan for reducing crime in the area by reclassifying many crimes as ‘suspicious incidents’ (as did one police force in the programme) we’d think he was joking.

A similar thought crossed my mind during the section about the Yanomamo people of Brazil and Venezuela, whose fights seemed to the anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon exemplify game theory as applied to genetics; the first thing that occurred to me was to wonder what they were all fighting about, and when it transpired that ‘The Axe Fight’, as it was called, was probably a dust-up between two separate tribes (or sub-tribes, or whatever they were) about who should get the trade goods, especially machetes, that the anthropologists were handing out, it all made a lot more sense. (The anthropologist walked off camera when it was put to him that his presence, along with that of a film crew, might have affected the course of events, which seemed a bit over-sensitive of him).

Doubtless the Sunnis and Shias in Iraq are more closely related to each other than are they to the other side, but it’s not particularly helpful to see their conflicts solely, or even mainly, in terms of their genetic relationships, as an attempt by the genes comprising a Sunni to replicate themselves at the expense of other genes that happen to have formed a Shiite Muslim, any more than is the Massacre at Glencoe best seen in such terms.

The programme touched on this way in which contingent circumstances act on the way people behave when, at the start, Curtis explained how Bill Clinton found, just before his inauguration, that many of his plans weren’t affordable and that he had to make a virtue of necessity by giving the solution over to the market. To my mind, ideological justification frequently follows political necessity rather than drives it.

Curtis blames all this marketisation for the way inequality is rising and social mobility is falling, despite all New Labour’s promises to govern for the many and not the few, break down rigid class divisions and old-fashioned prejudices and so forth. In his comment to my piece about the previous programme, The Flying Rodent suggests

I thought he got it spot onIf anyone’s wondering why the government interferes so maniacally in our personal lives (smoking bans, databases etc.), I reckon it’s because they’ve abdicated their role in the economy.

They’ve got bugger all else to do to win over the voters, basically.

If anyone would like to explain their alternative theory for why inequality has rocketed and social mobility has ground to a halt, I’m all ears.

I’m with the Rodent part of the way on this. Yes, I’m sure that, having abandoned hopes of trying to manage the economy to create a different society, they’re trying, instead, to appeal to people’s hopes and aspirations by offering to satisfy them a different way. I’m not completely convinced, though, that government abdicating their role in the economy (or recognising the limits of their role, as I’d see it), has a great deal to do with it.

Wondering about the basis of Curtis’ assertions about declining social mobility, I had a look on Google and I think he has specifically in mind a report from the LSE in 2005. I want to have a better look at the report than I’ve been able to today, but one of the links on the LSE page took me to a very interesting article published at the time by Mike Dixon in The Sunday Times.

Much of the rest of the newspaper coverage, by the way, seemed to suggest falling social mobility since the 1970s had to do with the abolition of grammar schools, which may just be the newspapers’ partisan spin, but, if it is a theme of the report, I can’t see this — or any other — government doing much about it, for fear of the reaction of voters whose children would fail a re-introduced 11 plus. The reaction of Daily Mail readers whose children found themselves at the local Secondary Modern doesn’t bear thinking about (an almost-conclusive argument for reintroducing them forthwith, I admit).

Anyway, Mr Dixon argues persuasively that falling social mobility is, in great part, because of the changing labour market. He writes,

Further research by the LSE has shown that new technology may be, perversely, making it more difficult to move up in the world: the gadgets designed to make our lives more comfortable and fulfilling may also be damaging our careers. It is not just that we find new word processing programs confusing, or are superseded by teenagers who somehow know how to work PowerPoint by instinct alone: Manning argues that computers are fundamentally changing the structure of work in Britain.

He continues,

Over the past couple of decades, this has meant that computers have replaced people in jobs that require precision and routine. Importantly, these jobs were generally skilled and relatively well paid — try assembling car components in a factory or typing a hundred words a minute on an IBM Selectric without making mistakes.These tended to be middle-ranking jobs that people worked their way up to; but technological advance has meant that work like this is increasingly consigned to the economic graveyard. Who needs a pool of typists when a personal assistant with a laptop and a printer can do the same job 10 times faster and at a hundredth of the cost? If a robot can build a car, who needs to pay a highly skilled and unionised factory worker?

Perhaps surprisingly, this has not led to greater unemployment: the economy has kept growing, and this means that we need more people to do the jobs that technology cannot. Crucially, these are at the top and bottom of the labour market — stacking shelves and running companies. Microchips have divided and conquered, taking the middle of the labour market as their plunder.

This certainly seems plausible. I can remember when even a medium-sized business needed a substantial payroll department; I can now think of one hospital, employing over 2,000 people, where the payroll is handled by three people and a copy of Sage. Certainly whole swathes of middle management in high-street banking have gone; they’ve been replace by poorly-paid call centre operators using some very smart software (produced by very highly-paid people) to take most of the lending decisions that the managers used to make.

Now, if that’s happening, there seems little government can hope to do to increase social mobility in general. Education, education, education is (are?) all very well, and will doubtless enable many individuals to achieve their potential. But there’s not a great deal it can do to alter the structure of work, and it looks as if government may find its role limited to attempting to mitigate the practical consequences of those left at the bottom of the market since the middle (which also provides, of course, a route to the top through training and on-the-job experience) is shrinking.

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  1. We have more highly paid jobs than ever before and higher unemployment than ever before.

    Jobs like builders and plumbers are much better paid than a few years ago.

    So i can’t buy your middle-management social mobility death rationale.

    What has happened? I think Curti’s point about money=status is right. With omey you can buy anything, without you are reliant on a failing state.

    Somewhere too the decline of manufacturing fits in as well, with swathes of the North and other cities taking generations to recover, whilst the South East powers on.

    Comment by cityunslicker — March 19, 2007 @ 11:06 pm

  2. Also, creating an asset bubble in house prices has not helped social mobility either and this is direct government policy.

    Comment by cityunslicker — March 19, 2007 @ 11:07 pm

  3. I watched it earlier this evening and I began to think he’d rather lost it, especially – as you point out – his comments about SSRIs (I am a lifelong depressive and the new drugs were an absolute godsend for me). But, leaving that to one side I think he pulled together a reasonable argument in the end. It will be interesting to see how it concludes next week. Whatever else though, I do find it rather compelling TV.

    Comment by republished — March 19, 2007 @ 11:46 pm

  4. CityUnslicker, have a look at the LSE paper to which I linked and see what you make of it; the authors reckon

    This paper argues that skill-biased technical change has some deficiencies as a hypothesis about the impact of technology on the labor market and that a more nuanced view recently proposed by Autor, Levy and Murnane (2003) is a more accurate description. The difference between the two hypotheses is in the prediction about what is happening to employment in low-wage jobs. This paper presents evidence that employment in the UK is polarizing into lovely and lousy jobs and that a plausible explanation for this is the Autor, Levy and Murnane hypothesis.

    They’d agree about there being more highly-paid jobs at the top and about there being high unemployment.    It’s the jobs in the middle they reckon are going because they’re easily done by computers.   Obviously this doesn’t apply to plumbers and electricians, but it applies to an awful lot of other jobs (a lot of lower and middle-managment jobs in retail banking, for example — all you need nowadays to process most straighforward personal loan applications is someone in a call centre who can read the questions from the screen and imput the information the customer provides).

    I don’t quite see what house prices have to do with it very much, I’m afraid.  Or are you saying that people can’t take decent jobs because they can’t afford to move to where such jobs are to be found?

    Comment by notsaussure — March 19, 2007 @ 11:55 pm

  5. I also found this second part much better than the first part. He has something to say, but he seems to have a bee in his bonnet about game theory and economics that really distracts attention from his good points. For example, he talked about Arrow’s Possibility Theorem (making the same mistake as almost everyone else and calling it the Impossibility Theorem). This theorem has extremely wide applicability and does not exactly involve the assumption that people are rational self-interest maximisers. It is in fact a generalisation of an observation made by Condorcet around 1785. If three people (call them 1, 2 and 3) have to decide between three courses of action (A, B and C), there may not be a way to do so. Suppose that person 1 prefers A to B to C, person 2 prefers B to C to A, and person 3 prefers C to A to B. There is no way for them to come to agreement. If they adopted course of action A then person 1 would be happy, but neither B or C would be, etc. Arrow’s theorem just says these Condorcet cyles always happen however many people are involved and however many options there are. There are rationality assumptions, but these are quite minor. For example, he assumes that if someone prefers A to B, and they prefer B to C then they will also prefer A to C. Probably not true in every case, but it hardly conceals any ideological commitment. I wrote quite an easy introduction to this theorem that some might find interesting.

    He seemed to be missing a crucial distinction between good science and bad science. We may not like the concept of the ‘selfish gene’ but if you deny the hypothesis you’re pretty much denying the whole of evolutionary theory (it’s just a refinement of the basic theory) which puts you in the same camp as the creationists. The selfish gene model is a good one for all sorts of reasons which I’m not going to go into here, and is supported by substantial evidence. It’s not perfect – I believe there are further refinements of the model that people are working on at the moment – but it’s a huge leap in our understanding of evolutionary dynamics. Incidentally, I’m not saying that all of evolutionary theory is free of ideology and politics.

    The economic model of people as self-interested maximisers is an attempt at a scientific model. It’s not as good a model as the selfish gene model, but in many ways it is an advance on what came before. The problems come about when people who do not properly understand the nature of scientific models come along and attempt to apply them. The application of scientific models, particularly cutting edge ones, is usually a very delicate procedure, involving considerable expert judgement. (As a fan of Oakeshott you may appreciate this point.)

    I do think he’s right about the problem of technocratic government though. If you measure performance by a single indicator, of course people will try to maximise that indicator. Since our models of social dynamics are not very advanced, and frequently wrong, attempting to do this is going to lead to poor outcomes. It’s likely that complex phenomena cannot be measured by reduction to a single or a small number of numerical indicators. This sort of thing is quite characteristic of bad science. I mean things like IQ and personality tests. This sort of reductionism is bad enough even when it’s done by extremely intelligent people who know what they are doing with statistics (like Galton), but when it’s done by nameless bureaucrats or incompetent politicians how could it possibly work out well?

    Comment by Dan Goodman — March 20, 2007 @ 12:36 am

  6. I don’t quite see what house prices have to do with it very much, I’m afraid. Or are you saying that people can’t take decent jobs because they can’t afford to move to where such jobs are to be found?

    Yes of course that has always been the problemon the Labour supply side and the priblem with benefits as well. The need to acconmodate evryone although many inwork cannot aford to buy a house is bound to cause unfairness. Personally I think it all comes down to housing ….Missed th prog , just popping in to see what went on.

    I see my chum CU is about which is always a good sign . Clever chap

    Comment by newmania — March 20, 2007 @ 1:45 am

  7. Sorry, but I still can’t see what the problems of the housing market have with social mobility, at least in the sense that the study to which the programme was (I think) alluding uses the term. That

    splits each generation’s distribution up into four equal sized quartiles (each containing 25 percent of people) and sees how much movement there is between quartiles across generations. In a fully mobile society a quarter of the children from each income group would then end up in each quarter of the adult earnings distribution, so every cell would contain a .25. In the case of no mobility, all children would be in the same quartile as their parents and the lack of movement between quartiles would be shown by 1’s on the diagonal and 0’s elsewhere.   (p 4)

    In passing, I’m not at all sure what a fully mobile society would be like in practice, and I’m not particularly happy with concentrating on relative incomes; strikes me that a pretty static society with a small difference between the quartiles wouldn’t self-evidently be a less pleasant place than a highly mobile one with huge differences between poor and reasonably well-off.   Unless there actually are lots middle-management jobs (or graduate traineeships) that suitably qualified people from poor backgrounds can’t afford to take because they can’t get help from their parents with the necessary housing costs, I don’t see how the connection works. And, of course,there’s the point that, if employers are happy with the people they recruit from the existing pool, that’s an argument that things are working OK, at least in some respects.

    Seems to me self-evident that the structure of employment, and, in consequence, people’s career patterns have changed greatly over the last 20 or 30 years. It must follow, then, that this has had effects on social mobility. I may well write more on this when I’ve had a chance to digest the article.

    Comment by notsaussure — March 20, 2007 @ 8:55 pm

  8. Hey NS – I posted a long comment to this thread yesterday and it never appeared. Can you check your spam folder? It had a link in it, sometimes messages with links get spammed. If you don’t have it, I guess I just messed up when posting it.

    Comment by Dan Goodman — March 21, 2007 @ 12:53 am

  9. watch the first two episodes at:

    Comment by Winston Smith — March 24, 2007 @ 1:52 am

  10. Looking forward to The Trap

    Trackback by Not Saussure — March 24, 2007 @ 10:20 pm

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