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Posts Tagged ‘cass sunstein’

Eric Posner’s article on Cass Sunstein is an excellent profile of the man’s views and positions and it also accurately summarises why I am happy about the Sunstein appointment.

Sunstein has strong liberal instincts—his work is animated by his concern for the rights and well-being of poor and vulnerable people and oppressed groups—and he believes that government is there to help. But what makes his work so interesting and influential is that he has a hard-headed appreciation of the problems of government, and has explored, with extraordinary imagination, approaches to regulation that harness the power of government without unduly infringing on people’s freedom or in other ways producing bad outcomes.

The approach that has received the most attention recently is Sunstein’s argument (with Dick Thaler) in support of what they call “libertarian paternalism,” government policies that help prevent errors that people predictably make because of cognitive biases (Sunstein is a prominent critic of the rational actor model used by economists) without interfering with the choices of sophisticated people who know their interests better than the government does. This book is a perfect example of how Sunstein thinks. He shares the liberal-friendly view that people do not always act in their rational self-interest and therefore benefit from government regulation, but he rejects the strongly paternalistic policies that have done more harm than good and are in any event politically unpopular and have led to backlash. His middle way is a sophisticated attempt to support a kind of regulation that might do some good and enjoy political support from both sides of the spectrum, and hence actually have a chance to persist across administrations and vicissitudes in public opinion.

[…]

Sunstein is one of the most talented academics around. With his deep knowledge of government regulation, he would be the perfect head of OIRA. Among the many people I have met in academia and government, he is one of the least ideologically rigid, one of the most open to argument and evidence. His critics should at least admit that he will give a fair hearing to their concerns. He would be an extraordinary asset for the Obama administration.

To read all Sunstein-tagged posts on this blog, click here.

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Cass Sunstein, Harvard law professor and Obama advisor, will head the OIRA.

I have devoted several posts in the past on Sunstein and his brand of behavorial economics. He is the author of the book Nudge and the originator of the misleading term ‘libertarian paternalism’ (which should probably be renamed non-coercive paternalism, soft paternalism or choice-preserving paternalism). Will Wilkinson wrote an excellent (and fairly critical) review of Nudge in Reason magazine; it should be mandatory reading for anyone who wishes to know more about the pros and cons of the idea.

In short, Sunstein is no libertarian. What is important though — as Eugene Volokh puts it — is that he is brilliant, thoughtful, and ideologically probably as good as libertarians can hope for from the Obama administration. He is in my view the best pick Obama has unveiled so far.

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In essence, Obama is declaring simultaneous loyalty to individualism and to collectivism, to independence and to dependence, to free markets and to state control. If you wonder which half of this self-contradictory agenda will win out, Obama doesn’t leave you in suspense. [..] It is the free market that he wants us to regard as discredited.

That is what makes this the most dangerous election in many years. It has been almost half a century since the left’s ideas have had such an intelligent, charismatic, and appealing advocate. He is now preparing to lead the left’s effort to reconstitute itself in the first serious way since the Fall of Communism. He must be defeated. 

Robert Tracinski, objectivist writer and editor of “The Intellectual activist”.

 

 The real problem lies in the assumption, still widespread on both the left and the right, that Obama is a doctrinaire liberal whose positions can be deduced simply by asking what the left thinks. [..]

Of course Obama is a progressive. From health care to assistance for low-income families to education to environmental protection, he emphasizes that Americans have duties to one another, and that government should be taking active steps to provide equal opportunity and to help those who need help. But by nature, Obama is also an independent thinker, and he listens to all sides. One of his most distinctive features is that he is a minimalist, not in the sense that he always favors small steps (he doesn’t), but because he prefers solutions that can be accepted by people with a wide variety of theoretical inclinations.

When he offers visionary approaches, he does so as a visionary minimalist–that is, as someone who attempts to accommodate, rather than to repudiate, the defining beliefs of most Americans. His reluctance to challenge people’s deepest commitments might turn out to be what makes ambitious plans possible–notwithstanding the hopes of the far left and the cartoons of the far right. [..]

By nature, Obama does not follow old-line political orthodoxies. Above all, Obama’s form of pragmatism is heavily empirical; he wants to know what will work.

Cass Sunstein, Professor of Law and occasional advisor to Barack Obama.

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An unusual tactic to stop make men from peeing on the floor:

Authorities at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam have etched the image of a black housefly into each urinal. It seems that men usually do not pay much attention to where they aim, which can create a bit of a mess. But if you give them a target, they can’t help but try to hit it. Similar designs have been implemented in urinals around the world, including mini soccer goals, bulls-eyes, and urine video games (seriously). Do they work? Since the bugs were etched into the airport urinals, spillage has decreased by 80 percent.

This fits into the Sunstein philosophy of nudges and ‘libertarian paternalism’ that I have posted on several times in the past.

Incidentally Sunstein, a law professor is a friend and advisor of Barack Obama. I would love it if Obama — assuming he becomes president — appoints him to the Supreme Court. Sunstein is no libertarian; however his brand of ‘libertarian paternalism’ is definitely better (and more pro-freedom) than that of any of the mainstream leftist candidates the Dems are likely to propose.

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George F. Will believes that Barack Obama is a ‘libertarian paternalist’ at heart.

I had made the same point in this post from a couple of weeks back.

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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let’s talk about the echo chambers that you specialize in. These are the chambers that exist, both small and large, in cyberspace.

CASS SUNSTEIN: Yeah. The internet has many great advantages from the standpoint of democracy, ’cause people can expand their horizons, but one thing that’s happened is that many people use the internet to narrow themselves, so that they end up speaking mostly to people who already agree with them. So one just fact about the operation of the internet is you get these Dean supporters, for example, speaking most of the time to fellow Dean supporters, and the same can happen for Bush supporters who hear only what other Bush supporters say about the Democrats or about France. And the internet really facilitates a situation in which people are in a way living in echo chambers that they themselves have created.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And this phenomenon you’ve applied a new term to called “cyber cascade.” Does that relate to incestuous amplification only it’s on the web?

CASS SUNSTEIN: Yeah. Cyber cascades are specifically a web phenomenon in which one fact or something that’s supposed to be a fact is stated to another person who then tells maybe another dozen people who then tell maybe another 10,000 others, and pretty soon people all over the world are hearing and potentially believing something that just isn’t so.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: At the risk of being obvious, state for the record what you think the long term impact of the proliferation of these echo chambers would be.

CASS SUNSTEIN: The greatest danger of the echo chambers is unjustified extremism. So it’s a well-known fact that if you get a group of people who tend to think something, after they talk to each other, they end up thinking a more extreme version of what they thought before, and the danger of that is you can make a situation where mutual understanding is, is difficult, and people don’t appreciate but instead demonize those who disagree with them. And that’s an ongoing threat to our democracy.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So beware the echo chamber?

CASS SUNSTEIN: Yeah. If it turns out that we’re talking mostly to people we agree with, something’s gone wrong, and there’s a kind of obligation for citizens to leave their echo chambers at least some of the time and seek out dissenting opinions.

Assuming Prof. Sunstein isn’t actually advocating regulation of the internet to discourage these echo chambers, I find a lot to agree with in what he says. It is a human trait to seek out supporting opinions, or only listen to those whose views we already agree with. I myself am guilty of reading mostly blogs that I agree with ideologically. But the internet is a vast, vast place and there is some excellent stuff out there written by people whose philosophy differs substantially from ours. It would be a shame to shut them out completely, don’t you think?

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Another post by Cass Sunstein in the libertarian paternalism series.

Meanwhile, I agree with those who do not like the term ‘libertarian paternalism’. Among the serious alternatives I have encountered so far, I think ‘non-coercive paternalism’ fits best.

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