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Michelle Obama and Sarah Palin at the Food Court: the Concept of Libertarian Paternalism

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Last Friday, on a Thanksgiving special, Barbara Walters did an hour-long  interview at the White House with President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama to discuss a wide range of issues.

I watched this with some interest – they are the President and First Lady. So knowing what they think on various issues might give some clue what’s coming down the pike in America.

The Art of Listening Deeply

When someone speaks, listen carefully.  There are many levels of listening.   You can listen to what someone says in a very literal way.  You can listen to what people are saying in a political correct way – but smoldering under that politically correct language may be a baser discourse which remains unsaid and would not be acceptable speech in a particular venue.  And, you can listen to the unspoken language of taken-for-granted assumptions that define the fabric or framework of thought. 

This last way of listening is by far the most interesting because it often discloses the very important paradigm by which one conceives the world, the people in it, and a system of values.  Sometimes people who are speaking are not aware of the unstated and unquestioned assumptions and paradigms that color their thought.  If they are aware of them it might not be polite to disclose them in public.  That is, what you really think.  Best to clothe them in politically correct language and surface-speak to avoid any impropriety.

When Barbara Walters asked Michelle Obama the question about childhood obesity I thought this would be a good opportunity to practice listening at these various levels.  Here is how it went down.

The Critical Question


I want to talk to you about one of your own projects, that’s very important to you, and that’s fighting childhood obesity.  What do you hope to accomplish?

Michelle Obama:

Well, our goal is ambitious but simple. I mean, we want to end the epidemic in a generation.  We’re really aiming at children born today, ’cause our goal is that if we begin shaping habits, and shaping the conversation, and providing information to parents and teachers, and engaging all of our leaders in this conversation, that we’ll change the habits of young people today.

Whose business is obesity and food policy?

Walters played a video clip of Sarah Palin giving a speech at the Plumstead Christian School on November 9th. Palin brought cookies to the event to point out that neither the state nor schools should be regulating childrens’ food consumption, but rather that parents should be.


Sarah Palin recently brought cookies to a school in Pennsylvania, to show her disapproval of the state’s proposal to limit sweets in public schools.  Many conservatives ask, well, you know, whose business is it? Is it the government’s business?

Michelle Obama

Well we’ve always said throughout this campaign that this, solving this problem is going to take all of us.  Parents, families, communities have the largest impact on how kids think about anything, particularly what they eat.”

But ultimately it requires all of us and this campaign is about engaging all of us, Republicans and Democrats alike. I mean, the beauty about this issue is that it transcends politics. Because we all care about our kids.


But government has a role in the schools?

Michelle Obama

A government has a role to play in this issue, as does every other sector,  And we reached out and engaged the grocery store manufacturers, and the restaurateurs. We brought in the mayors and governors of states and towns. We’re calling on the faith-based community. There is no constituency that should be excluded from this call to action for our kids.

Cutting to the chase

Lets cut to the chase on this one.  Pay very close attention to the language.  Terms such as ” shaping habits” and “shaping the conversation”.  These are nearly technical terms in the language  of “Libertarian Paternalism”.  So what is Libertarian Paternalism?  You would have to know something about Cass R. Sunstein and what role he plays in the government.

Cass R Sunstein is Administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in the Obama administration.  Cass R Sunstein was a Harvard Law Professor working in the areas of Constitutional and Administrative Law.  If you want to know what he thinks then you’ll need to read his book Nudge.  If you want to understand Michelle’s terms ” shaping habits” and “shaping the conversation”  in their full context you need to connect the dots of various people working in the Administration and the underlying assumptions they make about people, behavior, and decision-making.

The dots belong to a way of thinking about people.  The dots are: “Choice Architects”, “Libertarian Paternalism”, ” shaping habits”,  “shaping the conversation” and the regulatory power of the  White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs .  

Of yes, another dot is in this pantheon of ideas and terms is, “Homer Simpson”. 

Homer Simpson is the bumbling husband of Marge and father of Bart, Lisa and Maggie Simpson…   The comic efficacy of Homer’s personality lies in his frequent bouts of stupidity and laziness, and his explosive anger. He has a low intelligence level and is described by director David Silverman as “creatively brilliant in his stupidity”. Homer also shows immense apathy towards work, is overweight, and “is devoted to his stomach”.  His short attention span is evidenced by his impulsive decisions to engage in various hobbies and enterprises, only to “change … his mind when things go badly”.  Homer often spends his evenings drinking Duff Beer at Moe’s Tavern and, as shown in the episode “Duffless” (season four, 1993), is a borderline alcoholic.  He is very envious of his neighbors, the Flanders family, and is easily enraged by Bart.  Homer will often strangle Bart on impulse in a cartoonish manner.

According to Matt Groening, the rule was that Homer could only strangle Bart impulsively, never with pre-meditation, because doing so “seems sadistic. If we keep it that he’s ruled by his impulses, then he can easily switch impulses… Homer shows no compunction about expressing his rage, and does not attempt to hide his actions from people outside the family. While Homer has repeatedly upset people and caused all sorts of mayhem in Springfield, these events usually result from a lack of foresight or his intense temper, matched with his impulsivity, rather than any malice. Except for expressing annoyance at Ned Flanders, Homer’s destructive actions are usually unintentional.  ( Wikipedia )

Protecting ourselves from the Homer Simpsons among us and in all of us

It’s amazing to me that Homer Simpson plays such a prominent role in a book written by Harvard Law professor and government regulatory czar Sunstein.  There are six references in his book Nudge.  (Emphasis mine)

Reference #1

In contrast, Homer Simpson seems to have forgotten where he put his Reflective System. (In a commentary on gun control, Homer once replied to a gun store clerk who informed him of a mandatory five-day waiting period before buying a weapon, “Five days? But I’m mad now!”) One of our major goals in this book is to see how the world might be made easier, or safer, for the Homers among us (and the Homer lurking somewhere in each of us). If people can rely on their Automatic Systems without getting into terrible trouble, their lives should be easier, better, and longer.

Reference #2

Self-control problems can be illuminated by thinking about an individual as containing two semiautonomous selves, a far-sighted “Planner” and a myopic “Doer.” You can think of the Planner as speaking for your Reflective System, or the Mr. Spock lurking within you, and the Doer as heavily influenced by the Automatic System, or everyone’s Homer Simpson. The Planner is trying to promote your long-term welfare but must cope with the feelings, mischief, and strong will of the Doer, who is exposed to the temptations that come with arousal.

Reference #3

Unfortunately, Doers are often difficult to rein in (think of controlling Homer), and they can foil the best efforts of Planners. Consider the mundane but revealing example of the alarm clock. The optimistic Planner sets the alarm for 6:15 a.m., hoping for a full day of work, but the sleepy Doer turns off the alarm and goes back to sleep until 9:00. This can lead to fierce battles between the Planner and the Doer. Some Planners put the alarm clock on the other side of the room, so the Doer at least has to get up to turn it off, but if the Doer crawls back into bed, all is lost. Fortunately, enterprising firms sometimes offer to help the Planner out.

Reference #4

Priming – Thus far we have been focusing on people’s attention to the thoughts and behavior of other people. Closely related work shows the power of “priming.” Priming refers to the somewhat mysterious workings of the Automatic System of the brain. Research shows that subtle influences can increase the ease with which certain information comes to mind. Imagine playing a word-association game with Homer Simpson and you will get the idea. Sometimes the merest hint of an idea or concept will trigger an association that can stimulate action. These “primes” occur in social situations, and their effects can be surprisingly powerful.

Reference #5

Consider the Simpsons episode in which Homer has a crayon hammered into his nose to lower his IQ. (Don’t ask.) The writers illustrate the lowering of Homer’s IQ by having Homer make ever-stupider statements. The surgeon knows the operation is complete when Homer finally exclaims: “Extended warranty! How can I lose?” (Thanks to Matthew Rabin for this tidbit.)

Reference #6

As we mentioned in Chapter 6, Americans are now borrowing more than they are saving. And it should not be surprising to learn that Human consumers are not any more sophisticated about their borrowing than they are about their investing. Consider Homer Simpson’s experience when leasing a recreational vehicle called a Canyonero.

salesman: Okay, here’s how your lease breaks down. This is your down payment, then here’s your monthly, annnnnnnnnd, there’s your weekly.
homer: And that’s it, right?
salesman: Yup . . . oh, then after your final monthly payment there’s the routine cbp, or Crippling Balloon Payment.
homer: But that’s not for a while, right?
salesman: Right!
homer: Sweet!

Homer’s naïveté is less unusual, and more revealing, than it might seem. Let’s examine three important lending markets—mortgages, student loans, and credit cards…

The Take

While I was watching Michelle Obama responding to the question from Barbara Walters on “Whose business is obesity and food policy” I could not help imagining in my mind Cass R Sunstein showing up in the background frame of the interview holding up a larger-than-life cardboard cutout of  Homer Simpson just as Michelle responded, “’cause our goal is that if we begin shaping habits, and shaping the conversation…   A government has a role to play in this issue, as does every other sector,  And we reached out and engaged the grocery store manufacturers, and the restaurateurs. We brought in the mayors and governors of states and towns. We’re calling on the faith-based community. There is no constituency that should be excluded from this call to action for our kids.”

Why is it necessary to muster the government, grocery store manufacturers, restaurateurs, mayors, governors, the faith-based community, and ” no constituency that should be excluded from this call to action” in this effort?  It almost sounds like a call to muster a battalion of agents to take on an onslaught against the “bad choices” made by individuals and parents in parenting their children. 

Do we need the government and these agents protecting us from the masses of Homer Simpsons that appear all around us in the guise of co-workers, neighbors, friends, family, and the general populace?  Do we need the government to protect us even from ourselves as we look into the mirror and see ourselves but yet the government sees just another Homer Simpson?

Sarah Palin speaks

Sarah Palin has a different idea: That we (as a society) don’t need such government intervention into our lives and we are in a position (and have a right) to make the decisions that we make without interference.

Palin decided to “shake things up,” by bringing cookies to the school when she met with Plumstead students early in the day.

I heard that there’s a debate going on in Pennsylvania over whether public schools were going to ban sweets.  I wanted these kids to bring home the idea to their parents for discussion. Who should be deciding what I eat? Should it be government or should it be parents? It should be the parents.

You can see the difference.  To the current White House administration the mass of people are Homer.  For Palin we can make our own choices.  But, that does not mean we are not all Homers making bad choices in some cases.

An issue of personal freedom vs the good of larger society

It is an issue of personal freedom.  Do we, as individuals, have the freedom to destroy ourselves by making bad choices or do we not have this freedom?  The difference is a difference of scope.  Palin thinks about the individual.  Obama and Sunstein think about society.  By having the individual freedom to destroy ourselves we implicitly have the freedom to destroy others and the society in which we must all co-exist.  Obama and Sunstein want to stop the equivalent of Homer Simpson causing  “mayhem in Springfield” through government regulation under the auspices of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs headed by Sunstein.

It is a choice of the well-being of society over the well-being of individuals.  If individuals make bad choices that could potentially take down part of the economy shouldn’t the government step in and stop them?  If people exercise their freedom in taking out mortgages that have a very high risk of not being able to pay them back then shouldn’t we stop them for their own good and the good of society and the economy?  I think so.  This is the core of this idea of libertarian paternalism which you will find in the book: Nudge.

The bifurcation of Society

You can see how society is bifurcated.  There are those who are Homer Simpson (the general populace) and there are those who must save people from themselves – the elite – the crowd from Harvard, Princeton, and Yale who occupy the White House and are controlling the levers, wheels, and gears of regulation to which we must all comply.  Those in the White House  have taken on the responsibility to… Nudge us into Improving our Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness.

Could Michelle Obama launch into a response to the question posed by Walters using the same pivotal character of Homer Simpson as Cass R. Sunstein uses in his book?  No.  That would not be polite speech.  But, underneath all the polite speech in Walters interview of Michelle and Barack Obama there is likely the same understanding as Cass R. Sunstein of the American people in need of some serious help in personal decision-making.


Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Cass R. Sunstein

More ideas from Cass R. Sunstein – Administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs –

What is a Choice Architect? (from Nudge)

A choice architect has the responsibility for organizing the context in which people make decisions. … many real people turn out to be choice architects, most without realizing it. If you design the ballot voters use to choose candidates, you are a choice architect. If you are a doctor and must describe the alternative treatments available to a patient, you are a choice architect. If you design the form that new employees fill out to enroll in the company health care plan, you are a choice architect. If you are a parent, describing possible educational options to your son or daughter, you are a choice architect. If you are a salesperson, you are a choice architect (but you already knew that).

What is libertarian paternalism? (from Nudge)

We are keenly aware that this term is not one that readers will find immediately endearing. Both words are somewhat off-putting, weighted down by stereotypes from popular culture and politics that make them unappealing to many. Even worse, the concepts seem to be contradictory. Why combine two reviled and contradictory concepts? We argue that if the terms are properly understood, both concepts reflect common sense—and they are far more attractive together than alone. The problem with the terms is that they have been captured by dogmatists.

The libertarian aspect of our strategies lies in the straightforward insistence that, in general, people should be free to do what they like—and to opt out of undesirable arrangements if they want to do so. To borrow a phrase from the late Milton Friedman, libertarian paternalists urge that people should be “free to choose.”  We strive to design policies that maintain or increase freedom of choice.

When we use the term libertarian to modify the word paternalism, we simply mean liberty-preserving. And when we say liberty-preserving, we really mean it. Libertarian paternalists want to make it easy for people to go their own way; they do not want to burden those who want to exercise their freedom.

The paternalistic aspect lies in the claim that it is legitimate for choice architects to try to influence people’s behavior in order to make their lives longer, healthier, and better. In other words, we argue for self-conscious efforts, by institutions in the private sector and also by government, to steer people’s choices in directions that will improve their lives.

In our understanding, a policy is “paternalistic” if it tries to influence choices in a way that will make choosers better off, as judged by themselves.3 Drawing on some well-established findings in social science, we show that in many cases, individuals make pretty bad decisions—decisions they would not have made if they had paid full attention and possessed complete information, unlimited cognitive abilities, and complete self-control. 

One Response

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  1. “Could Michelle Obama launch into a response to the question posed by Walters using the same pivotal character of Homer Simpson as Cass R. Sunstein uses in his book? No”

    Could Sarah Palin write such a detailed analysis, as you have? No. 😉


    December 9, 2010 at 3:52 am

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