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When Nudge comes to Push and Shove…

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Cass Sunstein, an academic and Law Professor at Harvard is now the administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.  This is within the Office of Management and Budget.  The stated charter of the OIRA is:

The Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) is located within the Office of Management and Budget and was created by Congress with the enactment of the Paperwork Reduction Act of 1980 (PRA). OIRA carries out several important functions, including reviewing Federal regulations, reducing paperwork burdens, and overseeing policies relating to privacy, information quality, and statistical programs.

If you watched the Barbara Walters Thanksgiving Special interview with Michelle and Barack Obama I am pretty sure that, when Michelle answered the question on who has responsibility for controlling childhood obesity, I could see the influence of Cass Sunstein in the background (read).  Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler have some pretty definite ideas that average people need a little help in making good decisions across many aspects of their life.  If you want to find out how all this works you are going to have to read their book: Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth,and Happiness.

To give you some idea of what these “nudges” are here are 12 nudges that they suggest in the book:

  1. Give More Tomorrow.  Nudge people to increase charitable contributions
  2. The Charity Debit Card and tax deduction.  Issued by a bank, a debit card that would keep track of your charitable contributions and send you an itemized and totaled statement at the end of the year to use for your tax return.
  3. The Automatic Tax Return.  Those who do not itemized deductions and have no income such as tips gets a tax return already filled out.  All the taxpayer would need to do is sign it and send it in.  Or, go to a web site and “sign it” and you are done.
  4.  A way to set goals and aspirations and put up some money.  If you don’t achieve these goals you lose your money and it goes to charity.  If you reach your goals you get your money back.
  5. Quit smoking without a patch.  Another charity give away.  Open up a bank account and deposit the money you would have otherwise spent on smoking.  If you really do stop smoking as determined by a biological test then you get your money back;  if not, your money goes to charity.
  6. Motorcycle Helmets.  In states that do not have helmet laws require a special licenses for those riders who want to ride without a helmet.  They would need to take driving courses and show proof of health insurance.
  7. Gambling self-bans.  For those who can’t control themselves, you put your name on a list that gambling establishments honor and they don’t let you enter and/or don’t pay off on any winnings.
  8. Destiny Health Plan.  A Health plan would offer you “vanity bucks” to work out in health clubs and otherwise be healthy.  Use “vanity bucks’ to buy airline tickets, hotel rooms, magazines, electronics, and other items.
  9. Dollar a Day.  Pay teenage girls not to get pregnant. A City would give a teenage girl a dollar each day that she does not get pregnant.
  10. Filters for air conditioners; the helpful red light.  If you don’t change a filter when its dirty, a red light goes on reminding you to change it.
  11. No-bite nail polish and Disulfram.  Bitter nail polish to stop you from biting your nails and Disulfiram to make alcoholics throw up.
  12. Civility Check for e-mail.  A program that would scan your e-mail to check of its “civil” (polite).  Three levels of increasing warnings – “Warning: this appears to be an uncivil email. Do you really and truly want to send it?”; “Warning: this appears to be an uncivil email.  This will not be sent unless you ask to resend in twenty-four hours.”  And finally… (from Nudge) With the stronger version, you might be able to bypass the delay with some work (by inputting, say, your Social Security number and your grandfather’s birth date, or maybe by solving some irritating math problem!)

When Nudge comes to Push and Shove

Some of these things sound downright silly.  For example, paying teenage girls a dollar a day to NOT get pregnant.  I wonder if this level of simplicity of seemingly benign nudges is just to get his foot in the door for something bigger?  A Harvard law professor who has written extensively for other audiences (see) certainly has more serious nudges in mind other than the ones found in a mass-consumable book like Nudge.

The 12 nudges above, are benign.  What could possibly go wrong?  Especially, when the nudger is no longer just an academic at Harvard but is now a White House regulatory Czar that can make nudges have the backing and the force of law.

From the Economist:

From the point of view of liberty, there is a serious danger of overreach, and therefore grounds for caution. Politicians, after all, are hardly strangers to the art of framing the public’s choices and rigging its decisions for partisan ends. And what is to stop lobbyists, axe-grinders and busybodies of all kinds hijacking the whole effort?

At the other end of nudging girls not to get pregnant by paying them a dollar-a-day are some more serious potential nudges.  For example, a fairness doctrine for the Internet

Sunstein’s argument is highly elitist. To Sunstein, the Internet is apparently guilty of the unspeakable crime of offering citizens and consumers too much of exactly what they want!  But, according to his logic, the masses just don’t know what’s good for them so they must be aggressively encouraged (and potentially forced) to listen to things that others — namely, Sunstein — want them to hear.

As Thomas Krattenmaker and Lucas Powe, authors of Regulating Broadcast Programming, argue: “Sunstein has dressed an older argument in more modern garb, but at bottom it is the persistent belief of some elites that if only they could gain power, they would use it to impose their views of the good on those who are less enlightened.”  It’s what my favorite political scientist Thomas Sowell refers to as “The Vision of the Anointed.”

Sunstein called for popular or partisan websites to be forced to carry links to opposing viewpoints. Think of it as a combination of must carry mandates and the Fairness Doctrine for the Internet. Thus, the National Rifle Association (NRA) would be forced to run links or editorials by anti-gun groups, and abortion rights groups would be forced to contend with links and editorials from pro-life organizations. Apparently in Sunstein’s world, people have many rights, but one of them, it seems, is not the right to be left alone or seek out the opinions one desires.

Some of Sunsteins ideas may be extreme.  Here are some examples:

A legislative effort to regulate broadcasting in the interest of democratic principles should not be seen as an abridgment of the free speech guarantee. –Cass R. Sunstein, Democracy and the Problem of Free Speech, The Free Press, 1995, p. 92

I have argued in favor of a reformulation of First Amendment law. The overriding goal of the reformulation is to reinvigorate processes of democratic deliberation, by ensuring greater attention to public issues and greater diversity of views. The First Amendment should not stand as an obstacle to democratic efforts to accomplish these goals. A New Deal for speech would draw on Justice Brandeis’ insistence on the role of free speech in promoting political deliberation and citizenship. It would reject Justice Holmes’ “marketplace” conception of free speech, a conception that disserves the aspirations of those who wrote America’s founding document. –Cass R. Sunstein, Democracy and the Problem of Free Speech, The Free Press, 1995, p. 119

Consider the “fairness doctrine,” now largely abandoned but once requiring radio and television broadcasters: …[I]n light of astonishing economic and technological changes, we must doubt whether, as interpreted, the constitutional guarantee of free speech is adequately serving democratic goals. It is past time for a large-scale reassessment of the appropriate role of the First Amendment in the democratic process. –Cass R. Sunstein, Democracy and the Problem of Free Speech, The Free Press, 1995, p. xi

A system of limitless individual choices, with respect to communications, is not necessarily in the interest of citizenship and self-government. –Cass Sunstein, arguing for a Fairness Doctrine for the Internet in his book, 2.0 (Princeton University Press, 2007), p.137

[M]any people all over the world have become even more concerned about the risks of a situation in which like-minded people speak or listen mostly to one another…Democracy does best with what James Madison called a ‘yielding and accommodating spirit,’ and that spirit is at risk whenever people sort themselves into enclaves in which their own views and commitments are constantly reaffirmed… [S]uch sorting should not be identified with freedom, and much less with democratic self-government. –Cass Sunstein, arguing for a Fairness Doctrine for the Internet in his book, 2.0 (Princeton University Press, 2007), p. xii

Cass Sunstein, as any good academic would, answers objections to the “slippery slope” of being Nudged:

It is tempting to worry that those who embrace libertarian paternalism are starting down an alarmingly slippery slope. Skeptics might fear that once we accept modest paternalism for savings or cafeteria lines or environmental protection, highly intrusive interventions will surely follow.

We have three responses to this line of attack. The first is that reliance on a slippery-slope argument ducks the question of whether our proposals have merit in and of themselves. If our proposals help people save more, eat better, invest more wisely, and choose better insurance plans and credit cards—in each case only when they want to—isn’t that a good thing?

The second response is that our own libertarian condition, requiring low-cost opt-out rights, reduces the steepness of the ostensibly slippery slope. Our proposals are emphatically designed to retain freedom of choice. In many domains, from education to environmental protection to medical malpractice to marriage, we would create such freedom where it does not now exist. So long as paternalistic interventions can be easily avoided by those who seek to adopt a course of their own, the risks decried by antipaternalists are modest.

The third point is one that we have emphasized throughout: In many cases, some kind of nudge is inevitable, and so it is pointless to ask government simply to stand aside. Choice architects, whether private or public, must do something.

The Take

One of the arguments in Nudge is that society  is filled with Choice Architects – those people who try to nudge us in one way or another.  Some of these nudges may be evil. 

For example, getting people to take mortgages which they can’t pay back just to earn a commission by the mortgage broker.  Folks (“Choice Architects”) that might arrange high school cafeteria food items placing items with the highest profit margin at eye level to increase selection and consumption rather than placing “healthy” food items at this same location that many not yield the highest profit.  Or, giving credit cards to people who clearly can not manage their finances just to earn an extraordinary interest rate on unpaid balances.

With all these choice architects operating in society why shouldn’t the government, through regulation of the OIRA, join the party?   “They” have our best interest in mind, right?  And, there will be no “opt out” clause.  If there is then, opt-out means a monetary penalty, jail, or both.

I came across this picture of Cass Sunstein in his office. 

Apparently, this Choice Architect needs a Nudge to clean up his office. 

How about “a dollar-a-day to keep his office clean” to be paid by unwed teen mothers?


Cass Sunstein and Richard Thalers blog based on the book
Read more in this excellent article:

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