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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?

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