Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Podcast with Cass Sunstein

Should the government "nudge" people towards "better behavior?" Cass Sunstein, law professor at the University of Chicago says "yes" and talks with us about his new book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness. Professor Sunstein talks about libertarian paternalism which attempts to steer people's choices in welfare-promoting directions without eliminating freedom of choice. I don't like the term libertarian paternalism, as it sounds too technocratic. I think that this unfortunate choice of words will drive some people away from reading Sunstein's work. And that would be too bad.

Because the book is actually quite interesting and gives a great deal of background in economics, history and the psychology of human behavior as it relates to decision-making. He discusses how and why people make biased or faulty decisions or no decision at all and what government can do to facilitate people to better health, wealth, and happiness. He talks about nudging in terms of privatization of social security, marriage privatization and saving.

You can listen directly -- no downloads needed -- by going here and clicking on the gray Flash player. You can download the file and listen at your leisure by clicking right here. And you can get a lo-fi version, suitable for dialup, etc., by going here and selecting "lo-fi." You can also get a free subscription via iTunes -- never miss another episode!

Music is "Time's Right" by 46 Long. Show archives are at GlennandHelenShow.com.

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Blogger Larry J said...

Through both laws in general and the tax code specifically, the government has been "nudging" (or worse) people for decades. They've done a lousy job of it. Whenever I hear someone suggesting using the government to encourage "better behavior" (as they define it), I'm reminded of the old song lyrics:

"You can't even run your own life
I'll be damned if you'll run mine."

9:30 AM, April 22, 2008  
Blogger pdwalker said...

Touché Larry J.

9:50 AM, April 22, 2008  
Blogger TMink said...

I think that the government should publish accurate health, economic, and psychological information. The key word is accurate.

A little exercise and sunlight helps depression faster than any medication, having children when you are not married often leads to poverty, people who own guns are happier, that sort of thing.

Ok, I am joking about the latter (even though it is true,) but using the bully pulpit to support healthy and smart living makes sense. As far as mesing with taxes and such, the government sucks at that sort of thing. Let me see them accurately talk about the reasons for poverty, that would be a mine field of special interest and special "victims" organizations to deal with to speak a little truth. If they do that, then we can talk about messing with taxes etc.


10:00 AM, April 22, 2008  
Blogger Cham said...

The US government has been nudging the populace to eat healthier and get some exercise for as long as I have been on this earth. Here is the result.

People don't like to be nudged. People will ignore nudgers and do what is convenient for them. However, if the price of oil and corn go sky high they might learn to walk to the store and buy something that doesn't contain high fructose corn syrup, no nudging or government intervention required.

10:15 AM, April 22, 2008  
Blogger TMink said...

Interesting, I just read an article that noted how the poor and women are showing reductions in lifespan linked to smoking and obesity. The author of the study said that it was because of a failure of the government to provide healthcare for the poor.

Healthcare treats illness, it does not prevent bad choices. Blaming the consequences of bad personal choices on the government is just amazing. Sadly typical, and in a way, enabling. By avoiding the personal responsibility of the people who put their health at risk and blaming the government, folks with this approach further enable irresponsible behavior.


11:52 AM, April 22, 2008  
Blogger Helen said...

Larry J.

I agree with you--government often makes things worse. I did ask Professsor Sunstein about tax nudges, especially in the form of income tax withholding but I believe his answer was somewhere along the lines of "it was more beneficial to withhold than not." That is my problem with the nudge business. It soon becomes a shove, whether it was meant to be or not.

12:36 PM, April 22, 2008  
Blogger Earnest Iconoclast said...

In a perfect world, I'd be happy to have the government provide incentives for healthy/better behavior. In the real world of real people, I don't trust the government to actually know what is better and so I'm convinced that the nudges would end up being essentially random.

And don't forget that bad people will have just as much access to the nudge mechanism and so we'd see nudges to do bad behavior that benefited some interest group with a powerful lobby.

I'd rather see the government at least try to facilitate the spread of good information and leave it at that.

1:08 PM, April 22, 2008  
Blogger BobH said...

Without having read the book or listened to the podcast, I'd like to offer a rhetorical question to all those posters who don't like being "nudged": what is the difference between "nudging" somebody to do something that will improve his/her life and "convincing" that person to so that same thing? Isn't it just that the word "nudged" makes that person seem stupider, less powerful and more subservient than the word "convinced"?

1:23 PM, April 22, 2008  
Blogger Larry J said...

Nudging is just another form of nagging. It assumes that people are too stupid to make their own decisions. It also is based on the assumption that the ones doing the nudging know what is best. Simply put, they don't.

The government started nudging people to quit smoking about 45 years ago. I still see a lot of smokers out there. Government pushes a lot of what turn out to be food fads ("eggs are bad for you", "no they're not", "don't eat this", "yes, you should eat it", "stay out of the sun to avoid skin cancer", "more sunshine helps vitamin D deficiencies", etc.) In short, they don't know what they're talking about most of the time but they're convinced they know what's best for everyone.

IMO, the sole proper function for any tax system is to raise the necessary funding for the legitimate functions of government. "Nudging" behavior through the tax laws is one of the contributing factors to the abomination that our tax code today.

1:33 PM, April 22, 2008  
Blogger SGT Ted said...

Trusting Government to give sound information is a foolish thing to do. Government is ever accruing power to itself to interfere in our lives. Government "nudges" are actually trying to take control of significant aspects of each of our personal lives and are destroying individual liberty for the sake of the Collective "for our own good" or "for the children", when in actuality, they are merely soft fascists who don't trust you to run your own life.

cham did it ever occur to you that high fuel prices and the use of HFCS as opposed to cane sugar is a result of government policies to begin with? Then we are supposed to turn to them for "solutions" which always involve giving them more power and more of our money? Or to pay more for what the market could deliver cheaper if the government hadn't gotten involved with it in the first place?

How about "it's none of the governments goddam business what I eat"? Because, it truly isn't. nad no, just because someone, somewhere else doesn't have health insurance, still doesn't justify the government telling me what I should eat. Especially, if there is no recourse when they are WRONG and their nudges result in harm.

In fact, I am demostrating my anti-control freak nature by driving my big pick-up truck on Earth Day. It is just one more excuse for control freaks to try and restrict liberty in the name of their pet cause without regard for other people.

2:38 PM, April 22, 2008  
Blogger TMink said...

As Sgt. Ted so eloquently points out, there is a huge issue of trust to be addressed before many of us can accept a nudge.


2:47 PM, April 22, 2008  
Blogger Alex said...

Cham has been shown to completely clueless most of the time. I think she's a troll.

5:21 PM, April 22, 2008  
Blogger Joe said...

Once the government gets involved in nudging about anything that thing becomes political. Once something becomes political, the law of unintended consequences comes into play and rarely, if ever, for the good. The number of governmental policies that cause real harm for intangible benefits is nothing short of astonishing. It doesn't help that many of the things most people accept as true have no scientific basis whatsoever (obesity, second hand smoke, car seats for kids older than toddlers, trans fat, corn syrup, anti-oxidants, eating leafy vegetables....)

6:57 PM, April 22, 2008  
Blogger Der Hahn said...

BobH .. 'nudging' is the word favored by Sunstein and Thaler to describe presenting 'choices' that more force people into behaviors favored by government. They claim to that by providing 'opt-out' provisions (the difficulty of opting out isn't well defined) this is some how different than typical goverment mandates. I think they base some of their ideas on the claims that having too many choices causes people to shut down and avoid chosing altogther.

Check out volokh.com. Sunstein was guest blogging their earlier this week and there are a lot of good objections in the comments to this rebranding of the top-down control political economics usually practiced by Democrats as some sort of libertarianism.

7:54 PM, April 22, 2008  
Blogger BobH said...

To der hahn:

So in economist-speak, Sunstein and Thaler are proposing manipulating the incentives to achieve some behavior that the "government" deems "worthwhile". The "opt-out" provisions would just come in the form of making it possible, although probably economically unattractive, to not do what the government wants.

Sorry about wording it this way, but I read economists more than anyone else. Economists (e.g., Marginal Revolution, Cafe Hayek, Becker-Posner, Walter Williams, Thomas Sowell) talk about these sorts of things all the time. The stock phrase is "People respond to Incentives."

I'll have to read Volokh.com.

8:28 PM, April 22, 2008  
Blogger Francis W. Porretto said...

Cass Sunstein, the author of Republic.com? Who opined that the Internet is bad for us because it allows us to choose our own news sources and preferred vendors of opinion? Who wants government to take the reins of news and communication so we'll have a "common consciousness?" No, thanks.

Statists are far too predictable for me to waste my time on one who's already shown his colors.

4:51 AM, April 23, 2008  
Blogger SGT Ted said...

"Libertarian Paternalism" is a self cancelling phrase.

10:45 AM, April 23, 2008  
Blogger lovemelikeareptile said...

Cass Sunnstein--

who has written a book warning America of the Danger of "Radicals in Robes", 2004--
no, not the judicial usurpation of representative democracy by liberals that has been going on since 1939 or thereabouts.
No-- the actual danger is from " Extreme right wing judges"-- both of them ...in City Court... in Nashville...

It tells you much about the jaundiced eyesight of Sunnstein that he looks out on the hegemony of liberal ideology, and worse, in the law-- and sees not the huge jungle of liberalism, but a couple of conservative twigs, and then summons the liberal brethern to stamp out the threat !

He then asked the absurd question " Are Judges Political... ?" in a 2005 tome--
any first year law student knows that judging is almost totally political-- legal reasoning being a laughable fiction. Prof Graglia of U Texas Law has commented that most US Supreme Court decisions cannot be discussed in public without evoking laughter, such is the obvious absurdity of 'legal reasoning", wherein one starts with a ideological result and works backward to develop premises to support it.
Legal reasoning is not reasoning at all.

A solid stereotype--consider any "legal scholar " or " Constitutional law expert" to be a left-wing ideologue, dressing up his politics with inane legal rhetoric-- unless he/she proves otherwise-- by engaging in rational discourse.

And the problem remains the same for the social engineers--

1. What are "appropriate" results ?
What is a "beneficial" outcome?
Thats usually what the debate is about.

2. By what rules do we decide what is "beneficial" ? WHo decides? By what criteria ?

3. By what moral rules are we to be guided ? ( Which of these are "beneficial?.. see infinite regress...)

4. Who gets to compel ( favor ) such results by the force of law ?


are just a few of the problems.

How does Cass decide what are 'favorable" results
and by what right does he commandeer the law to compel such outcomes.

Its all about hubris and power-- Sunnstein types know what the good is and claim the right and the power to enforce it own you.

4:18 PM, April 23, 2008  
Blogger Serket said...

According to Wikipedia: In January 2008, Sunstein began dating the prominent foreign policy specialist Samantha Power whom he met while working on Illinois Democratic senator Barack Obama's presidential campaign.

Cham - I think it is bad for men or women to lose life expectancy, but consider that there are 3,141 counties and since 1961 life expectancy has increased significantly for both men and women. The gap has dropped from 6.6 to 5.5 and I think that is a good thing. I think it would be ideal to be close to 0.

Things I've learned from conservatism disguised as science: smoking, diet drinks and trans fats really aren't that bad for you.

5:09 PM, April 23, 2008  
Blogger Cham said...


Increasing life expectancy might benefit you, it might benefit me, it might benefit a lot of people, but it won't benefit is the government. Remember, we've all been paying in to Social Security and the longer we live the more the government is going to have to extract from that non-existent account. So the government claims that it is nudging everyone along with this health business, but if there was a benefit for the government to increase life expectancy the tax on a Big Mac would be $500.

Here is another article about health, the 184 pound 8 year old.. Our government isn't guilty of nudging any kid toward a healthy lifestyle. Many parents aren't either.

5:49 PM, April 23, 2008  
Blogger Serket said...

LoveMeLikeAReptile - He has publicly supported various of George W. Bush judicial nominees, including Michael W. McConnell and John G. Roberts.

6:03 PM, April 23, 2008  
Blogger Sloan said...

Last night I was trying to think of various brief examples of literary irony. One of the best that I could come up with is the old adage, "I'm from the government and I'm here to help."

Another one (which has nothing to do with the topic, but anyway...) is the scene in "Doctor Strangelove" where General Turgidson and the Soviet ambassador have gotten into a scuffle, and someone says, "Gentlemen, you can't fight in here, this is the War Room!"

12:19 PM, April 24, 2008  
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