D. Dowd Muska


Cass’s Guide to Minting Moonbats

April 25, 2013

Cass R. Sunstein, a mild-mannered, chrome-domed Baby Boomer, inspires ire.

Glenn Beck called him “the most dangerous man in America.” Clean Air Watch accused Sunstein of working “for one of the nation’s most influential right-wing corporate anti-regulatory think tanks.” The Center for Consumer Freedom charged that he “supports outlawing sport hunting, giving animals the legal right to file lawsuits, and using government regulations to phase out meat consumption.” According to civil-liberties blogger Glenn Greenwald, he once “co-wrote a truly pernicious paper proposing that the U.S. Government employ teams of covert agents and pseudo-‘independent’ advocates to ‘cognitively infiltrate’ online groups and websites … which advocate views that Sunstein deems ‘false conspiracy theories’ about the Government.”

Left and right despise the legal theorist because he suffers from an ideologically split personality. Sunstein unapologetically backs cost-benefit analysis in regulatory rulemaking, which enrages “progressives,” but advocates “libertarian paternalism,” a concept Grover Norquist’s leave-us-alone coalition finds anathema.

Simpler: The Future of Government (Simon & Schuster; 260 pages; $26) isn’t likely to assuage Sunstein’s haters. The book recounts his three years of hyperactive public-servanting as head of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), an agency housed within the Office of Management and Budget. To Sunstein, being the nation’s “regulatory czar” was a “the honor of a lifetime.” The stock market, consumer finance, health insurance, vaccines, “discrimination,” air quality, vehicle mileage, food safety -- he oversaw the flood of new and expanded regulations that the Obama administration’s first term imposed on nearly every aspect of American life. (In the 44th president’s defense, his predecessor’s record was nearly as bad.)

Inattentive free-marketeers will be shocked by Sunstein’s description of his crusade to demystify, and occasionally excise, Washington’s commandments. “Regulation,” he writes, “is often confusing, inconsistent, redundant, and excessive.” He spearheaded transparency initiatives, and worked for a kinder, gentler federal bureaucracy. To Sunstein, “interactions with government” should be “as simple as interactions with the iPad.” In a move that prompted hysterical screeching on the left, he pioneered “retrospective review,” a processes highlighted in the 2011 State of the Union Address, that generated “580 initiatives, filling more than 800 pages” that “promise billions of dollars of savings and tens of millions of hours of reductions in annual paperwork and reporting requirements.”

If Washington limited its regulations to the protection of health and safety, few would argue with the author’s campaign -- however quixotic -- for “one-click government.” Unfortunately, fedpols and the functionaries they employ suffer from pathological mission creep, and here’s where Sunstein the common-sense reformer gives way to Sunstein the lifestyle cop.

The academic is a fan of “nudges,” tools “that do not force anyone to do anything and that maintain freedom of choice, but … have the potential to make people healthier, wealthier, and happier.” Examples include “graphic warnings on cigarettes packages,” an “effort to redesign school cafeterias so as to promote healthy choices,” and an “initiative by which governments or companies disclose information … to enable people to track their energy usage and health care choices and expenditures, including through new apps.”

Freedom-loving Americans will have no truck with the kind of public-nuisancing that makes Hillary Clinton swoon, but Sunstein, who once lamented that libertarian thinking is “astonishingly widespread in American culture,” doesn’t see a downside to his nannying. After all, by “failing to impose material costs on choices,” he argues, nudges “differ from mandates and bans.”

Sunstein’s weltanschauung is shaped, almost obsessively, by behavioral economics. The field teaches that the average slob doesn’t make good decisions about his welfare. He procrastinates, is prone to decisionmaking by anecdote, and succumbs to peer pressure. That’s why people who’ve earned multiple degrees from the “best” universities, make the annual trek to Davos, been awarded at least one MacArthur “Genius Grant,” and regularly appear on Charlie Rose -- i.e., the kind of luminaries Cass Sunstein works for, collaborates with, and is married to -- must step in.

On their own, nudges are objectionable enough. But the “problems” that Sunstein’s finger-wagging is designed to combat are … problematic. Has it ever occurred to the former OIRA boss that a 40 percent illegitimacy rate is greater crisis than childhood obesity, or that hundreds of trillions of dollars in unfunded federal liabilities should take precedence over the chimera of “climate change”? Even in 2013, one is allowed to disagree with MSNBC’s public-policy priorities.

Sunstein’s comfortable with the Road to Serfdom, provided that Hello Kitty supplies the signage. Forgive some of us for not piling into his Prius to make the trip.

D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.

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