There was plenty of hoopla yesterday as the news media reported the departure of Cass Sunstein from the White House Office of Information an Regulatory Affairs, which is sort of the hall monitor of Capitol Hill.
From the Boston Globe:
WASHINGTON — President Obama’s “regulatory czar,” Cass Sunstein, will return to Harvard Law School after serving three years as head of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, the White House said Friday.
“Cass has shown that it is possible to support economic growth without sacrificing health, safety, and the environment,” Obama said in a statement. “With these reforms and his tenacious promotion of cost-benefit analysis, his efforts will benefit Americans for years to come.”
Sunstein, who met Obama when they both taught at the University of Chicago Law School, also won plaudits from business leaders and Republicans, who credited him with reducing the financial burden of government regulations.
“He was a strong force for creative policy solutions in a political environment that was highly polarized,” John Graham, who ran the office under President George W. Bush, told Businessweek.
According to the Globe report, Sunstein was also a hit with the Washington-based Business Roundtable, although less conservative critics believed “[i]n the final analysis, Sunstein has continued the Bush administration’s tradition of using the office to block needed health and safety protections disliked by big business and political contributors.”
The New York Times report on Sunstein’s exit also included this:
The polymathic Mr. Sunstein has written or co-written dozens of books and articles on subjects ranging from climate change to animal rights and is one of the most frequently cited legal thinkers in America. One of his most influential popular works, written with Richard H. Thaler, the behavioral economist, was “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness.” The book’s thesis is that gentle, low-cost signals — like putting fruit at the beginning rather than the end of a cafeteria line, or making participation in retirement savings plans the default position rather than an option — are more effective than the heavy hand of government regulation.
In returning to Harvard Law School, Mr. Sunstein will direct the new Program on Behavioral Economics and Public Policy.
Not good news on either the governmental or academic front if you believe the always-readable Andrew Ferguson’s piece in the Weekly Standard two years ago.
Just as Obama is a liberal Democrat who, his admirers insist, isn’t really a liberal Democrat, behavioral economics proposes government regulation that, behavioral economists insist, isn’t really regulation. Under the influence of libertarian paternalism, regulators abandon their old roles as mini-commissars and become “choice architects,” arranging the everyday choices that members of the public face in such a way that they’ll naturally do the right thing—eat well, conserve energy, save more, drive safely, floss. In the literature the unavoidable example of this involves cafeteria food. Customers in line are more likely to choose food displayed at eye level; this concept, called “salience,” comes to us from behavioral science lab work. A wised-up cafeteria operator who wants his customers to eat healthier foods—at a high school, for example—will give prominent place to fresh fruits in the dessert line and push the Boston Cream Pie to the back. The kids won’t be forced to choose the fruit; the pie will still be there, if their pudgy little arms can reach it.
Look what happens next. Behavioral economics tells us that fruit consumption will surge, because the choice architect has nudged the customers—not forced them!—into making the healthy choice.
Excellent! And entirely overlooked by the mainstream media.
Call it Behavioral Journalism.