The quest to keep behavioral economics in policy after Obama’s presidency

David V. Johnson in The New Republic:

6e0ee10846f7abab8acc448ce462dc91735d940eThe first line of Cass Sunstein’s latest book, The Ethics of Influence, announces: “We live in an age of psychology and behavioral economics—the behavioral sciences.” For Sunstein, a Harvard law professor and former Obama administration official, this is as momentous a statement as saying we live in an age of antibiotics, steam engines, or the Internet. But just saying that nudges are here to stay does not make it so. In fact, if their future were not in doubt, why the need for yet another book on the topic—and so soon after his Father’s Day-gift-ready book on Star Wars—arguing that theyshould be here to stay? Like the president he served, Sunstein is now focused on cementing his legacy.

Sunstein’s work on behavioral economics found its ideal patron in President Obama, and not simply because the two men knew each other from their days teaching at the University of Chicago. For a presidency born in economic catastrophe and plagued by an anemic recovery, gross inequality, and a hostile Congress, there was always the question of how to use executive action to salvage something positive in the face of a hopeless political situation. Enter nudges, a means of influencing people’s decisions without the need for coercion or mandates; crucially, a nudge can secure policy success without requiring Congressional approval. This is not exactly what the candidate of hope and change had in mind by “hope and change,” but it would have to do.

In 2015, President Obama issued an executive order committing the U.S. to “using behavioral science insights to better serve the American People”— a directive that Sunstein proudly republishes as Appendix C of his latest book.

More here.

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