Obama Appoints Cass Sunstein, Concern Troll

by: aaronsw

Fri Jan 16, 2009 at 11:53


Remember when President Bush tried to put more arsenic in our drinking water? Lots of people got outraged -- it seemed like a classic example of a deregulator-in-chief helping his corporate friends at our expense. Not Cass Sunstein, a prominent (and nominally-liberal) law professor.

Sunstein, working for and with right-wing deregulatory think tanks, published a piece called "The Arithmetic of Arsenic", arguing that everyone needs to stop being so emotional about these things. We can't decide whether arsenic should be in our water based on fuzzy-wuzzy arguments about not killing people. No, we need to be hard-headed realists and decide exactly how much a human life is worth and whether filtering arsenic is worth the cost. In short, we have to do cost-benefit analysis.

As fellow law prof Tom McGarity pointed out, Sunstein continued to hold this view despite the fact that Sunstein's own research into the subject showed that there was so much uncertainty around the issue that just using different previously-published estimates could result in whatever conclusion you like. And there was no obvious way to decide which estimate to trust.

All of this would be just another story in the annals of out-of-touch intellectuals -- a law professor who gets off on killing people to save money, actual facts be damned -- except for one frightening fact: Barack Obama just put this law professor in charge of cost-benefit analysis for the whole government.

The Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) was set up by Ronald Reagan to allow him veto power over any federal regulation. If the EPA wanted to stop companies from poisoning fish, if the DOJ wanted to stop businesses from discriminating, if OSHA wanted to protect miners' lungs, OIRA could intervene and double-check their cost-benefit analysis. They could rejigger the numbers to make it so that the regulation got killed or if they failed at that they could just demand more and more research from the agency, delaying the regulation it was finally abandoned.

OIRA was one of Reagan's most powerful tools for keeping the Federal Government from doing its job. And now someone who's a strong fan of its mission has been put in charge. It's a scary thought, especially as you're going to get a glass of drinking water.

aaronsw :: Obama Appoints Cass Sunstein, Concern Troll

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Good post - should be frontpaged. (4.00 / 3)
He sounds like a (ahem) royal douchebag, and people should be more aware of the role he's going to have in the administration.

There's nothing inherently wrong with cost-benefit analysis (0.00 / 0)
Obviously, it can be manipulated, but it's not a worthless tool.  For example, removing Saddam Hussein from power and installing a theoretically democratic government in Iraq are positives (leaving aside for the moment the question of just how good the Iraqi government actually is), but not worth the effort according to a cost-benefit analysis.  For me that is a much more compelling and credible argument that something that relies on anecdotal evidence.

Being able to step back from what I call the "Nancy Grace culture of permanent outrage" and actually look at the numbers impartially and unemotionally (that is, scientifically) is a good thing.

Things You Don't Talk About in Polite Company: Religion, Politics, the Occasional Intersection of Both


CB analysis (4.00 / 3)
But what neither Sunstein's example nor your example recognize is the fact that doing a cost-benefit analysis can tend to legitimize the question being asked as a legitimate question altogether.  In Sunstein's case, I think what the poster was getting at is the fact that arsenic in the water is ALWAYS bad, and doing a cost-benefit analysis of what the human cost of different levels of arsenic in the water already implies that SOME arsenic in the water might be ok.  Well, frankly, no, it's not, and the goal should be eliminating it.  Similarly with your question of Saddam Hussein, asking the question of whether or not he should be removed from power already implies that the U.S. can and should use its military power to intervene in countries half way around the world.  The question itself automatically implies an interventionist and (some might say) imperialist view of U.S. foreign policy.

[ Parent ]
I recognize the dangers (4.00 / 1)
But what you describe is what religious conservatives, among other groups, sometimes do.  They draw a line and say that something is always wrong and that you're not allowed to question that judgment.  It could be abortion, but it could also be torture.

We don't live in a perfect world and sometimes we have to accept trade-offs where we have to prioritize fixing problem A or problem B.  If you have a choice between spending X dollars to save Y lives removing arsenic or spending X dollars to save more than Y lives doing something else, should you consider spending money on that other thing first?

I think it's bad to consider everything as a priority, where the winners are the ones who can screech louder and get the most attention for their cause.  I think that there is nothing wrong with putting more information out there.  All data has the danger of being mis-interpreted if taken out of context.

I'm also not 100% anti-intervention, but that's a whole different thread.

Things You Don't Talk About in Polite Company: Religion, Politics, the Occasional Intersection of Both


[ Parent ]
things called morals and ethics... (4.00 / 2)
the problem with your assessment, is that most people - liberal, progressive or conservative - have things called ethics and morals which help them decide right from wrong.  even though their morals might differ, they maintain ethical beliefs.  some people, alternatively, typically those offering cost benefit analyses of arsenic in water or justifying waging 8 year wars to topple dictators who our intelligence shows us pose no actual threat to us, possibly lack such things, and can thus be convinced of or attempt to convince others to follow the whims of power, whichever way it happens to go.

[ Parent ]
"It's the chokepoint of the entire federal regulatory apparatus. " (4.00 / 2)
Ezra Klein on him and that office -- http://www.prospect.org/csnc/b...

... The point of all this is that OIRA is quiet, but important. It's the chokepoint of the entire federal regulatory apparatus. If used wisely, it facilitates the flow, provides welcome analysis and judgment, and aids in implementation. If used as an anti-government weapon, it can do a lot of damage. Sunstein can do real good there. But why would he want it? He's shown a taste for celebrity, and OIRA very much does not provide that.

It's worth remembering that Sunstein has recently achieved great fame for Nudge, a book which basically argues that we need to apply the insights of behavioral economics to the construction of regulation. And Director of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs is the ultimate staging ground for those ideas. Reagan understood that OIRA was the central clearinghouse where you could affect the whole of the regulatory state all at once. He wanted to virtually shut it down. Sunstein wants to "nudge" it. ...



I think Ezra is too optimistic (4.00 / 1)
Nudge may be his latest book, but Sunstein has been quite specific about cost-benefit analysis and has been a supporter of it for many years back. Indeed, he was just appointed the head of the risk analysis center at Harvard.

[ Parent ]
Nudge (4.00 / 4)
Here's a quote from Sunsteins book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness that Matt Stoller extracted in a diary on Open Left:

In many domains, including environmental protection, family law, and school choice, we will be arguing that better government requires less in the way of government coercion and constraint, and more in the way of freedom to choose. If incentives and nudges replace requirements and bans, government will be both smaller and more modest.  So, to be clear, we are not for bigger government, just for better governance.

So somehow environmental protection turns into a matter of choice, and everybody lives happily ever after.

This is the kind of happy-face bullshit policy that Obama loves: No hard choices, no firm principles, no commitment to anything except "good governance."

"Good governance"....

Isn't that sort of like making the trains run on time?

Mussolini may have done many brutal and tyrannical things; he may have destroyed human freedom in Italy; he may have murdered and tortured citizens whose only crime was to oppose Mussolini; but "one had to admit" one thing about the Dictator: he "made the trains run on time."

Who could ask for anything more?

[ Parent ]
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