Dante: Gadflies and Hornets Await Sunstein In Afterlife

by: Paul Rosenberg

Sat Jul 26, 2008 at 13:17

On Tuesday, top Obama legal advisor Cass Sunstein appeared on Democracy Now! While it's not yet certain precisely what position he might occupy in an Obama Administration, he did clear up any doubts about his position in the afterlife, as those familiar with Dante's Inferno--Canto III, to be precise-- immediately realized.  That is where Dante encountered "the melancholy souls of those/Who lived without infamy or praise," along with the angels who stood neutral between God and Satan.  These are the moral triangulators between Good and Evil, and as Dante found them, they "Were naked, and were stung exceedingly / By gadflies and by hornets that were there."  

Although they are not even within Hell, proper, Virgil tells Dante:

These have no longer any hope of death;
And this blind life of theirs is so debased,
They envious are of every other fate.

Sunstein is hardly alone, of course.  But, first at Netroots Nation, then in his Democracy Now! debate with Glenn Greenwald, Sunstein has clearly staked out his leadership position in arguing against any sort of moral compass.

In his Democracy Now! appearance, Sunstein revealed three facets of the moral vacuum that lies disturbingly close to the heart of the Obama campaign.  In the segment with Glenn Greenwald, he both defended Obama's FISA betrayal, and attacked the notion of any accountability for Bush Administration lawlessness.  In a short followup segment on his book, Nudge (discussed by Matt in his diary yesterday here), Sunstein argued for an extreme minimalist approach in dealing with catastrophic market failures such as global warming.

What all three facets share in common is the basic acceptance of the rightwing hegemonic order established under Nixon, Reagan, Bush I, Gingrich and Bush II.  Under the rubric of listening to all sides, what is actually happening is that thoroughly discredited rightwing ideas are being accepted as defining the common sense framework inside of which Obama is proposing to make modest gestures in a progressive direction on one or another various issues.  In short, Obama is trying to end the culture wars by surrenduring on the most basic of issues of defining political reality.

Details on each of the three facets on the flip.

Paul Rosenberg :: Dante: Gadflies and Hornets Await Sunstein In Afterlife
Facet I: FISA

The exhange on Democracy Now began with Sunstein promoting the big lie that Bush/Cheney were eager for a law protecting civil liberites and providing strict oversight, which the ACLU vigorously opposed.  Curiously, he did not try to sell Amy a bridge:

AMY GOODMAN: Cass Sunstein, your response to those who talk about--particularly concerned about Barack Obama, for example, shifting on the FISA bill, saying he would filibuster and now actually voting for the bill that granting retroactive immunity to the telecoms. You spoke about this at the Netroots conference this weekend--Netroots Nation.

CASS SUNSTEIN: Yes, I think it's--this is widely misunderstood. What the bill isn't is basically a bill that--whose fundamental purpose is to give immunity. It's a bill that creates a range of new safeguards to protect privacy, to ensure judicial supervision, to give a role for the inspector general. So it actually gives privacy and civil liberties a big boost over the previous arrangement.

It also does contain an immunity provision, which Senator Obama opposed. He voted for the substitute bill that didn't have that. But he thought that this was a compromise which had safeguards for going forward, which made it worth supporting on balance, compared to the alternative, which was the status quo. So there's been no fundamental switch for him. He's basically concerned with protecting privacy. And this is not his favorite bill, but it's a lot better than what the Bush administration had before, which was close to free reign.

So many lies, so little time.  Glenn did his best to keep up with them all:

AMY GOODMAN: Glenn Greenwald, you've written a lot about this, as well.

GLENN GREENWALD: Well, you know, it's one thing to defend Senator Obama and to support his candidacy, as I do. It's another thing to just make factually false claims in order to justify or rationalize anything that he does.

The idea that this wasn't a reversal is just insultingly false. Back in December, Senator Obama was asked, "What is your position on Senator Dodd's pledge to filibuster a bill that contains retroactive immunity?" And at first, Senator Obama issued an equivocal statement, and there were demands that he issue a clearer statement. His campaign spokesman said--and I quote--"Senator Obama will support a filibuster of any bill that contains retroactive immunity"--"any bill that contains retroactive immunity." The bill before the Senate two weeks ago contained retroactive immunity, by everybody's account, and yet not only did Senator Obama not adhere to his pledge to support a filibuster of that bill, he voted for closure on the bill, which is the opposite of a filibuster. It's what enables a vote to occur. And then he voted for the underlying bill itself. So it's a complete betrayal of the very unequivocal commitment that he made not more than six months ago in response to people who wanted to know his position on this issue in order to decide whether or not to vote for him. That's number one.

Number two, the idea that this bill is an improvement on civil liberties is equally insulting in terms of how false it is. This is a bill demanded by George Bush and Dick Cheney and opposed by civil libertarians across the board. ACLU is suing. The EFF is vigorously opposed. Russ Feingold and Chris Dodd, the civil libertarians in the Senate, are vehemently opposed to it; they say it's an evisceration of the Fourth Amendment. The idea that George Bush and Dick Cheney would demand a bill that's an improvement on civil liberties and judicial oversight is just absurd. This bill vests vast new categories of illegal and/or unconstitutional and warrantless surveillance powers in the President to spy on Americans' communications without warrants. If you want to say that that's necessary for the terrorist threat, one should say that. But to say that it's an improvement on civil liberties is just propaganda.

The one thing Glenn didn't do was get into the guts of the argument, which he has blogged about in excruciating detail since the FISA violations first became public early in his blogging career.  When he says, "This bill vests vast new categories of illegal and/or unconstitutional and warrantless surveillance powers in the President to spy on Americans' communications without warrants," those familiar with his blogging know full well just how much detailed argument he has already made to back up that assertion.  But radio debate is not particularly conducive to the level of detail that blogging affords.  That's why the citation of those supporting and opposed is so significant.  To swallow Sunstein's argument, one has to believe not only that Bush was eager for a bill restricting his powers and protecting civil liberties, but that the ACLU, EFF, Russ Feingold and Chris Dodd were bitterly opposed to such a wonderful civil liberties bill.  Like I said, "Where do I sign for the bridge?"

Sunstein's response is to try to paint Greenwald as an over-emotional DFH:

AMY GOODMAN: Cass Sunstein?

CASS SUNSTEIN: Well, I appreciate the passion behind that statement. I don't see it that way. And Morton Halperin, who's been one of the most aggressive advocates of privacy protections in the last decades, is an enthusiastic supporter of this bill on exactly the ground that I gave. My reading of it, just as a legal matter, is that it ensures exclusivity of the FISA procedure, which the Bush administration strongly resisted, it creates supervision both on the part of the inspector general and the legal system, which the Bush administration had said did not exist previously. So the view that this is an improvement over the Bush administration status quo, I believe, is widely accepted by those who have studied the bill with care.

I do appreciate the concern about retroactive immunity. Senator Obama did oppose that, voted for the opposing bill. But I don't share the extreme negativity about this compromise that the speaker endorses.

Let's be clear.  The existing law "ensures exclusivity of the FISA procedure" without weakening it an any way.  So how, exactly does drastically weakening the FISA proceedure, and then reasserting its exclusivity improve the law in any way?  Sunstein claims it improve things, because "the Bush administration strongly resisted, it creates supervision both on the part of the inspector general and the legal system, which the Bush administration had said did not exist previously."  But, clearly, the Bush Administration was just lying. If they really didn't believe that any rules applied, then they wouldn't have even asked Congress in the first place.  And they would have had their asses handed to them in court.

Facet II: Lawlessness

Next, Goodman turned to the issue of holding the Bush Administration accountable for its illeagl actions.  Typically of his utter superficiality, Sunstein even floats the canard that impeachment "would result in the presidency of Vice President Cheney," as if Congress were somehow powerless to impeach both men simultaneously for the same lawless acts they oversaw:

AMY GOODMAN: Glenn Greenwald, let me move on to another issue, and that is the issue of holding Bush administration officials accountable. This is also an issue, Professor Sunstein, that you addressed this weekend in Austin at the Netroots Nation conference. And on Friday, the House Judiciary Chair John Conyers is going to be holding a hearing around the issue of impeachment, with those for and against impeachment speaking through the day. Your assessment of the whole movement and your thoughts on this, Cass Sunstein?

CASS SUNSTEIN: Well, I speak just for myself and not for Senator Obama on this, but my view is that impeachment is a remedy of last resort, that the consequences of an impeachment process, a serious one now, would be to divide the country in a way that is probably not very helpful. It would result in the presidency of Vice President Cheney, which many people enthusiastic about impeachment probably aren't that excited about. I think it has an understandable motivation, but I don't think it's appropriate at this stage to attempt to impeach two presidents consecutively.

In terms of holding Bush administration officials accountable for illegality, any crime has to be taken quite seriously. We want to make sure there's a process for investigating and opening up past wrongdoing in a way that doesn't even have the appearance of partisan retribution. So I'm sure an Obama administration will be very careful both not to turn a blind eye to illegality in the past and to institute a process that has guarantees of independence, so that there isn't a sense of the kind of retribution we've seen at some points in the last decade or two that's not healthy.

AMY GOODMAN: I recently spoke to Democratic Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, who's been a leading congressional voice against the Bush spy program. This is some of what he had to say.

    SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD: The President takes the position that under Article II of the Constitution he can ignore the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. We believe that that's absolutely wrong. I have pointed out that I think it is not only against the law, but I think it's a pretty plain impeachable offense that the President created this program, and yet this immunity provision may have the effect not only of giving immunity to the telephone companies, but it may also allow the administration to block legal accountability for this crime, which I believe it is.

AMY GOODMAN: Cass Sunstein?

CASS SUNSTEIN: Well, there has been a big debate among law professors and within the Supreme Court about the President's adherent [sic] authority to wiretap people. And while I agree with Senator Feingold that the President's position is wrong and the Supreme Court has recently, indirectly at least, given a very strong signal that the Supreme Court itself has rejected the Bush position, the idea that it's an impeachable offense to adopt an incorrect interpretation of the President's power, that, I think, is too far-reaching. There are people in the Clinton administration who share Bush's view with respect to foreign surveillance. There are past attorney generals who suggested that the Bush administration position is right. So, I do think the Bush administration is wrong--let's be very clear on that--but the notion that it's an impeachable offense seems to me to distort the notion of what an impeachable offense is. That's high crimes and misdemeanors. And an incorrect, even a badly incorrect, interpretation of the law is not impeachable.

What Sunstein is doing here is essentially making Bush's argument for him.  Indeed, if the Repuiblicans on the House Judiciary Committee had half a brain, they would have called him as a witness, since he is saying virtually the same thing that their stooges said,  but he doesn't have their same partisan stench.  

Boy, is Greenwald ready for this!

AMY GOODMAN: Glenn Greenwald?

GLENN GREENWALD: You know, I think this mentality that we're hearing is really one of the principal reasons why our government has become so lawless and so distorted over the past thirty years. You know, if you go into any courtroom where there is a criminal on trial for any kind of a crime, they'll have lawyers there who stand up and offer all sorts of legal and factual justifications or defenses for what they did. You know, going back all the way to the pardon of Nixon, you know, you have members of the political elite and law professors standing up and saying, "Oh, there's good faith reasons not to impeach or to criminally prosecute." And then you go to the Iran-Contra scandal, where the members of the Beltway class stood up and said the same things Professor Sunstein is saying: we need to look to the future, it's important that we not criminalize policy debates. You know, you look at Lewis Libby being spared from prison.

And now you have an administration that--we have a law in this country that says it is a felony offense, punishable by up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine, to spy on Americans without the warrants required by law. We have a president who got caught doing that, who admits that he did that. And yet, you have people saying, "Well, there may be legal excuses as to why he did that." Or you have a president who admits ordering, in the White House, planning with his top aides, interrogation policies that the International Red Cross says are categorically torture, which are also felony offenses in the United States. And you have people saying, "Well, we can't criminalize policy disputes."

And what this has really done is it's created a two-tiered system of government, where government leaders know that they are free to break our laws, and they'll have members of the pundit class and the political class and law professors standing up and saying, "Well, these are important intellectual issues that we need to grapple with, and it's really not fair to put them inside of a courtroom or talk about prison." And so, we've incentivized lawlessness in this country. I mean, the laws are clear that it's criminal to do these things. The President has done them, and he--there's no reason to treat him differently than any other citizen who breaks our laws.

Greenwald was not the only one to find fault with Sunstein's argument, however.  That same night, Keith Olbermann had Jonathan Turley on Countdown!

OLBERMANN: The "Boston Globe" reports that Bush is being inundated with requests for pardons, at this point mostly from names running the gamut from John Walker Lindh to disgraced Olympian Marion Jones. But one former Reagan DOJ official is pushing for preemptive action and tells the "New York Times" that would be to prevent long term investigations and protect people who proceed in, quote, good faith. Otherwise, she says, no one will ever take chances. Yes, that's kind of the idea here.

The White House response, "we are going to decline to comment on that question, since it is regarding internal matters." Just as disturbing perhaps, Obama legal adviser Cass Sunstein saying only the most egregious Bush administration crimes should or would be prosecuted. As reported in "The Nation," quote, "prosecuting government officials risks a cycle of criminalizing public service, and Democrats should avoid replicating retributive efforts, like the impeachment of President Clinton, or even the slight appearance of it."

This is, of course, utter nonsense in about ten different ways.  I'll just stick to three: (1) The impeachment of Clinton wasn't a "retributive effort." It was an attempted coup.  Clinton's crime was winning an election--something that movement conservatives could not abide, since hard-core conservatives don't really believe that anyone else but them deserves to hold political power.  Because Clinton was poor white trash, the rest of official Washington agreed, and the hunt was on.  (2) It's not prosecuting lawbreaking officials that "criminalizes" public service.  It's the lawbreaking by public officials that criminalizes public service. (3) Prosecuting public officials who violate the law is not, primarily, retribution.  It is deterrance.  It is also a duty under the Constitution.

Nest, Olbermann brought on Jonathan Turley, law professor and constitutional law expert from George Washington University.

OLBERMANN: Bottom line here, between the Bush pardon possibility and what Cas Sunstein said, did we just see accountability go out the window for good?

TURLEY: Well, that would probably wrap it up. If he pardons people and the Obama administration refuses to prosecute people, that wouldn't leave much else. He could order pizzas late at night to his house or sabotage his MySpace page, but that would be it. The important thing is that there are very few obligations that a president has to do under the constitution, but one of them is not to violate the laws that he is supposed to enforce.

What really concerns me about Cass Sunstein's statement is I don't know what a non-egregious crime by a president or an administration might be. I think all crimes committed by the government, particularly the president, are egregious. But what bothers me most is this is consistent, as you know, with Speaker Pelosi's position that she will not allow an impeachment of the president, no matter how strong the evidence. And it's part of this pattern that there are certain crimes that you simply won't prosecute.

I don't understand why some Democrats can't just simply accept a very straight forward proposition that we'll prosecute any crimes committed by this administration, an Obama administration, a McCain administration, because they're crimes. They're all egregious. And, so Cas Sunstein's statement has led many to lose a great deal of faith about the commitment to the future, because we have had eight years of moral relativism and the avoidance of legal process. And to start a major campaign with the suggestion that we're going to distinguish between egregious and non-egregious crimes promises more of the same.

Boy howdy!  Now there's someone I woulnd't mind having as Attorney General.  What is so hard to grasp about this?  

Quite contrary to Barack Obama's delusional history of the culture wars, Cass Sunstein is the epitome of the Democrat's old politics of the last 30-some years.  At the very beginning of the Iran/Contra investigations, for example, the Democrats announced that "no one is talking about impeachment" for Ronald Reagan.  Knowing that in advance made it much easier for everyone involved to devise strategies for blameshifting and evasion.  It's precisely this sort of refusal to stand up for the rule of law that has served as a primary enabler of Republican lawlessness.  And here we are, having more of the same shoved down our throats in the name of a "new politics"?

OLBERMANN: Let's split this thing back into the two component parts. The John Dean argument against proactive pardoning by Bush was the same one that Richard Nixon used in not pardoning his own people before he resigned. If we do that, we are collectively and individually admitting guilt. Does that no longer count in the Bush thinking about this?

TURLEY: I don't think it does, Keith. I think this would be the ultimate and final show of contempt by this president for the rule of law. If you remember, this was the same group that said we are absolutely certain of the legality of these programs. When they started to lose in court, Congress, including the Democrats, gave them new legislation to stop judicial reviews.

So I don't think there is any question about illegality anymore. I think this president would find it consistent to say, I can tell people to commit crimes and then I can pardon them for it. What is troubling is that there appear to be Democrats on the other side who would welcome that.

Indeed, there are Democrats who would not only welcome such lawlessness, they will attack other Democrats--and call them "far left"--if they do stand up and call for preserving the rule of law.

OLBERMANN: The other component part, why would Obama through his legal adviser punt not just on accountability, but even on the just the threat of accountability through the election?

TURLEY: I think it really does show that the Democrats are trying really hard to assure some voters and certainly a lot of politicians that they're not going to reopen these issues and that the Bush crimes will remain buried for all time. And I do think that all of these people have signed on to such a morally relativistic approach that it would start a new administration on the same level that George Bush left it. That is a very sad thing.

A new administration should commit to at least one thing, and that is to uphold the constitution and the laws, regardless of who may be the violator.

OLBERMANN: Constitutional law professor Jonathan Turley, working on those late-night pizza orders. Thank you, John.

TURLEY: Thanks, Keith.

Turley was really good in this segment, but there is one thing that I think he missed.  It's not just that "Democrats are trying really hard to assure some voters and certainly a lot of politicians that they're not going to reopen these issues."  They are also trying to assure the punditalkcrazy.  And they are trying to avoid the wrath of the organized rightwing noise machine.  In short--"It's the hegemony, stupid!"

This is the real connection between Nixon and Bush.  Nixon was the brains that brought this Kafkaesque world into being.  But he didn't have the institutional structures in place to support his vision.  Thirty years later, those institutional structures dominate our political landscape to such an extent that a progressive presidential messiah only takes a little bit of flack when he mouths their plattitudes.

We are living in Nixonland, make no mistake.  And until we confront and overthrow the Nixonian hegemonic order we are living under, we will not even begin to understand what it means to begin a new progressive era.

Did I just say, "progressive era"?  Let me rephrase.  You see, until we get out from under Richard Nixon, we can't even have an old-fashioned conservative era.

Here's conservative constitutional law expert Bruce Fein, being interviewed by Jane Hampshire.  He calls Sunstein's Nixonian argument, "Nonsense on stilts."  I dunno.  Maybe a jetski....

Jane Hamsher: "Yesterday Cass Sunstein said,... he belives the Bush Administration is just acting under a different interpretation of the law.... and to prosecute them in this fashion would be the criminalization of politics and I wanted to know how you would respond."

Bruce Fein:: ....With regard to that observation, it's nonsense on stilts is basdically what he said. It's like saying saying when President Nixon said, 'when the president does it it's legal,' that, well he just had one view of the Constitution and those who subscribed to what the Consistitioon said had a different view, and you gave equal weight or respect to each side.

Most people, and that was true when I was there at the nixon impeachment and helped push it forward, thought that nixon was deluded into thinking, 'well if the president says its legal to burglarize the office of daniel ellsberg's psychiatrist, well then it's legal.'  

Well how can that be? There's a fourth amendment there.  And we have a Constitution based upon a Declaration of Independence that we all have unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  Now, 'unalienable' means the President can't take them away at his whim.

So cass sunstein, in my judgement, his argument is silly. because it suggests that anybody who can contrive any frivolous conceivable argument under the sun about what the Consituituton means should never be prosecuted criminally."

"These are not even close questions that what has been done is ciminal violation of the law, and, indeed, if it were true that the president believed he had constutiional auithoritey to run roughshod over FISA, why then did he erver come back to Congresss and ask for a statue authorizing what he had been doing in violatiom of the law for over five years?"

So, I just beg to differ very very strongly with Cass Sunstein.  I just think it's a ridiculous arguments and would be the equivalent of authorizing a monarchical presidency."

Having seen some actual Constitutional law thinking directed Sunstein's way, you might actually start to feel sorry for the poor slob.  He's clearly far out of his depth, despite--or perhaps because of--his reputation.  But then he goes out and makes a fool of himself in a field where he doesn't even have a prestigious title to hide behind....

Facet III: The Audacity of Minimalism

As mentioned before, Matt's already done a diary about Sunstein's new book, Nudge.  I'm just going to confine myself to commenting on what Sunstein said in his Democracy Now! interview segment on the book.

AMY GOODMAN: Nudge, lay out the theory.

CASS SUNSTEIN: OK. The basic idea is that the United States has been caught for many years between the people who say, "Markets, markets, markets, markets," and then they add, "Markets, markets, markets," and the people who say, "Mandates and bans. Whenever there is a problem, people are suffering, then we want the government to intervene and impose a requirement." What we think is that often this is a false dichotomy, that the "markets, markets, markets" will lead to undue suffering and deprivation, that the "mandates and bans" often are too rigid, they have unintended bad consequences, they sometimes have some of the defects of socialist solutions to problems.

Okay, stop right there.  "The defects of Socialist solutions to problems"? What in the fucking world is he talking about?  The Bible has mandates and bans.  Agsainst usary, for exmaple.  Is the Bible "socialist" and is the ban on usuary one of its socialist defects?  This is a very pure example of how thoroughly Sunstein has absorbed the Friedmanite's market fundamentalist worldview.  When he says "some of the defects of socialist solutions to problems," I honestly have no idea what he's talking about.  But I'm quite sure that the Friedmanites do.  He is speaking their secret code.  He is not speaking Englisjh.

CASS SUNSTEIN: What we think, with the idea of Nudge, is that ordinary people, meaning all people, sometimes blunder; we sometimes have self-control problems; we sometimes don't have adequate information; we sometimes are too optimistic about our future, both as individuals and as nations, facing, let's say, hurricane or climate change or security threats; and that sometimes the best approach government can take is a nudge, which doesn't require anyone to do anything but can set up a situation or a context in a way that leads people and governments to make better decisions.

An example of a little nudge is that Congress should enact very soon a greenhouse gas inventory, by which American citizens see who are the big contributors to the climate change problem. Amazingly, there isn't a climate--a greenhouse gas inventory. That little nudge, there's every reason to think, would achieve considerable good, because no company likes to see in the newspaper that it's one of the worst contributors to the climate change problem. So information disclosure is a really simple, often costless and sometimes very effective nudge.

So much nonsense, so little time.  Do people sometimes make mistakes?  Boy, howdy!  Do governments exist, in part, to shelter us from the consequences of individual mistakes?  To replace individual vengeance-seeking with the impartial rule of law, for example?  To reward virtuous behavior and discourage destructive behavior via any number of different rewards and punishments, both civil and criminal?  Yes, indeedee!  Governments have been doing that for a looooong long time.

So what, exactly, is the BIG NEW IDEA here?  Let's do less?  Because that damn sure sounds like what Sunstein is saying.

What exactly does he think that greenhouse gas registry would do?  Does he know anything about the history of toxic substance registries, for example?  Has he even seen a single corporate image ad on TV in the last 30 years?  Does he have any idea how many more people such ads reach than boring old numbers in some registry somewhere?  Does he live under a rock?

More importantly, does he have any idea of what sort of magnitude of change is required to avoid the worst case scenario global warming posses for us?  Quite apparently not. The man is a blithering idiot.  Non-blithering idiots should not be allowed near him, because of the bad influence he would have on them.  Furthermore, they should not be nudged away from him.  There should be a mandatory ban keeping him away from them, much like the flawed socialist ban of Typhoid Mary.

AMY GOODMAN: How do your views differ from those of another University of Chicago professor, Milton Friedman?

CASS SUNSTEIN: A lot. Someone whom I knew a bit and admired, Milton Friedman, was one of the "markets, markets, markets--pause--markets, markets, markets" guys. He was a defender of laissez-faire. And I think he's quite right to think that markets are often an engine of economic growth and government interference with markets often makes things worse rather than better, but what he didn't see is that sometimes there's a way of approaching markets through, let's say, a careful design, through an information disclosure strategy or through an educational campaign, so that people know something about the mortgages that they're buying rather than being sweet-talked by someone who gives them just part of a picture. There's a way for government to respect freedom of choice, not to ban, which Friedman hated, while also playing a constructive role in helping people who often find things confusing and complicated and, as a result, blunder.

More blithering idiothood.  Milton Friedman would not have had any problem with a greenhouse gas registry.  In fact, Friedman didn't even have a problem with "mandates and bans" and all their quasi-socialist defects in certain situations.  For example, he was in favor of congestion taxes on automobiles in crowded city centers--a mandate, if not a band, that goes considerably farther than a Sunstein "nudge."

Like I said, blithering idiot.

Another way to put it is, Milton Friedman had a sense that everybody was a little like Mr. Spock of the old Star Trek show--that is, his sense, at least in his policy recommendations, attributed such knowledge and foresight to humanity that they looked like economic man. We think--that is, my co-author Thaler and I--that there's a little Homer Simpson in all of us, that sometimes we have self-control problems, sometimes we're impulsive, and that in these circumstances, both private and public institutions, without coercing, can make our lives a lot better.

Well, it's certainly true that Friedman & Co. subscritbed to an economic model cheerfully free of empirical foundations.  And it's true that behavioral economics points out a good deal that Friedman & Co got wrong as a result.  But it does not follow that (a) everything Friedman got wrong can be reduced to the individualist differences berween Homer and Lisa Simpson (Spock has nothing on Lisa), or (b) that mere "nudges" can suffice to turn Homer into Lisa.  What we have here is simply a story, a narrative that attempts to make sense of the world, but that quickly falls to pieces under even the most cursory scrutiny.

Indeed, what Sunstein's narrative completely obscures from sight are two of the most fundamental economic discoveries of the early 20th Century.  One is by John Maynard Keynes, and it consists of the recognition that there is not one single "market equilibrium" that the "invisible hand" in its unseen infinite wisdom moves us towards.  Keynes realized that there could be a whole series of equilibriums, and that it was quite possible for an economy to get "stuck" at an equilibrium that was far below the optimal level for the economy as a whole.  Getting stuck at a "local equilibrium" that's far from optimal can result, for example, in tens of millions of people out of work for months or even years at a time.  Government action can change the economy as a whole, and move it from one local equilibrium regime to another.  This insight has nothing to do with the micro-behavior of Homer vs. Lisa Simpson.  But it has everything to do with why one should not regard the market as an untouchable holy instrument.

The second fundamental discovery that Sunstein is clueless about is Arthur Cecil Pigou's work on the concept of externalities--that is, positive, and more importantly, negative impacts of economic activity that are not captured in the marketplace.  Pollution is a major example of such externalities, and global warming is a massive example of pollution as a negative externality.  As with Keynsian multiple equilibria, Pigovian externalities have nothing to do with the difference between Homer and Lisa Simpson.  In both cases, Lisa is quite likely to understand what's going on, while Homer does not.  But her understanding alone is far from sufficient to solve the problems involved.  For that, she needs to have an economic policy she can support--one with "mandates and bans" (far more of the former than the latter) and Bible-styled socialist defects (like a minimum wage and banning usary) galore.

Did I mention the fact that Sunstein is a blithering idiot?

What Dante Said

Or, maybe just a moral imbecile:

Dante's Inferno, , Canto III, Longfellow translation:

[Virgil] We to the place have come, where I have told thee
Thou shalt behold the people dolorous
Who have foregone the good of intellect....

This miserable mode
Maintain the melancholy souls of those
Who lived without infamy or praise.

Commingled are they with that caitiff choir
Of Angels, who have not rebellious been,
Nor faithful were to God, but were for self.

The heavens expelled them, not to be less fair;
Nor them the nethermore abyss receives,
For glory none the damned would have from them....

[Dante] Forthwith I comprehended, and was certain,
That this the sect was of the caitiff wretches
Hateful to God and to his enemies.

These miscreants, who never were alive,
Were naked, and were stung exceedingly
By gadflies and by hornets that were there.

Or, as limpidglass wrote yesterday, in a comment to Matt's diary on Sunstein:

To borrow a biblical line: "I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot. Would that thou wert cold or hot. Because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew thee from my mouth!"

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Really nice piece (4.00 / 1)
...as usual. I just want to pick up on one point, on the Pigou stuff. You write:

Pigovian externalities have nothing to do with the difference between Homer and Lisa Simpson.  In both cases, Lisa is quite likely to understand what's going on, while Homer does not.  But her understanding alone is far from sufficient to solve the problems involved.  For that, she needs to have an economic policy she can support--one with "mandates and bans" (far more of the former than the latter) and Bible-styled socialist defects (like a minimum wage and banning usary) galore.

I would stress that "understanding," in a sense, is, if not sufficient, at least a necessary condition for addressing the problems of Pigovian externalities. Specifically, problems like global warming and environmental degradation in general can only be successfully addressed if we adopt a paradigm of sustainability, and that can only happen if we overthrow the perpetual growth paradigm that utterly dominates all discourse about economic matters, not only in this country, but throughout the world. That's a tall order to say the least.

But this sort of paradigm shift is the crucial move. Questions of policy - of what Lisa, a rational decision-maker, might support - are secondary, in a sense. We might be able to make some marginal improvements through policy changes within the current ideological regime, but what we really need is to acknowledge the problem of Pigovian externalities in the first place. While Cass Sunstein may not be aware of or influenced by Pigou, it actually seems to me that stuff like a carbon registry might be rather useful in developing greater awareness of the "non-economic" costs of economic activity. That is: the attitude that consumers/citizens ought to have more information available about the consequences (including the unintended ones) of our decisions is a step towards a more holistic consideration of the costs of various forms of economic activity. Is economic behaviorism enough to move public sentiment all the way to a sustainability paradigm (currently, the most radical of notions)? Obviously not. But it does strike me as a fairly considerable stride in the right direction.

Well, Yes And No... (4.00 / 4)
I don't think we have to stop growing, but perhaps we need an even more radical change in terms of how we conceive of growth.  Things like nano-technology may lead to incredible forms of technological growth in the next few generations far beyond out capacity to imagine.  Business elites will continue to claim credit for this, even though the driving force is clearly technological innovation that comes from nerds being nerds, like they have been since Kepler and Galileo somehow managed to tip the balance in the nerds' favor some 400 years ago.

What's needed is some really visionary social engineering to get the reward systems into a sustainable, humane configuration.  Markets can be a part of that, but only under the broad principle that the market is a good servant, but a terrible master.

Now, it's certainly true that public information ala a carbon registery, is a useful component in negotiating the sort of transition we face.  I never meant to imply otherwise.  Rather, my point was that information alone doesn't really help very much, particularly in the face of well-organized hegemonic actors who can get their counter-messages out much more effectively.  But I'm a huge fan of information sources such as Opensecrets.org, and I would definitely be a fan of GHG registries.  I just don't see these things as solutions in themselves.  They are pieces of a potential solution system, but Sunstein is all about promoting the smallest pieces in order to obscure the larger picture of where the problem lies.

One way to get a handle on the general problem of environmental externalities is the "ecosystem services" approach, which looks at the environment in terms of the services that it provides to human societies.  This is a way of valuing the ecosystem outside of the market system, but in terms that are comparable to it.  (See the "Millenium Ecosystem Assessment", which I wrote about in "Two Long Recessions.)

Finally, I am not at all opposed to behavioral economics.  Matt got it exactly right when he wrote, "Ideas can be used to prop up the corrupt system we have now, or to renew it.  Sustein and Thaler are firmly on the side of propping it up."  What helps move us away from propping up the corrupt status quo is being open to the widest possible array of different narratives, including those that are explicitly counter-narratives, which Keynes and Pigou clearly are.  The idea that any one narrative will provide the answer is as mistaken coming from establishment putzes like Sunstein as it is coming from 9/11 "Truthers" or anyone else.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
one thing that's for sure- (4.00 / 2)
We know that the Republicans won't wait a New York minute to impeach Obama and if they can't get him for lying about a cocksucking intern, they'll get him for some trumped up charge like too much pretentiousness on the job.

All of professor Sunstein's mighty mealy mouthings about the laws the president is entitled to break will get blown away like cotton candy.

And progressives will be standing on the sidelines shaking their heads saying - Sorry Charlie your splendid immoral legal superstructure just ran into the buzzsaw of karma payback.

Here is what I don't get .. (4.00 / 2)
neither Fein .. nor John Dean could be considered DFH's .. yet they are at the forefront for calling for impeachment(or at least a real Congrssional investigation .. not some stupid dog and pony show) .. yet someone like Sunstein(who is supposedly liberal) won't hear any arguments about it .. is Sunstein dumb?  Has he sold is soul to the Washington, D.C. establishment?

I have a question for you.  Why does it seem that a lot of people affiliated with the University of Chicago(especially law and economics anyway) seem to have no moral compass.  Can you tell me that Uncle Milty(and all his flunkies) had a moral compass?  It appears that Sunstein doesn't other.  Besides, Chicago isn't as liberal as some would believe.

Good Questions! (4.00 / 2)
The non-impeachment hearings yesterday featured Bob Barr as well as Bruce Fein (John Dean was supposed to be there, too, but fell victim to the same bug that felled me 2 weeks ago, and still has me off my game).  So the idea that this is some liberal Democratic plot clearly doesn't hold water.  But it is a simple fact that numerically Fein, Dean and Barr are relatively isolated figures, and it's also true that rightwing authoritarians are disproportionately Republican and conservative.  Since the hegemonic narrative never depends on reality, but only on sustainable fictions, this is obviously close enough to do the job.  And Sunstein is a hegemonic guy all the way--a charter member of what Chomsky referred to as "The New Mandarins" way back in the dark ages of the Vietnam War.

This feeds right into your second question, re the U of C.  And, actually, I would have to say that, ironically, Milton Friedman did have a moral compass, even though it was badly skewed, while Sunstein appears to be totally lacking in this department.  This is quite in line with the Tony Blair/New Labour story in Britain, which allowed for a fairly seamless transition from sucking up to Bill Clinton to sucking up to GW Bush.  The driving philosophy is "We'll do a better job of managing Thatcherism/Reaganism than the Tories/Republicans," which is purely a managing philosophy, not a governing, much less a moral philosophy.  

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
The banality of evil appears again. (4.00 / 2)
a managing philosophy, not a governing, much less a moral philosophy.  

One of many money quotes in this article.  I'm reading Sheldon Wolin's "Democracy Incorporated:  Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism".  I haven't and don't want to read "Nudge", but I would venture to say that Wolin is a deep thinker who is working on a theory that is revelatory and new rather than a rehashing of a bunch of marketing ideas as in "Nudge".

Managers have replaced the disinterested statesmen that the Founders had in mind.  Rather than public servants interested in the general welfare of the people; we have loyal managers and PR spinners of the product.  They are chosen not on merit but on loyalty to the corporate culture.  This culture is "refreshed, systematized, and transmitted by professional schools and increasingly by much of higher education;..."

Managed democracy gives us the appearance of free choice, but we are just cogs in a machine.

I would suggest to everyone here to see WALL-E.  We do need a paradigm shift back to small.  In WALL-E the earth is run by one big company "Big 'N Large".  To stop "Big 'N Large" will take more than a Nudge.  It'll take busting the trusts once again.  Small should be the new big.  And "change" aka ceaseless restless expansion should be reined in.

[ Parent ]
Thanks For The Tip (0.00 / 0)
Sheldon Wolin is definitely worth reading, and I'm embarrassed to say that I'd missed this new book.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
The trendiness of reflexive law (4.00 / 4)
Sunstein's "nudge" discourse--at least, what I understand of it from the handful of reviews and posts I've come across on the interwebs--is representative of a legal philosophy that's still very prevalent/trendy in legal academia, namely so-called "reflexive law".

This philosophy sort of coalesced in the early 80's, one could say, with the writings of scholars such as Gunther Teubner. His article "Substantive and Reflexive Elements in Modern Law" exposes the tenets of this legal philosophy. To summarize very roughly, Teubner delineates three types of modern legal rationality: formal, substantive and reflexive. Here he is on the first two:

The classical models of law and the state which we inherited from the nineteenth century stressed what Max Weber called "formal rationality". A formal rational legal system creates and applies a body of universal rules, and formal rational law relies on a body of legal professionals who employ peculiarly legal reasoning to resolve specific conflicts. With the coming of the welfare and regulatory state, greater stress has been placed on substantively rational law, i.e., on law used as an instrument for purposive, goal-oriented intervention. Since substantively rational law is designed to achieve specific goals in concrete situations, it tends to be more general and open-ended, yet at the same time more particularistic, than classical formal law. European scholars have called this trend away from formality the "rematerialization" of the law.

Then, he goes on to carve out the new type of legal rationality which he christens with the word "reflexive". From the abstracts:

Reflexive law is characterized by a new kind of legal self-restraint. Instead of taking over regulatory responsibility for the outcome of social processes, reflexive law restricts itself to the installation, correction, and redefinition of democratic self-regulatory mechanisms.

Here is an example of how he sees some legal trends as imbued with reflexive rationality:

Labor law, in contrast, is, with respect to collective bargaining, characterized to some degree by a more abstract control technique in which we can recognize a "reflexive" potential. The legal regulation of collective bargaining operates principally by shaping the organization of collective bargaining, defining procedural norms, and limiting and expanding the competencies of the collective actors. Law attempts to balance bargaining power, but this only indirectly controls specific results.

The "procedural norms" phrase is key--reflexive law proponents are very big on procedural mechanisms...

Also see this bit on the regulation of private organizations:

"Constitutionalization" of the association might make the "organizational conscience" work if it effectively forces the organization to "internalize" outside conflicts in its own decision structure. In this context, the traditional meaning of the "democratization of social institutions" is transformed. The main goal is neither power-equalization nor an increase of individual participation in the emphatic sense of "participatory democracy". Rather, it is the design of organizational structures which makes the institutions-corporations, semi-public associations, mass media, educational institutions-sensitive to the outside effects of their attempts to maximize internal rationality. Its main function is to substitute for outside interventionist control an effective internal control structure.

I won't go in depth into my own thoughts on reflexive law and Teubner's ideas as that would be a complex undertaking beyond the scope of a mere comment. Suffice it to say that I think "reflexivists" see the world as shaped by modern capitalism through extremely rosy-tinted glasses. The reflexivist argument often seems not to take into account the profound antagonisms that exist between, on one hand, the hoped-for "self-regulation" that is supposed to (almost magically) emerge from the installation of procedure-oriented institutional structures and decision processes and, on the other hand, the fact that corporations do not exist to serve the public interest but rather very select private interests...

An Excellent Comment (4.00 / 1)
And although you didn't address it directly, I think it illuminates quite well how it is that Sunstein appropriates behavioral economics for such a decidedly narrow and conservative purpose.

To my mind, there is nothing inherently wrong with the reflexive approach as a supplementary method.  Where it goes terribly wrong is in simply presuming that it's good enough, and that whatever it can't do shouldn't or needn't be done.  Again, the parallels to Sunstein's failings in Nudge are quite apparent.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
Too Shrill for even you, Paul (4.00 / 1)
The substance of this post is completely overshadowed by the shrillness of your argument.  Ad hominem attacks are not productive--they are counter-productive.

I've had Cass Sunstein as a professor.  He's a brilliant man, and incredibly knowledgeable about that which he writes.  In fact, he's almost ALWAYS reading...constantly. Anyway, dismissing him as a "blithering idiot" and "moral imbecile" just makes you look small and detracts from the valid points you've raised.

A bit disappointed, considering your entries are the primary reason I come to this site.  I expect these sorts of puerile rantings from Matt and Chris, but your posts are usually free of them.

idiot or tool? (4.00 / 5)
Within the ruling hegemonic system, bullshit like Sunstein's is rewarded. Whether you label him an idiot or a whore is beside the point. He is full of shit. That is Paul's point.

I personally don't mind the shrillness at all.


[ Parent ]
This Isn't An Ad Hominem Attack (4.00 / 3)
An ad hominem attack is an argument that attacks the person making an argument, in place of attacking the argument itself.  Here, I attack Sunstein because of the arguments he makes, and I either offer my own counter-arguments or quote and link to the arguments of others.

I used to think that Sunstein was simply a harmlessly over-rated second-rate mind.  I now see him as someone who is genuinely dangerous to the moral health of our republic.  Given that that's how I honestly see him, how should I respond to him?

I notice that you didn't bother to try to refute anything specific that I said.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
Eh, read (0.00 / 0)
I notice that you didn't bother to try to refute anything specific that I said.

does not jive with

He's a brilliant man, and incredibly knowledgeable about that which he writes.  In fact, he's almost ALWAYS reading...constantly. Anyway, dismissing him as a "blithering idiot" and "moral imbecile" just makes you look small and detracts from the valid points you've raised.

He specifically quoted you twice and gave a good reason to believe you were incorrect.  He then went on to explain how this hurt your argument rather than reinforced it.

And he is correct.

Yes, he didn't counter any of the argument that you actually cared about, but that is the point.  But putting up factually incorrect information and personal attacks you weaken the real point you are trying to make.

In fact, you often weaken your own arguments this way and it is often pointed out.  Even if you can't stop yourself, you should realize these are valid criticisms.

[ Parent ]
Not Exactly... (4.00 / 1)
That doesn't directly respond to anything I wrote.

For all I know, he loves dogs and is kind to his neighbors as well.  But it doesn't refute anything I said.

If America were more or less in good shape, then someone like Sunstein would not deserve the sort of criticism that I directed at him.  But America is not in good shape, we are in a state of moral peril, and may well take down the rest of the existing industrial order with us over the course of the next two generations.  So, frankly, I just can't give a shit if I use some rude language about one of the rising courtier class.

I'm not calling for beheading anyone, you know.  I'm just disputing their pretensions.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
Hurting your own argument (0.00 / 0)
So, frankly, I just can't give a shit if I use some rude language about one of the rising courtier class.

This isn't the point at all.  The point is you are weakening your own argument by doing this.

You wrote an excellent post, here, that made many great, well-supported points.  And you weakened the post by adding in additional attacks.

Now perhaps I'm just wrong and the only people you care about influencing are those that get caught up in this kind of rhetoric.  But I would hope you would want a wider audience than this.

Imagine someone pointed Obama himself to this post.  The way you wrote it he would dismiss it out of hand, but a few simple changes and it might actually get the point across.

[ Parent ]
Well, Then (0.00 / 0)
one might deduce that I wasn't writing this for Obama, no?

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
Your choice (0.00 / 0)
There are both good reasons to "preach to the choir" and to educate larger audiences.  Even preaching to the choir can involve a great deal of education and new information such as what you provide.

It is just that most of what you write deserves a larger audience than you limit yourself to and you do yourself a injustice by choosing this path.  But obviously, this is only an opinion, but it is one I apparently share with others.  It seems even on this site you push away some who might otherwise be more open two your analysis.

Your choice, of course.

[ Parent ]
You Know, You're Right, Mark (4.00 / 3)
If only Lenny Bruce had washed his mouth out with soap once a day, I'm sure he really could have amounted to something.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
Paul I agree with everything wrote (0.00 / 0)


Why aren't you writing this for Obama because,  believe it or not, esp coming from me, I think you should.  And so while I agree even with your more calumnious observations, I think Mark Matson may be right.

You may be wriitng this for others...to create an atmosphere  in which there is enough public pressure from the left to do what...deny Sunstein a Supreme Court appointment, keep him from influence in the coming Obama administration?  Those all seem worthwhile aims...

But Barack Obama has no need at the moment, and may never need,  the approval of the left blogsphere, he will not ever be swayed by us or what we think.  I did say that long ago...He can afford to disdain us...because his audience also our audience,  and most of them like and trust him more than they trust us.

So I think you have to go after his intellect...because his temperment is like Sunstein's and even Bill Clinton's...they want(ed) to find a middle way and the larger issue got put on the back burner for so long that have vaporized.....You are so on point here...

I just don't see these things as solutions in themselves.  They are pieces of a potential solution system, but Sunstein is all about promoting the smallest pieces in order to obscure the larger picture of where the problem lies.


a managing philosophy, not a governing, much less a moral philosophy.

He has to be persuaded that these ideas, these small measures are insufficient to the enormous task at hand. He has the intellect to understand that.  I think that is the only way to approach him..So I may actually agree with Mark...attacking someone's idea by calling him a blithering idiot, esp. someone he is probably personally fond of...is not a way to reach him.

Now I know that may not have been your aim, but I just don't think we have any other power over him...not until and unless he screws up big time...enough to have really bad poll numbers and then the influence is more likely from the MSM than us.

"Incrementalism isn't a different path to the same place, it could be a different path to a different place"

[ Parent ]
I Don't Think There's An Answer There (4.00 / 2)
Put simply, I don't think that Obama's intellect can be appealed to.  I think that he's fundamentally a shallow, closed-minded pol much in the mold of other Chicagoans such as Rahm Emmanuel and Mayor Dailey.  He has considerable flair that both of them are lacking, but having witnessed JFK as an impressionable, if also sometimes cussed tween, I think I recognize his sort very well, and I simply think that the target you imagine does not exist, any more than it existed in the person of JFK.

Now, this is not to say that I think the sort of thing I wrote here is the only way I should express myself.  In fact, I do think that there is a self-conceived "reasonable middle" to be talked to that is actually a good deal more intellectually open than Obama himself is, and I'm struggling right now to come up with a coherent narrative for addressing them in book form.

Who knows, such a book might even end up finding its way into Obama's hands. But if it did, it would only impact him because of its impact on others. I simply don't see him as the sort of person who is influenced by ideas qua ideas. He is influenced by them qua fashion accessories, and that means making them hip with others first.  

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
You know digby once said to me that too much of present left political discourse (4.00 / 1)
is about hip and trendy and fashionable. I think she's very right.

By the way that is Sunstein in retrospect.  I read a couple of his earlier works form the late 80's, early 90's which I remember liking...they were about Madisonian democracy...but I remeber having this nagging feeling that he never went as far as his seemingly liberal arguments should lead him.  Then he changed.

I keep looking for a silver lining... I guess the one we have is he's not John McCain.

So my suggestion for future effectiveness and palatability...subtle snark is better...I like this series here

What exactly does he think that greenhouse gas registry would do?  Does he know anything about the history of toxic substance registries, for example?  Has he even seen a single corporate image ad on TV in the last 30 years?  Does he have any idea how many more people such ads reach than boring old numbers in some registry somewhere?  Does he live under a rock?

In a nother vein. This is a good test of whether an Obama administration is making lasting progressive change. Is it putting in place people, policies, systems, attitudes that a Republican presidient can not undo? ....that was the outcome of Bill Clinton's presidency....George Bush trashed most of its accomplishments before his first term was over. The courts were an especially weak link there...too many Cass Sunsteins.  

"Incrementalism isn't a different path to the same place, it could be a different path to a different place"

[ Parent ]
"Shallow, close-minded pol" (0.00 / 0)
This is exactly the opposite of what people who actually know him say.  People from all areas of his life, with different political perspectives.  I'm going to trust them, and not you.  You've clearly got an axe to grind, and to go from a flip-flop on FISA to he's intellectually vapid is unfounded.

[ Parent ]
What's With This "Trust" BS??? (0.00 / 0)
We have his arguments available for direct inspection.  What does it matter what other people say about other things he may have said?

Look, I had one professor in college who had an enormous reputation based on something he'd written, like 20 years before.  I was the only student in his class who wasn't intellectually intimidated by him.  And I discovered over and over again that he was merely repeating arguments he'd used before, regardless of whether they really responded to the arguments and objections that I raised.  In fact, he invariably didn't responded to the arguments I raised, he only appeared to to respond to them to people who weren't listening carefully.  But since I was the one making the arguments, it was very apparent to me that he wasn't answering them.

Now, I'm not saying that this is the case with Sunstein, too, because I haven't had the much to do with him.  But what I have had to do with him is certainly consistent with it being the case with him.

Put simply, it is never a good idea to assume that someone must be right if you can't convince yourself based on your own understanding.  David Hilbert was one of the greatest mathematicians of all time, and he was famous for objecting that some proof or some line of argument was too confusing.  Most mathematicians were too insecure, and would regard such a complaint as an admission of their inability to follow a subtle argument.  But Hilbert just thought that ideas should be clear, and that if they weren't then the people communicating the ideas were themselves confused about what they were discussing.

Hilbert was not just one smart dude.  He was a wise one, too.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
God forbid Obama (0.00 / 0)
should read anything that bluntly criticizes him.

The man totally reneged on his promise to filibuster a bill with telecom immunity, and to restore the rule of law. Don't ask me why, but crapping all over the Constitution tends to piss people off for some reason.

If he can't handle the heat now, then I don't know what the fuck he plans to do as president. Because people would say a lot worse about him even if he turned out to be an FDR-level executive. And given the milktoast way in which he proposes addressing the all-encompassing problems this country is immured in, he'll be lucky not to be classed with Hoover and Buchanan.

[ Parent ]
Personally, I enjoy Paul's style which (4.00 / 3)
includes well reasoned arguments, a strong moral philosophy and simple honest evaluations like "he's a moral imbecile" more than a "blithering idiot".  I call that refreshing.  It's getting to the real point.  Is Sunstein some middle brow professor in some ivory tower made of glass dithering away and harmless or is he a real threat because he is also amoral and a dithering slightly smarter than idiot imbecile?  

Deep! But perhaps for alliteration you should promote him from idiot to moral moron.

[ Parent ]
You're Right (4.00 / 2)
"Moral Moron" is more than mere alliteration, though.

Pluralize it, and it sounds like a Marvel Comics superhero team in Bizarro World.

Get Tom Tommorrow on the line, will ya?

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
I like it. Miltie's Moral Morons (4.00 / 2)
Deep in their Moron Cave beneath the halls of ivy in Hyde Park.  Hmmm?  Dr. Jeckyll turns into Mr. Hyde Park.

Ignore people who want to hold you back and make you just like any other political commentator.  There are too many boring writers.  A little fun is in order these days otherwise we will all go mad.  That's why I am on my radio show, The Feral Cat of Freedom coughing up furballs of truth from the baloney we've digested throughout the week from the Fat Cat News.

[ Parent ]
I've learned to ignore the ugly in Paul's posts (4.00 / 1)
The meat in Paul's posts is almost always really good, so I've learned to ignore the rest.  I actually disagree that Paul's posts are usually free of these sorts of puerile rantings, they are often present.

But the good stuff is almost always very good.  Even when I disagree he provides enough detail and evidence to force me to re-examine my beliefs, which is the hallmark of a good argument.

Just ignore the spittle.

(And Paul, if you ever need me to jump to your defense again, just ask!  :-)

[ Parent ]
Gosh Mark, With Friends Like You... (0.00 / 0)
I feel like a regular Scoobie.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
Lordy (4.00 / 5)
where can we even go with this sort of carping? Paul was mean to your professor, so no one will take him seriously? Your comment seems to me to be a pitch-perfect example of the problem Paul continues to fight back against. And that, of course, is the complete misdirection of people who care about what America means away from any assessment of where we are (maybe using some crazy left-wing radical document, like the Constitution) and toward petty arguments that have us running in circles without ever lifting our heads.

In your post you give no indication that you think Paul is wrong in his arguments. If that's the case, maybe you can enlighten those of us who never had the privelege of dealing with Sunstein himself what those counter-arguments might be. From all the evidence I've seen, including this interview, Sunstein seems to be a completely mainstream thinker. Of course I've been hearing for years that Mr. Sunstein is brilliant, just as I've heard of Scalia's supposed brilliance, or Mr. Rove's, or, in another field completely, Bill Gates's. From the evidence I've seen, however, the best that can be said of these sorts of gentlemen is that they refuse to follow the rules. Many times they themselves seem so confused, and yet so "successful", that the media assumes their brilliance, since everybody knows people with money and power are gooder than the rest of us. I've had conversations with smart people who will make the argument that Rove, for example, is brilliant because he is willing to flout any rules, legal of otherwise, in order to win. Here, you seem to embrace Sunstein's brilliance because, gasp, he reads lots of books. But wait! There's more! Mr. Sunstein not only reads books, he writes them too!

George Bush broke the law. Literally! Mr. Sunstein says that's ok. The Constitution gives the Congress a method for dealing with someone in the President's office who breaks the law, but they refuse to follow the rules. Mr. Sunstein says that's ok. Republicans went on the attack, years ago, to argue that the impeachment of any republican president, but especially this one, would be "vindictive" and therefore illegitimate. Mr. Sunstein agrees. Where's the beef, excuse me, "brilliance", you speak of?

[ Parent ]
Thank You (4.00 / 2)
That was very well put.  But I don't think we're ever going to get an actual defense of Sunstein's position, because it's, what's the word? oh, yes, indefensible.

Instead, we're just going to get more of this sputtering about how rude and uncouth I am to actually point out that his position is indefensible--and not only that, but morally repugnant, to boot!

But I also want to agree with an additional element that you've added--the role played in all this of the veneration of rule-breaking by the powerful and successful.  It's ironic that most people simply don't grasp how important this was in the case of Bill Gates, the one non-political figure you point to.  There is no questions that Gates was a brilliant programmer.  His implementation of BASIC for a microprocessor was legendary.  But he bought the foundation for his software empire, DOS, from another company, after lying to IBM that he had such a program he could license to them.  For all his brilliance as a programmer, which certainly helped enormously in evaluating strategic decisions, it was clearly this rule-breaking propensity that was the driving force of his success.  That, and sheer ruthlessness in destroying his competition. ("DOS isn't done until Lotus won't run.")

The simple fact was that while Gates was brilliant, and while he broke a lot of rules, there were thousands of other brilliant programmers, many of them rule-breakers as well in various different ways, but Gates broke rules in a way that closed off a great deal of possibility space--that in which Microsoft was not the Borg, but instead only one of a diverse range of software producers.  His actions deliberately crushed a great deal of innovation, because that's the way that the capitalist (as opposed to genuinely "free market") game is played, and when it came to that great game, and its real rules, Gates was never a maverick or a rule-breaker.

So, again, thanks for a very well-conceived intervention.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
Paul (0.00 / 0)
I'm a big fan of your posts, but you weren't this harsh to Jerry Falwell!  For some of us, when we see words like "moral imbecile" and "blithering idiot", our eyes haze over and we have a difficult time taking the piece of writing in front of us very seriously.  Especially when they are directed at someone who is most certainly not an idiot.  

Anyway, substantively, I'm with you.  I don't believe "nudging" is sufficient to tackle the problems Sunstein believes it can, but I also temper that with the understanding that he's read a whole hell of a lot more than I have about these problems, and thought about them a lot more than I have, so I'm not going to trash his points.  I have every reason to believe he's making good faith arguments and genuinely cares about civil rights and environmental regulation.  His plans may be tepid, they may be ineffectual, but they are not, I don't believe, morally deficient.  

[ Parent ]
Edit: (0.00 / 0)
Trash his points = trash his character

[ Parent ]
Where The Fuck Does This Deference Shit Come From??? (0.00 / 0)
Arguments are only as good as they are.  It doesn't matter how many books you've read to come up with a lousy arguments, it's still a lousy argument.

And as for supposedly caring about all the right things, well, I'm sorry, but "caring" just isn't enough, when the "solutions" you offer not only fail to solve the problems, but actually get in the way of real solutions.

Finally, when someone offers inadequate solutions, the best possible defense one can mount on their behalf is simply that they don't know any better.  But in Sunstein's case, everyone is all enthused about how much he's read and how much he knows.  Well, that only makes things worse, not better, since if he's really that widely read then he really has no excuse for not knowing better.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
"So what, exactly, is the BIG NEW IDEA here?" (4.00 / 6)
I just finished listening to the Democracy Now segment. You are absolutely right. There is absolutely nothing new about Sunstein's "idea." Governments have long (always?) used incentives to shape public behavior that stop short of coercive laws. Nothing new.

What Sunstein seems to be doing here is to seek some bipartisan middle ground between two imaginary poles.

real liberalism = Sunstein's own position - the common sense modern idea of a liberal democracy that uses carrots and sticks to make society work for everybody

Sunstein's imaginary liberalism = Soviet style planned economy

Sunstein's imaginary conservatism = markets, markets, markets

real conservatism = whatever helps rich people is good and fuck everybody else

A book based on a flawed statement of the problem yields the type of nonsense he is spewing.


By the way... (4.00 / 1)
Sunstein is a name I've heard bandied about as a pretty likely Supreme Court nominee. So get ready for that.

Why You Do Think I Put Such An Emphasis on BLITHERING Idiot? (4.00 / 1)
Jimmy Cliff speaks for me:

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]

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