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Cass Sunstein Is Sleeping on the Couch Tonight

Cass Sunstein Is Sleeping on the Couch Tonight

Cass Sunstein, the former head of the Office of Management and Budget’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, has long advocated the notion that people left to their own devices often make bad choices and that government has a responsibility to "nudge" people toward better outcomes than they would select for themselves. But now he argues that government, left to its own devices, also makes bad choices. (Wait, wasn’t he supposed to fix this problem?) This is a welcome Damascene conversion from someone who advocates expanding the Bill of Rights to include the right to education, a home, health care, and protection against monopolies. Sunstein’s realization is a damning criticism of the Obama administration’s philosophy of government and, incidentally, of its approach to foreign policy, in which Sunstein’s wife, Samantha Power, ambassador to the United Nations, plays a starring role. 

In an article in the Journal of Institutional Economics, Sunstein and his co-author, Reid Hastie, argue that the very process of deliberation serves to amplify mistakes. They argue that the process of deliberation often conveys to individuals disincentives for providing information that would produce better outcomes. Specifically, they highlight the way people self-censor "out of respect for the information publicly announced by others" or to avoid "the disapproval of relevant others." All this is a fancy way of saying that groups tend to reinforce their initial biases through selective information. Sunstein and Hastie conclude — much as the butterfly flapping its wings causes a hurricane — that these "micro mistakes" lead to macro policy failures, even catastrophes. And the Syria policy of Barack Obama’s administration illustrates their arguments rather neatly. 

The authors argue that corroboration by other members of a respected group raises confidence in its own judgments and reduces the variance of opinion, whether or not their taken position is correct, leading to "sharing a view in which they firmly believe, but which turns out to be wrong." Groups actually don’t defer to internal experts; they tend to adopt positions that the majority supports. Sunstein might have drawn from the vast data trove provided by a National Security Council staff that included his wife (one of America’s leading human rights experts) yet consistently avoided values-based policies and prides itself on being "realist."

Read the rest here.