Shitter: The Future of Government

Lisa Heinzerling, a high-ranking former environmental regulator, has an excellent piece at Think Progress reviewing Cass Sunstein’s new book “Simpler: The Future of Government.” As Lisa writes,

As the Administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (known as “OIRA”) within the Office of Management and Budget, Sunstein oversaw the regulatory output of the many agencies of the executive branch. Rules on worker health, environmental protection, food safety, health care, consumer protection, and more all passed through Sunstein’s inbox.

Some never left…

In his revealing book, Sunstein tells us why: It is because he, Sunstein, had the authority to “say no to members of the president’s Cabinet”; to deposit “highly touted rules, beloved by regulators, onto the shit list“; to ensure that some rules “never saw the light of day”; to impose cost-benefit analysis “wherever the law allowed”; and to “transform cost-benefit analysis from an analytical tool into a “rule of decision,” meaning that “[a]gencies could not go forward” if their rules flunked OIRA’s cost-benefit test.

Lisa argues that Sunstein’s tactics were legally or politically suspect, and at the end of the day diminished government accountability. She definitely has an axe to grind (but also valuable first hand information), as someone whose proposed regulations were sidelined. A fascinating read.

Sunstein deserves applause for attempting to integrate insights from behavioral economics into the study of judging and regulation. But as I’ve written elsewhere, he has a blindspot when it comes to the power that he and other “behaviorally enlightened” elites play in the policy processes they themselves are trying to rationalize. Behavioral economics’ focus on the brain tends to ignore power distribution in the world outside the brain. This is something that behavioralism’s founding father Herbert Simon understood, but that a lot of his followers did not. (In his 1996 book, Simon writes that, “the evolution of firms and of economies does not lead to any predictable equilibrium, much less an optimum, but is a complex process, probably continuing indefinitely, that is probably best understood through an examination of its history.” page 48).

In its extreme versions, law by behavioral economics and cost-benefit analysis is fairly undemocratic. Sunstein’s government of ideas going to the toilet has some kinship with Grover Norquist’s idea of shrinking government to the size of the bathtub. Both seem to be designed to diminish people’s faith in government as a change agent, as Thomas Frank detailed in his book The Wrecking Crew.

Which raises the truly important question: what happens to small government activists in the bathroom to provoke such negative associations? They might want to use some of that ObamaCare to get that checked out…

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