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The Sameness of Cass Sunstein

His books keep pushing the same technocratic fixes. But today’s most pressing questions cannot be depoliticized.

Jamie McCarthy / Getty Images

Say you want to write a book. Assume that you’ve written books before. Before beginning, you face a choice: Either you can research new material for the book, or you can write about similar topics and themes to those discussed in your previous books. How you choose may depend on whether you wish to maximize originality or efficiency; or it may not. What matters is the framing of this choice. You can expend 1 unit of energy (1E) to produce the work, W, where E is understood to be a finite resource subject to optimal allocation. Or you can expend 2E to produce W, where the increase in E is understood as the extra effort required to research new facts, do some thinking, and come up with fresh ideas. If the result, W, is the same in either case, it is not hard to see how you, as an efficiency entrepreneur, might choose the first path, which we will call, unnecessarily, Path 1. 

HOW CHANGE HAPPENS by Cass R. Sunstein
The MIT Press, 344 pp., $29.95

As you begin writing the book, you have a realization: The book may be interesting, or it may not be interesting. Under imaginable assumptions, it is not interesting. Recall however that your goal here is to optimize E/W. Privileging slow or deliberative, Type 2 thinking over your intuitive, Type 1 impulse to throw in the towel and go out for pizza or whatever, you continue writing the book, filling it with false binaries, pointless hedging, cod-mathematical flourishes, and expressions annoyingly placed in italics as cover for the skinniness of their intellectual substance.

The book is released, and your publisher, amazed at the speed and efficiency of your production, rewards you with a deal for another book. You immediately begin work on your next book, which will be indistinguishable from this book. Congratulations: You are Cass Sunstein.

America’s most influential law professor is now four decades into a career that has been as consistently productive as it has been unswerving in its message. Through his writings and work in government, most notably as head of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs during the first term of the Obama administration, Sunstein has done perhaps more than anyone else on these shores to popularize and champion the cause of the wonk, to advocate for a model of government that is data-driven and technocrat-led. How Change Happens is Sunstein’s third release in less than a year, after The Cost-Benefit Revolution and On Freedom, matching a rate of output over the past decade whose best comparison is probably late-career Woody Allen. Unfortunately for Sunstein, this analogy also holds when assessing the quality of his latest work.

How Change Happens, Sunstein tells us, “reflects decades of thinking.” This is another way of saying that it repeats decades of writing. To call it his “new book” you’d have to accept that there is something meaningfully distinguishing it, beyond the physical barrier of its cover and binding, from his previous books—an assumption that in Sunstein’s case is easily disproven. Like an unstuck Mallarmé, Sunstein does not produce books so much as The Book, a single volume of ideas that’s recycled, with only minor variations, from title to title.

Broaching a new Sunstein these days, you already know what you’re going to get: a section on the joys and uses of cost-benefit analysis, some dashed-off thoughts about utilitarianism and negative freedoms, three or four chapters on nudges and their importance to the design of seatbelt policy, the primacy of Daniel Kahneman–style “slow thinking” over intuition and moral heuristics, some tut-tutting about social media, a Learned Hand quote or two, and a few weak anecdotes about Sunstein’s time as President Obama’s regulator-in-chief, all delivered through a prose that combines the dreariest elements of Anglo-American analytical style with the proto-numerate giddiness of a libertarian undergrad who’s just made first contact with the production possibility frontier. 

How Change Happens conforms so comically to type that it repurposes several passages of text from Sunstein’s previous books, even his most recent ones. Hence he tells us that people typically think that more words, on any given page, will end with -ing than have n as the second-to-last letter—an anecdote you would have already encountered had you made it as far as page 30 of The Cost-Benefit Revolution. He explains the Asian disease problem and provides a number of choice-framing analogies also found in The Cost-Benefit Revolution. He retells the David Foster Wallace water parable spotted on page eleven of On Freedom, published in February of this year. (Explaining the importance of the parable in that earlier book, he notes: “This is a tale about choice architecture—the environment in which choices are made. Choice architecture is inevitable, whether or not we see it, and it affects our choices. It is the equivalent of water.” Fast forward a few months to the publication of How Change Happens, and this gloss has become: “This is a tale about choice architecture. Such architecture is inevitable, whether or not we see it. It is the equivalent of water.”) He rehearses statistics on political polarization that were already seven years out of date when he last published them, in 2017; and so on. Round and round this carousel of “evidence” goes, all in the service of the same restricted set of ideas Sunstein has been shilling since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Perhaps we should not be surprised by any of this; if the titles of his books are any indication, Sunstein has never run from his reputation as a repetitious bore. This is, after all, the man who counts, Republic 2.0 and #republic on his list of published works; who wrote one paean to cost-benefit analysis called The Cost-Benefit State and another, 16 years later, called The Cost-Benefit Revolution; who followed up his 2008 blockbuster, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness, which set out the case for using welfare-oriented behavioral prompts or “nudges” in the design of regulation, with 2014’s Why Nudge?, which valiantly addressed the question already answered six years earlier. It takes real skill to continue to be published from a place of such undisguised unoriginality, and for that if nothing else, Sunstein deserves our admiration.

Nudge, still his best known work, landed amid the complacency of the Obama ascendancy, at a point when Sunstein’s vision of post–Cold War neoliberalism—one which seeks to minimize intrusions against individual liberty by the state and installs the market as the ultimate arbiter of social values—was couched in just the right mix of economically “pragmatic” and socially progressive language to appeal to conservatives and liberals alike. His central idea was that a measure of libertarian paternalism—administered via an “enlightened” framing of private choices—could allow government to increase both individual and collective welfare. Nudges were to policy as preventive care is to medicine: a cost-effective guarantee of long-term health. 

The world has changed dramatically since those days, but Sunstein’s ideas, much like his prose, have refused to evolve with it. To read How Change Happens you’d think it was still 2008, markets were efficient, the pie was growing for everyone, and technical experts could be trusted to solve whatever minor aggravations to the social contract emerged. Sunstein continues to write as if nudges and cost-benefit analysis—the whole technocratic shebang—are cheeky new ideas worth giving a shot, and not the codified bedrock of an approach to government with a real and unflattering historical track record. Experience has not shaken the Sunstein worldview. It remains as smug as ever.

Let’s consider, for a moment, some of the things we’ve learned since Nudge came out in 2008. We now know that in the arena of environmental regulation, nudges decrease support for the more ambitious policies that might be needed to avert an ecological catastrophe. We know that a technocratic, cost-benefit-focused approach to government works to the detriment of visionary change. We know that the old neoliberal binary—state bad, market good—is simplistic and no longer squares with a reality in which many of our greatest tyrannies emerge from a rapacious and meekly regulated private sector. Most importantly we know that the Obama presidency, the guiding hope to so many market-friendly liberals, ended with rising inequality, stalled social mobility, a spiraling climate disaster, and the Trumpian revolt against expertise. Sunstein ignores all of this.

When he does bother to refresh his research, the results often negate whatever point he’s trying to make. Arming people with information, Sunstein argues in How Change Happens, is the most effective nudge of all. As an example he points to the “high-value” datasets that federal agencies have since 2009 been obliged to publish on, an initiative he played a significant role in implementing (Sunstein never misses a chance to make himself the hero of his own story). As a result, “people in the private sector have produced numerous apps that provide people with information that they can actually use,” he tells us. Among the apps brought to us thanks to this energizing bop of government and enterprise is eRecall, “which gives people information about recall information.” (If you find the writing in these extracts difficult to stomach, just imagine what 300 pages of this stuff looks like.) But eRecall, to judge from its Twitter account and non-responsive website, died some time last year. If you want evidence of the effectiveness of governmental transparency in fostering innovation and promoting individual welfare: Please enjoy the example of this service that no longer exists. Correctives to the Sunstein worldview are rarely more than a Google search away. But plainly there are limits to the amount of evidence an evidence-based approach to knowledge and policy formulation can handle.    

Bad examples like this are pressed into the service of Sunstein’s central thesis in How Change Happens, which is … well, what, exactly? It’s difficult to say. A book called How Change Happens should, you’d assume, have something to say about how change happens, but Sunstein has no interest in exploring this question in any meaningful way.

He begins with some meandering thoughts on the rapid evolution of social norms on questions such as sexual harassment and smoking, which he attributes to (note the italics) norm entrepreneurs and availability entrepreneurs, a class of individuals the rest of the world might be tempted simply to call “leaders.” The idea here is that when individuals show leadership through their actions, social norms shift—a superficial analysis that ignores completely the role of technology or material conditions in driving normative change. Sunstein cites Donald Trump as a norm entrepreneur, presumably for his work in exploding conventions on presidential decorum and civility in high office, though this is never really spelled out.

Which makes it all the stranger that How Change Happens concludes with a diatribe about the rise of “partyism” (another redundant neologism, this time for “partisanship”), of which norm entrepreneur Trump is the most potent symbol. The best response to partyism, Sunstein argues, “lies in delegation, and in particular in strengthening the hand of technocratic forces in government.” The book begins by examining how change happens, and ends by demanding that change must be stopped. Why? Because, Sunstein insists, boilerplate at the ready, “the resolution of many political questions should not turn on politics.” Instead, we should do as Sunstein has always commanded: Let the technocrats run things.

While the planet burns and voters run into the arms of the demagogues, Sunstein wants us to concentrate on what really matters, which is the regulation of silicon exposure in the construction industry or the question of whether rearview cameras should be mandatory in new automobiles. These are, to be clear, issues that deserve serious regulatory attention; technical expertise and bureaucracy still have an important role to play in public administration. But they’re not, as Sunstein would have it, everything. The most pressing political questions today will not yield to merely administrative solutions; the dysfunction of liberal capitalism calls for a more active public sphere, for a radical reimagining of the state and its relationship to productive forces, rather than a retreat to the consolations of private life and bureaucracy.

Thirty years on from his first steps as a public intellectual, Sunstein is still arguing that politics is mostly reducible to technicalities, that it’s possible and even desirable to depoliticize the political, and that once we all agree on the facts (should be simple enough) we can set our ailing ship right through minor adjustments to the bureaucratic rudder. If only we could all find it in our hearts to give failed methods another go! This is a dangerous view, and to judge by Sunstein’s rate of literary output, there are still many people prepared to offer it a hearing.

What could account for such a willfully, persistently small-minded, obscure, and naive vision of the role of government? How Change Happens offers us a clue: Sunstein simply cannot see the world around him for what it is, a failure of inquiry that seems especially ridiculous when you consider the frequency with which he harangues his readers to anchor action and perception in the cold currency of facts rather than mere heuristics and intuitions. His problem is not necessarily laziness—a refusal to look deeply into the causes of historical change—or, not only that, but a kind of fogginess.

Sunstein once wrote, “The issues that most divide us are fundamentally about facts rather than value. Take the question of highway safety.” This is the America he imagines—a country ablaze with hatreds stirred up by highway design, and brought finally to the equilibrium of consensus by the serene, macadamizing hand of the bureaucratic state. In How Change Happens, he pictures a citizenry accessing government-provided data sets on their mobile devices on the go. He attributes “partyism” to the refinement of political campaigning techniques rather than, say, a junk-grade economy with horrendous fundamentals that leaves millions of Americans struggling to survive and raging at the governing elites. The world Sunstein legislates for is a world of reasonable individuals steeped in the minutiae of food safety regulation and brought to a peak of arousal by the promise of a clean data download.

It is a world, in other words, populated by billions of Cass Sunsteins. Fortunately for all of us, this is not the world as it is. But this perhaps explains why Sunstein seems oblivious to this political moment as one requiring from government not light touches and cuddles but a major kick up society’s collective ass. A shift of this magnitude can only be procured and legitimized through politics, through the contest of values, morals, beliefs and feelings—in short, through all the things Sunstein does not stand for.

Despite the promise of its title, How Change Happens works neither as narrative history nor as a sociology of change. But it does raise, however unintentionally, a more interesting question: Can liberals change? In recent months several economists and thinkers prominent in the Clinton-Obama years have publicly acknowledged the failings of neoliberalism and the need for a new policy direction on the left. On the evidence in these pages, a hair shirt will not be in Sunstein’s future. What emerges most powerfully here is the refusal of this proud steed of technocratic managerialism to engage with new circumstances, even as many in his own liberal camp reevaluate their priors. How Change Happens seems impressive less as a monument to thinking than as a demonstration of non-thought, and as a lesson in the power of neoliberal dogma to imprison some of this country’s most influential minds. The government Sunstein has always wanted and still wants is balanced, dispassionate, evidence-based, and ferociously unheroic. It is a recipe for more of the same. How does change happen? Not like this.