A man is on a first date. “If you could have any job in the world,” his date asks, “what would it be?” Most men would quickly think up something with some romantic appeal, like “an ornithologist in Bali,” but Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein is a little unusual. With a look that he described in 2013 as “dreamy, faraway, what-could-possibly-be-better?” he told his date he would like to be the administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), a branch of the White House responsible for coordinating reviews of new federal regulations to ensure they are cost-effective and no more burdensome than necessary.

“Miraculously, I got a second date,” Sunstein wrote (he ultimately married Samantha Power, who is now the US ambassador to the United Nations). And when Barack Obama became president, he got his dream job.

Sunstein’s years at the OIRA — an office he calls “the cockpit of the regulatory state” — became the basis for his 2013 book, Simpler: The Future of Government. For anyone interested in public policy, Simpler is essential reading. Not only is Sunstein a leading public intellectual, he has practical experience in public administration. And he can write. There are very few of his kind.

Sunstein’s early career was at the University of Chicago, where he delved into constitutional law, civil liberties, and other traditional concerns of law professors. Later he became fascinated with recent research in psychology and its implications for law. In 1995, Richard Thaler, an economist, joined the faculty. Thaler was as interested in psychology as Sunstein was, and was just as unimpressed by the “Homo economicus” model that dominated the thinking of the economic giants — many of them Nobel laureates — at the university’s famous School of Economics. Sunstein and Thaler collaborated. In 2008 they published Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness.

Nudge was a surprise global bestseller, and politicians the world over took notice. David Cameron embraced the book with the passion of a convert and created a “nudge unit” when he became prime minister of the United Kingdom. Sunstein and Thaler’s thinking was slower to spread in Canada, but various governments have started to take a look. Ontario recently announced it will create its own nudge unit.

Sunstein continues to publish a torrent of books and papers. He even dabbles in journalism; his articles can be as quirky as they are insightful. In a recent essay, he looked at the origins of the original “Star Wars” movie and what it says about how laws and constitutions are really created.

In June, Sunstein answered some questions for Policy Options via email.


Policy Options: Your education and early career — Harvard, clerking for a Supreme Court justice, working in the Justice Department, appointed an assistant professor — are what we might expect of a future esteemed law professor at an elite university. But at some point you veered off into psychology, and today you are best known for your extensive writing on the nexus between psychology and public policy. What got you interested in psychology? Why did it become so central to your thinking and work?

Cass Sunstein: I was at the University of Chicago for many years, when the rational actor model was ascendant. For years, I thought the model was powerful but wrong. It took psychology, and behavioural economics, to give some clarity about when and why it is wrong. When I read Thaler, and Kahneman and Tversky, it was like a sunburst, or a thunderclap. (Also many of the underlying findings are funny and fun.)

PO: It seems psychology is increasingly influential, even fashionable. Behavioural economics and finance are challenging old paradigms, psychology is all over the best-seller lists, and seemingly everyone has read (or at least bought) Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow. Many politicians have discussed your work, or even created “nudge units” to apply the ideas developed in Nudge, the global bestseller you co-wrote with Richard Thaler. So is it time to declare victory? In your view, do most high-level policy-makers, executives and academics understand, accept and apply the basic insights of modern psychology?

CS: It’s certainly right to say that certain findings in psychology and behavioural economics are increasingly well known. For policy purposes, victory comes not when some ideas prevail over others, but when effective policies are implemented, improving human lives (in part by making them healthier and longer). In some ways, we’re getting there. High-level officials are usually focused on problems, not theories, but increasingly, there is awareness that some of the best solutions are informed by relevant behavioural science. In the private and public sector, high-level types tend not to think about prospect theory and the representativeness heuristic, but they know, more than ever, that default rules really matter, and that complexity can be a big problem. A lot of people might not be able to define the term “loss aversion,” but they are aware that people dislike losses more than they like equivalent gains.

PO: As you’ve defined it, a “nudge” is a pretty simple concept and yet it has often been misrepresented. So what is your quickest and easiest summary of what a nudge is and is not? Why do you think people still misunderstand that, or at least have trouble applying it accurately? 

CS: A nudge is an intervention that steers people in a certain direction but that fully respects freedom of choice, and that imposes no costs on people who seek to go their own way. A GPS is an iconic example; so is a reminder or warning; so is a default rule. Good nudges, as Thaler and I understand them, are designed to promote people’s welfare as judged by themselves.  I do think that most people understand the idea pretty well.

PO: As an academic, you studied regulation closely and worked with regulators. But still, you were an academic — until you became the top regulator. Those are very different worlds. Were there surprises for you personally? What about generally? Do academics and regulators/administrators/policy-makers understand each other and the challenges they face?

CS: Most academics don’t understand policy-makers very well, and most policy-makers don’t understand academics very well. I did a lot of listening! Academics are interested in novel, interesting findings. Policy-makers want to solve problems, and a brilliant, novel finding might be too abstract to be helpful, and might be unhelpful even if it is quite concrete. Here are some questions that interest policy-makers: What can we do to promote economic growth, to reduce poverty, to prevent sexual violence? The best articles in one’s favourite academic journal might not have a lot to say about those questions. Those articles may lay foundations for a great deal, but they are usually a very separate enterprise from policy-making. Many of my favourite academic articles have essentially no relevance to policy-making. I was much surprised to see how important the public comment process is to regulatory policy. There is a lot of dispersed information out there, and government benefits a lot if it has a way to obtain it. I was also surprised to see the immense importance of face-to-face meetings in government, and the value of such meetings, where you really can aggregate information, and often find a good, agreeable path forward amidst initially intense disagreement.

PO: When you were nominated to head the OIRA, there was criticism. Notably, the critics tended to be found pretty far out on both ends of the political spectrum. Bernie Sanders, the only avowed socialist in the US Senate, voted against your appointment; Glenn Beck called you “the most dangerous man in America.” Criticism of White House appointees is standard fare, of course, but mirror-image criticism from distant points on either end of the political spectrum is more than a little unusual. What did you make of it? And have you ever been tempted to have a T-shirt emblazoned with “the most dangerous man in America”? 

CS: I was lucky enough to be working as a senior adviser in the Office of Management and Budget at the time, and most of my focus was on the very serious problems we were facing (resolving the situation of General Motors and Chrysler, creating a new system of open government, thinking through health reform legislation, producing a financial reform bill). If you are fortunate enough to serve the American people, you should do the best you can, and not focus on background noise. But certainly I did learn a lot about the confirmation process, which can be a roller coaster.

PO: In Simpler, you argue that “simple” is “the future of government,” but “simpler government” should not be confused with “less government.” So what do you mean by “simple”?

CS: Simple means easy, and navigable. My two-year-old daughter can use an iPad. Government should be more like an iPad, in the sense that people should not be baffled by it. When citizens have to interact with their government — to get services or licences, for example — everything should be as easy as possible. Regulations should not be confusing.

PO: Consumer information seems like a candidate for “simple government” — just give people information and let them make decisions. But the reality is far more complicated and it takes a lot of work to achieve simplicity. Why?

CS: Oh, it can be done! It’s not as hard as all that. It’s not hard at all. (Is that answer simple enough?)

PO: You argue that cost-benefit analysis is an essential tool for simpler government. But isn’t it another layer of bureaucracy, another barrier to getting things done? How can it be, as you call it, an “engine of simplification”? The same is true of greater public consultation. You say it can contribute to simpler government, but isn’t it another slow, troublesome process that can gum up the works?

CS: Some barriers to regulations are a good idea, and they are an engine of simplification, because they prevent new barriers and unnecessary complexity. Cost-benefit analysis is an excellent way of ferreting out regulations and requirements (new and old) that impose unjustified burdens. It isn’t always good to eliminate barriers to “getting things done,” because those things can be ill-considered and can impose a big toll on people.

PO: Most academics would be happy to publish as many papers as you have books. A complete list of your books, academic papers, lectures and journalism would resemble a small-town telephone book. How are you able to keep up that pace? Do you not sleep? 

CS: I get plenty of sleep! I don’t do a lot of things outside of teaching and research, so I have plenty of time to write. (I don’t have many administrative duties at the university.) If you can write in airports or on planes (and I can), it’s a help.

Photo: Shutterstock

Cass Sunstein
Cass Sunstein is an American legal scholar, particularly in the fields of constitutional law, administrative law, environmental law, and law and behavioural economics, who was the administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in the Obama administration.

You are welcome to republish this Policy Options article online or in print periodicals, under a Creative Commons/No Derivatives licence.

Creative Commons License