My Conversation with Cass Sunstein

There is audio, video, and transcript at the link.  I introduced Cass like this:

The Force is strong with this one. Cass is by far the most widely cited legal scholar of his generation. His older book, Nudge, and his new book on Star Wars are both best sellers, and he was head of OIRA [Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs] under President Obama from 2009 to 2013. Powerful, you have become.

So tonight I’d like to start with a survey of Cass’s thought. We’re going to look at legal theory and then go to Nudge and then consider Star Wars, how it all ties together, and then we’re going to talk about everything.

On every point Cass responded clearly and without evasion.  We talked about judicial minimalism, Bob Dylan’s best album, the metaphysics of nudging, Possession, the ideal size of the Supreme Court, the wisdom of Yoda, Hayek, why people should choose their own path, the merits of a banned products store, James Joyce, why the prequels are underrated, and which of the first six movies is the worst of the lot.  Here is one bit:

COWEN: Let’s take a concrete example from real life: Jedi mind tricks. Obi-Wan comes along and says, “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.” And what does the stormtroooper do? He goes away. Now, is that a nudge?

SUNSTEIN: No, it’s a form of manipulation. So — .

[laughter]

COWEN: OK, but how do you draw the metaphysical categories? It seems like a nudge that just happens to work all the time.

SUNSTEIN: OK. I’ll give you a quick and dirty way of getting at that…

Here is another:

COWEN: If you were to pick one character from Star Wars who would nudge you — you get to elect them; you’re the only vote. Even Samantha doesn’t get a vote, just Cass — not your children — which character would you pick? Whom would you trust with that nudge? It’s a universe full of Jedi here, right?

SUNSTEIN: Yoda.

COWEN: Yoda?

SUNSTEIN: I trust that guy.

COWEN: But I worry about Yoda.

SUNSTEIN: I trust him.

Finally:

SUNSTEIN: Thank God for libertarian paternalism, that Luke has a choice. The Sith, by the way, like the Jedi, respect freedom of choice. In the crucial scene in Episode III where the question is whether Anakin is going to save the person who would be emperor, he says, “You must choose.” And so there’s full respect for freedom of choice. Nudgers have that. Good for them.

COWEN: Bad guys always tell you the deal, and then they say, “Choose evil.” It seems the good guys always mislead you.

There’s this funny tension. Star Wars makes me more nervous about nudge. I’m not like this huge anti-nudge guy, but when I look at Obi-Wan and Yoda lying to Luke — “Ben, Ben, Ben, why didn’t you tell me?” How many times have I heard that in these movies?

SUNSTEIN: It’s fair to ask whether Obi-Wan and Yoda had it right.

There is much, more more…self-recommending!

View at Medium.com

Comments

The mother of all nudges led to 2008. Learn nothing and forget nothing.

You mean the Bush economic meltdown? Yeah, it led directly to the guy from the opposite party being elected, as in 1932 or 1980. But I think it was more like a punch than a nudge.

I slogged through "Nudge", it was a bit of a "drudge", verbose. From the photo, Sunstein looks a bit like Malcom Gladwell, he'll take that as a complement?

Judging from the excerpts, looks terrible. Did you ask him why nudges tend to become quickly slaps in the face?

Appreciate if anyone can point out where I can find quickly the Joice part.

Go to the link and search the page.

I looked and I couldn't find it. Can you provide a direct link?

It's because you misspelled Joyce.

I still can't find it. Can you just type and paste the link?

The link is the one given in the post: https://medium.com/conversations-with-tyler/cass-sunstein-star-wars-nudge-a7c874f3ce8c#.qlegfptdh

After going there I did CTRL + F and typed "Joyce".

I still can't find it. The link goes to the page but I can't find the actual text. I'm sorry but can you please be more clear with what you mean by your instructions? Thanks again for all your help.

All I did was exactly what I described above (using Chrome on Windows).

It may be an issue with your specific browser? Sorry I can't be of more help.

Do you think it is because I am browsing from dial-up? I'm a retired man (Air Force and very proud of it) and don't have high speed technology. Thank you.

If you are using a dial-up connection, the transcript might take awhile to appear, but it should appear eventually.

It also may be that you are using an older web browser which is not compatible with some modern sites.

"COWEN: Here’s an easy one, then. James Joyce, overrated or underrated? Now, they’re watching back home, so be careful.
SUNSTEIN: I think that — yeah, yeah, Irish family. I think underrated. Ulysses is arguably the richest novel in the last 150 years. Not the greatest, but the richest.
COWEN: Richest in what sense?
SUNSTEIN: That it’s just full of multiple interpretations that aren’t an interpolation of a smart reader but are actually there in the material. So, there’s stuff from Irish history, stuff from the Bible, stuff about men and women that are, you know, extremely surprising and variable from one chapter to another."
(...)
COWEN: Yes. Now, you’re intrigued by the John Stuart Mill–Harriet Taylor correspondence and also by Byatt’s novel Possession from the early ’90s. I think you once said it was your favorite novel. What is it that ties those two together, and what explains your fascination with them?
SUNSTEIN: OK, so Possession — .
COWEN: What does it say about you?
SUNSTEIN: [laughs] Maybe I’m a romantic.
COWEN: Sentimental. They’re both letters. There’s something dialogical about them.
SUNSTEIN: Yeah. OK. I’ll tell you, for those who don’t know Possession, go read it tomorrow. I think — it’s my personal favorite novel in any language. I can’t say it’s as rich as Ulysses, but I like it even better, and in terms of greatness I would rank it with Joyce.

No, I'm not sure. I think I will go to the public library tomorrow and report back. Thanks for your help. You remind me of a man I served it. Name is Jacob but we called him Jake. Always a helpful guy. Not sure what happened to him, but I'm sure he is doing well.

Could someone hook me up with the appropriate gopher link. I'm having some winsocket issues with Mosaic. tyia.

COWEN: Here’s an easy one, then. James Joyce, overrated or underrated? Now, they’re watching back home, so be careful.
SUNSTEIN: I think that — yeah, yeah, Irish family. I think underrated. Ulysses is arguably the richest novel in the last 150 years. Not the greatest, but the richest.
COWEN: Richest in what sense?
SUNSTEIN: That it’s just full of multiple interpretations that aren’t an interpolation of a smart reader but are actually there in the material. So, there’s stuff from Irish history, stuff from the Bible, stuff about men and women that are, you know, extremely surprising and variable from one chapter to another.

Oh, sorry. I hadn't seen you had already done that. Good job, sir.

Next time pay more attention.

Good that you included more. Ignore the snide comment from the new Anon .

A few sentences more, but you had already included the important part. Anyway, I will try to pay more attention.

I didn't watch it all, but the parts I watched were definitely better than the excerpts, which seem designed to not include Sunstein's answers.

The bit about the mind trick above reveals more about Cowen than it does about choice architecture. A default investment rate is not a wavey little hand that makes you say "yes, this is the 401K I want to have" slack jawed.

This is maybe the important thing for all those that fear nudges: If you have an actual idea about what you want in your future, nudges will have no effect. They preserve all choice. They only affect people who have no plan, no energy to find one. This is not the in-charge Stormtrooper with a concrete plan to find droids, waved off with magic. A nudge is for the after-hours Stormtrooper who knows he really should look at his retirement plan, but just cracks a beer instead.

star wars? seriously?

The dweebishness and self-satisfaction of these excerpts raised an eyebrow here, too.

I see your points, but he is coming out with a book on Star Wars and parenting.

You got a leading legal scholar, and wasted time discussing Star Wars and Bob Dylan. Shame on you: what sort of half-wits were you pandering to?

Hi-dee-ho there my fellow Happy Camper!

Actually it is obvious. Journal articles on the law do not sell. Books on Star Wars do. Sunstein is probably thinking of his new holiday home in Hawaii. In the circumstances it would be impossible to get him off the topic.

So, a conversation is not the best communication tool. Scholars spend days writing and correcting their texts. If you want to learn from an scholar, read the written stuff, much better material than a conversation.

Unless, you try to signal your intelligence by telling you don't like popular films and music. The funny issue is that intelligent people is too busy with the things they like to bother about what they don't like.

I don't want to live in a world where Serious People only talk about Serious Things. What a downer that would be.

I agree.

dearieme has a point though. And come on, Freewheelin is the most underrated album? Who the hell underrates it? Rolling Stone might because they're idiots, but the Library of Congress apparently doesn't. From Wikipedia: "Freewheelin' was one of 50 recordings chosen by the Library of Congress to be added to the National Recording Registry in 2002. The citation read: "This album is considered by some to be the most important collection of original songs issued in the 1960s."

I don't know how he's the most published legal scholar of all time. His "Burkean Minimalism" is utter crap, and doesn't even appear that he's read Burke, definitely not understood him. He dodged the Road to Serfdom question, which was a good one.

And I'm a little annoyed for the subheader claiming that the Supreme Court was one of the topics. All he said is he'd like to see 50 justices. I guess there'd be more clerkship spots available.

SUNSTEIN: It’s fair to ask whether Obi-Wan and Yoda had it right.

Is it? It turns out that the Republic is ruling by a secret - and unelected - cabal of religious fanatics who specialize in taking children away from their families to brainwash into their cult. Sort of Stalinist entryism meets Boko Haram.

At some point you say no one should have this power no matter what their good intentions or their track record. When it comes down to it, the Sith look more and more like the good guys in those films. And have cooler uniforms.

On the other hand, it's a fun story.

I like his optimism at the last Hayek reference: "the worst aren't typically at the top, sometimes they are".

OMB is not the "top." We're looking at the Clinton Cabal versus a serial huckster. I would say 2016 is bearing out Hayek pretty well.

Although educated at Harvard, Sunstein made his reputation as a scholar at the Univ. of Chicago. He is also one of the most prolific scholars, the author of numerous scholarly and popular books, articles, and essays. For someone so busy (he's also married to Samantha Power), it's ironic that he would focus so much of his attention to the margin (the nudge) rather than sweeping programs and policies. One might ask (maybe Cowen did) whether Chicago influenced him or he influenced Chicago?

Mrs. Sunstein nee Power obviously disagrees with nuanced approaches, perhaps trying to live up to her surname.

Well planned nudges are very powerful, not at all marginal.

"Libertarian paternalism"

The very phrase shows the socialists are consciously punking us.

LOL, indeed. Libertarianism is the polar opposite of paternalism. So I'm guessing that someone using that phrase, probably means "I want Libertarianism for the smart guys like me, but paternalistic government for all the hoi polloi".

"I want Libertarianism for the smart guys like me, but paternalistic government for all the hoi polloi."

The Nudge thesis just can't escape being misunderstood. Libertarians see what they want to see, I suppose. The book pushed for MORE choice than exists in the status quo on some fronts, including school choice. Also, the paternalism is not based on what experts simply decide is good for the masses, it's based on folks' OWN ASSESSMENT of what is good for themselves, as gleaned from surveys and the dilemma of overcoming tension between the short and long-term self.

Tim Taylor would be a great candidate for a Conversation with Tyler. Why? His latest blog post is why. http://conversableeconomist.blogspot.com/2016/06/john-stuart-mill-on-partial-truth-and.html Mill is certainly correct, nobody has a monopoly on the truth, as the truth usually can be found somewhere between the arguments made by the competing sides. Does Taylor believe it? Does Cowen believe it? I'm a lawyer, which means I'm trained as an advocate, trained to believe in the adversarial system of justice, where each side presents her best case and an independent arbiter selects the outcome based on the presentations of the two sides. If the adversarial system is appropriate for resolving legal disputes, is it also appropriate for resolving disputes in economics? According to the part of Mill's essay On Liberty quoted by Taylor, the answer would be yes. But is the analogy correct? There's been criticism of some economists for adopting an adversarial approach to scholarship, in which only evidence supporting one side is presented, to be offset by evidence supporting and presented by the other side, each side presented as being the truth. I would point out that the analogy to the adversarial system of justice is erroneous, that in the latter case the advocates are prohibited from presenting evidence that the advocate knows is false and from withholding evidence that the advocate knows is true, violations for which the advocate can be sanctioned (by disbarment). In scholarship there are no sanctions for similar offenses to the truth. What does Taylor think about the adversarial method in economics? What does Cowen think about the adversarial method in economics? Of course, this is pertinent to the Conversation with Sunstein, who is known for adhering to Mill's dictum in his scholarship.

So was it "Blood On The Tracks" or "Highway 61 Revisited"?

He didn't ask which album was the best, he asked which was the most underrated. He often conflates those two things.

The answer was The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. Terrible choice. Best is Blood on the Tracks, most underrated is Nashville Skyline or Blonde on Blonde..

Coolest professor I ever had was a Marxist political scientist name Victor Wolfenstein. I encountered him swimming laps at a university pool ten years later and recall mostly this line from the brief hello: "You ever listen to Blonde on Blonde? It'll change your life."

For under-ratedness, probably Another Side of Bob Dylan. Or the charming Planet Waves.

Although a better answer would that an album by someone like Bob Dylan cannot be underrated. Even his crappy albums have sold hundreds of thousands of copies.

"Cass is by far the most widely cited legal scholar of his generation."

A signpost of our sad decline.

A credentialed authoritarian fool.

Cite "authoritarian"

What a compelling argument you put forward.

This was a really fun event to be at! Tyler is a great moderator.

I am all for contrarianism, but pretending the prequels were anything but colossal failures as movies is just insulting to everyone's intelligence.

I mean, you can retcon grand thematic elements onto them, but you can't retcon dialogue, acting, pacing, or directing.

The belief that central authorities should be 'nudging' us towards correct behaviour requires that you accept the premise that central authorities have the wisdom and information necessary to know what's best for us.

Hayek would have a big problem with that notion. So would modern complexity theorists.

If there was ever an argument for not teaching economics in high school, this is it*

Unbelievable.

* http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=circle%20jerk

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