Sludge Audits

Consumers, employees, students, and others are often subjected to “sludge”: excessive or unjustified frictions, such as paperwork burdens, that cost time or money; that may make life difficult to navigate; that may be frustrating, stigmatizing, or humiliating; and that might end up depriving people of access to important goods, opportunities, and services. Because of behavioral biases and cognitive scarcity, sludge can have much more harmful effects than private and public institutions anticipate. To protect consumers, investors, employees, and others, firms, universities, and government agencies should regularly conduct Sludge Audits to catalogue the costs of sludge, and to decide when and how to reduce it. Much of human life is unnecessarily sludgy. Sludge often has costs far in excess of benefits, and it can have hurt the most vulnerable members of society.

That is the abstract of a new paper by Cass Sunstein.


Interesting that Sunstein used the word "sludge" rather than the more common "red tape". I wonder if it was because "sludge" sounds nastier and unpleasant, or if "red tape" has connotations that he wants to avoid.

Because 'sludge' rhymes with 'nudge'

I would have said "sludge" and audits rhyme.

Sunstein's future intellectual breakthroughs/branding exercises:

and Trudge.

Truly, a hearty +1. Well played

I only recently learned that Kludge is a thing as well.

Yes, Sludge = Red Tape. Back in the 1970s the Cato Institute published a little book I bought, by a Jewish surnamed author, which exhaustively studied regulations and concluded, much to my surprise at the time (and changed my mind on the topic) that red tape is a function of...the taxpayer. You have so many competing interests in the USA that you need red tape to "CYA" and defend yourself against claims you are not catering to everybody's needs. It's analogous to when you buy a consumer product from a private company, the "User's Manual" is essentially a series of red tape legal warnings (that I never read and just trash). Same with bureaucratic red tape. To the extent red tape is not just "make work" like in many foreign countries, especially the Philippines and Greece, they are there to make sure there's "procedural due process" for all groups of Americans (Notice and Opportunity To Be Heard as rayward could tell us).

James Q Wilson's "Bureaucracy" similarly shows how much that is costly and seemingly irrational in US governance can be explained by legislators and agencies responding to voter demands. It's well worth reading more generally.

E. g.--who in the US deserves credit for totally failing to implement our PROMISED "do-not-call registry"?

I never take unsolicited calls from parties not identifiable from my landline's caller ID feature.

(Since the beginning of 2019, I've begun documenting just where all of my unsolicited calls come from: so far I've compiled a list of THIRTY US area codes from which unsolicited calls come my way.)

The technology permitting so many of these robocalls (presumed) to come through works just fine, doesn't it?

I must get hundreds of (unanswered) calls every month. No technology (at least, no "extra service" I'm willing to pay for) blocks these nuisance calls, even though we were all PROMISED years ago by our tech tyrants that FREE "do-not-call registries" would be up and running, providing effective call-blocking.

Damn ALL the commercial outfits and applications that abuse my telephone number, to hell or to some place like it.

You do know that most of the spam calls have "spoofed" (ie., forged) numbers?

Suspicion of something like that further inspires my incentive to leave practically all incoming calls unanswered.

Again: the technology is there to aid and assist the culprits, as if the technology was devised and deployed specifically for the culprits.

On the same topic, is there going to be another TC appraisal of who the winners and losers of the Barr letter on the Meuller report were?

Winners. Barr. Trump, who already had won.
Klobuchar. She managed to make me wish for her own sake that the allotted time was shorter.
Kamala. Her forcefully made points were sort of ridiculous. Was Rosenberg cleared to opine on a report that he ordered produced??? Did he examine all the evidence before coming to the conclusion that he agreed with Mueller??? Kamala came across as your ex wife's divorce lawyer.

As for the letter i don't think there is anything there. The full report came out a few days later and the wasn't anything that would contradict Barr's report. There was a bit of masterful Washington power jostling; he phoned Bob to ask him what he meant, with his staff, the assistant AG and his staff as well, taking notes on a friendly conversation where Bob complained about the media spin. I don't think Bob wrote this letter, it probably was one of his staff, Barr says. Oof!

I watched cspan, so heard what was said. I understand why the Congress and Barr cross examined by a staff lawyer not a congressman. Barr is obviously formidable.

What is really interesting is how Mueller and the Democrats are playing to the media without seemingly realizing that they don't have the reach and influence they once had. The cspan videos came up on the youtube page. And what is really interesting is how the NYT of all places are now talking about how the Trump campaign was spied upon.

Not asking what random dipshits think about it. Just wondering whether TC is embarrassed by having swallowed the bait like that.

@Edward Burke - on Amazon, AT&T sells an answering system with built in call block, just set the phone to "require caller to state his name before the call can go through" and the number of spam in our household went from a dozen such calls a day to zero.

And the number of callers with whom you would want to speak but didn't because they couldn't be bothered to jump through this (admittedly small, but potentially annoying) hoop...?

For my situation, I'd guess zero.

i only quibble with the idea the "firms" should conduct sludge audits. It seems sludge can be highly profitable.

Indeed. Opacity and roadblocks are often there on purpose.

Sludge production is often outsourced. Badly built "training" websites, with marginally literate text and pointless illustrations are just part of life in private- and public-sector work.

Yep. Signing up for the service is one click on the website; cancelling the service requires an in-person call to the call center, which is only open 9-5 M-F Eastern Time and has a 20-minute wait.

Actually...maybe more to quibble with.

"For conceptual clarity, we should not include monetary incentives or disincentives. If
consumers are told that they must pay a specified amount to obtain insurance or that they can
obtain a better seat on an airplane for a small additional fee, they are not facing sludge. A ban
is not sludge: If people are forbidden to smoke in public places, sludge is not the problem. A
mandate may or may not be sludge, depending on what is mandated. If people are told that
they have to go through an unnecessarily complex process to get help with depression or
anxiety, they are certainly be required to wade through sludge. If people are told that they
must obtain health insurance, the same conclusion holds to the extent that obtaining health
insurance involves excessive friction."

*not include monetary incentives*?
Time is money, no? Do folks with substantial money not have to deal with sludge, or can they simply spend time, instead of money, to deal with sludge?

*a ban is not sludge, but a health insurance mandate is...because obtaining insurance might be hard*
Huh? A health insurance mandate requires you to go someplace other than where you are to satisfy the mandate. A smoking ban requires you to go someplace other than where you are to satisfy the ban.

Definitions seem a bit loose...

Probably with reason. Hiring a consultancy to tell you what you already knew, without any plan to implement change, holding up employees by questioning them for a few days they should be working, is the definition of sludge for me. So he's actually adding more sludge.

No. It make compete sense that I should fill out an identical sheaf of papers every time I visit any health care practitioner, apply for a loan, open an account, sign up for a class, or make an inqury to a consumer service representative.

I am disarmed but not disrobed. The reason the mirror.

Sludge, red tape, whatever. I nominate the US Income Tax Code for first place or close to it - a quasi-infinite collection of superfluous, massively-burdensome bumf.

Unfortunately, one significant contributing factor is economists who desire to "nudge" the populace to do their bidding with respect to fashionable issues-of-the-day (e.g. dodgy battery-operated "cars", solar panels that - of course - only work when it happens to be sunny, etc.) This synergizes well with another factor: the boundless corruption of Congress, always striving to do the bidding of all manner of special interests.

Alas, there doesn't seem to be any feasible way to fix either of those factors.

Does Mr Sunstein use "anticipate" to mean "expect"? Or is he an educated chap?

^^This comment is sludge.^^

#1 definition "regard as probable; expect or predict."

Definition is bollocks, though.

More precisely, the definition is incomplete. It should have said "used by the uneducated to mean ...".

Ironically, calling for sludge audits is asking for the introduction of a new layer of sludge.

The prior program was called the Paperwork Reduction Act. Every regulation I've seen treats PRA as a chore and makes no effort to actually reduce paperwork burden on the public. Well meaning, but it has no teeth or oversight.

He'd get a lot more traction with me if he ditched the obnoxious Robin Hood Shtick where nothing matters except how it impacts "the most vulnerable members of society," whoever that might be, and just said 'the amount of paperwork is too damn high.'

Women, Poor Hardest Hit

Assault and battery is a felony.

He frames the language that way to get support from the left. Republicans will favor it already.

That's also why he creatively renamed "red tape" to "sludge". "Cutting red tape" is a perpetual talking point for conservatives which leftists instinctively associate with unregulated capitalism running amok.

The world would be a better place if Cass Sunstein were actually that clever. But the fact of the matter is that attempting to appeal to a broad coalition without talking out both sides of your mouth is usually the more effective strategy.

You mean such as this site which does not remember me and forces me to re-enter name/email to make a comment?

It's your browser that doesn't remember you.

And remembering you requires cookies planted on your computer. It is a privacy issue.

Competing firms have more incentive to avoid sludge than do government bureaus.

I agree. Sunstein seems to believe that the purpose of the Information Collection Budget is to improve government efficiency. I think its purpose is to measure how much money and time the government is soaking out of its people, not necessarily to reduce it. Sludge is a feature of government programs, not a bug. The last thing bureaucrats want is to solve a problem. They want the problem to serve up plenty of money and power into their bureaucracy.

You mean such as this site which does remember me for commenting and forces re-entry of name/email?

not remember me

Sludge is like the legal system -- the process is the punishment.

Ever work for a federal agency? 1 worker > 2 PMs > 4 auditors.... 80% sludge.

You forgot to mention the legal department that ends up effectively making all the decisions, and OIG, who effectively tell the lawyers what decisions they should make.

Attention. American civic leader Mr. Farrakhan has been banned from Twitter. Please, send a message to American company Twitter asking for his reinstatement. Let us not allow corporate greed to dictate terms to the common citizen. Social media has been strenghtening democracy by promoting what President Captain Bolsonaro has called "the disintermediation of power", circunventing corporate censorship, dwarfing Red Chinese influence and creating a rallying point for patriots in Brazil, the United States and elsewhere. Mr. Farrakhan's politics are irrelevant to the point that is not Twitter's Job to decide what we should read, say or think. Remember: first they came for Black people, I was not Black...

Actually, Facebook and Instagram. Send your messages to them. They are the ones doing the banning.

President Captain Bolsonaro has eliminated sludge in Brasil.

On Labir Day, President Capitain Bolsonaro made a telivised speech ordering the cutting of most red tape. Business will have a much freer rein to earn money and create jobs.

He also mandated all Brazilians turn off autocorrect.

I don't use autocorrect. This keyboard was designed by Asians. It is too small.

Senor Ribby,
this whole self identification social construct scam
the sociologists boldy envisioned is pretty fun, eh!

Exactly. President Captain opposes sociology funding.

Most of the time, sludge is done on purpose

"cognitive scarcity" is the best euphemism for stupidity I've seen in quite a long time.

Yeah, I remember feeling quite a big of cognitive scarcity in my Diff EQ class in college....

One man's sludge is another man's protection from going to prison.

News at 11? What's novel here that justifies publication? Does the paper propose a realistic way to get such an audit implemented in such a way that it doesn't just add to the sludge?

Ideally, we'd somehow impose the cost of the imposed administrative burden / paperwork / red tape / sludge back on the people who imposed it on users.

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