4.02.2009

Obama's Dream Team, Our Nightmare

In "How Obama Is Using The Science of Change" at Time.com, Michael Grunwald exposes something which shouldn't surprise, and yet it does. We know that Obama has appointed Cass Sunstein as "regulatory czar," and I have long observed the interplay between Sunstein's "libertarian paternalism" (Nudge) and the work of behavioral economist Dan Ariely (Predictably Irrational), but Grunwald today tells us something we didn't know (as far as I'm aware, anyway):
Two weeks before Election Day, Barack Obama's campaign was mobilizing millions of supporters; it was a bit late to start rewriting get-out-the-vote (GOTV) scripts. "BUT, BUT, BUT," deputy field director Mike Moffo wrote to Obama's GOTV operatives nationwide, "What if I told you a world-famous team of genius scientists, psychologists and economists wrote down the best techniques for GOTV scripting?!?! Would you be interested in at least taking a look? Of course you would!!"

Moffo then passed along guidelines and a sample script from the Consortium of Behavioral Scientists, a secret advisory group of 29 of the nation's leading behaviorists. ...

The existence of this behavioral dream team — which also included best-selling authors Dan Ariely of MIT (Predictably Irrational) and Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein of the University of Chicago (Nudge) as well as Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman of Princeton — has never been publicly disclosed, even though its members gave Obama white papers on messaging, fundraising and rumor control as well as voter mobilization. All their proposals — among them the famous online fundraising lotteries that gave small donors a chance to win face time with Obama — came with footnotes to peer-reviewed academic research. "It was amazing to have these bullet points telling us what to do and the science behind it," Moffo tells TIME. "These guys really know what makes people tick." [bold added]
I have previously addressed some of Cass Sunstein's and Dan Ariely's ideas, and upon reflection, it isn't a shock to see that they worked together in the Obama campaign's Consortium of Behavioral Scientists. In a perverse way, it's reassuring to see such terrible ideas coalesce like this, because it reinforces that ideas have great importance, and that there is a definite right and wrong. It reasserts the primacy of existence and the law of identity. These fellows belong together.

The threat, however, is that the bad ideas are the ones whispered in the ear of power, and power is eager to listen.

To revisit briefly, Sunstein's idea of nudging is to set up "choice architecture" to default to the way the government wants things to go, but to toss a bone to freedom by allowing people to opt-out. I suppose that doesn't sound too terrible on the face of it, so let's continue with Grunwald:
The first sign of the behavioralist takeover surfaced on April 1, when Americans began receiving $116 billion worth of payroll-tax cuts from the stimulus package. Obama isn't sending us one-time rebate checks. Reason: his goal is to jump-start consumer spending, and research has shown we're more likely to save money rather than spend it when we get it in a big chunk. Instead, Obama made sure the tax cuts will be paid out through decreased withholding, so our regular paychecks will grow a bit and we'll be less likely to notice the windfall. The idea, an aide explains, is to manipulate us into spending the extra cash.

Obama's efforts to change us carry a clear political risk. Republicans already portray him as a nanny-state scold, an élitist Big Brother lecturing us about inflating our tires and reading to our kids. We elected a President, not a life coach, and we might not like elected officials' challenging our right to be couch potatoes. Obama's aides seem to favor nudges that preserve free choice over heavy-handed regulation, an approach Thaler and Sunstein, the co-authors of Nudge, call "libertarian paternalism." But it's still paternalism, and Sunstein will have the power to put it into action. The idea of public officials, even well-meaning ones, trying to engineer our private behavior to produce change can seem a bit creepy.

But face it: Obama is right. Our emissions are boiling the planet, and most of our energy use is unnecessary. Our health expenditures are bankrupting the Treasury, and most of our visits to the doctor can be traced to unhealthy behavior. We do need to change, and we know it.

So why don't we? And how can we? The behaviorists have ideas, and the Administration is listening. [bold added]
Grunwald's ideas are clear: he agrees with Ariely that people are irrevocably irrational and need to be led to the "right" decisions by a supposedly benevolent government. And yet, he still gets something right... this is creepy. And not just creepy, but Orwellian and profoundly disturbing.

If I were prone to believing in conspiracies, I would think that Kant and Marx set the philosophical and economic ideas in motion, transmitted special coded tea leaf signals to Keynes to continue the work to attack the free market, and to Dewey to destroy classical education, and then watched the dominoes fall throughout the 20th century as American students were bathed in nihilism and pragmatism to a point where they really are predictably irrational, by design.

But I don't believe in conspiracies like this. I do, however, respect the power of ideas, and know that while there were no grand plans in place, the transmission of the terrible ideas of the historical figures above led to the situation we're in now—where a group of "behavioral economists" (I use quotes on purpose) are positioned to experiment on the citizens of America—while citizens like Grunwald seem to revel in it. Grunwald acknowledges as much, though likely without realizing it, when he writes:
Obama has pledged that his bank-regulation overhaul would be based "not on abstract models ... but on actual data on how actual people make financial decisions." That's a plain-English way of saying it will be guided by behavioral economics, not neoclassical economics.

Neoclassical economics—another University of Chicago specialty—has ruled our world for decades. It's the doctrine that markets know best: when government keeps its hands off free enterprise, capital migrates to its most productive uses and society prospers. But its elegant models rely on a bold assumption: rational decisions by self-interested individuals create efficient markets. Behavioral economics challenged this assumption, and the financial meltdown has just about shattered it; even former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan confessed his Chicago School worldview has been shaken. [bold added]
Behavioral economics, relying on the pragmatism and altruism that the sad majority of Americans hold as an unquestioned guide to life, is replacing the last vestiges of Enlightenment thought that, only because of its veracity and the American sense-of-life, still lingers in America to this day. In reference to the "opportunity" afforded by the financial crisis, Grunwald quotes Ariely, in what seems the disgusting relish of a cannibal looking up from its meal:
"We couldn't have planned a better marketing campaign for behavioral economics," MIT's Ariely quips.
Prepare to be nudged, America.

2 comments:

Doug Reich said...

C.,

Excellent post! I had no idea how pervasive this is. Couple thoughts for you: I think the science is legit in the sense of studying human behavior. I think Eric Daniels wrote an insightful piece on TOS regarding this. Essentially he said rationality is a capacity not infallibility. These behaviorists equate fallibility with irrationality which is a huge error. Also, I believe these guys are essentially Platonists. They regard humans as imperfect reflections of the ideal form which is "rationality" or in their equation infallibility. They then step in as philosopher kings to tell us what to do to be closer to "perfect". There are a lot of issues here and we need to be aware to expose them - thanks again and look forward to your thoughts

C. August said...

I actually have a post brewing about the science... But you're right that some of the more basic science is pretty legit, especially when they simply do a study to say that if people have to opt-out of enrolling in a 401K (a "desirable social goal" in their terms) there is much higher participation.

I don't know that I'd label them as Platonists, though I can see how that would work. They do seem to think that humans are incapable of "perfect rationality," and thus need to be protected from themselves by the "benevolent" philosopher king. The lightweights and hacks like Ariely might fall into this category. Take a look at my link in the post, where I pick apart his seriously stupid "experiments" and you'll see his science mostly isn't legit.

But Sunstein more closely follows your post where you link pragmatism and calculated power lust. It's his "science," especially one particular study that he's been citing in nearly every paper or book he's written in the past 5 years, that I want to take a serious look at.

And yes, Eric Daniels' reviews of both "Nudge" and "Predictably Irrational" are very good.