Saturday, May 11, 2013

Cass Sunstein Wrote Another Book

I recently finished Simpler: The Future of Government by legal scholar and former OIRA administrator Cass Sunstein. I've read some of his other books--notably Risk and Reasonwhich emphasizes cost-benefit analysis in regulation--so I was excited to hear first-hand how his academic theories fared in Washington's bureaucratic and political swamp.

The book is framed around Sunstein's experience heading up OIRA, the executive-branch office responsible for overseeing new regulations set by the various federal agencies. OIRA studies proposed rules, coordinates expertise, manages inter-governmental turf issues, and ultimately serves as a veto point for regulation. Sunstein makes two core arguments. First, that public policy should be much simpler, accomplished largely by cutting red tape and through behavioral innovations that help businesses and citizens interact better with government (think label design, or -EZ government forms). Second, that public policy should have stronger empirical foundations, driven by cost-benefit analysis and retrospective analysis (looking back at existing regulations to determine their efficacy). The book generally alternates between short personal vignettes, research findings and theory from behavioral psychology, and descriptions of specific policy accomplishments Sunstein pushed through while at OIRA.

Sunstein's reflections on moving from academia to government administrator (with a painful confirmation fight in between) were by far the best parts of the book. His diagnosis of institutional incentives--academia favors novelty, politics favors loyalty--were fascinating. I did get the sense, however, that we're not hearing the whole story. Sunstein has devoted a career to studying OIRA and it's agenda, yet he resigned as soon as he could without raising eyebrows. This book offers a glimpse into some potential dissatisfaction about Washington--a snide comment here and there--but in general the tone is incredibly cheery and positive, almost eerily so. I suspect Sunstein's sense of duty has prevented a full and honest account; perhaps after Obama leaves office we'll see his full analysis of Washington's dysfunction. That's a book I would enjoy.

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Simpler ranks near the bottom of Sunstein's many books, if only because its marketing style fits so poorly with the content. Given the success of Nudge, the impulse to publish another big-picture Malcolm Gladwell-esque book is understandable. But Sunstein has already published several of these, and the unifying theory--"simpler" government policy--is weak. He critiques rules prohibiting private-sector discretion, but admits the legal uncertainty and added costs of vague regulation is not always the best. He promotes performance standards over design standards, yet spends the bulk of the book cataloging the many ways in which process matters in behavioral decisionmaking. He takes pains to separate questions about the complexity of government from questions about the size of government, yet describes in detail the extreme politicization of every facet of his experience at OIRA, an evident failure of the idea in practice. In general the book bends over backwards to fit the big-picture theory, and rehashes lots of content from previous works in order to bulk up to the expected page count. This is a shame given how interesting and important Sunstein's accomplishments were at OIRA. 

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