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Cass Sunstein

  • Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, Barrett Offer Few Clues on Affirmative Action’s Future

    January 25, 2022

    Former President Donald Trump’s three U.S. Supreme Court appointees likely will be key to the fate of affirmative action in college admissions as the issue of race-conscious policies returns to the high court. ... Shortly after that ruling, for which Gorsuch was widely praised, Harvard Law’s Cass Sunstein warned that Gorsuch’s adherence to the “original public meaning” of legal texts “gives a real boost to opponents of affirmative action.” The key passage, Sunstein wrote, is where Gorsuch writes that to discriminate is to treat an “individual worse than others who are similarly situated,” and text means that the judge’s “focus should be on individuals, not groups.”

  • Head shot of man looking to the side

    In Memoriam: Lloyd L. Weinreb: 1936–2021

    December 26, 2021

    Described as one of the great figures in the history of Harvard Law School, Lloyd L. Weinreb ’62, a leading authority on criminal and copyright law, and an HLS professor for nearly a half-century, died Dec. 15, at the age of 85.

  • Coffee cup with whipped cream and open book on a window sill.

    On the bookshelf

    November 30, 2021

    Here are some of the latest from HLS authors to add to your reading list over the holiday break.

  • You Can’t Nudge If You’ve Got Sludge

    September 30, 2021

    Harvard Law professor Cass Sunstein is best known as co-author, with Nobelist Richard Thaler, of the multi-million selling book Nudge. The idea that the behaviors of citizens and employees can be steered in a way that is beneficial to them have taken root worldwide. Today, there are hundreds of behavioral science teams, often called “nudge units,” in governments and corporations around the world.

  • Minow, Sunstein and Kennedy launch the inaugural issue of The American Journal of Law and Equality

    September 22, 2021

    This month saw the publication of the inaugural issue of The American Journal of Law and Equality, a project developed by three Harvard Law School professors in collaboration with MIT Press. The first issue features a variety of views from legal, academic and philosophical scholars, including its three editors and founders: 300th Anniversary University Professor Martha Minow; Michael R. Klein Professor of Law Randall L. Kennedy; and Robert Walmsley University Professor Cass R. Sunstein ‘78.

  • Scales of Justice statue

    ‘We have to spend more time on the inequalities that are embedded in the law itself’

    September 21, 2021

    September 2021 saw the publication of the inaugural issue of The American Journal of Law and Equality, a project developed by Professors Martha Minow, Randall Kennedy, and Cass Sunstein, in collaboration with MIT Press.

  • 22 of the most anticipated new books to read this May

    May 7, 2021

    May is blooming with brand-new reads with a little something for everyone... ‘Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment’ by Daniel Kahneman, Olivier Sibony and Cass R. Sunstein (available May 18): Ever wonder why people sometimes make such bad judgments? Nobel laureate, Princeton psychology professor and bestselling author Daniel Kahneman, along with Cass R. Sunstein, a legal scholar and Harvard law professor, and Olivier Sibony, an HEC Paris business professor, tackle that question and explore how variables of “noise,” akin to bias, affect errors in decision-making. The authors also offer ways to reduce noise and bias — important advice in today’s complicated world.

  • A Post-Trump Guide to Stopping the Lies and Healing Our Politic‪s‬

    March 26, 2021

    Cass Sunstein is a public intellectual and provocateur—and he has been pondering a timely issue: public lying. A longtime Harvard law professor and an expert on behavioral economics, Sunstein has written a slew of books, including volumes on cost-benefit analysis, conspiracy theories, animal rights, authoritarianism in the United States, decision-making, and Star Wars. He was recently named senior counselor at the Department of Homeland Security, where he will oversee the Biden administration’s rollback of Donald Trump’s policies. But right before he rejoined the federal government, he released his latest work: Liars: Falsehoods and Free Speech in an Age of Deception. The book is certainly a product of the Trump era, a stretch in which the “former guy” made 30,583 false or misleading claims while serving as president, according to the Washington Post. All his lying kind of worked. Donald Trump was elected despite—or because—of his serial falsehood-flinging. He nearly won reelection after his tsunami of truth-trashing. And after the election, Trump promoted the Big Lie that victory had been stolen from him, and his crusade triggered an insurrectionist raid on the Capitol that threatened the certification of the electoral vote count. After all that—and after Trump’s misleading statements about the COVID-19 pandemic led to the preventable of deaths hundreds of thousands of Americans—Trump remains the leader of the Republican Party and a hero for tens of millions of Americans.

  • Why humans believe most people are telling the truth — even when we’re told they’re lying

    March 5, 2021

    An op-ed by Cass SunsteinWhy do people credit falsehoods? Why don’t they dismiss them? Here is a large part of the answer: Most of the time, we tend to believe other people. When they tell us things, we assume that they are telling the truth.To be sure, we consider some people untrustworthy, perhaps because they have so proved themselves; perhaps because they belong to a group that we think we should distrust. But on average, we trust people even when we should not. We pay too little attention to clear evidence that what is being said is false. We fail to discount for the circumstances. For instance, what if I said: In recent months, scientists have found that climate change is unlikely to be a serious problem. On balance, most people will be unaffected by it. People in the United States and Europe are unlikely to be affected at all. To be sure, there will be some harmful effects elsewhere, including Rwanda and South Africa, but even there, those effects will be small. Remarkably, most of the world’s population will be better off, because the world will be warmer. Actually that is false; I made it up. But if you’re like most people, that false statement might well linger in your memory, making you think, at least for a little while and in some part of your mind, that climate change isn’t a serious problem. (Sorry.)

  • Group of men carrying a sign that says

    A journal dedicated to promoting ‘revolutionary law’

    February 24, 2021

    On its 55th anniversary, Harvard Law Today takes a look back at the founding of the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review.

  • Randall Kennedy, Martha Minow, Cass Sunstein

    Kennedy, Minow, Sunstein found new American Journal of Law and Equality

    February 23, 2021

    Three Harvard Law School professors have teamed up with MIT Press to launch a new journal focused on issues of inequality.

  • The White House after a heavy snowfall

    More Harvard Law faculty and alumni tapped to serve in the Biden administration

    February 19, 2021

    Since President Joe Biden took office in January, dozens of Harvard Law community members, including faculty and alumni, have been tapped to serve in high-profile positions in his administration

  • The Free Speech Debate About Social Media Is Broken

    February 8, 2021

    An op-ed by Cass SunsteinThe U.S. Supreme Court is strongly committed to the “marketplace of ideas.” It tends to believe, in the words of Justice Louis Brandeis, that the remedy for falsehoods and fallacies is “more speech, not enforced silence.” If you believe that, you might also believe that if people lie about Covid-19, the 2020 presidential election, a politician, a journalist, a neighbor — or you or me — nothing can be done. Sure, you can answer with “counterspeech”: the truth. And that’s it. The problem is in many cases, counterspeech is ineffective. Lies lodge in the human mind. They are like cockroaches: You can’t quite get rid of them. This psychological reality raises serious questions about current constitutional understandings and also about the current practices of social media platforms, including Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, in trying to stop falsehoods. Ironically, those understandings, and those practices, may themselves be based on a mistake of fact — something like misinformation. In United States v. Alvarez, decided in 2012, the Supreme Court appeared to rule that lies and lying are protected by the First Amendment. The court struck down a provision of the Stolen Valor Act, which makes it a federal crime if you claim, falsely, that you won the Congressional Medal of Honor. According to the court, that provision is unconstitutional; the government cannot punish that lie.

  • Biden’s Faith in Behavioral Science Will Pay Off

    February 3, 2021

    An op-ed by Cass SunsteinIn the impressively detailed memorandum on “scientific integrity” that President Joe Biden recently released, one provision could easily escape notice. It’s an explicit endorsement of behavioral science — and it calls for much more of it. The provision requires the director of the Office of Management and Budget to produce, within 120 days, “guidance to improve agencies’ evidence-building plans and annual evaluation plans.” It calls out President Barack Obama’s Executive Order 13707, issued in 2015, which has guided the use of behavioral science by government officials. Biden’s memorandum instructs the OMB director to build on that order and to work toward better practices. According to the memorandum, those practices “might include use of pilot projects, randomized control trials, quantitative-survey research, and statistical analysis.” In general, the goal is to build on “approaches that may be informed by the social and behavioral sciences and data science.” There’s a strong signal here. Obama’s agencies, including his Social and Behavioral Sciences Team, used behavioral sciences to produce creative solutions to policy problems.

  • Trump Judges Won’t Be Biden’s Highest Legal Hurdle

    February 1, 2021

    An op-ed by Cass SunsteinIt is already clear that President Joe Biden will be implementing a large number of his policies through executive action. The reason is equally obvious: Democrats control both houses of Congress, but with a 50-50 split in the Senate and thin majority in the House of Representatives, it will be challenging to enact ambitious legislation. Whether the issue involves climate change, Covid-19, occupational safety or civil rights, executive action might be the only game in town. Regulations are a primary vehicle for executive action, and they are often challenged in court. The federal judiciary now includes more than 200 judges chosen by former President Donald Trump. Won’t they be eager to strike down a lot of Biden’s regulations? It’s a fair question, but for the Biden administration, it’s less constructive to ask it than to take account of identifiable judge-made principles that regulators must respect. In recent years, the Supreme Court has issued two rulings that loom particularly large, and that could turn out to impose serious obstacles. The first of those rulings — a big setback for President Barack Obama — emphasizes the importance of cost-benefit analysis. The second — a big setback for Trump — underlines the need for agencies to give careful consideration to how disruptive a regulatory change might be to people who relied on the previous rules and requirements.

  • Biden Climate Regulation Is About to Get Tougher

    January 27, 2021

    An op-ed by Cass SunsteinIt’s the most important number you’ve never heard of, and President Joe Biden is about to change it as he resets U.S. environmental policy. It’s the social cost of carbon, a figure that helps determine the stringency of federal regulations governing cars, trucks, power plants, refrigerators, microwave ovens, washing machines, vending machines and much more. The social cost of carbon is a monetary figure that is meant to capture the damage done by a ton of carbon emissions to health, property and agricultural productivity, among other things. (It has two siblings, the social of nitrous oxide and the social cost of methane.) Because federal agencies often base their decisions on cost-benefit analysis, a high social cost of carbon means aggressive regulation of greenhouse gas emissions and a low one will produce modest regulation. Under President Barack Obama, the social cost of a ton of carbon was set at about $50 by a technical working group.1 In 2016, the analysis of the working group was upheld in court. But in one of his first actions, President Donald Trump disbanded the working group and essentially slicedthe social cost of carbon to a range of $2 to $7. That low number played a large role in justifying significantly weaker regulation of emissions from cars, power plants and more. How did Trump come up with that number? He ordered federal agencies to consider only the damage done in the U.S., and to ignore the damage done to the rest of the world. If greenhouse gas emissions from power plants in the U.S. harmed people in Canada, France and South America, that harm would be ignored.

  • Biden Chooses a Pragmatic Path for Regulation

    January 25, 2021

    An op-ed by Cass SunsteinAmid the flurry of new executive orders and memoranda signed by President Joe Biden on his first day in office, there’s a sleeper. It’s called Modernizing Regulatory Review, and it’s exceedingly important. Crucially, the memorandum affirms the long-standing process managed by the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, which includes a significant role for cost-benefit analysis. At the same time, it marks a dramatic departure from the approach favored by the administration of former President Donald Trump and identifies excellent directions for fresh reforms. Since 1981, both Republican and Democratic presidents have directed agencies to submit drafts of their major regulations to OIRA — part of the Office of Management and Budget — for review and scrutiny. Whether the issue involves environmental protection, food safety, homeland security, health care or transportation, agencies must allow OIRA to coordinate a process called interagency review, by which various parts of the federal government are permitted to comment on draft regulations. For regulations with an economic impact of $100 million or more, agencies must also produce a regulatory impact analysis, cataloguing the benefits and costs of regulations, and showing that the benefits justify the costs.

  • Was the Capitol Riot Sedition? Just Read the Law

    January 22, 2021

    An op-ed by Cass SunsteinSedition! It’s an alarming accusation, and when it is made, it is often a serious danger to free expression. In many nations, including the U.S., the threat of sedition prosecutions has been used to criminalize dissent — to intimidate, and perhaps even imprison, people who strenuously object to what the government is doing. The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, with their restrictions on freedom of speech, are often taken as a shameful violation of constitutional principles. In some of its most notorious decisions, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld laws that forbid sedition, even when applied to political protestors. The Justice Department is now considering sedition charges against the mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 as Congress was voting to certify President Joe Biden’s electoral college victory. Some people have even called for prosecution, on charges of sedition, of former President Donald Trump, for inspiring and egging on the rioters before they invaded the Capitol. The crime of sedition has been defined in many different ways. A broad definition might extend to heated political protests, meant to cast doubt on the competence, good faith or legitimacy of the current government. A narrow definition might be limited to acts of violence, in which people physically attack public officials and public property in a clear effort to overthrow the current government.

  • Can Ex-Presidents Be Impeached? No. Convicted? Yes.

    January 20, 2021

    An op-ed by Cass SunsteinCan a former president be impeached? Can he be convicted? Those are two different constitutional questions. And President Donald Trump, impeached last week while still in office and potentially subject to conviction after departing, has obvious reason to offer a firm “no” to the second question. Under the Constitution, the House of Representatives is authorized to impeach a president, and then the Senate is authorized to convict him. But that doesn’t answer the questions about a former president. Let’s start with the text. Article I says this: “Judgment in Cases of Impeachment shall not extend further than to removal from Office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any Office of honor, Trust or Profit under the United States: but the Party convicted shall nevertheless be liable and subject to Indictment, Trial, Judgment and Punishment, according to Law.” Article II says this: “The President, Vice President and all civil officers of the United States, shall be removed from office on impeachment for, and conviction of, treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.” Under these provisions, it should be clear that the House cannot impeach someone who has never held public office, and who merely aspires to do so.

  • How Government Should Regulate Social Media Lies

    January 19, 2021

    An op-ed by Cass SunsteinA lot of people are falsely shouting fire these days, and causing panics. Should they be punished? What about the platforms that host them? For some shouts, the answer is clearly yes. In 2019, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg called for national regulation, specifically emphasizing harmful content and the integrity of elections. Whatever you think of his particular proposals, he pointed in promising directions. In the last year, Twitter and Facebook have taken significant voluntary steps to combat misinformation, including warnings, reduced circulation and removal. Should the government step in to oversee those steps? Should it require them? Should it forbid them? Should it demand more? To answer these questions, we need to engage the First Amendment. The Supreme Court did that in 2012, offering something like a green light for falsehoods. In a key passage in the case of  U.S. v. Alvarez, the court invoked the totalitarian dystopia of George Orwell’s “1984” to declare, “Our constitutional tradition stands against the idea that we need Oceania’s Ministry of Truth.” The case involved Xavier Alvarez, an inveterate liar who falsely claimed that he had been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. That claim violated the Stolen Valor Act, which made telling that particular lie a crime. The court struck down the law, ruling that Alvarez’s lie was protected by the First Amendment.

  • Trump and the Capitol Mob: The Science of Unleashing

    January 13, 2021

    An op-ed by Cass SunsteinJan. 6, 2021 is a day that should live in infamy — a day on which the fundamental institutions of the U.S. were suddenly and deliberately attacked. It will take a long time to understand fully why political passion crossed the line into an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, but social science research illuminates part of the picture. Long-standing feelings of rage, humiliation, racism and hatred did not explode spontaneously. They were fueled and unleashed, above all by President Donald Trump. That’s what turned those feelings into action. The fundamental idea, brilliantly elaborated by the Duke University economist Timur Kuran, involves “preference falsification.” Kuran’s starting point is that for better or for worse, people’s desires, beliefs and values are often silenced by prevailing social norms. If you despise immigrants or hate Jews, you might keep your thoughts to yourself because you think that other people think differently — and perhaps would hate you if they knew what you think. Kuran’s claim is that when a lot of people silence themselves, the conditions are ripe for some kind of explosion. But precisely because of the self-silencing, it’s impossible to predict how, when or whether the explosion will actually occur.

  • Trump Can’t Pardon Himself

    January 12, 2021

    An op-ed by Cass SunsteinPresident Donald Trump is reportedly considering issuing himself a pardon, perhaps on his last day in office. Is he really allowed to do that? The best answer is simple: No. Begin with the Constitution’s text, which states that the president “shall have the power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offenses against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.” You might be tempted to read those words, as some specialists do, to mean that the president’s pardon power is unlimited, with the sole exception of impeachment. If that’s the right interpretation, there would be nothing wrong with self-pardons. But there is an immediate qualification: Any president would be impeachable if he used the pardon power in certain ways. Suppose, for example, that a president pardoned everyone who committed crimes at his behest and on his behalf. That would be an impeachable offense. This conclusion emerges clearly from the Virginia ratification debates of 1787, where George Mason objected to the apparent breadth of the pardon power, contending that it was a fatal defect in the proposed constitution. Mason urged that the president “ought not to have the power of pardoning, because he may frequently pardon crimes which were advised by himself.”

  • Not Convicted or Indicted? Trump Can Pardon You Anyway

    January 11, 2021

    An op-ed by Cass SunsteinIt’s been widely reported that President Donald Trump is considering granting a batch of pardons, possibly on his last day in office. Some of the people named as likely beneficiaries have not been convicted or even indicted for any crime. That raises a question: Does the president have the power to issue a preemptive pardon, one that would protect someone from prosecution in the future? Really? The answer, given by the Supreme Court in 1866, is yes. In the 1860s, Augustus Hill Garland was a lawyer in Little Rock, Arkansas, who strongly sympathized with the Confederacy. From 1861 until the end of the Civil War, he represented his state in the Confederate Congress. That exposed Garland to a future treason charge. In July 1865, President Andrew Johnson pardoned him, “for all offences by him committed, arising from participation, direct or implied,” in the rebellion against the U.S., with the proviso that the pardon would “be void and of no effect if the said A. H. Garland shall hereafter at any time acquire any property whatever in slaves, or make use of slave labor.” The Supreme Court held that the pardon was legitimate. Speaking broadly, it said that the Constitution “intended to, and in fact did, clothe the President with the power to pardon all offences, and thereby to wash away the legal stain and extinguish all the legal consequences of treason — all penalties, all punishments, and everything in the nature of punishment.”

  • Does the 25th Amendment Apply to Trump? Quite Possibly

    January 8, 2021

    An op-ed by Cass SunsteinIn the aftermath of President Donald Trump’s provocation of a riot at the U.S. Capitol, there is fresh discussion of the two avenues for removing a sitting president. The first is impeachment. The second is the 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. There is no question that Trump’s conduct was an impeachable “high crime and misdemeanor.” The applicability of the 25th Amendment isn’t as obvious. The two grounds for removal are fundamentally different. Impeachment is for egregious abuse of the powers of the office. The 25th Amendment is concerned with some kind of impairment that renders a president unable to do his job. For present purposes, its key provision is Section 4: “Whenever the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President.” After this declaration is transmitted, the president’s only recourse is to submit his own declaration, saying that he is indeed able to do his job. At that point, the vice president and the majority of the principal officers of the executive departments (essentially the cabinet) can disagree. If so, Congress gets to decide the question.

  • Democrats’ Edge May Be Tiny, But Its Power Is Huge

    January 7, 2021

    An op-ed by Cass SunsteinFor President-elect Joe Biden, Santa Claus came a few weeks late, but he certainly delivered. Georgia’s Senate races appear likely to give Democrats control of both houses of Congress — a spectacular gift. I worked in the Barack Obama administration from 2009 to 2012, and I was able to see, close up, the staggering difference it makes when the Senate and the House of Representatives are controlled by the same party as the president. That was the case in 2009 and 2010, when Congress enacted not only the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the economic stimulus made necessary by the 2008 financial crisis), the Affordable Care Act, and the Dodd-Frank banking reforms — but also the Family Smoking Prevention and Control Act, the Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act, and the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which strengthened the available tools to combat employment discrimination in court. This was one of the most consequential periods of lawmaking in the nation’s entire history. Everything changed in 2011, when Republicans won a majority in the House. That meant that in 2011 and 2012, Congress wasn’t going to do much, especially if Obama favored it. For many issues, executive actions became the only game in town.

  • Vice President Pence Can Preside But Not Decide

    January 6, 2021

    An op-ed by Cass SunsteinSince the presidential election on Nov. 2, the rule of law has held. That is one of the most noteworthy, and inspiring, developments in the entire history of U.S. law. Whether they were appointed by Presidents Donald Trump or Barack Obama, by Presidents Bill Clinton or George W. Bush, federal judges have shown fidelity to the law by rejecting frivolous and evidence-free efforts by Trump to overturn former Vice President Joe Biden’s victory. Congress will meet on Wednesday to finalize that victory. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, joined by at least 10 other Republican senators or senators-elect, is mounting a challenge, seeking to delay and perhaps to reverse the result. An obvious question is the role of Vice President Mike Pence, who serves as president of the Senate and can break deadlocked senate votes on ordinary matters, now that he has “welcomed” the senators’ electoral vote challenge. What is he permitted to do on Wednesday? Under the law, the simplest answer is: Not very much. His role is largely ceremonial. He has no power to overturn the results of a presidential election. A central reason is that the drafters of the U.S. Constitution and those who followed them were acutely aware of the risk of bias and self-interest in politics. They did not want the vice president, who might well have a rooting interest, to settle the outcome of a presidential election.

  • Five Ways the EPA Can Get Its Spirit Back

    January 5, 2021

    An op-ed by Cass SunsteinPresident-elect Joe Biden has chosen Michael Regan, secretary of North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality, as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. If confirmed, Regan will have a distinctly challenging assignment. The reasons are threefold. The Donald Trump administration has scaled back so many environmental regulations; the agency has been demoralized; and Biden has an exceedingly ambitious environmental agenda. Regan will need to establish priorities for his first months. Here are five concrete ideas, the first three of which involve climate change, on which Biden himself is focusing: Greenhouse gas emissions from motor vehicles. Transportation accounts for about 28% of greenhouse gases in the U.S., and from 1990 to 2018, emissions from transportation have grown significantly. President Barack Obama imposed aggressive regulations on greenhouse gas emissions from both light-duty and heavy-duty vehicles; Trump scaled them way back. Biden promises to issue “a new fuel economy standard that goes beyond what the Obama-Biden Administration put in place.” To do that, the EPA will have to coordinate closely with the Department of Transportation, which has authority to issue fuel economy rules. It will have to comply with the Clean Air Act, which calls for standards that “reflect the greatest degree of emission reduction achievable,” considering technological feasibility, costs of compliance and necessary lead time.

  • What Biden’s Good Climate Plan Is Missing So Far

    January 4, 2021

    An op-ed by Cass SunsteinSuppose we could adopt, soon or right now, a strategy that would substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions while costing people very little, or possibly even nothing? Not only that, it would not require bans or mandates, new regulations or carbon taxes. Consumers would retain freedom of choice. The very idea sounds fanciful, even nuts. Yet a number of municipalities in California have adopted such an approach, and it’s in widespread use in Germany, where it is having a major impact. It’s called “green by default.” The basic concept is that consumers should be automatically enrolled in renewable energy, with the right to opt out if that’s what they want to do. If the approach were adopted all over the U.S., it could potentially play a larger role in reducing emissions than seemingly more aggressive steps, such as energy efficiency requirements for household appliances. In the municipalities in California, hundreds of thousands of people are now receiving 100% renewable energy, and that means dramatic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. All over Germany, automatic enrollment in renewable energy is also working, in the sense that most people are staying with cleaner energy sources.

  • On the Bookshelf: HLS Library Book Talks, Spring 2018 2

    On the bookshelf

    December 15, 2020

    In the unusual year of 2020, Harvard Law authors continued to do what they always have: Write.

  • Undoing One Trump Regulation May Divide Democrats

    December 15, 2020

    An op-ed by Cass SunsteinDonald Trump’s administration is doing an extraordinary amount of “midnight rule-making” — issuing regulations at the very end of the president’s four-year term. This will cause real trouble for the Joe Biden administration, which will have to try to unwind a lot of it. As of now, Trump’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs has a whopping 136 regulations under review, suggesting that there might well be a last-minute tsunami. Some of the last-minute regulations are genuinely terrible, such as new restrictions on granting asylum to people threatened with gang or gender violence. But others are more complicated, in the sense that they are likely to produce disparate reactions among Biden’s supporters — and potentially reveal significant fissures among progressives. A recent example comes from Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency, which has finalized a seemingly technical regulation directing how the agency does cost-benefit analysis. The changes have provoked outrage among those who see it a clear effort to make it harder for the EPA to protect public health and the environment. But if you read the rule carefully, you might hate it less, or like it more, than you expected. The rule is called “Increasing Consistency and Transparency in Considering Benefits and Costs in the Clean Air Act Rulemaking Process.” Ignore the boring name and consider its three principal elements.

  • ‘Safe Harbor’ Day Was a Definitive Rebuke of Trump

    December 10, 2020

    An op-ed by Cass SunsteinDec. 8, 2020, was “safe harbor” day — a day forward for President-elect Joe Biden and another step backward for President Donald Trump. It came and went without a constitutional crisis, punctuated by the Supreme Court’s late-afternoon refusal to overturn Biden’s victory in Pennsylvania. It was important because it means people can stop sweating over the next important day in the transfer of presidential power — Dec. 14, when the electors of the president and vice president actually meet and vote. But, first, what does the idea of a “safe harbor” mean? The answer comes from the Electoral Count Act of 1887, enacted after the most chaotic and vicious presidential election in U.S. history, between Samuel Tilden and Rutherford B. Hayes. The vote in 1876 was sharply contested and followed by a lot of sordid wrangling from which Hayes emerged victorious. The 1887 act was designed to ensure that nothing like the Tilden-Hayes fiasco happened again. More specifically, it was designed to ensure the primacy of the states, so long as they proceeded according to their own law. Section 2 of the Act is the safe-harbor provision.

  • Biden Has the Right to Name His Own Cabinet

    December 7, 2020

    An op-ed by Cass SunsteinRepublican senators are threatening to refuse to confirm President-elect Joe Biden’s choices for his cabinet. They appear to be especially unhappy about the selection of Neera Tanden to head the Office of Management and Budget, in part because she posted a number of tweets that were sharply critical of them. But they might choose to make the confirmation process a nightmare for several of Biden’s nominees. That would be a clear betrayal of the U.S. Constitution. Under the constitutional plan, the Senate is obligated to give the president a lot of discretion insofar as he is choosing the people who will be the working for him. (And yes, this objection applies to the many Democratic senators who voted against President Donald Trump’s choices, such as Eugene Scalia for Secretary of Labor.) To see why, let’s begin with the text. Article II, section 1 of the Constitution states, “The executive power shall be vested in a president of the United States of America.” At a minimum, that provision means that members of the president’s cabinet, and other high-level executive branch officials, are exercising authority vested in the president himself. As the Supreme Court recently said, such officials can be fired by the president — if and whenever he chooses. At the very least, it would be awkward to say that the president has broad power to remove his appointees — while also insisting that the Senate can freely reject the president’s choices about who should be working for him.

  • Don’t Read Too Much Into Supreme Court Religion Ruling

    December 1, 2020

    An op-ed by Cass SunsteinThe Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision on Wednesday night, striking down New York State restrictions on the number of people who can attend religious services during the coronavirus pandemic, is being taken as a signal of the emergence of a newly aggressive conservative majority. It’s easy to see why. The majority in the religion case included the court’s newest member, Justice Amy Coney Barrett, alongside the  most conservative of her colleagues: Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. The dissenters included Chief Justice John Roberts, also conservative but more moderate in his voting patterns — who has been the swing vote in divided decisions for the last year. Notwithstanding the public reaction, the decision is hardly pathbreaking, and it doesn’t signal much at all. As a technical matter, it’s close to a yawner. If it is to be taken a signal, it should be of something more specific: the existence of a majority that will be highly protective of the rights of religious believers. The core of the case was a claim of discrimination against churches and synagogues. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo had issued an order stating that in certain pandemic-infected areas, deemed “red zones,” only 10 people could attend religious services. In less dangerous areas, deemed “orange zones,” the cap was 25.

  • Belief in Trump Fiction Can Be Worn Down by Fact

    November 30, 2020

    An op-ed by Cass SunsteinPresident Donald Trump keeps claiming that the 2020 election was stolen from him, and was replete with fraud. He has spread the false assertion that voting machines made by Dominion Voting Systems Inc. deleted millions of pro-Trump votes and shifted hundreds of thousands to his victorious opponent, President-elect Joe Biden. Many Republicans agree that the presidency has been stolen. Polls show that about half of them think that Trump “rightfully won” the election, and a whopping 68 percent have concerns about a “rigged” process for counting votes. Various media outlets associated with the political right have fueled these beliefs. Social media are playing a major role. Wild ideas are circulating on Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere. In a recent interview, former President Barack Obama identified the contemporary media environment as “the single biggest threat to our democracy.” He added: “If we do not have the capacity to distinguish what’s true from what’s false, then by definition the marketplace of ideas doesn’t work. And by definition our democracy doesn’t work. We are entering into an epistemological crisis.” Obama’s claim calls to mind a brilliant 2002 essay, “The Crippled Epistemology of Extremism,” by the late political scientist Russell Hardin, who taught at the University of Chicago and New York University.

  • Cost-Benefit Analysis Faded Under Trump. Biden Can Fix That.

    November 19, 2020

    An op-ed by Cass SunsteinPresident-elect Joe Biden just got an excellent suggestion about how to approach regulation of food safety, clean air, clean water, highway accidents and occupational health. It comes from a brief but illuminating passage in “The Promised Land,” the new memoir by his former boss, President Barack Obama: “Those of us who believed in the government’s ability to solve big problems had an obligation to pay attention to the real-world impact of our decisions and not just trust in the goodness of our intentions. If a proposed agency rule to preserve wetlands was going to lop acreage off a family farm, that agency should have to take the farmer’s losses into account before moving forward.” For that reason, Obama believed in cost-benefit analysis — not as a numerical straightjacket, but as a way to apply science and economics to measurement of the real-world impact of decisions by government agencies. Suppose, for example, that a proposed regulation from the Department of Transportation, requiring vehicles to be equipped with a new technology to reduce crashes, would cost $900 million. What would we get in return for that expenditure? How many lives would be saved? Would it be worthwhile? In 2009, Obama appointed me as administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, and he directed me to focus intensely on those questions. During my four years in government, Obama asked me to try to quantify both benefits and costs — and to make sure that for every regulation that I approved, the former would be higher than the latter.

  • There’s Nothing Nefarious About Executive Orders

    November 17, 2020

    An op-ed by Cass Sunstein Here are three popular myths about executive orders: They are a way to bypass Congress; They are an insult to the Constitution; They are new and a product of the imperial presidency. Even among serious and experienced observers, there is widespread belief in these falsehoods. That’s a big problem because President-elect Joe Biden is about to issue a bunch of executive orders. Citizens need to understand what they are and what they do. Executive orders often take the form of directives from the president to his subordinates. For example, Biden might tell the secretary of homeland security to adopt new immigration policies. Or he might direct his secretary of education to reverse President Donald Trump’s civil rights policies. Executive orders do not bypass Congress. Typically, they rely on statutes that Congress has already enacted. If Biden directs the Environmental Protection Agency to issue new regulations to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, he will be relying on the Clean Air Act, which is already the law. In domains including education, occupational safety, Covid-19, clean water and civil rights, Congress has given plenty of power to executive agencies. Executive orders from the Biden administration would rely on the power that agencies already have. For that reason, they are hardly an insult to the Constitution. So long as what they order is within the bounds set by congressional enactments, they are a perfectly legitimate exercise of executive power — which is, after all, the power to execute the law.

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    Nudging organ donation in the United States

    November 13, 2020

    Cass Sunstein ’78, Robert Walmsley University Professor and former Administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in the Obama administration, believes “Nudge theory” might help bridge the gap between supply and demand for organ transplants.

  • Here’s How Executive Orders Actually Work (Hint: Slowly)

    November 13, 2020

    An op-ed by Cass Sunstein: Facing urgent national challenges and probably a Republican-controlled Senate, President-elect Joe Biden will need to use executive actions to respond to problems such as Covid-19, economic recovery, racial equity and climate change. To understand how that works, it is essential to ask: What are executive actions, anyway? How do they happen? How fast, and how slow? The answers speak volumes about the operation of U.S. government, particularly but not only when Congress is gridlocked. Early in any new presidency, some of the most important initiatives begin with an executive order or presidential memorandum, by which the president issues a formal, public directive to those who work for him — typically members of his cabinet. For example, he might direct the secretary of Health and Human Services to take specific actions to control the pandemic, or he might order the Environmental Protection Agency to come up with a plan to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions from power plants. Orders of this kind get a lot of attention, but they merely start a process. It usually works like this: After a period of weeks or months, a department or agency comes up with a proposed rule, often consisting of hundreds of pages. The proposed rule outlines, and tries to justify, regulatory requirements that the agency plans to impose on the private sector, or perhaps on state and local governments. It might also contain alternatives — for example, more stringent and less stringent options.

  • Watch for Biden Decision on Unsung Climate Metric

    November 11, 2020

    An op-ed by Cass SunsteinPresident-elect Joe Biden’s transition team has announced its four top priorities, and no surprise, climate change is among them. For that problem, the social cost of carbon is the straw that stirs the drink. It’s the most important number you’ve never heard of. That number is designed to reflect the monetary equivalent of the damage done by a ton of carbon emissions. For that reason, it is fundamental to decisions about the stringency of coming regulations from the executive branch — governing the fuel economy of cars and trucks, emissions limits for power plants, energy efficiency requirements for appliances and much more. If the social cost of carbon is set high, we’re going to see aggressive regulations, significantly denting the risk of climate change. If the social cost of carbon is set low — well, not so much. In 2009, the administration of President Barack Obama said that the social cost of carbon would be around $52 in 2020. In 2017, President Donald Trump and his appointees slashed that figure to somewhere between $1 and $6. The gap, surprisingly, wasn’t about politics, at least not in any simple sense.

  • How Vote-Counting Became a Job for the States

    November 6, 2020

    An op-ed by Cass Sunstein: The current confusion and anxiety surrounding presidential vote-counting, with different states using different rules and procedures, make it natural to wonder: Wouldn’t it have been better to let the federal government oversee the process? The framers of the U.S. Constitution didn’t think so, for reasons of principle. Some of the foundations of their thinking can be found in the Federalist Papers, written mostly by Alexander Hamilton and James Madison (with a few by John Jay), among the greatest works in all of political science and the most important contemporaneous explanation of the framers’ thinking. Federalist No. 51, written by Madison, may be the best of the 86 essays, and it speaks, with great specificity, to the situation following this week’s national election. The least famous passage in that essay, and the most relevant today, is about one thing: federalism. It tells us a lot about how to think about vote-counting — and about the role of the president and Congress in that process. The essay is mostly a celebration of the system of checks and balances. As Madison put it, “Dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.” The system of separated powers — Congress, the president, the judiciary — provides some of those precautions. But that was not nearly enough. Madison drew attention to “considerations particularly applicable to the federal system of America.” Ours is a “compound republic,” he wrote, in the sense that “the power surrendered by the people is first divided between two distinct governments.” There is the national government, and then there are the states, and this division creates essential security for “the rights of the people.” In important cases, “the different governments will control each other.” These are abstract ideas, but they bear directly on presidential elections, and they help explain the constitutional provisions that govern them.

  • Don’t Invoke Bush v. Gore to Challenge 2020 Voting

    November 4, 2020

    An op-ed by Cass Sunstein: It’s Election Day, and there are already lawsuits challenging votes and voting procedures. Some of them are invoking the Supreme Court’s 2000 decision in Bush v. Gore, which effectively handed that year’s presidential election to George W. Bush. We should expect a lot more to come. Bush v. Gore is widely misunderstood. It rested on exceedingly narrow grounds. As the court put it, the key issue was “whether the use of standardless manual recounts violates the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses.” The Florida Supreme Court had ordered a recount that would require votes to be counted in accordance with the “intent” of the voter. There’s nothing wrong with that. The problem was that Florida’s high court failed to lay down specific standards to ensure “equal application” of that principle. And indeed, the standards for accepting or rejecting ballots ended up varying widely, not only from one county to another, but even from one recount team to another. Back in 2000, many Florida voters used punch cards, and many of their votes produced only partly punched ballots, leaving those famous “hanging chads.” Should those ballots have counted? Different recount teams used different standards. That meant that whether a person’s vote would count depended on a kind of lottery — the specific recount team that was doing the counting. In the U.S. Supreme Court’s view, this was unequal treatment, and it violated the equal protection clause. At the same time, the court was careful to say that its ruling was limited to very rare and specific circumstances. “The recount process,” it said, “is inconsistent with the minimum procedures necessary to protect the fundamental right of each voter in the special instance of a statewide recount under the authority of a single state judicial officer.”

  • Trump’s War on Civil Servants Is Worse Than It Looks

    October 30, 2020

    An op-ed by Cass SunsteinFor decades, U.S. government civil servants have had a degree of job security, in the sense that the president, and his political appointees, could not fire them merely because they were not sufficiently “loyal.” That would change under an executive order issued by President Donald Trump that is aimed at undermining the legal protection long given to many thousands of these career employees. On Jan. 19, 2021, they will apparently become closer to “at will” employees. If the president, or political appointees, want to fire them, they can. This is a horrible idea — more horrible even than it seems. A relatively independent civil service, protected against “at will” discharge, serves the national interest. I saw this close-up in 2009, when I joined the Barack Obama administration as administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, which oversees federal regulation in diverse areas that include clean air, clean water, food safety, homeland security, tobacco, health care, occupational safety, disability rights and transportation. OIRA has a staff of about 45 people, all civil servants. All of them had worked for George W. Bush until Jan. 21, 2009. In the blink of an eye, they were supposed to work for a new administration, with very different values and priorities and with a desire, in many cases, to reverse course as quickly as possible. I am sure that some of them thought that, in important areas, the Bush administration had it right, and that the newcomers were quite wrong. Who cared? Nothing got in the way of their professionalism, expertise, commitment to their jobs, and willingness to raise legitimate objections and concerns. In some cases, Cabinet heads were in a hurry to issue a new regulation — involving, say, air pollution, road safety or visas. Career staff knew that was probably not allowed under the law — and they were entirely unafraid to point that out.

  • What the Democratic Playbook Might Look Like in 2021

    October 28, 2020

    An op-ed by Cass Sunstein“The Untouchables,” the 1987 movie about gangsters and cops in Prohibition-era Chicago, was defined by these lines, spoken by police officer Jim Malone (played by Sean Connery) to his protégé, Eliot Ness (played by Kevin Costner): He pulls a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue! That's the Chicago way. Connery’s character was speaking of Al Capone. But his lines capture something more universal. If you are in some kind of fight, your best response might be to up the ante. If your opponents know that’s what you’ll do, they might back off — in which case you win. And if they don’t back off, they’ll get hurt — in which case you also win. Has the Chicago way become the American way? You could make the argument, at least in Washington. No one should speak of literal violence. But in multiple domains, we have witnessed an escalating political arms race, transgressing longstanding norms. In 2010, Republican Senator Mitch McConnell clearly set the tone with this remarkable statement: “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” With respect to Supreme Court appointments, Republican efforts culminated in the sprint to confirm Amy Coney Barrett — on the heels of the Senate leadership’s refusal even to allow a hearing for Judge Merrick Garland, nominated by President Barack Obama in 2016. Something much worse is suggested by President Donald Trump’s claim that Joe Biden, his opponent in the presidential race, “should've been locked up weeks ago” for unspecified crimes. If Biden is elected president, and if Democrats gain control of the Senate, both the White House and the Democratic leadership will face a crucial decision on what to do about the spiraling conflict between the parties. This decision would be important in any period. But it has special urgency in light of the public-health crisis and the serious economic downturn produced by the pandemic — in addition to Democrats’ and progressives’ high-priority issues, including climate change, health care, economic inequality and tax reform. There would be three options. In the abstract, none of them could be ruled out.

  • book cover of The Connected Parent

    Books in Brief: Fall 2020

    October 20, 2020

    New works on redeeming the administrative state, navigating parenting in a world in which children are immersed in technology, and understanding the importance of understanding how much information you need.

  • A Back-to-Basics Primer for Conservatives

    October 19, 2020

    An op-ed by Cass SunsteinA well-functioning democracy requires at least two parties, armed with different ideas and approaches. If Republicans lose the White House to Democratic nominee Joe Biden, what ideas and approaches should they champion? Many Republicans might want to go back to basics and recover some of the foundations of conservative thought, as laid out by such thinkers as Edmund Burke, Michael Oakeshott and Russell Kirk. They might not be eager to seek advice from anyone who is not a trusted conservative. But one of the most clarifying accounts of the conservative tradition comes from a remarkable book, “The Rhetoric of Reaction,” written by the economist Albert Hirschman in 1991. Hirschman himself was no conservative. His aim was to offer a catalog of standard rhetorical “moves” by those opposed to social reform. But Hirschman paid careful attention to centuries of conservative ideas, and he was aware of the power of those moves. He had too much integrity to deny that, some of the time, those who make them are entirely correct. If Biden is elected and tries to deliver on his campaign promises, those on the right would find Hirschman’s catalog useful. Hirschman divided the objections to progressive reforms into three different categories: perversity, futility and jeopardy. Of these, the most effective is the perversity argument. The basic claim is that many seemingly appealing reforms are self-defeating; they hurt the very people they are supposed to help. Societies are systems, and if you interfere with one part of them, you might not like what happens.

  • Two Important New Books on Knowledge, Bias, and Paternalism

    October 19, 2020

    Traditional paternalists argue that they know what's good for you regardless of your own preferences. Prohibition advocates, for example, claimed that people must be forced to stay away from "Demon Rum" no matter how much they like to drink, or how carefully they weigh the costs and benefits of doing so. Over the last twenty years, however, intellectually sophisticated paternalists have largely shifted to a different rationale for restricting freedom of choice: "libertarian paternalism." Unlike old-fashioned paternalists, advocates of LP argue that choice must sometimes be restricted in order to enable people to better pursue their own "true" preferences—to do what they themselves would want to do, but for the pernicious influence of ignorance and cognitive biases. LP enthusiasts also contend that policymakers can simultaneously improve decision-making and minimize coercion by using carefully calibrated "nudges" rather than the crude blunderbuss tactics of "hard" paternalists. For their part, critics claim that the behaviorial research underlying LP isn't as robust as advocates assert, and that the new paternalistic policies have many of the same flaws as the old. Two recently published books suggest that there may be more room for common ground between defenders and critics of LP than previously assumed.  The first is Too Much Information: Understanding What You Don't Want to Know by Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein, one of the leading advocates of LP. The second, Escaping Paternalism: Rationality, Behavioral Economics, and Public Policy, by economists Mario Rizzo and Glen Whitman (RW), perhaps the leading academic critics of LP.  Sunstein and RW are longtime adversaries in the academic debate over paternalism. But these two books have so much in common that readers unfamiliar with the authors' history might assume they are all on the same side.

  • Barrett’s ‘Originalism’ Can Be Pure Politics

    October 14, 2020

    An op-ed by Cass SunsteinWe have heard a great deal about Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s approach to the law in the time leading up to her Supreme Court confirmation hearings this week. She believes in adhering to the text of the U.S. Constitution and of statutes enacted by Congress, and in following the “original meaning” of that text. In this respect, she follows her mentor, the late Justice Antonin Scalia. In her words: “… It was the content of Justice’s Scalia’s reasoning that shaped me. His judicial philosophy was straightforward: A judge must apply the law as written, not as the judge wishes it were.” She also explained: “Judges are not policymakers, and they must be resolute in setting aside any policy views they might hold." Fair enough. But what would you think about a judge who voted to strike down the Affordable Care Act, to strike down greenhouse-gas regulations, to strike down gun-control laws, and to strike down affirmative-action programs? Would you be quite clear that such a judge had been “resolute in setting aside any policy views they might hold”? What would you think if that very same judge voted to invalidate congressional restrictions on corporate speech, voted to forbid Congress from allowing citizens to bring suit in federal court, voted to strike down campaign-finance regulations, voted in such a way as to hand the 2000 presidential election to President George W. Bush — and consistently voted against constitutional protections of gays and lesbians? Would you be so sure that such a judge was simply “applying the law as written”? And what would you think if that same judge voted to strike down environmental regulations as interfering with property rights, voted to overrule Roe v. Wade, and ruled against a constitutional right to same-sex marriage?