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Cass Sunstein

  • This Time the Numbers Show We Can’t Be Too Careful

    March 27, 2020

    An article by Cass SunsteinI have long been an enthusiastic defender of quantitative cost-benefit analysis, and recently wrote a book about it. I have also long been a critic of the precautionary principle, which calls for potentially expensive precautions against bad outcomes in the face of scientific uncertainty. In the context of the coronavirus pandemic, it’s unusually challenging to engage in quantitative cost-benefit analysis. But the best available estimates, released within the last few days, suggest that the U.S. should continue with expensive precautions, even if they take a major economic toll. Back to normal by Easter, as President Donald Trump suggested? The new estimates show that that would be reckless. To adapt Patrick Henry, “Give me precautions, or give me death.” It should be acknowledged that Trump, and many others, have been right to emphasize the importance of balancing a range of considerations, and not focusing only on one. Some people in the public-health community like to look only at one side of the ledger. But a zero-risk mentality makes no sense.

  • Cigarette Warnings Are About to Get Really Scary

    March 25, 2020

    An article by Cass SunsteinDire as the coronavirus pandemic has become, it’s worth remembering that there are other severe public health threats that can’t be ignored. That’s a reason to applaud the Food and Drug Administration for issuing, even in this period, a tough new tobacco regulation that should save lives: It has required graphic warnings on cigarette packages. Whenever customers buy a pack of cigarettes, or stop to contemplate buying one, they will see one of 11 gruesome images, accompanied by a grim verbal message. The image might be a woman with a large neck tumor, alongside these words: “Smoking causes head and neck cancer.” Or it might be a diseased lung, with these words: “Tobacco smoke causes fatal lung disease in nonsmokers.” Or it might be an obviously diseased body of a patient, with these words: “Smoking can cause heart disease and strokes by clogging arteries.” The images cannot be small: “The new required warnings must appear prominently on cigarette packages and in cigarette advertisements, occupying the top 50 percent of the front and rear panels of cigarette packages and at least 20 percent of the area at the top of advertisements,” the FDA states.

  • When It Comes to Workplace Safety, Shaming Works

    March 13, 2020

    An article by Cass Sunstein: Can a press release save lives? No doubt about it. At least if it comes from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and it publicizes a serious violation of the occupational safety and health laws. The tale begins in 2009, when OSHA initiated a new policy: If one of its inspections found sufficiently serious workplace safety violations (warranting a fine of at least $40,000), it would issue a press release, identifying the violator. According to David Michaels, the OSHA administrator at the time, press releases would be a form of “regulation of shaming.” Michaels’s hope was that the releases would have “educational and deterrent purposes for other companies in the same industry and geographic area.”

  • The Right Way for Presidents to Address ‘Fear Itself’

    March 13, 2020

    An article by Cass Sunstein: The coronavirus epidemic has produced several different kinds of crises. It is of course a public health crisis, first and foremost. But it’s also an economic crisis, an international-relations crisis and a crisis of public morale. Fear is widespread and mounting. There was no pandemic, of course, but the economic crisis was incomparably worse. And the crisis of public morale, though also much worse, had similar features. The U.S. has not been here before, but it has been in the vicinity. In some ways, the closest analogy is to the Great Depression.

  • Supreme Court Should Mend, Not End, Independent Agencies

    March 4, 2020

    An article by Cass Sunstein: The Supreme Court heard oral arguments on Tuesday in the most important separation-of-powers case in several decades. The central issue is simple: Did Congress violate the Constitution in making the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau independent of the president when it created that agency in 2009? Under the law as it now stands, the president can fire the bureau’s director only for “inefficiency, neglect of duty, or malfeasance in office.” Whether that restriction is constitutional bears on the entire structure of the U.S. government. Many federal agencies are “executive,” in the sense that their heads work for the president and can be discharged for whatever reasons he likes. That’s true, for example, of the Departments of State, Defense, Transportation, Agriculture, Justice, Education, Energy, Labor, Interior, Treasury and Commerce. It’s also true of the Environmental Protection Agency.

  • Supreme Court to hear case over constitutionality of Consumer Financial Protection Bureau

    March 2, 2020

    The Supreme Court will hear arguments on Tuesday in a case over whether the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the regulatory agency established in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, is constitutionally structured. The case, key to the future of the CFPB, could also have broad implications on other independent federal agencies, according to experts. A decision is expected by the end of June. The dispute turns on whether the CFPB’s director is given too much independence... Herz said the case took on a new significance because of the controversy over the sentencing last month of Republican operative Roger Stone, a friend of the president who was convicted crimes related to witness tampering and lying to Congress. After Trump suggested on Twitter that the sentence sought by the Justice Department was too stiff, top DOJ officials overruled career prosecutors in order to seek a more lenient sentence. That move prompted all the Justice Department attorneys working on the case to remove themselves from it in a shocking mass exodus. The developments came as some scholars, including Harvard Law School professor Cass Sunstein, have proposed that Congress make the Justice Department an independent agency.

  • The Cognitive Bias That Makes Us Panic About Coronavirus

    March 2, 2020

    An article by Cass SunsteinAt this stage, no one can specify the magnitude of the threat from the coronavirus. But one thing is clear: A lot of people are more scared than they have any reason to be. They have an exaggerated sense of their own personal risk. How come? The best answer goes by an unlovely name: “probability neglect.” Suppose that a potential outcome grips your emotions, maybe because it is absolutely terrifying, maybe because it is amazingly wonderful. If so, there is an excellent chance that you will focus on it -- and pay far less attention than you should to a crucial question, which is how likely it is to occur. One of the simplest and most vivid demonstrations comes from Christopher Hsee of the University of Chicago and Yuval Rottenstreich of the University of California at San Diego. They asked a group of people how much they would pay to avoid a 1% chance of a “short, painful, but not dangerous electric shock.” They asked another, similar group of people how much they would pay to avoid a 99% chance of getting such a shock. There’s a massive difference between a 1% chance and a 99% chance. But people didn’t register that difference. To avoid a 1% chance of an electric shock, the median amount that people were willing to pay was $7. To avoid a 99% chance, the number was $10 – not a whole lot higher.

  • There’s an Alarming Statistic in Trump’s Record on Regulations

    February 27, 2020

    An op-ed by Cass Sunstein: After an unprecedented delay, the Donald Trump administration has released what is required by law to be an annual report on the costs and benefits of federal regulations. The good news in this important document is that in the last two years, the costs of federal regulations have been stunningly low. The less good news is that in the last two years, the benefits of federal regulations have been...stunningly low. A central reason is that in this period, relatively few regulations have been issued that had a significant economic impact.

  • How Will Trump’s Supreme Court Remake America?

    February 27, 2020

    In October, the Supreme Court heard a lawsuit from Stephens challenging her termination based on Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits employers from discriminating on the basis of “sex.” ... Gorsuch ignored that research, citing only a minority of scholars who agree with him. “I admire Justice Gorsuch’s writing,” Cass Sunstein, a Harvard law professor and former Obama-administration official, told me. “But his discussion in Gundy isn’t close to historical standards. There’s a ton of terrific work on the nondelegation doctrine, and he cites none of it. Then there is some not-terrific material, which he does cite.”

  • The Delicate Art of Debunking Conspiracy Theories

    February 10, 2020

    An article by Cass SunsteinHow do you debunk a conspiracy theory? Suppose people think that Israel carried out the 9/11 attacks or that the moon landing was faked. Or that Koch money or Hillary Clinton or Pete Buttigieg was behind the Iowa caucus fiasco, or that the coronavirus comes from a fiendish plot by multinational corporations. Conspiracy theorists tend to be emotionally invested in their beliefs, meaning that if you contradict them, you might make them angry. And if you offer them evidence that they’re wrong, you might make them angrier still – and so strengthen their commitment to their belief. Social scientists have found that, in some contexts, corrections actually backfire. If, for example, people still think that the Affordable Care Act contains death panels, a correction can make those people even more certain that the law contains death panels. One reason is that when people are told they’re wrong, they are immediately put on the defensive, and they work hard to defend their beliefs. Another reason is pure suspicion: Why would anyone bother to deny it, if it isn’t true?

  • Beware the Revenge Impeachment

    January 31, 2020

    An article by Cass Sunstein: Former Solicitor General and federal judge Kenneth Starr made a simple argument this week on behalf of President Donald Trump’s impeachment defense. We are living in the “age of impeachment,” he said on Monday, urging the Senate to acquit Trump and “return to norms” that counsel against using impeachment as a political weapon. If Trump is removed from office, Starr was suggesting, every future president will be vulnerable, at least if the House of Representatives is controlled by the opposing political party, and if the Senate can be persuaded to go along. A president named Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren might well be exposed to a horrific impeachment battle, simply because of the Trump precedent.

  • What if It Were Obama on Trial?

    January 27, 2020

    What if it were President Barack Obama who was the subject of the Senate impeachment trial? How would we feel then? Cass Sunstein, a professor at Harvard Law School, suggests a question along those lines in his book “Impeachment: A Citizen’s Guide.” It’s one of several thought experiments that I suggest in order to step back from the hurly-burly in the Senate and interrogate our own principles and motivations. The first approach, as Sunstein puts it, is this: “Suppose that a president engages in certain actions that seem to you very, very bad. Suppose that you are tempted to think that he should be impeached. You should immediately ask yourself: Would I think the same thing if I loved the president’s policies, and thought that he was otherwise doing a splendid job?” Alternatively, if you oppose impeachment and removal, Sunstein suggests you ask yourself: “Would I think the same thing if I abhorred the president’s policies, and thought that he was otherwise doing a horrific job?” In practical terms, this amounts to: What if it were Obama who had been caught in this Ukraine scandal?

  • Airfare Transparency Made the Free Market Freer

    January 24, 2020

    An op-ed by Cass Sunstein: Have you ever shopped online for something (say, a hotel room) and selected an option with an excellent price only to learn, at the time of checkout, that the price is much higher than originally advertised? That happens a lot. A key reason is that advertised prices often exclude taxes and fees. Even if there is some disclosure of that fact (“taxes and fees not included”), consumers might not pay attention. Having initially seen a reasonable price and settled on their choice, a lot of them just put in their credit card number even if, at the final stage, they are shocked to see the unexpectedly high cost. In these circumstances, new research suggests that disclosure regulation can do a lot of good.

  • How people decide what they want to know

    January 16, 2020

    When we live in an age of information, what information do we choose to absorb? And once we have absorbed information, which factors influence how we process it? Cass Sunstein ’78, the Robert Walmsley University Professor at Harvard, examines those questions in a study published this week in the scientific journal Nature Human Behaviour. The paper, “How people decide what they want to know,” was co-authored by Tali Sharot, a professor of cognitive neuroscience in the department of Experimental Psychology at University College London. ... Sunstein discussed his research with Harvard Law Today in an email interview that took place this week as he was en route to London.

  • Cass Sunstein portrait

    How people decide what they want to know

    January 16, 2020

    In an interview with Harvard Law Today, Cass Sunstein discussed his research, and a recently published paper on how people decide what they do or do not want to know.

  • In the ER? Sign up to vote

    January 13, 2020

    An op-ed by Alister Martin and Cass R. Sunstein: What if long emergency room wait times, an unfortunate fact of life, could also be a key to increasing voter participation among traditionally underrepresented groups in our electorate? The demographic overlap between those who most use the ER for their health care and those who don’t vote presents a potential opportunity. In 2014, a US Census Bureau report found that nearly 1 in 4 Americans were not registered to vote. That’s over 51 million potential voting-age adults, or more than the entire population of Spain, who were not registered to vote in the United States.

  • Facebook’s Laudable Deepfake Ban Doesn’t Go Far Enough

    January 9, 2020

    An article by Cass Sunstein: Facebook says that it is banning “deepfakes,” those high-tech doctored videos and audios that are essentially indistinguishable from the real thing. That’s excellent news — an important step in the right direction. But the company didn’t go quite far enough, and important questions remain. Policing deepfakes isn’t simple. As Facebook pointed out in its announcement this week, media can be manipulated for benign reasons, for example to make video sharper and audio clearer. Some forms of manipulation are clearly meant as jokes, satires, parodies or political statements — as, for example, when a rock star or politician is depicted as a giant. That’s not Facebook’s concern.

  • Samantha Power '99 standing outside her house in Boston

    The Journey of an Idealist

    January 7, 2020

    Ambassador Samantha Power ’99 reflects on her life and career in her new memoir "The Education of an Idealist."

  • Illustration of two rows of three people in suits, one person in the middle of the second row with a bowtie

    Faculty Books in Brief: Winter 2020

    January 7, 2020

    From conformity and the power of social influences to felony and the guilty mind in Medieval England

  • Hate the Donor, Love the Donation

    January 6, 2020

    An op-ed by Cass Sunstein: Suppose that a nation, a company or an individual wants to give a lot of money to a university, a nonprofit group or an individual researcher. Suppose that many people think that the potential donor is morally abhorrent, or has done morally abhorrent things. Is it wrong to take the money?

  • 2019’s Best Movies (for Lessons in Behavioral Economics)

    January 2, 2020

    An article by Cass SunsteinHere’s what movie fans and insiders have been waiting for: the 2019 winners of the Behavioral Economics Oscars, known as the Becons. Isabelle Huppert, Daniel Day-Lewis, Ryan Gosling and Jessica Chastain – where would they be without a prestigious Becon? This year has been a spectacular one for movies, and the secretive Becons Award Committee (said, by some, to consist of just one person) has had to make some especially tough choices.