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Nudge [Jan. 26th, 2016|03:13 pm]
De Horror Vacui
Nudge, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein:

This book is scary. Not because Thaler and Sunstein are scary, but the general idea behind a "nudge:" government producing outcomes through subliminal actions. Thaler and Sunstein want to produce government actions in accord with what they call Libertarian Paternalism, that is they want government the structure things so that you'll make the choices you'd make if you were choosing what is best for you.* It's libertarian because you still make the choice, its paternalistic because they get to choose the structure in which you make those choices. And even though when Thaler and Sunstein describe their program in the first part of the book it sounds scary, when they discussed specific ideas later on, everything seemed quite reasonable.

Thaler and Sunstein want to use what they call nudges to help people make better choices. A nudge is a rearrangement of the choice architecture to move people towards picking the result you want them to pick. Their example at the start of the book is the lunch line at a public school. Where do the foods go? They discussed how Carolyn, the Director of Food Services for the district, modified the order in which students saw food so that they’d eat more broccoli and fewer tater tots. To Thaler and Sunstein, she is a “choice architect.”

This is actually where they lost me (in the preface). First, I got annoyed because there was someone who worked at the district level that decided where the food would go in the various schools (waste of cash). Second, they called her “creative,” when she’s just a bureaucratic barnacle looking for a nice line for her annual self-appraisal.

However, the example of the line was a very good one for explaining their argument. Whether or not Carolyn structured how the food appeared in the lunch line, it would have to appear in some order, and that order tends to decide what the students will eat. If tater tots come first, more people will eat tater tots. If broccoli comes first, more people will eat broccoli. So, why not take the good of the student in mind when determining the order of foods?

Very reasonable.

Carolyn created a structure in which students make choices that fit more in line with their needs than they would make if the order of the food was different.

Unfortuantely, this is a good metaphor for the Nudge. Carolyn is the government, the lunch lady is the business constrained by regulation, and the kids who have to be manipulated to do the right this are you. That last bit is why it’s paternalism: Thaler and Sunstein don’t trust you to do what’s best for you. Fortunately, they know what’s best for you so they’ll trick you into making the best choices. That’s why its libertarian: you get to choose, even though you’ve been manipulated by them.

If they get to choose the choice architecture, then you will (probably) do what they think is best for you to do.

Thaler and Sunstein have to limit what kinds of choices will have nudges and how people will be nudged to make this sound moral. Most important is that these choices should be the kinds of choices that people have problems making. These are choices in very complex situations that people do not make themselves. This one the cafeteria nudges don’t pass.

Further, Thaler and Sunstein would only construct this architecture to help you make the choice you’d make in the most reflective environment. They divide people into two species, the rational Econs and the Humans, basically the left and right sides of your brain. The Econs do what you’d want to do with perfect information, infinite time, and no nasty hormones running around in your system. The Humans do what people really do. The choice architecture that Thaler and Sunstein propose is the one that uses the bad wiring of the Human mind to make them choose like an Econ.

And this isn’t really so bad. The last half of the book is just a series of chapters detailing possible nudges in specific areas. Some deal with money: saving, investing, credit, and privatizing social security. Some deal with health: prescription drug coverage, increasing organ donations, and energy conservation. Some deal with social questions: choosing schools, tort reform, and marriage privatization. And all of these proposals seem pretty reasonable.

But will everyone who decides to “nudge” you with the power of the government be so benign – although they’d often consider themselves to be doing you a favor (never trust anyone who says they have your best interests at heart). Governments will do things for the general good – and that’s good, that’s what governments are for. Governments will also do things for reasons of social justice or political grievance (remember the corrupt and baseless prosecution of Andrew Mellon). Governments will also do things for vested interests, like oil companies and trial lawyers. Neither of these last two are what governments are for, but they are the reality of government run by people with no scruples.

Even after all the work that Thaler and Sunstein went through, I still felt it was creepy trying to influence people this way. Even if it works – and it does work – when corporations use similar techniques in supermarkets and restaurants, at least I both expect them to be doing it and know why they are doing it. When a government is doing it, I won’t know to expect to be manipulated and I won’t know why so that I can compensate.** Or at least, I want to think that I have a chance to compensate, even if it’s not completely true. Trusting people, people who more than half of the time I don’t trust to make traffic laws (and experience says that I’m far too trustworthy in this respect), with the task of making me think that I have chosen to do what they wanted me to do is just creepy.

Did I say it was creepy?

If I thought that the people who would be structuring choices were just like Thaler and Sunstein I wouldn’t mind too much – because they do come across as thoughtful and benevolent, I rather doubt that the average government bureaucrat would strike me the same way. We see more than enough abuse of regulatory power right now, let alone bad laws, and both regulation and legislation are comparatively visible (but not really very visible – do you know how commercial fishing licenses and peanut permits are doled out? they affect how much you pay for your peanut butter and tuna sandwiches). The old jaw about libertarians comes to mind, “if everyone were like Thaler and Sunstein, then I could trust the government to nudge me.”

But they aren’t.

So I can’t.

* But, they say, these are the choices you'd make if you were making the choices with full information and without any sort of time pressure.
** I compensate in supermarkets and clothing stores by shopping like a guy. I know what I want (usually with a list), I know where it is, and I just get that stuff and get out.

Other Books, 2016:

6. The Courts of Chaos, Roger Zelazny
5. Nudge, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein
4. The Cutting Edge, Dave Duncan
3. The Nature of Software Development, Ron Jeffers
2. The Death of Chaos, L.E. Modesitt, Jr.
1. Kivy -- Interactive Applications and Games in Python, Roberto Ulloa
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