Atlantic profiles chief ‘nudger’

Georgetown instructor David Cole might not see what’s so unsettling about libertarian paternalism, but his profile of Harvard Law School professor Cass Sunstein in the latest issue of The Atlantic might raise some red flags for fans of freedom.

Sunstein served in the Obama administration, but he’s not especially liberal. In Conspiracy Theories, he defends free markets and criticizes “command and control” planning. He favors soft government interventions like warnings and default rules, which leave people freedom of choice, over outright bans on dangerous behavior. He questions minimum-wage laws and argues that the United States has no particular obligation to enter into climate-change agreements that might impose domestic burdens even if such moves were to benefit the rest of the world. He does call for a social safety net for the poor, protections against animal cruelty, and, disturbingly, government subterfuge to counteract conspiracy theories. But if this is the most dangerous man in America, we can drastically reduce our homeland-security spending right now.

So far, so good. But Cole doesn’t stop there.

Sunstein’s current overarching project is the opposite of revolutionary. He seeks to tame our impulses and intuitions, to counteract the irrational and emotional errors we often make, in order to help us reach better decisions through deliberation and rational thinking. (Of course, to a fiery talk-show host, that may be precisely what makes him so dangerous.)

For roughly the past 15 years, Sunstein has sought to apply the lessons of behavioral economists to difficult legal and policy questions. Their findings have shown what most of us already suspected—that the “rational actor” upon whom classical economics is based is a myth. In reality, people’s decisions are determined not by careful comparison shopping and cold, calculated reason, but by emotions, fears, unwarranted confidence, aversion to loss, acute susceptibility to peer influences, and all sorts of other cognitive biases. In Conspiracy Theories, as well as another new book, Why Nudge?, Sunstein maintains that such insights can assist us in resolving a variety of social problems. …

… [H]ere he deploys behavioralism to take on John Stuart Mill’s famous case against paternalism. In On Liberty, Mill argued that paternalism was unwarranted in large part because individuals know better than others do what will serve their interests. For that reason, unless an individual’s actions harm someone else, Mill maintained, the state should stay out of her business. This “harm principle” is one of the foundations of modern liberalism.

Mill’s case against paternalism is undermined, Sunstein says, by man’s propensity to err and sabotage his own interests. If we know that people make predictable mistakes, then paternalistic interventions designed to mitigate those mistakes may increase people’s welfare overall. Even when our actions harm no one else, government intervention may therefore be justified. And because the way that choices are presented to us inevitably influences our decision making (for example, people are more likely to choose the first item on a list over subsequent items), Sunstein advises the government to design “choice architecture” in ways that nudge us toward choices that better serve our ultimate ends.

The obvious question for both Sunstein and Cole is: How do either of them know how best to serve “our” ultimate ends?

Who should make that determination? Harvard law professors? Government bureaucrats?

New Carolina Journal Online features

Dan Way reports for Carolina Journal Online on the Democratic primary in North Carolina’s 2nd Congressional District.

Terry Stoops’ Daily Journal urges state lawmakers to continue their discussions about the best way to pay public school teachers.

Dispatches from the campaign trail, April 23, 2014

• Ad wars in the 2nd Congressional District! Democratic candidate Clay Aiken releases an ad citing his work with disabled children as his reason for running.

Meantime, rival Keith Crisco releases his own ad contending that Aiken was AWOL when he served on a presidential task force dealing with children’s issues.

• GOP Senate Debate No. 2, sponsored by WRAL News, takes place tonight at 7 p.m. Greg Brannon, Heather Grant, Mark Harris, and Thom Tillis square off once again.

• The hits just keep on coming for Republican Senate candidate Dr. Greg Brannon, as Buzzfeed digs up some controversial quotes from the Cary physician’s past.

• A New York Times political blogger suggests that incumbent Senate Democrats from the South, including North Carolina’s Kay Hagan, may not be in that much trouble after all. A New York Times poll for the Kaiser Family Foundation finds Hagan leading Tillis 42-40 (no other Republicans were included). But Obamacare remains a sore spot, as 53 percent said they would never vote for a candidate who doesn’t share their views on health care. The poll didn’t publish responses to questions about the approval rating of President Obama or his health care law.

• In a candidate forum, Democrats running for the 12th Congressinal District nomination say the proposal raising the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour is far too timid. Can you say, “15″?

The broken window fallacy as applied to Obamacare

Tucked within John Hayward’s interesting Human Events article about a government shakedown for money used to promote the Affordable Care Act is this little nugget:

Crucially, the media’s aggressive shredding of inconvenient history kept it from putting ObamaCare’s enrollment “achievement” in any sort of larger context whatsoever. The vast majority of those “enrollments” were people whose previously satisfactory health care plans were destroyed by ObamaCare; as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) put it, government agents busted their car windows, then other government agents came along to sell them new windows, while the President touted the success of the Department of Window Repair. Also, the “success” of this operation relied heavily upon the little detail that failure to buy the product was against the law. We sold 7 million units of a product people are legally required to purchase! Yay!

Anyone who has read Henry Hazlitt’s Economics In One Lesson or its source material — the writing of Frederic Bastiat — will recognize Cruz’s description of the broken window fallacy.

Former CBS reporter stirs up hornet’s nest with accusations of bias

As Sharyl Attkisson continues to discuss the events that led to her departure from CBS News after 21 years, some of the targets of her criticism are fighting back. The Daily Caller reports.

CBS News and media “watchdog” Media Matters for America both fired back against former CBS reporter Sharyl Attkisson’s charges of bias and improper targeting on Monday, with the news network denying any unfair treatment and Media Matters slamming Attkisson for “shoddy reporting.”

On Sunday, Attkisson appeared on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” to repeat her charge that CBS News routinely killed stories critical of the Obama administration, including her reports on Benghazi. She also added that Media Matters deliberately targeted her in an attempt to discredit her reporting, wondering whether they were perhaps paid to do so.

On Monday, the two outlets struck back. CBS News released a statement to TVNewser denying a liberal bias and subtly attacking Attkisson’s journalistic product.

“CBS News maintains the highest journalistic standards in what it chooses to put on the air,” CBS News spokeswoman Sonya McNair said. ““Those standards are applied without fear or favor.”

Media Matters, the liberal media monitoring blog with a particular fixation on Fox News, was more direct: Attkisson, they charged, was waging a “campaign to paint herself as a victim of liberal media bias with conspiratorial and false attacks on Media Matters.”

NY Post columnist labels auto workers union a ‘threat to U.S. liberties’

Think the United Auto Workers group does more good than harm? New York Post columnist Matt Patterson offers a different perspective.

Everyone knows the United Auto Workers helped bankrupt General Motors and the entire Detroit auto industry, helping pull what was once America’s greatest city into decay and poverty.

That legacy is, of course, one reason why Volkswagen workers in Chattanooga, Tenn., resisted the union’s overtures: The UAW lost its February election bid at the plant 53 percent to 47 percent.

But the union’s post-election actions have shown it to be something more malevolent than just a misguided organization trying to fit an early 20th-century labor model over a 21st-century industry.

The UAW is a threat not just to prosperity, but to liberty.

As a journalist I have written much on these issues that the union has disliked. And so I find myself subject to a legal attack: Last week I was issued a subpoena by the National Labor Relations Board (at the behest of UAW lawyers), commanding me to appear at a hearing today in which the union is asking the board to invalidate the Chattanooga election due to “outside” interference. (The demand also names my colleague Grover Norquist and my assistant, Tucker Clare Nelson.)

The subpoena also demands that I hand over all documents and communications relating to the UAW going back to January. Were I to comply, it would jeopardize the sources of information that allow me to report on this issue.

It amounts to an assault on the freedom of press: The union is actually asking the government to shut us up.

In fact, the UAW is mounting attacks on every clause of the First Amendment, which prohibits restrictions on “freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble.”

Williamson delves into liberal fascination with demonizing the ‘rich’

Kevin Williamson shares with National Review Online readers some interesting data about Americans’ income levels, along with the political ramifications.

Far from having the 21st-century equivalent of an Edwardian class system, the United States is characterized by a great deal of variation in income: More than half of all adult Americans will be at or near the poverty line at some point over the course of their lives; 73 percent will also find themselves in the top 20 percent, and 39 percent will make it into the top 5 percent for at least one year. Perhaps most remarkable, 12 percent of Americans will be in the top 1 percent for at least one year of their working lives.

The top 1 percent, as I have noted here before, is such an unstable group that it makes no sense to write, as so many progressives do, about what has happened to its income over the past ten year or twenty years, because it does not contain the same group of people from year to year. Citing tax scholar Robert Carroll’s examination of IRS records, Professor [Mark R.] Rank [of Washington University] notes that the turnover among the super-rich (the top 400 taxpayers in any given year) is 98 percent over a decade — that is, just 2 percent of that elusive group remain there for ten years in a row. Among those earning more than $1 million a year, most earned that much for only one year of the nine-year period studied, and only 6 percent earned that much for the entire period.

“Ultimately,” Professor Rank writes, “this information casts serious doubt on the notion of a rigid class structure in the United States based upon income. It suggests that the United States is indeed a land of opportunity, that the American dream is still possible — but that it is also a land of widespread poverty.” Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics finds that among the allegedly privileged 1 percent, inherited wealth accounts for only 15 percent of household holdings, a smaller share than it does among middle-class families.

As Rank hints, what is hereditary in the United States is not wealth but poverty. The Left’s focus on the status of wealthy and high-income Americans is precisely backward — backward if improving the lives and opportunities of those born into poverty is your goal. If your goal is to increase the income and power of the public sector for your own economic and political ends, then of course it makes more sense to focus on the rich: That’s where the money is, and the perverse reality of the Left is that it cannot fortify its own interests by improving the lives of the poor but can do so by pillaging the rich. Indeed, a generation of transformative economic dynamism for the worst-off Americans would be a political and cultural catastrophe for the Left, whose power has its foundation in those who are to some extent dependent upon government largesse and — much more important — those who make their careers managing that dependency. A lesson that conservatives keep not quite managing to learn is that our long-term problem is not so much those who are receiving checks from the government as it is those who are signing them. Economically rational people who are dependent upon government support can be weaned from it through the relatively simple expedient of a better deal; economically rational people who are in the employ of the welfare bureaucracies at above-market wages are not expecting a better deal, nor should they be.

Caring more about ‘the people’ than people

Victor Davis Hanson‘s latest column at National Review Online examines a curious feature of left-of-center political philosophy.

Why do our well-meaning elites so often worry about humanity in the abstract rather than the real effects of their cosmic ideologies on the majority? The dream of universal health coverage trumped the nightmare of millions of lives disrupted by the implementation of it. Noble lies, with emphatics like “Period!” were necessary to sell something that would hurt precisely those who were told that this was going to be good for them. A myriad of green mandates has led to California’s having the highest-priced gasoline and electricity in the continental United States, a fact that delights utopians in San Francisco and in the long run might help the rest of us, butrace right now ensures that the poor of the state’s vast, hot interior can scarcely afford to cool their homes or drive to work. Fresno on August 1, after all, is a bit warmer than Berkeley or Menlo Park.

In a word, liberal ideology so often proves more important than people. Noble theories about saving humanity offer exemption from worry about the immediate consequences for individual humans. In a personal sense, those who embrace progressive ideas expect to be excused from the ramifications of their schemes. For the elite who send their kids to prep schools and private academies, public charter schools for the poor are bad, given that they undermine the dream of progressive, union-run education that has turned into a nightmare for those forced to enroll in it.