No Comment — April 27, 2009, 10:12 am

The Nudge

Franklin Foer and Noam Scheiber take a look at Barack Obama’s attitude towards the political economy. The economic crisis dwarfs the other crises that Obama inherited, and his engagement of economic issues remains rather puzzling. But I think Foer and Scheiber are well onto the philosophy and process angles of this puzzle, and their piece is an essential read:

There are no grand theorists in the Obama orbit, certainly no in-house ideologists. During the campaign, Obama sold himself as a green-eyeshade pragmatist, insisting every one of his proposals was “paid for.” But, in fact, there is, if not an ideology, then certainly a sensibility that reigns in Obamaland. Perhaps the easiest place to see it is in the administration’s fondness for behavioral economics, the branch of the dismal science that recognizes that humans aren’t utility-maximizing automatons, but flawed creatures who often screw up simple calculations and struggle with self-control. The key behavioral insight is that the way we frame choices matters enormously. Take a classic behavioral example: pensions. In a fully rational world, everyone would enroll in their company’s 401(k), which provides a financial incentive to save for retirement. In the real world, we frequently put off enrollment, not wanting to weigh all the confusing options or fill out tedious paperwork. If, on the other hand, our employer enrolled us automatically but allowed us to opt out, most would stick with it. Simply by changing the “default” option from out to in, we improve workers’ welfare without limiting their freedom.

[Richard] Thaler and [Cass] Sunstein have dubbed this policymaking approach “libertarian paternalism,” and it was highly influential within the campaign. For example, in addition to the retirement saving reform, which Obama later wrote into his budget, the campaign also warmed to a proposal called “intelligent assignment.” The idea was a response to the fact that seniors enrolled in the Medicare prescription drug program are often overwhelmed by the dozens of plans they have to choose from, sometimes to the point of paralysis. The Obama wonks favored automatically enrolling many of them in the plan that best suited their needs, based on their drug-buying histories, then allowing them to switch if they found one they liked better.

In the grand scheme of things, these “nudges” were minor tweaks designed to elicit more rational behavior. But, in many respects, what the Obama administration has done these last few months is simply scale up the logic of nudging, albeit massively. Not all of Obama’s nudges fall out of behavioral economics, per se. Some involve changing incentives to encourage certain activities and discourage others. Some involve fostering competition to trigger innovation. But, as in the behavioral examples, the Obamanauts typically have an outcome they want to promote. And, like the behaviorists, they instinctively recoil from imposing it unilaterally. So, instead, they monkey around with the choices people face, seeking to influence decision-making rather than mandate decisions.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

From the April 2015 issue

Company Men

Torture, treachery, and the CIA

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

May 2016

Fighting Chance

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Front Runner

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Habits of Highly Cynical People

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Unhackable

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

American Imperium

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Post
Elisabeth Zerofsky on Marine Le Pen, Paul Wachter on the quest for an unhackable email, Rebecca Solnit on cynical people, Andrew J. Bacevich on truth and fiction in the age of war, Samuel James photographs E.P.L. soccer, a story by Vince Passaro, and more

I sat in a taxi with Emma and her son, Stak, all three bodies muscled into the rear seat, and the boy checked the driver’s I.D. and immediately began to speak to the man in an unrecognizable language.

I conferred quietly with Emma, who said he was studying Pashto, privately, in his spare time. Afghani, she said, to enlighten me further.

Illustration by Taylor Callery
Article
Front Runner·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"The F.N. asked to be sent to an institution whose legitimacy it did not accept, and French voters rewarded the party with first place in the election."
Illustration (detail) by Matthew Richardson
Memoir
I Am Your Conscious, I Am Love·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A paean 2 Prince
"And one thinks, Looking into Prince's eyes must be like looking at the world."
Photo ©© PeterTea
Article
Stop Hillary!·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"As wacky as it sometimes appears on the surface, American politics has an amazing stability and continuity about it."
Article
Plexiglass·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I sat in a taxi with Emma and her son, Stak, all three bodies muscled into the rear seat, and the boy checked the driver’s I.D. and immediately began to speak to the man in an unrecognizable language.

I conferred quietly with Emma, who said he was studying Pashto, privately, in his spare time. Afghani, she said, to enlighten me further.

Photograph (detail) by Karine Laval

Amount of cash inmates compete to grab from between a bull’s horns each year at the Oklahoma State Prison Rodeo:

$100

There were new reports of cannibalism in North Korea.

The Finnish postal service announced it will begin mowing lawns on Tuesdays.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Mississippi Drift

By

Matt was happy enough to sustain himself on the detritus of a world he saw as careening toward self-destruction, and equally happy to scam a government he despised. 'I’m glad everyone’s so wasteful,' he told me. 'It supports my lifestyle.'

Subscribe Today