Reviews — From the December 2014 issue

Obama’s Obama

The contradictions of Cass Sunstein

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Discussed in this essay:

Simpler: The Future of Government, by Cass R. Sunstein. 260 pages. $12. Simon & Schuster.
Why Nudge? The Politics of Libertarian Paternalism, by Cass R. Sunstein. 195 pages. $25. Yale University Press.
Valuing Life: Humanizing the Regulatory State, by Cass R. Sunstein. 236 pages. $25. University of Chicago Press.

As Cass Sunstein tells the story in Simpler, he nearly destroyed his courtship of his future wife Samantha Power by confessing on their first “predate interview,” in 2008, that his fondest career wish was to be appointed head of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.

[S]he asked me, “If you could have any job in the world, other than law professor, what would it be?” As I later learned, she was hoping to hear that I would play in the E Street Band with Bruce Springsteen or start at shortstop for the Boston Red Sox. Instead I said, apparently with a dreamy, faraway, what-could-possibly-be-better look, “Ohhhh, OIRA.”

Sunstein got both the girl and the gig. But what sort of man would covet heading OIRA as his dream job?

Illustration by André Carrilho

Illustration by André Carrilho

OIRA was created late in the Carter Administration, but it was Ronald Reagan who first put it to political use. In 1981, Reagan directed all executive branch agencies to submit proposed regulations to OIRA for review by cost-benefit analysis. No agency rule could become final until cleared. Not surprisingly, the office quickly became a favorite end run for industry; OIRA could be counted on to delay, weaken, or simply veto proposed rules. The head of OIRA thus became the administration’s top anti-regulatory official.

Cass Sunstein is one of America’s most prolific and admired legal scholars, the author of more than thirty books and hundreds of journal articles. He spent twenty-seven years teaching law and political science at the University of Chicago, where he befriended fellow law professor Barack Obama. Sunstein joined the Harvard law faculty in 2008, but he soon went on leave to join President-elect Obama’s transition team. In September 2009, he became the head of OIRA, a position he held until August 2012.

As he recounts in Simpler (published in early 2013 and just released in paperback), Sunstein hoped to use OIRA to advance three cherished objectives. He wanted to increase government’s transparency, make government more user-friendly, and regulate lightly via incentives, disclosures, and prods rather than commands. By the time he left office, OIRA, whose deliberations are secret, had become the graveyard of more direct measures to regulate abuses of markets. Sunstein writes, with evident pride, “the Obama Administration issued fewer regulations in its first four years than did the Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Clinton, and George W. Bush administrations in their first four years.” In his modest aspirations at a time of big challenges, Sunstein served as a kind of role model for his boss.

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is a cofounder and coeditor of The American Prospect. His latest book is Debtors’ Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility. He is a visiting professor at Brandeis University’s Heller School of Social Policy and Management.

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