Cass Sunstein Has Lost His Mind

Our favorite faux Democrat engages in some McCarthy-era red-baiting.

I’m in the middle of reading Sunstein and Thaler’s Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness, and a lot of it is illuminating, if somewhat predictable for those who have followed behavioral economics over the last few years.

But so far, by far the worst chapter has been the one on the environment, which has Sunstein’s fingerprints all over it. Large chunks of the chapter are devoted to cap-and-trade or carbon tax schemes for climate change. which all make sense, but have little to do with “libertarian paternalism,” Sunstein & Thaler’s pat description of their governing philosophy. And they fall for the simplistic notion that such plans are “market-based” as opposed to relying on the heavy hand of government: who exactly do they think sets the quantity for carbon emissions (and thus profoundly influences the price)? The New York Stock Exchange?

But the worst comes right before this description, where they describe traditional environmental legislation such as the Clean Air Act, which mandates specified reductions in pollutant emissions over a period of time. “Such limitations,” they acknowledge,

have sometimes been effective: the air is much cleaner than it was in 1970. Philosophically, however, such limitations look uncomfortably similar to Soviet-style five-year plans, in which bureaucrats in Washington announce that millions of people have to change their conduct in the next five years.

There is only one response to this: are you @#%&$E^$ing kidding me? The Clean Air Act is similar to a Soviet Five-Year Plan? Just because it sets pollutant limitations?

What about, say, the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899, which criminalizes discharging refuse into navigable waters? Did they get that from Stalin, too? Pretty good, considering Congress enacted it 18 years before the Bolshevik Revolution.

I haven’t seen red-baiting that bad since the end of the Cold War — except from the likes of Sarah Palin. Sunstein doesn’t understand discounting, either: what in the world is this guy doing in a Democratic Administration? Hopefully not much: he seems like he’s spent far too much time trying to impress his former colleagues at the University of Chicago Law School.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.