Nudging, shoving, and manhandling

I’ve been puzzled why Richard Thaler’s “nudge” idea attracts such hostility from some people to my political left (including very smart people such as Henry Farrell and Cosma Shalizi). The worst thing you can say about nudging as I understand it is that it’s not very powerful; other than that, nudging is like chicken soup: it can’t do any harm.

So I’m grateful to Tyler Cowen for clarifying matters for me. Either Cowen or I badly misunderstands Thaler’s idea; if Cowen is right, you can add me to the list of anti-nudgers. But I’m pretty sure the Cowen is wrong about what Thaler says, and certain that his account confuses things that ought to be distinguished.

Nudging, as I understand it, involves changing “choice architecture” – altering the way options are presented or the time choices are made, or changing the “default outcome” if no option is explicitly chosen – in order to bring people’s actual choices more closely in line with their true preferences, as measured by the choices they would make with full information after serious reflection. That is, nudging is simply the opposite of temptation.

One of the defining features of a nudge (understood this way) is that it doesn’t narrow the range of outcomes available to the chooser. For example: presented with a menu of retirement-savings options, many employees will pick none of them, in part because of the psychological costs of decision-making and the fear of getting it wrong (“analysis paralysis”). This can be true even in the case when inaction is clearly the worst option (e.g., when the employer is picking up all of the cost). In that case, a nudge strategy would be to make enrollment in the plan that seems to experts most appropriate for the largest number of employees the default option: i.e., what happens if an employee just doesn’t fill out the form.

Crucially to the definition of a nudge, an employee who doesn’t want that option can costlessly (other than the effort of making the decision) switch to another, or none at all. As long as there’s no deception involved, and the people designing the choice architecture know what they’re doing and have the welfare of the people making the choices in mind, nudging seems to me almost entirely benign. A program that doesn’t limit freedom of choice can’t properly be said to reduce liberty, so replacing “opt-in” with “opt-out” should be thought of as facilitative rather than coercive. The same is true of, e.g., putting the salad bar first in the cafeteria line.

However, Cowen’s understanding of nudgery has a much harder edge. He gives examples where a choice less preferred by the government (or whoever is setting up the system) is made materially less attractive or more expensive, such as legally complicated and expensive divorce procedures, or abortion restrictions that force women to travel inconvenient distances. Cowen even wants to call restrictive immigration laws “nudges,” because would-be immigrants who can’t get visas can always forge documents or sneak across the border!

In my view, that sort of cost-imposing policy is radically distinct from “nudging;” Steve Teles calls it “shoving.” I don’t doubt that some such “shoves” are justified on paternalistic grounds: taxation to reduce cigarette consumption is an example. (Shoves are often justifiable on non-paternalistic grounds, such as taxes to reduce air pollution.) But such strategies aren’t always benign; people who keep smoking in the face of heavy tobacco taxes wind up just as sick as they would have otherwise, and poorer. And of course for those with limited means making something expensive can amount to barring it entirely.

Now, I agree with Cowen that the “shoving” for paternalistic reasons he wants to label as “nudging” is often preferable to more drastic means of protecting people from their own bad decisions: means that we might call “manhandling.” A tax on cigarettes is more respectful of liberty, and less prone to generate bad side effects, than an outright prohibition would be. But – in contrast to nudging – shoving is like manhandling in making those who don’t take the hint worse off. Changing incentives isn’t the same thing as changing choice architecture, and requires much stronger justification.

Nudging is no panacea, because changing choice architecture can only go so far in changing choice. Some people will continue to fall into behavioral traps even if the traps are clearly marked. And when the intervention is on non-paternalistic grounds, a considerable amount of shoving, or even manhandling, may be both justified and required. But there is clearly some room for improving outcomes at low cost and without diminishing liberty from the use of pure nudges. It’s therefore worthwhile to distinguish clearly – as it seems to me Cowen’s analysis does not – between generically benign nudges and the less benign alternatives he wants to include under the same label.

Perspective again

The best I can do this Christmas is to repost this effort of mine from six years ago. The theme of moral perspective is even more necessary today. As Dickens’ great fable reminds us, there are Christmases past and future as well as present, some for the worse, many for the better. Hold on.


For Kenneth Clark, it was ¨the greatest small painting in the world¨. It’s certainly a masterpiece – and a puzzle. Why did the Umbrian master Piero della Francesca choose around 1450 to paint an overworked stock subject, the Flagellation of Christ, in this extraordinary way?
(Warning: large page below the jump) Continue reading “Perspective again”

The election

A terrible thing has happened to us. It may have just begun. After reflection, I have decided last night was the worst night of my life so far. I am not facing a personal nightmare: I have a secure job and a family, a house, financial security, and (at least for the nonce) most of my wits. But I will probably not live long enough to see things turn around, nor is it certain that they will. My daughters and my students are at real risk, as are millions of people I don’t know but who I know are out there. Billions, actually; all the passengers on our warming spaceship. All in all, I have definitely learned how the Trump voters who sense “their world having been taken away from them” feel. Not that they are going to get that world back now; the most ill-used and vulnerable of them are going to pay a terrible price for their day of rage as they learn the iron law of Trump’s deals: his promises mean nothing to anyone including himself, and that goes extra for his promises to them.

Others have had much worse nights, including others’ last night, and they have something to tell us, about both despair and hope. We must not wallow in despair, but we must look it in the eye and recognize it. Here is a gallery of borrowed insights, more enduring and tested than a blog post.  First, the picture I cannot get out of my head, Goya’s Saturn devouring his children. Now you too will have it forever.  Look at Saturn’s eyes: he is not angry, or vengeful, or cruel; he is terrified. The election of 2016 was all about fear.


Next, Yeats’ anticipation of World War I (“The Second Coming”). It’s a poem; read it out loud.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre   
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst   
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.   
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out   
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert   
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,   
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,   
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it   
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.   
The darkness drops again; but now I know   
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,   
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,   
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
Wagner’s Hans Sachs, of the 16th century white working class (a cobbler), watched his beloved community erupt in riot and violence in the second act of Die Meistersinger, and reflected thus.  You must set aside seven and a half minutes, and listen to the end.
My mental jukebox always pops this number up in bad times, and also in good times.  Schubert paid more dues than I ever will; this song has been an anchor of sanity for those who know it over two centuries and it’s not nearly done yet. If you have access to a piano, go there and sing it with someone. The English:
O gracious Art, in how many grey hours
When life’s fierce orbit encompassed me,
Have you kindled my heart to warm love,
And charmed me into a better world!Oft has a sigh, issuing from your harp,
A sweet, blessed chord of yours,
Thrown open the heaven of better times;
O gracious Art, for that I thank you!

Quote of the Day

This is not the republic of my imagination.

–Charles Dickens, letter to William Macready, from Baltimore (1842)

Election stress reduction

As a service to our readers suffering increasing ágita, heart palpitations, and pearl-clutching in the next couple of days, the RBC is pleased to provide relief.

Here are 150 hrs of guaranteed comfort in difficult times, you can stream it right into Wednesday morning.  Don’t dally, however; you may need the happy little trees even more in the early days of the new administration, and you should know that the DEA has a rulemaking, in public comment stage, classifying Bob Ross as a Schedule II narcotic: it may be much more difficult to access in the near future.

Magical thinking is a moral failing, not a charming quirk

I moved to California twenty-five years ago, and there is much to like and admire here. However, I have never made my peace with a particular feckless quality of much about our politics, a willingness to behave in a way that would be appropriate if the world were they way you wish it were, but profoundly dysfunctional in the world as it is. We crippled and stupefied our legislature with term limits to show them how pissed-off we were. After the historic Oakland Hills fire that killed 25 people and destroyed more than 3000 homes, the Berkeley city fathers realized that our adjacent hill area hadn’t burned since 1926 and had built up a significant fuel load. It was proposed to expand the firehouse in that neighborhood…and the neighbors whose houses were most at risk were up in arms protesting that it would be noisy.

Berkeley had, for years and years, a million square feet of vacant industrial buildings, because romantic social justice advocates successfully zoned the area for nothing but manufacturing and blue-collar jobs, even though no-one wanted to manufacture anything in Berkeley and never would. Not hi-tech, not artists’ live-work studios, not offices, not low-cost housing for our teachers who can’t afford Berkeley rents: manufacturing. All those blue-collar jobs existed, for decades, entirely in the deliberately ignorant, sentimental imagination of a bunch of people more interested in telling themselves how moral and decent they were than actually improving anything in the real world.

At the DNC convention tonight, the California Bernie delegates kept up a constant stream of booing and whining and dissing Hillary, telling interviewers they would vote Green, or not vote in November, even though Bernie, whom they said they trust implicitly and completely, had just told them to get the hell on the reality train and start working for Hillary and a Democratic congress, and against the real Republican nightmare slouching towards the real White House to be born.  A bunch of Nader voters in the same mold gave us eight years of W, two wars, an economic meltdown, and a Supreme Court that gave our politics to plutocrats. People die from magical thinking when their parents deny them vaccinations, not to mention in stupid wars that those Nader voters could have prevented. I hope their purity of thought comforts them in the face of the misery they imposed on everyone else. Trump is called, with good reason, a narcissist; what about people like the dead-end Bernie solipsists?

I worry that some of those self-absorbed luftmenschen in the California delegation went to Cal, and worse, took  my class. (Maybe they went to UCLA and Kleiman has to answer for them). If so, I will rend my garments and try to figure out how I failed so badly, and apologize to everyone who has to put up with this infantile behavior.  But I hope they went to Stanford or USC, or maybe Santa Cruz. And I hope in any case that they get their exquisite personal moral excellence engraved on stone tablets…and drop them on their toes.


The Pope is wrong to blame the crimes of ISIS on selfishness.

From Pope Francis’ Christmas Day homily – emphasis added:

Only God’s mercy can free humanity from the many forms of evil, at times monstrous evil, which selfishness spawns in our midst.

The paragraph does not mention ISIS (or whatever the label of the month is), but much of the homily is concerned with violence in the Middle East and in Africa. In context, Francis is blaming terrorism and other forms of political violence and coercion on selfishness.

Sorry, no. Coming from a Jesuit, this is astonishingly sloppy. It’s on a par with attacking the 9/11 terrorists as cowardly, a mistake which Tim Noah and Paul Krugman correctly called out: a suicide bomber is necessarily very brave.

The medieval typology of deadly sins allows a better classification of al-Baghdadi’s as pride and anger. Anger may depend partly on pride – excessive self-esteem – but its expressions are often reckless and self-destructive.

The Seven Deadly Sins only get us so far and do not account for the core of jihadi or other religious fanaticism: the paranoid world-view, unlimited and unrealistic revolutionary agenda, and jettisoning of normal moral restraints.

Modern social science may not have a full explanation, but it has developed at least two pieces of it. One is the mechanism of confirmation bias, the universal tendency to seek out evidence fitting a preconception and disregard evidence that does not. In the strong form, in arrogant and credulous personalities, this can create a positive feedback loop and lead us from a common prejudice (such as social and economic antisemitism), with some distorted basis in fact, to a radical dogma (the Jewish conspiracy for world domination) entirely detached from reality. Another insight applies to the followers: social pressures of group conformity and the psychological process of habituation can easily transform quite ordinary people into monsters. See Milgram’s fake torture experiment, the Stanford prison experiment, and Browning’s Ordinary Men, a study of an SS battalion recruited from unremarkable reservists, not enthusiastic former brownshirts.

These two factors do not explain everything. In particular, the European recruits to ISIS chose the movement over other Islamic, even radical Islamic, authority figures.  Still, I think the case is clear that we cannot account for the movement’s rise by any appeal to simple selfishness. The Devil has many other tunes.


Selfishness, in the form of common greed, accounts perfectly for the irresponsible marketing of prescription opioids, as much as the political variant explains Herod’s alleged Massacre of the Innocents. I’m not defending it like Ayn Rand.

God, sex and violence: Bernini special!

Bernini’s shocking sculpture challenges Catholic doctrine on sex.

I finally got to see Bernini’s famous shocker The Ecstasy of St Teresa in Rome. I’ve written about it before, in the context of the Olympics. I’ll haul the bastard into service again to make a different point.

Pope Francis’ generally fine encyclical Laudato Si’  descends into incoherent mumbling on the subject of population. You can find a couple of sentences indexed under population, control, indifference to. It all goes back to the Vatican’s wrongheaded view of sex. It’s for reproduction, said Aristotle and Aquinas. To quote A.P. Herbert:

And what my father used to say / Is good enough for me.

Now you and I know from experience and modern science that this is rot. Human sex, unlike that of most animals, is designed for repetitive fun as well as reproduction. The point of the fun is to cement social relationships, whether peace-making and stress relief as with the promiscuous bonobos, or bonding a human couple for childrearing. There are even specific physiological adaptations for non-reproductive pleasure: concealed ovulation and menopause in women, large penis size in men. According to Jared Diamond, the average erect gorilla penis is 1.5 inches: quite enough for a species that lives in isolated harem troops. Conflict between males takes place independently of female oestrus, so when a female gorilla is receptive, there is only one male around. Contrast well-hung chimpanzees and humans, who live in bands with multiple males competing for the available females. The well-hung part is entirely for the entertainment of both.

This won’t convince the Vatican, shaky both on experience and science. Of course, priests do learn a lot about sex through the confessional; but as with psychotherapists, they are asked to deal with a sample that is spectacularly biased towards the dysfunctional and aberrant, entirely leaving out the modal type of mutually satisfying sexual relations within stable couples. I guess that Catholic wives have stopped confessing the use of contraceptives, and Catholic husbands their indulgences in oral sex.

So let me ask the Curia a different question. What do you make of the sex in Bernini’s great sculpture, above a side altar in the minor Baroque church of Sta. Maria de la Victoria up by the Rome railway station?
Adults only image below the fold Continue reading “God, sex and violence: Bernini special!”

Weekend interlude: Just a closer walk with thee

The setting and circumstances of Charleston’s atrocity remind me of the many times that I’ve visited various African-American churches. As a white non-Christian, I’ve always been embraced as a valued guest. That Dylann Roof was accorded similar hospitality, and yet apparently went on to murder the very people who graciously welcomed him adds yet another incomprehensibly depraved element to this attack.

We could all use some joyful noise to salve the wound just a little bit. Below are Mahalia Jackson and Louis Armstrong, at the Newport Jazz Festival 1970.

Freud, the !Kung and teddy bears

What we can learn from the property of toddlers in teddy bears.

Acerbic Aussie economist John Quiggin recently had a post up at Crooked Timber on the dependence of property rights on the state. The argument is with the natural property rights crowd. Worth reading, though I can’t get worked up about the issue. Property is a claim recognised by society. Our form of society is the state. Where’s the problem?

The interesting side to me is where the claim comes from. I got thinking about infants and property. Any parent who has tried to deprive a toddler of the favourite teddy bear or rabbit, if only to wash the crust of dried food off it, will have encountered a fierce and absolutist defence. Not everything is property to a toddler, but what there is matters. Toddlers constantly squabble over the use of toys, often based on a claim to ownership. (Nice joke from a CT commenter: of course kindergartens are Hobbesian – the participants are all nasty, brutish, and short.) The idea of natural child communism is wishful thinking. It’s the adult carers who promote sharing, in an uphill struggle.

I commented that toddler property in teddy bears is a difficulty for the statist theory. States do offer their theoretical protection against teddy-nappers on buses, but it is both ineffectual and practically unimportant. States do not intervene to protect such rights against those who really do threaten them, caregivers, siblings and playmates. State judicial systems barely recognize toddlers as individuals, except in custody disputes and cases of abuse. When a young child, perhaps an orphan or grandchild, does legally own substantial property, it is managed by parents, step-parents or guardians. It doesn’t look as if property in teddy bears derives from the state. But it’s clearly of some psychological importance in the genesis of our complex attitude to the institution.

Is Freud any help here? Not much. Continue reading “Freud, the !Kung and teddy bears”