Unemployed? Underemployed? Working the register at Denny’s when you used to be on the management track? Just been informed you’ll be one of the ObamaCare “29ers” who gets that many hours of work a week, no more, to sidestep penalty costs? Don’t fret. Washington has just brought in a new behavior sheriff. She’s rounding up an encouragement posse to get you to live your life better. She’s 27. Her name is Maya Shankar.
You know how Best Buy can send a Geek Squad to your house to hook up your new gadgets? If a recruitment e-mail sent out by Maya Shankar is any indication, there will soon be a White House Nudge Squad. They’ll be there to hook you up with correct thinking and behavior, but you don’t have to call them and they don’t have to come over. They’re fine with redirecting your brainwaves from their comfy conference rooms in DC.
Shankar is a former violin prodigy who performed with Itzhak Perlman at Juilliard. Inflamed tendons caused her to put down her fiddle, and now the United States is her instrument. So get ready to be played.
According to her LinkedIn profile, Shankar went on to Yale (where she studied cognitive science), Oxford and Stanford.
It would appear that she has never had an actual job unless you count “post-doctoral fellow.”
Shankar is not without accomplishments, though. She is a Rhodes scholar with a killer sense for publicity. She’s been featured on NPR three times and in Glamour and USA Today roundups of the nation’s most promising college students.
In Glamour, in 2006, she said her dream job would be presidential science adviser. So it has come to pass: For her first job, she is now “senior policy advisor at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.”
That’s right. Senior. This person was a senior at Yale as of 2007, but now she gets to tell you how to live your life. Sorry: encourage you to make choices that will make you happier.
For a White House senior science advisor wielding the federal joysticks of citizen behavior modification, Shankar has somewhat thin credentials. The only published paper of hers I could find — I’m not making this up — was about whether the color of your juice affected its taste. It was called “Grape Expectations: The Role of Cognitive Influences in Color-Flavor Interactions.”
Useful! Now Shankar has grape expectations for you, America. According to her recruitment e-mail, “The federal government is currently creating a new team that will help build federal capacity to experiment with these approaches and to scale behavioral interventions that have been rigorously evaluated, using, where possible, randomized controlled trials.”
THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU
Remember when FDR, more or less admitting he was clueless about economics, promised, and delivered, an era of “bold, persistent experimentation”? Obama means it literally. We’re all being targeted for “behavioral interventions.” But only after randomized, controlled trials. Which don’t sound scary. At all. (Just don’t say that in a German accent.)
The idea for this new political-academic bureaucracy sprang from the “Nudge” philosophy handed down on stone tablets from Mount Dogooder, and published in book format, by President Obama’s former University of Chicago colleague Cass Sunstein (who is married to another Obama crony, Samantha Power; their children will of course be top aides in the administration of President Malia Obama).
“Nudge” won Sunstein a job as the chief of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, where he worked from 2009-12. His book theorized that government officials could get Americans to live their lives more optimally, at no cost, by making little changes that would adjust for people’s inherent laziness.
Famous example: When you get a job, what if the default were that you automatically sign up for the 401(k)? If you don’t want it, you check the “no” box, but it’s designed to promote saving.
Sounds reasonable. Affordable. And admirably modest.
Yet by the time Sunstein stepped down in 2012, he was boasting in a Harvard working paper that OIRA’s central responsibilities, as defined by Obama’s Executive Order 13563, amounted to “a kind of mini-constitution for the regulatory state.”
That sounds a bit immodest. And aren’t constitutions, even cute mini- ones, supposed to come up for a vote?
Apart from siring mini-constitutions, Sunstein left us, as his major Nudgework, a redesign of the federal food chart that has done so much to make this a toned, slim, Brussels sprouts-loving nation. Once it was a pyramid. Now it’s a plate. Big round of applause for Cass Sunstein.
According to The New York Times, which didn’t elaborate, Sunstein may also take credit for a “crackdown on prison rape.” (Huh? Wasn’t prison rape already illegal? And what does that have to do with Information and Regulatory Affairs?)
Now that Sunstein is gone, Maya Shankar is becoming the new face of nudgeniks.
A small problem with behavior-modification dweebs is that their schemes have a tendency not to work out so well, and once they’re up and running, all evidence gets scrupulously ignored.
In a way, behavioral economics hasn’t reached far past an old desert-island joke.
A physicist, a chemist and an economist are stranded on a desert island. They’re starving because they have a can of food but no opener. The physicist says, We could smash it open with a rock, but then we’d probably lose some food. The chemist says, we could heat the can over a fire until it explodes, but then we’d lose some food. The economist says, I know how to open this! The physicist and the chemist light up. Tell us, they cry! So the economist says, “Assume we have a can opener . . .”
A classic nudge of our time is Mayor Bloomberg’s 2008 edict that New York City chain restaurants (but not Le Bernardin) post calorie counts. Assume people are fat because they don’t know Big Macs have a lot of calories!
In the spirit of Sunstein, who suggested placing fruit instead of candy at cash registers, Bloomberg didn’t propose anything as wacky as banning or restricting Big Macs. (We all know he’d never do anything that bizarre — right, soda lovers?)
No, his nudge simply put information out there so people could make up their own minds. The mandate imposed a re-labeling cost on restaurants, led to nutty, useless menu listings like “Zero to 350 calories” and represented a triumph of regulate-first, ask-questions-later thinking.
No one bothered to check beforehand, but now the studies are in, and they say: Calorie counts don’t work. When you shove numbers in people’s faces while they’re shoveling in fries, they find the latter delicious and don’t notice the former.
Undeterred by science, President Obama is taking Bloomberg’s failed policy nationwide, mandating, as a provision of ObamaCare, that calorie counts be posted for every food item sold in chain restaurants with 20 or more locations — along with bakeries, grocery stores, convenience stores and coffee chains. That sounds pretty much like labeling every pear and bagel.
A spokesman for the industry group the Food Marketing Institute noted that large grocery stores might have to send thousands of food items out to be tested and relabeled. The head of the FDA has described the measure as “extremely thorny,” and said that though it sounds fine in principle, “in practice it really would be very hard.”
And for what?
A Carnegie Mellon study published in the American Journal of Public Health found posted calorie counts did little or nothing to change eating habits. Moreover, when informed that women should have no more than 2,000 calories and men no more than 2,400 calories a day, people actually consumed 49 caloriesmorethan if they weren’t given this information.
Even a New York City-commissioned study published in the British Medical Journal found “no overall decline in calories purchased” before and after the calorie-count law.
“The people who set these policies aren’t very representative” of the people they’ re trying to help, said Julie Downs, lead author of the Carnegie Mellon study. “They think about what they eat. They think, I’m not going to eat a giant hamburger, fries and a milkshake for lunch.”
CONSEQUENCES OF MANIPULATION
McDonald’s, by the way, has tried its own nudging. Chief executive Donald Thompson estimated one-sixth of his ad dollars were spent promoting salads, but they only returned about 2 to 3 percent in sales.
The salad nudge is worse than useless, according to research by Professor Gavan J. Fitzsimons, who studies consumer psychology at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business.
He says if you give people a range of menu choices, adding a healthy choice makes people more likely to choose the least-healthy option.
“When you put a healthy option up there on an otherwise unhealthy menu, not only do we not pick it, but its presence on the menu leads us to swing over and pick something that’s worse for us than we normally would,” he told the Times.
Shankar, described by USA Today as “an indefatigable champion of social justice,” alluded, in her e-mail, to evidence of success from the UK’s nudge squad. More rigorous analysts above the age of 27 are skeptical.
“We found that there was relatively little evidence available to support the use of nudging,” Professor Theresa Marteau, director of the Behavior and Health Research Unit at Cambridge University, told BBC Radio 4.
“And where there was evidence, it suggested that amount of change that was achieved was relatively small compared to the amount of change that’s going to be needed to shift our behavior.”
She added, “The bad nudge is actually more potent.” Putting fruit by the register? Useless. Putting chocolate there will goose chocolate sales, though.
In an academic review of Sunstein and co-author Richard Thaler’s book “Nudge,” Princeton economist Thomas Leonard pointed out that the book’s subtitle, “Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness,” would be more accurate if it read “Manipulating Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness.’’ Because “the consequences of manipulation depend upon the nudger’s intent, which may well be to exploit rather than to ameliorate, and also upon the effectiveness of the nudge in question.”
In Sunstein’s world, people don’t necessarily make sensible economic decisions. That’s correct, but who’s to say what the sensible decisions are? Who knows how to maximize people’s happiness?
Leonard continues, “Happiness science is still in its infancy and, some pronouncements to the contrary, happiness research sometimes gets it wrong.” A nudgenik can’t give people what they truly want. “He can only make like an old-fashioned paternalist,” writes Leonard, “and give people what they should want.”
A review in New Scientist said that what Sunstein has called “libertarian paternalism” — i.e., bureaucrats telling you “make whatever choice you want, but this one is best” — “is seductive because democratic politics is a cumbersome and messy business. Even so, democracy is far better than even the best-intentioned technocracy at discovering people’s real interests and how to advance them.”
The new paternalism of Obama appointees is very much in tune with the boss. In a neverending series of campaign speeches, he’s taken to saying things like, “That means whatever executive authority I have to help the middle class, I’ll use it.” And, “We’re going to do everything we can, wherever we can, with or without Congress.”
Nudging science isn’t very scientific, but as a general rule, whenever you hear politicians talk about science, you should just mentally substitute in the word “politics.”
“This is why this idea has caught on, because it’s selling a very attractive proposition,” Cambridge Professor Marteau told Pacific Standard magazine.
“It’s a political philosophy rather than behavioral science.”
But the idea of a scientifically-backed free ride — achieving social change, or social justice, or something, without forcing it on anyone, has an irresistible lure.
Even a born bureaucrat might like to brag that he sold the public on an idea rather than forcing us to buy it. And so the Maya Shankars will fiddle with your behavior while unemployment burns.