Nudge in the New York Times

Benjamin Friedman of Harvard reviews Nudge in the Sunday New York Times Book Review. It begins:

Yes, there is such a thing as common sense — and thank goodness for that. At least that’s this reader’s reaction to Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s “Nudge,” an engaging and insightful tour through the evidence that most human beings don’t make decisions in the way often characterized (some would say caricatured) in elementary economics textbooks, along with a rich array of suggestions for enabling many of us to make better choices, both for ourselves and for society.

Read the rest here.

In the Sunday magazine, David Leonhardt describes Obamanomics as “both more left-wing and more right-wing than many people realize.” For the article, Leonhardt interviewed Cass Sunstein:

Over sandwiches in that cafeteria this spring, Sunstein told me that he didn’t think that Obama arrived at the law school as an old-style liberal or departed as anything like a Friedmanite. Yet Sunstein and other former Chicago colleagues I spoke with said they believed that Chicago had helped give Obama an intellectual framework for his instincts, at the least, and probably made him come to appreciate markets more.

Obama, when I asked him, agreed that his years surrounded by Chicago School thinking affected him. He tends to assign his motives to more intimate narratives, though, and he said that his grandmother, a high-school graduate who rose to become the vice president of a bank and was the family’s main breadwinner, had the biggest impact. “She had to think very practically about, How do you make money?” he told me. “How does the system work? That led me to have an orientation to ask hardheaded questions. During my formative years, there was still ideological competition between a social-democratic or even socialist agenda and a free-market, Milton Friedman agenda. I think it was natural for me to ask questions of both sides and maybe try to synthesize approaches.”

There is plenty of evidence that this synthesis isn’t merely a part of a candidate’s inevitable tack to the center for a general election. In Obama’s memoir, “Dreams From My Father,” he sympathetically recounts a conversation he had with a Kenyan farmer, in which the man complains both about rich people who won’t pay their fair share of taxes and about burdensome government regulations on coffee growing. In Obama’s second book, “The Audacity of Hope,” he goes further: “Reagan’s central insight — that the liberal welfare state had grown complacent and overly bureaucratic, with Democratic policy makers more obsessed with slicing the economic pie than with growing that pie — contained a good deal of truth.”

The partial embrace of Reaganomics is a typical bit of Obama’s postpartisan veneer. In a single artful sentence, he dismissed the old liberals, aligned himself with the Bill Clinton centrists and did so by reaching back to a conservative icon who remains widely popular. But the words have significance at face value too. Compared with many other Democrats, Obama simply is more comfortable with the apparent successes of laissez-faire economics.

Sunstein, now on the faculty at Harvard, has a name for this approach: “I like to think of him as a ‘University of Chicago’ Democrat.”