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Cass Sunstein’s Critique of Samantha Power

Summary:
For those who don’t know, Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein, whose book Simpler I reviewed [scroll down about 80 percent] a few years ago and whose book The Cost-Benefit Revolution I reviewed [scroll down about halfway] earlier this year, is married to former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power. Power has recently published The Education of an Idealist, and I discussed her worldview briefly earlier this week. In Simpler, Sunstein, drawing on psychologist Daniel Kahneman, lays out two cognitive systems. He writes: System 1 is the automatic system, while System 2 is more deliberative and reflective. System 1 works fast. It is emotional and intuitive. When it hears a loud noise, it is inclined to run. When it is offended, it wants to hit back. Much

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For those who don’t know, Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein, whose book Simpler I reviewed [scroll down about 80 percent] a few years ago and whose book The Cost-Benefit Revolution I reviewed [scroll down about halfway] earlier this year, is married to former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power.

Power has recently published The Education of an Idealist, and I discussed her worldview briefly earlier this week.

In Simpler, Sunstein, drawing on psychologist Daniel Kahneman, lays out two cognitive systems. He writes:

System 1 is the automatic system, while System 2 is more deliberative and reflective. System 1 works fast. It is emotional and intuitive. When it hears a loud noise, it is inclined to run. When it is offended, it wants to hit back. Much of the time, it is on automatic pilot. It is driven by habits. It certainly eats a delicious brownie. It can procrastinate; it can be impulsive. It can be excessively fearful and too complacent. It is a doer, not a planner. It wants what it wants when it wants it. It has a lot of trouble with complexity.

System 2 is a bit like a computer or Mr. Spock from Star Trek. It is deliberative. It calculates. It hears a loud noise and it assesses whether the noise is a cause for concern. It thinks about probability, carefully and sometimes slowly. It does not get offended. If it sees reason for offense, it makes a careful assessment of what, all things considered, ought to be done. (It believes in deterrence rather than retribution.) It sees a delicious brownie, and it makes a judgment about whether, all things considered, it should eat it. It insists on the importance of self-control. It is a planner more than a doer. It can handle complexity.

Throughout his book, Sunstein argues for government nudges to over come our impulsiveness so that we make better decisions and have better outcomes. Government officials, presumably, are less impulsive than we are.

In her book The Education of an Idealist, writing about the aftermath of the U.S. war against Libya, a war that she urged President Obama to undertake, Samantha Power writes:

We could hardly expect to have a crystal ball when it came to accurately predicting outcomes in places where the culture was not our own.

In his acknowledgements at the end of Simpler, her husband, Cass Sunstein writes:

Samantha Power happens to have the best System 1 in the history of the world.

Yup. Power wanted what she wanted when she wanted it. And the results for Libya were horrendous.

Note: For two excellent critical reviews of Power’s book, see Daniel Larison, “Power’s Pathetic Libyan War Excuse,” The American Conservative, September 9, 2019 and Daniel Bessner, “The Fog of Intervention,” New Republic, September 4, 2019.

David Henderson
David Henderson is a British economist. He was the Head of the Economics and Statistics Department at the OECD in 1984–1992. Before that he worked as an academic economist in Britain, first at Oxford (Fellow of Lincoln College) and later at University College London (Professor of Economics, 1975–1983); as a British civil servant (first as an Economic Advisor in HM Treasury, and later as Chief Economist in the Ministry of Aviation); and as a staff member of the World Bank (1969–1975). In 1985 he gave the BBC Reith Lectures, which were published in the book Innocence and Design: The Influence of Economic Ideas on Policy (Blackwell, 1986).

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