Barack Obama thinks he knows better than his subjects — er … constituents — what they need and want. Accordingly, he has set into motion a program whereby the federal government can subtly influence the public’s behavior. Fox News reports having come into possession of a document that details plans to coordinate such an effort across nearly a dozen departments and agencies, including the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Agriculture.
At the core of the new program is a “nudge squad,” known more formerly as a “Behavioral Insights Team (BIT).” Talk about your acts of big-brotherly love!
The document, which is here, acknowledges that the idea and even the acronym BIT are borrowed from a policy implemented in the UK in 2010. There, the document explains:
A process of rapid, iterative experimentation (‘Test, Learn, Adapt’), has successfully identified and tested interventions that will further advance priorities of the British government, while saving the government at least £1 billion within the next five years.
One way in which the British government is achieving this goal is by effectively (if gently) coercing late tax filers to pay up.
The memo detailing the Obama administration’s version of the plan, Fox News writes, was obtained as an email by Maya Shankar, a White House senior adviser on social and behavioral sciences. The purpose of the email was to put out feelers to people in academia who might be interested in joining the team. Once formed, the team would be tasked with experimenting with various forms of friendly persuasion that would “tweak” the individual’s habits so that he would, for example, save more for retirement and also save more on energy costs.
So what is there to complain about? All the government wants is to help you be the best you you can be, while simultaneously saving the planet from certain inevitable destruction from the undeniable forces of climate change.
The term “nudging” is also borrowed — from the 2008 book “Nudge,” co-authored by former Obama regulatory czar Cass Sunstein and Chicago Booth School of Business professor Richard Thaler. If the name Sunstein is not enough to send shivers down your spine, the opinion of some economists should. Michael Thomas, of Utah State University, is quoted as cautioning:
I am very skeptical of a team promoting nudge policies. Ultimately, nudging … assumes a small group of people in government know better about choices than the individuals making them.
Sometimes, Thomas adds, government actually promotes the wrong thing, citing as an example the widely promoted view, since debunked, that trans-fats are healthier than saturated and unsaturated fats.
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