Is More Nudging to Achieve Government Policy Objectives a Good Idea?

We recently received a notice from our utility company containing information about our energy usage compared to our neighbors.  The news was good.  Colorful charts showed we had consumed less energy than the average household during the period examined.  This impressed me, but the news also prompted some guilt because I knew that part of that time we’d been out of town, during which we’d turned down the heat.  How would we have compared if we’d been home the whole time?   Were we really “better than average?”  I suspected not, and filed this thought away as a prod for improving our future behavior.

Of course, this is exactly what the utility company hoped I would do.  The company’s letter is an example of a “nudge”—a technique that encourages behavior to benefit not only individuals, but to collectively improve the lives of manypeople.   A nudge’s key feature is that it influences conductwhile maintaining freedom of choice; it doesn’t mandate or ban particular behavior.  I could ignore the utility’s notice, but I’m prompted to monitor my energy use to reduce my own power costs, which then contributes to overall energy conservation.

Private industries use nudges regularly, but they’resometimes manipulative.  Ever sign up for a magazinesubscription or a gym membership that automatically renewedunless canceled?  The assumption is you’re likely to forget about it, or not want to bother stopping it; good if you like the product, but maybe a hassle if you don’t.

Research clearly supports the effectiveness of nudges insteering behavior, resulting in their expanded use by governments worldwide to help achieve policy goals.  Examples include 1) caloric and nutritional information on food,and health warnings on cigarettes and alcohol to help improve citizen health and lower medical costs, and 2) comparative energy costs on appliances, and mpg labels on cars to promote efficient energy use.

Our tendencies to procrastinate and underestimate our vulnerabilities (e.g., I won’t get cancer from smoking) can often be overcome by nudges that encourage improved decision-making.  Therefore, should governments employ them more frequently?  For example, to increase the supply of organs for transplant needs, what if states automatically registered voters asorgan donors, but gave them the freedom to opt-out?  Consider the following.

First, given their manipulative potential, ethicists emphasize that governments use nudges only if they clearly promote the general welfare, and cost-benefit projectionsdemonstrate they will result in net benefits. Second, being aware of how nudges work can improve our ability as citizens to guide their uses in ways that enhance quality of life.

Finally, governments will always issue mandates (e.g., requiring carmakers to calculate mpg so consumers are nudged to buy fuel-efficient cars) or ban some behaviors (e.g., prohibiting driving without seatbelts), to accomplish agreed-upon goals. However, in our system of self-government, nudges that can achieve policy objectives while preserving freedom of choiceoffer appealing alternatives to mandates and bans for promoting public interests.


If We Want Politicians to Listen, We Need to Keep Talking

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A government that responds to its citizens’ concerns and needs is the hallmark of a healthy democracy, but a persistent theme in American politics is the belief, shared by many, that Washington politicians are disconnected from average voters.  In a recent column, I noted how over the last two years  Congress has refused to act on important issues (e.g., stricter gun control, a higher minimum wage, single-payer health insurance, and tougher environmental regulations) that are supported by super majorities of Americans.  This unresponsiveness has stemmed significantly from structural factors like the Electoral College, disproportional state representation in the U.S. Senate, and partisan gerrymandering, which currently work to the electoral advantage of Republicans.  However, scholarly research has also revealed some behavioral causes of this seeming lack of concern for citizens’ clear policy priorities.  Consider the following anecdote.

A while ago, a friend of mine, a physician considerably knowledgeable about health care, became frustrated with the continued efforts by Congressional Republicans to overturn Obamacare.  Armed with statistics about the popularity of the policy, and real-life examples of how it had improved access to health care for her patients, she decided to pay a visit to her Congressmember, a Republican who had consistently voted with his party.   As she tried to impress upon the Representative’s assistant how his boss’s votes were undermining his constituents’ interests, the aide dismissed her points and argued that the Congressman did not support Obamacare, and because he’d been re-elected, his district’s voters obviously did not support it either.   My friend left completely exasperated.

What explains the discrepancy between polling data showing support for Obamacare, electoral outcomes, and legislator voting behavior?   Part of the answer in this case is that this lawmaker represents a gerrymandered district, and doesn’t have to worry much about public opinion that runs counter to Republican orthodoxy.   However, there’s a larger phenomenon at work here that is not colored by any particular partisan stripe.  Decades of research has shown that legislators often lack detailed knowledge of their constituents’ preferences, and therefore value communication from voters to help them decide on issues.  Yet, recent research has demonstrated that politicians systematically discount the opinions of constituents with whom they disagree.   While this is a universal tendency, studies have revealed that Democrats are more likely than Republicans to engage in this “disagreement discounting” which is rooted in what psychologists refer to as “motivated reasoning,” and inclines individuals to accept arguments and facts that coincide with their own beliefs, while rejecting information that challenges their views.   More disturbingly, though, research has also shown that “disagreement discounting” is an even stronger impulse when politicians attempt to explain and defend their positions to constituents, as in the above anecdote.  In other words, simply performing a key representative task—justifying one’s issue positions—exacerbates the tendency for politicians to discount the opinions of constituents who disagree with them, and hardens their propensity to assume that these constituents surely must be ill-informed.

These findings raise serious questions about the efficacy of citizens’ efforts to contact their elected representatives.   Before we surrender in dismay, however, it’s important to note that when individuals are made aware of their behavioral biases, there’s a strong tendency for them to make corrections.   If citizens keep talking, politicians of both parties might start listening more.  Imagine that.


Despite Obstacles, Ultimate Political Power Rests with the People

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Born out of the Founders’ fear of majority tyranny and their mistrust of average voters, separation of powers and checks and balances were conceived as ways to temper democracy by making it difficult for government to act. This is because the Framers believed the primary purpose of government was to protect individual liberty, which they viewed as the right to be left alone by government. The only sure way separation of powers was designed to be overcome is with a “Madisonian Majority”—a 2/3 vote in Congress to override a presidential veto. In short, unless a large percentage of people (specifically, 67%) wanted the government to act, the Framers believed it should not act. This conflict between democracy and separation of powers is not well understood; many Americans often complain about government’s unresponsiveness on key issues without realizing that this frustrating inaction is by design.

Early on, political parties emerged as a way to unify executive and legislative power, thereby subverting the Constitutional framework, and making it easier for a simple majority to use government to address the people’s common concerns. Recently, though, with the gerrymandering of Congressional districts, increasing advantages of big (and “dark”) money in campaigns, and the continued Constitutionally-authorized requirement that each state has two U.S. Senators regardless of population, parties have sometimes been able to unify government in a way that allows a minority to undermine the Madisonian Majority safeguard. Republican control in the last two years is an example.

​Consider four policy priorities for many Americans and their prospects for government action: 1) stricter gun control, 2) a single-payer health insurance system, 3) stricter regulation of pollutants, and 4) a $10-per-hour minimum wage. Recent polls indicate large majorities of voters favor these policies—70-plus percent in each case. This level of popular support exceeds the 67% Constitutional threshold needed for government action. Yet, for two years we’ve had a President elected with a minority of votes (Constitutional, of course) together with a Congress led by a party that has taken advantage of unequal representation in the U.S. Senate (again, Constitutionally sanctioned), and gerrymandered House districts, who created a unified partisan bulwark against government action favored by super-majorities of Americans. Consequently, rather than majority tyranny, Americans have been subjected to minority rule; ironically, Madison’s fears have been turned upside down.

Reforms like reducing gerrymandering and directly electing the President would make minority rule less likely, but are difficult to achieve. The ultimate check against this kind of repression has always been the people’s vote. Yet, even though turnout in the recent midterms was higher than we’ve seen in 40 years, the full potential of this majestic power of the people remains untapped. Minority rule has certainly been weakened, but remains dominant. Will these extraordinary times continue to bring about changes in our collective voting behavior, or will the recent election results have a demoralizing effect? The strength of our democracy hangs in the balance.


If Corporations are People, Tell Us Who They Are!

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           “Corporations are people, my friend.”   This was GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s awkward response to a heckler yelling for more taxes on corporations at a 2011 campaign stop in Iowa.  His sentiment ultimately became a rallying cry for Democrats in 2012 when at the kickoff to his reelection bid, President Obama emphatically stated, “I don’t care how many ways you try to explain it, corporations aren’t people.  People are people.”     As it turns out, one was righter than the other, and the consequences of that have significantly undermined our democracy.

Eight years ago, the Supreme Court issued one of its most controversial decisions when it ruled in Citizens United v. FEC that corporations, including nonprofits, have an unfettered Constitutional right to spend unlimited amounts of money on elections.   Since then, 19 states and over 700 municipalities have passed resolutions calling for a Constitutional amendment overturning the decision, and a majority of Americans has consistently opposed the ruling.   Citizens United released a flood of “dark money” into elections from undisclosed donors in corporations, and many of these organizations were created solely for that purpose.   According to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, these entities spent over $181 million in the 2016 election, up from $5 million in 2006.   That’s enough money to give 12,500 teachers a 25% raise.  Most significantly, 76% of this money was spent by conservative groups, clearly countering specious claims that the field is level for all interests.

How did we get to this point?   In We the Corporations, Adam Winkler traces the development of corporate rights, and notes two competing legal theories.  One maintains that corporations are artificial constructs; they are inherently separate from the people behind them.  In short, they’re not people, but a legal veil that shrouds the individuals who establish them.   The other theory argues that corporations are associations of individuals, and hence are people.   This argument relies on “piercing the corporate veil” in order to provide legal protections to members of corporations, including the right to anonymously contribute unlimited money to political campaigns.  This was the theory the Supreme Court’s slim majority relied on in deciding Citizens United, and also the theory that Mitt Romney awkwardly tried to explain to his heckler in 2011.

Many Americans agree that the amount of money spent on campaigns is obscene, and undermines the basic principle of one person, one vote.  While overturning Citizens United is a laudable goal, amending the Constitution is difficult.  A more modest, but significant objective would be complete transparency in campaign financing achieved by a Congressional law “piercing the corporate veil” and requiring the sources of all campaign donations and expenditures to be publicly and explicitly disclosed. Since Russians were willing to break our laws to weaken America’s democracy, one protective measure is closing the loophole that allows corporations—with members potentially from anywhere—to anonymously fund our elections.  If corporations are people, we have a right to know who they are.



Truth and Politics–2018

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In 1967, another turbulent time in American politics, philosopher Hannah Arendt began a now-famous essay with the following assertion.  “No one has ever doubted that truth and politics are on rather bad terms with each other, and no one, as far as I know, has ever counted truthfulness among the political virtues.”

In the fifty years since, we’ve witnessed examples of untruthfulness from politicians at all levels, including presidents, e.g., Nixon and Watergate, Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, and George W. Bush with WMD’s, but the level of disregard for truth and facts displayed by President Trump is unprecedented.  It began with his dishonest challenge to Obama’s citizenship, and has continued with numerous falsehoods– over 3,000 since taking office, by some counts.  Examples include his fabrications about his inauguration’s crowd size and that black home ownership is the highest it’s ever been.  He maintained falsely that he passed the biggest tax cut in history and that it was going to cost him a fortune, personally.  Most recently he asserted that he “misspoke” by using the phrase “don’t see how it would have been Russia” instead of “don’t see how it wouldn’t have been Russia” when asked  who he believed more–the American intelligence community or Vladimir Putin–about Russia’s 2016 election interference.

You might say, “So, what’s the big deal?  His lies aren’t whoppers like Nixon or Clinton, he just exaggerates.”    Most Americans would certainly agree that he does exaggerate—a lot; and only time will tell whether he’s told any whoppers.   But, the big deal is that President Trump’s untruthfulness is much more insidious because it isn’t just political spin, but a chilling embrace of mendacity that has spawned a whole new cynical lexicon with terms like “alternative facts” and “fake news” that eat away at the trust between us which is the very foundation of our democracy.   It’s also worse because it pits us against one another more so than a couple of big lies precisely because the untruthfulness is often so clearly disconnected from reality that it’s easier for many to discount as harmless—until it’s too late.

Lamenting the dangerous effects systematic lying can have on society, Arendt noted that the tangled web of untruthfulness woven in this fashion can often only be threatened by those from within “who have managed to escape its spell and insist on talking about facts or events that do not fit the image.”    Yet, several high-profile Republican defectors have only experienced ridicule or personal attacks from the president.  Their “truth-telling” continues to fall on too many deaf ears, as Trump maintains a nearly 90-percent approval rating within his party.

Arendt certainly was not arguing that truth and politics should be at odds; she was simply observing that they often were.  A healthy democracy, however, requires a fervent commitment to truth and transparency from politicians and citizens alike.  To paraphrase our president:  “What you’re seeing and what you’re reading IS what’s happening.”


Facts matter, but do they speak for themselves?

In the current hyper-polarization of our political system, many of us have become blinded by our biases, and reflexively reject information that challenges our perspectives. Yet, we continue to cling to an expectation that there is always a “right” answer for every problem or controversy, and that if only those who disagreed with us understood the “facts” we could make better progress on solutions.

The problem with this expectation is that while facts matter, they don’t always seem to speak for themselves. Several studies have shown that individuals draw upon social identity and their own experiences when forming political preferences, and that factual information is not necessarily a primary driver of how they draw conclusions and confront political decisions, especially if facts point to a reality that undermines their worldview. The natural tendency is to rebel against this information, even to the point of ignoring or rejecting strong scientific evidence. Put simply, politics is not science. However, the explosion in the number of media outlets pushing ideological perspectives, and challenging generally-accepted, rigorous data analysis, has made it even easier for Americans to seek and find their own alternative “facts” on key issues, resulting in the elevation of politics way above science, thereby erecting serious roadblocks to democratic decision-making.

Two timely examples help illustrate. One concerns how society should respond to the ever-increasing number of mass shootings. Those favoring more restrictive gun laws point to facts linking more guns to more mass shootings in America, and fewer guns to fewer mass shootings in other democracies. On the other hand, gun-rights advocates like to emphasize that many who support more restrictive gun laws don’t even know basic facts about guns. The second example involves the dispute between climatologists and climate-change deniers. The former offer peer-reviewed, scientific findings about catastrophic effects of human-caused climate change, while the latter point to a colder-than-usual April, scoffing at climate change, and refusing to accept that humans are causing it. All the while, the streets of cities like Miami Beach and New Orleans flood more regularly, polar bears get stranded on icebergs, and innocent children and adults get massacred in their places of learning, worship, and leisure.

These two issues reveal that although people may cling to their own “facts” the relative consequences for society of doing so must be acknowledged. While “where you stand depends on where you sit” aphoristically sums up the notion that people have different views based on their own experiences, we need to aspire to a norm that elevates scientifically-based information to its rightful place above opinion as we attempt to govern ourselves in these trying times. Fact-checking websites and organizations do help in this regard. But, in a republic created to establish justice and promote the general welfare, doing so hinges more than ever on acknowledging that some facts really do speak for themselves. The earth was never flat, regardless of what people believed.


Changes in the Nature of Trust Threaten our Democracy


Thirteen Russians have been indicted and charged with conspiring to undermine America’s electoral system by sowing discord among our citizenry through a sophisticated social media campaign of “informational warfare.”  This is an incredible development in the on-going investigation of Russia’s role in the 2016 election.   For example, according to the Justice Department’s report of the indictment, one Russian Instagram account called “Blacktivist” urged its followers to vote for Green Party candidate Jill Stein as a way to weaken support for Hillary Clinton.  The posting ominously read: “Trust me.  It’s not a wasted vote.”  Russians have also used Twitter to take advantage of the recent mass murder in a Florida high school to encourage further division among Americans.

The ability to manipulate our electoral process and civil society, subtly or overtly, is linked to fundamental changes in the nature of trust which have serious implications for the health of our democracy.   In Who Can You Trust, scholar Rachel Botsman describes how trust between individuals has evolved through three stages: local, institutional, and the current stage she calls distributed.  Local trust existed in a pre-modern time when we lived in smaller communities where everyone knew each other.  When technological changes in the late 19th through the early 20th century brought about modern industrialized society, trust shifted to institutions, and began to be mediated by experts who functioned as gatekeepers of facts, and therefore, truth.

However, two things have combined recently to weaken the institutional stage.  First is a barrage of high-profile trust breaches across all institutional sectors including Watergate and other government scandals, child abuse in the Catholic Church, and corporate malfeasance, corruption, and negligence from Enron, to Deepwater Horizon, to predatory lending.   Second is a revolution in information accessibility brought on by the digital age that has coincided with, and helped produce, increasing polarization of Americans in terms of how they get their news about the world around them, particularly political news and views.   Social media platforms have streamlined algorithms to help many of us create what MIT scholar Nicholas Negroponte famously prophesied in 1995 as “The Daily Me”–a tailoring and filtering of information to confirm and legitimize what we already believe.

These developments have estranged us from societal institutions—government, journalism, religion, corporations, and even friends and families—and caused us to seek refuge in a new kind of “distributed” trust that Botsman describes as horizontal–mediated by technology.  Sadly, we are now more likely to trust strangers on Uber, Airbnb, or TripAdvisor, rather than other people we actually know, but who are not in our tribe.   This has left our public square barren of the social bonds necessary for a well-functioning democracy, and has opened the door wide for us to be taken advantage of by those who do not share our values, and desire to do us harm.