Nudges Versus Pushes In The Obama Administration

Earlier in the year I saw the appointment of Cass Sunstein to head the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs as a favorable move by Obama. The OMB Blog reports that this is now official:

One of the most important intellectual developments of the past several years that has had a huge impact on my own thinking has been the rise of behavioral economics. By taking the insights of psychology and observed human behavior into account, we now have a fuller picture of how people actually behave – instead of just reducing them to the hyper-rational utility-maximizers of Econ 101.

Cass Sunstein, while not an economist, has been at the forefront of this intellectual vanguard – most recently, with his acclaimed book Nudge, co-authored with Richard Thaler – and I am pleased to announce that the President today nominated Cass to be the Administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs here at OMB.

In this role, Cass will be able to shape a regulatory structure that is rooted in commonsense to achieve the values and ends that the President and the American people seek. For years, Cass has been that rare specimen – an academic whose writing and thinking has had a real effect on policymakers. Indeed, Cass is the most cited law professor on any faculty in the United States. Now, Cass is entering the arena, and I am eager to work with him to implement the President’s regulatory reform agenda.

One’s view of this appointment provides a quick litmus test to distinguish old time Democrats from the more independent (and often more libertarian) voters who backed Obama over Clinton for the Democratic nomination. Robert Kuttner wants to see far more from the Obama government than the types of nudges Sunstein prefers. Ezra Klein sums this up with, “The question, for Kuttner, is whether Sunstein — and the administration — will prove so enamored of nudges that he’ll forget how to push.”

Yes, unfortunately, sometimes  a nudge is not enough and a push might be necessary. The question is whether one immediately turns to government to push others into doing what they believe they should or if they resort to such pushing reluctantly as a last resort. While the concept of a Team of Rivals might have been exaggerated by the media, this is a fundamental issue where different views will be considered by different members of the Obama administration.

Darwin’s Contribution to Modern Science and Medicine

Back in February, to mark the 200th anniversary of the voyage of the HMS Beagle, the Journal of the American Medical Association ran an editorial on the importance of Darwin to medicine. Here is a portion:

The burgeoning recognition of evolutionary biology’s importance to medical science would have delighted Darwin, who as a teenager rounded with his father, an admired Shropshire physician. In fact, Darwin studied medicine in Edinburgh, Scotland, until his squeamishness toward the barbarous nature of that era’s medical practice and his zeal for natural history lead him to flee the medical field. But Darwin recognized that the human body can be understood at a fundamental level only by an exploration of its evolutionary past. Just as the study of political history is necessary to understand how societies have arrived at their present state, evolution illuminates the deep history of the human body that makes sense only in light of that history. Nevertheless, medicine and evolutionary biology seemed to follow separate trajectories for a considerable time after the publication of On the Origin of Species.3 However over the past decade, physicians have begun to perceive the relevance of Darwin’s work with the growth of an extensive contemporary literature focusing on evolutionary medicine. This new approach to medicine promises cogent explanations for and new approaches to such diverse phenomena as aging, obesity, diabetes, low back pain, and cancer.46

Evolution’s striking relevance to modern medicine can perhaps best be illustrated by its centrality to the new field of personalized medicine, which seeks to apply sophisticated genetic analysis to tailor health care to the individual. Despite its modern trappings, this new specialty rests firmly on one of Darwin’s most basic (and revolutionary) insights—individual variation. Before the publication of Darwin’s seminal work in 1859,3 species were considered immutable and fixed. Like the Platonic ideal of the perfect circle, each individual species was considered a reflection of an essential form. Each individual sea urchin, llama, and bark beetle was viewed as an approximation of an ideal; individual variations were seen as irrelevant and inconvenient blemishes, unworthy of study. The fact that humans were evidently different from one another was just more fodder for the idea (also overturned by Darwin) that human beings stand apart from the rest of biology. But instead of ignoring individual variation, Darwin sought it out and realized its crucial import as the raw material on which natural selection acts. Now, 150 years after the publication of On the Origin of Species,3 medical practitioners are following Darwin’s lead and scrutinizing the subtle genetic variations that make each human unique and when harnessed, hold the promise of revolutionizing health care.

Evolutionary theory is as relevant to the teaching of medicine as to medical practice. Just as the periodic table of the elements brings structure to the study of chemistry, an evolutionary approach to medical education provides a logic to understanding the human body in health and disease. Evolution explains why humans are the way they are, ultimately answering the most fundamental questions asked by medical students, ie, those that begin with why. Given the centrality of evolutionary theory to a deep understanding of the human body, it is possible to envision an entire medical curriculum built around evolution, from anatomy and molecular genetics to pathogen-host interactions.

Darwin’s work has withstood the test of time, despite those who still prefer mysticisim and superstition to modern science:

As in so many other areas, Darwin’s views have been vindicated and have profound implications for human health in the 21st century. Many maladies that result in patients’ most profound morbidity can be attributed to urges that evolved to maximize reproductive fitness but are now severely out of kilter with modern culture. For example, the alleles that result in attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder may have been highly adaptive during most of evolutionary history when sitting still for hours with single focus was not advantageous for young children. Likewise, alleles that predispose to anxiety disorders and obsessive-compulsive disorder would have had clear advantages on the savannah of the human species’ youth when to be laid back meant being dinner for a predator. The lust for fat and carbohydrates and to binge eat evolved when a lack of refrigeration meant that when a dead animal was found on the plains, humans were well advised to binge.

However, the Darwinian revolution was not confined to biology or even science. While Darwin decried the tendency of some social scientists and philosophers to overgeneralize evolutionary theory (ie, in the guise of “Social Darwinism”), his work would nevertheless shake the foundations of religion and philosophy and ultimately redefine nothing less than the conception of the place of humans in the world. Those engaged in fields from philosophy to economics must take account of Darwin’s theory as they ply their trades; it possesses a universality shared by only a handful of milestones in human intellectual history. Just as Newton unified the motion of the apple with that of the moon, if life is ever encountered elsewhere in the universe, it will likely have arisen through the simple but powerful mechanisms glimpsed by Darwin of variation, inheritance, and selection.

For better or for worse, Darwin pointed the way toward an understanding of the universe, which is materialistic and unmystical. This was immediately recognized with the publication of On the Origin of Species3 and lay at the root of the hostility with which his theory was met in many quarters. Indeed, Darwin was unsettled by the broad philosophical and theological implications of his theory, not least because of his beloved wife’s concerns that he would not join her in heaven. While it is a demonstrable fact that religion and evolution are reconcilable in the minds of many, including prominent and highly accomplished scientists, it is also undeniable that Darwin’s work represents a severe challenge to those who would cling to received tradition in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence.

Why They Used Torture


While we know that torture is illegal, immoral, and ineffective, it has remained a popular tool of tyrants throughout history. Generally torture was used not to extract valid information, as it is not an effective means of doing so, but to force false confessions. This occurred during the Spanish Inquisition. Viewers of The Tudors have seen how torture was used to build a case of incest and adultery against Ann Boleyn. More recently torture was used by the North Vietnamese to force American prisoners, including John McCain, to give false confessions of war crimes. There are now suggestions that the Bush administration used torture in an attempt to prove something which was counter to fact.

McClatchy reports that torture was used to try to prove a connection between Saddam and al Qaeda when no such connection actually existed:

The Bush administration applied relentless pressure on interrogators to use harsh methods on detainees in part to find evidence of cooperation between al Qaida and the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s regime, according to a former senior U.S. intelligence official and a former Army psychiatrist.

Such information would’ve provided a foundation for one of former President George W. Bush’s main arguments for invading Iraq in 2003. In fact, no evidence has ever been found of operational ties between Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network and Saddam’s regime…

A former senior U.S. intelligence official familiar with the interrogation issue said that Cheney and former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld demanded that the interrogators find evidence of al Qaida-Iraq collaboration.

“There were two reasons why these interrogations were so persistent, and why extreme methods were used,” the former senior intelligence official said on condition of anonymity because of the issue’s sensitivity.

“The main one is that everyone was worried about some kind of follow-up attack (after 9/11). But for most of 2002 and into 2003, Cheney and Rumsfeld, especially, were also demanding proof of the links between al Qaida and Iraq that (former Iraqi exile leader Ahmed) Chalabi and others had told them were there.”

It was during this period that CIA interrogators waterboarded two alleged top al Qaida detainees repeatedly — Abu Zubaydah at least 83 times in August 2002 and Khalid Sheik Muhammed 183 times in March 2003 — according to a newly released Justice Department document.

There is a tendency among many Americans to forgive the Bush administration for some of its crimes committed after 9/11, feeling that although they overreacted they were acting to attempt to protect the country. This information shows that they were largely motivated to protect their own legacy and cover up the manner in which they betrayed the country by lying us into an unnecessary war. If this is the case there is no longer any reason why George Bush and Dick Cheney should not be tried and held accountable for war crimes, just as Japanese and Germans were tried after World War II.

Blogging Not The Way To Become Rich

Some of the professional bloggers such as Mickey Kaus, Wonkette, and Megan McArdle who 1) probably know first hand how little money most bloggers make and 2) have the time to look further into these number, are questioning the accuracy of a Wall Street Journal column on professional bloggers which I previously quoted here.

I guess I should have noted that this column was written by Mark Penn. If his numbers were trustworthy, Hillary Clinton would be president. Fortunately I never planned to quit my day job to try to make money blogging.

Penn has updated his column with a response to the criticism from bloggers for those who really care to look at the numbers.

FBI Spies On Teenage Girls

In a story somewhat related to the previous post on strip searching a teenage girl, AP reports that two FBI workers were caught using using surveillance equipment to spy on teenage girls as they “undressed and tried on prom gowns at a charity event at a West Virginia mall.”

The FBI employees have been charged with conspiracy and committing criminal invasion of privacy. They were working in an FBI satellite control room at the mall when they positioned a camera on temporary changing rooms and zoomed in for at least 90 minutes on girls dressing for the Cinderella Project fashion show, Marion County Prosecutor Pat Wilson said Monday.

Strip Searching of Teen Goes Before Supreme Court

NPR’s Morning Edition and The Los Angeles Times report on a case before the Supreme Court in which a school is being sued for strip searching a thirteen year old girl in search for drugs. The school’s behavior was so outrageous that even some conservative bloggers are supporting the ACLU on this one.

The student was an honors student with no history of problems. The school’s lawyer rationalized this by arguing that this is only evidence that she had never been caught. In other words, students are to be considered guilty regardless of how well they have behaved.

The drug problem in the school which led to this investigation was  prescription-strength 400 mg Ibuprofen. That’s the equivalent of two over the counter Advil which contain 200 mg of Ibuprofen. The schools lawyer argued, “School administrators are not pharmacologically trained in being able to assess the relative dangers any one drug might present.” It hardly takes much training in pharmacology to add 200 plus 200 to figure out that the 400 mg Ibuprofen pill found hardly gave justification for such a search.

The lawyers on each side continued to argue their positions:

“Children call their private parts their private parts for a reason. They not subject to exposure, to observation by school officials. When children are strip-searched, they experience trauma that’s similar in kind and degree to sexual abuse,” says Wolf.

School lawyer Wright counters, “We just have to ask ourselves, as a policy matter, do you really want a drug-free environment? And if you do, then there are going to be some privacy invasions when there is reason to suspect that those drugs are being dispensed on campus, that they’re being used by students.”

I’ll risk not having a drug-free environment if the cost of a drug-free environment is strip searching teenage girls to keep out Ibuprofen.

Journalists Oppose Fairness Doctrine

While only a handful of Democrats support reinstituting the Fairness Doctrine, conservatives have been using the prospect of its return as a means of scaring their followers and raising money. The Fairness Doctrine is essentially a non-issue being promoted by conservative talk radio. These are the people who generally look down on what they see as the liberal media. I wonder how they feel about receiving this support:

The nation’s largest organization of professional journalists announced Tuesday it will oppose the reintroduction of the Fairness Doctrine.

The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) announced it would stand against the Fairness Doctrine, which the group said would allow the government to control broadcast editorial content.

The announcement makes for strange bedfellows with conservatives in Congress, who have alleged the Fairness Doctrine would result in severe constraints on their talk radio base, including superstars like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity.

“SPJ in general opposes government intervention on speech. The Fairness Doctrine does that and discussion about having it again should end,” SPJ President Dave Aeikens said in a statement. “The SPJ Code of Ethics requires fairness in news coverage, but we don’t want the government to mandate that.”

Senate Report On Detainees Released

Via Josh Marshall, “The Senate Armed Services Committee’s Inquiry Into the Treatment of Detainees in U.S. Custody has now been posted on the Committee’s website.” From the summary of the report:

Qaeda and Taliban terrorists are taught to expect Americans to abuse them. They are recruited based on false propaganda that says the United States is out to destroy Islam. Treating detainees harshly only reinforces that distorted view, increases resistance to cooperation, and creates new enemies. In fact, the April 2006 National Intelligence Estimate “Trends in Global Terrorism: Implications for the United States” cited “pervasive anti U.S. sentiment among most Muslims” as an underlying factor fueling the spread of the global jihadist movement. Former Navy General Counsel Alberto Mora testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee in June 2008 that “there are serving U.S. flag-rank officers who maintain that the first and second identifiable causes of U. S. combat deaths in Iraq – as judged by their effectiveness in recruiting insurgent fighters into combat – are, respectively the symbols of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.”

The abuse of detainees in U.S. custody cannot simply be attributed to the actions of “a few bad apples” acting on their own. The fact is that senior officials in the United States government solicited information on how to use aggressive techniques, redefined the law to create the appearance of their legality, and authorized their use against detainees. Those efforts damaged our ability to collect accurate intelligence that could save lives, strengthened the hand of our enemies, and compromised our moral authority. This report is a product of the Committee’s inquiry into how those unfortunate results came about.

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Torture and American Values

Torture is widely considered a poor means of obtaining information, with the information obtained from torture generally being unreliable. With multiple acts of torture people are going to talk, and somewhere along the way it is conceivable that some information will be obtained. Conservatives are using claims that torture did provide some information to justify the widespread torture during the Bush years, oblivious to the fact that regardless of the results the actions were both illegal and contrary to our national interests.

The New York Times looks at one claim of torture being effective which many Bush apologists are citing:

President Obama’s national intelligence director told colleagues in a private memo last week that the harsh interrogation techniques banned by the White House did produce significant information that helped the nation in its struggle with terrorists.

“High value information came from interrogations in which those methods were used and provided a deeper understanding of the al Qa’ida organization that was attacking this country,” Adm. Dennis C. Blair, the intelligence director, wrote in a memo to his staff last Thursday.

Admiral Blair sent his memo on the same day the administration publicly released secret Bush administration legal memos authorizing the use of interrogation methods that the Obama White House has deemed to be illegal torture. Among other things, the Bush administration memos revealed that two captured Qaeda operatives were subjected to a form of near-drowning known as waterboarding a total of 266 times.

Maybe some information was obtained, but Blair also conceded that this information might have been obtained by other means:

“The information gained from these techniques was valuable in some instances, but there is no way of knowing whether the same information could have been obtained through other means,” Admiral Blair said in a written statement issued last night. “The bottom line is these techniques have hurt our image around the world, the damage they have done to our interests far outweighed whatever benefit they gave us and they are not essential to our national security.”

When Blair appeared before the Senate intelligence committee on January 22, he also said: “I believe strongly that torture is not moral, legal or effective.”

President Obama has also noted that the main issue here is not whether there is an isolated case of receiving information:

Mr. Obama’s team has cast doubt on the effectiveness of the harsh interrogations, but in a visit to the C.I.A. this week, the president did not directly question that. Instead, he said, any disadvantage imposed by banning those tactics was worth it.

“I’m sure that sometimes it seems as if that means we’re operating with one hand tied behind our back or that those who would argue for a higher standard are naïve,” he said. “I understand that. You know, I watch the cable shows once in a while.”

But he added: “What makes the United States special, and what makes you special, is precisely the fact that we are willing to uphold our values and our ideals even when it’s hard, not just when it’s easy.”

The great tragedy of the 9/11 attacks is that it has led many conservatives to ignore our values out of fear of terrorism. If we allow them to change the fundamental character of our nation in this manner, Osama bin Laden will have won.

Update: Why They Used Torture despite it being illegal, immoral, and ineffective.

Did Cheney Lie?

In an update to yesterday’s post on Dick Cheney’s claims of having requested that documents be declassified, Greg Sargent found that while Cheney had not made a request to the CIA he did request that the National Archives declassify records on March 31. He also notes that “we have no way of knowing what Cheney actually asked for or whether they really say what Cheney claims.” The timing also makes it questionable as to whether the request really did pertain to the issue Cheney was speaking of this week, with some bloggers speculating that Cheney had really made an unrelated request for material related to his book.

John Cole points out other areas of potential dishonesty in Cheney’s statements on the subject.

It certainly isn’t helpful for the Republicans if national security controversies continue to be over Dick Cheney and the legacy of the Bush administration. Greg Sargent wrote:

Republicans have to be in despair over the fact that Cheney has inserted himself into this fight. It redefines the battle as one over the Bush legacy, rather than one about whether Obama has what it takes to keep us safe, which is what Republicans currently in power want it to be about. Related thoughts from Steve Benen.