Thursday, January 8, 2009

Obama's Regulatory Czar Likely to Set a New Tone

This article in the WSJ's edition of 8 January discusses Cass Sunstein (Nudge, a book co-written with Richard Thaler, I found fascinating reading). A phrase caught my eye; in fact, more than once the language used is critical.

WASHINGTON -- Cass Sunstein, a Harvard Law School professor who pioneered efforts to design regulation around the ways people behave, will be named the Obama administration's regulatory czar, a transition official said Wednesday.

Mr. Sunstein, a friend of President-elect Barack Obama from their faculty days at the University of Chicago law school, will mark a sharp departure for the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. Although obscure, the post wields outsize power. It oversees regulations throughout the government, from the Environmental Protection Agency to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Obama aides have said the job will be crucial as the new administration overhauls financial-services regulations, attempts to pass universal health care and tries to forge a new approach to controlling emissions of greenhouse gases.

Under President George W. Bush, the office has been dominated by administrators with a strong deregulatory bent. Activists saw it as the place where environmental, workplace safety, consumer products and other areas of regulation often stalled or died.

Deregulatory bent means conservative ideology, business-friendly.

Susan Dudley, the current administrator, had served at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, a free market-oriented think tank, where she directed the Regulatory Studies Program from 2003 to 2006. Mr. Bush's first administrator, John Graham, championed cost-benefit analyses of regulations.

Free-market oriented? The sort of free market that gave us the mess we're in? And championed cost-benefit analyses of regulations?

Mr. Sunstein, a prolific academic with wide-ranging interests, may be best known for advancing a field known as "law and behavioral economics" that seeks to shape law and policy around the way research shows people actually behave. The theory builds on earlier approaches developed at the University of Chicago law school that sought to harmonize regulatory law with free-market economics. Although widely embraced by conservatives, critics said it failed to account for the sometimes less-than-rational aspects of human behavior.

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal last year, Mr. Sunstein said Mr. Obama was intrigued by "law and behavioral economics" as an approach to regulation that would avoid ideological extremes.

That is much clearer than championed cost-benefit analyses of regulations.

Mr. Obama believes in "doing law in a way that's realistically based on human behavior," Mr. Sunstein said. "He's a University of Chicago Democrat, so he's very attuned to the virtue of free markets and the risks of free-market regulation. He's not an old-style Democrat who's excited about regulations" for their own sake.

Mr. Sunstein said the Earned Income Tax Credit, which provides money to the working poor, was "a way of lifting people out of poverty" superior to old-style welfare payments.

Excellent point.

Last year, Mr. Sunstein joined the Harvard faculty, where his wife, Samantha Power, also teaches. Ms. Power was a foreign-policy adviser to Mr. Obama who was forced off the campaign after she called Sen. Hillary Clinton a "monster." Mrs. Clinton has been nominated to be Mr. Obama's secretary of state.

I think Power is back, or will soon be, with Obama.

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