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The Nudgy State

Design-thinking, Policy, nudge

U.S. President Barack Obama gave behavioral policymaking its highest profile endorsement yet in 2009 by appointing Harvard legal scholar and Thaler’s Nudge coauthor Cass Sunstein to run the White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. As “regulation czar,” Sunstein was given a wide mandate to apply cost-benefit analyses to programs including the new health-care law and the Dodd-Frank financial regulations. Sunstein, who stepped down last summer, was never popular with conservatives, who saw the “libertarian paternalism” of Nudge as nanny-statism in disguise.

From a public point of view, the most visible of the reforms championed by Sunstein may have been the transformation of the FDA’s food pyramid, dutifully reviewed and ignored by generations of schoolchildren, into a more intuitive plate design, which shows how much of an average meal should be taken up by fruits, vegetables, grains, protein and dairy. Another program pushed by his office, fueleconomy.gov, allows car buyers to compare fuel costs of a car against an average vehicle — rather than expressing it in non-intuitive statistics like miles per gallon. Sunstein claims the federal regulations put in place during Obama’s first term saved more than $90 billion per year for the U.S. government.

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