Book review: ‘Simpler’ by Cass Sunstein and ‘Citizenville’ by Gavin Newsom

Carlos Lozada is Outlook editor of The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter: @carloslozadaWP.

If government did not exist, we would have to invent it. And then we’d have to reinvent it, because it would be lousy and everyone would hate it.

Since the founders chucked the Articles of Confederation, Americans have been reinventing government, reimagining structures and rules, tinkering to make their union just a little less imperfect. These projects get caught up in the political fights of their times, of course — as in the late 1940s, when President Harry Truman’s Hoover Commission on Organization of the Executive Branch became a battleground between conservatives bent on dismantling the New Deal and liberals intent on preserving it. (Truman and the liberals won.)

(Penguin Press) - “Citizenville: How to Take the Town Square Digital and Reinvent Government” by Gavin Newsom and Lisa Dickey

More from Outlook

How to cover the Islamic State

How to cover the Islamic State

For journalists, the risks include kidnapping, death and propaganda.

Gary Webb didn’t have proof

Gary Webb didn’t have proof

Despite what a new movie says about the reporter who linked the CIA and crack.

5 myths about the Secret Service

5 myths about the Secret Service

Are its standards high enough?

How women gained control of pregnancy

How women gained control of pregnancy

Jonathan Eig explores the medical and cultural journey toward the creation of the birth-control pill.

Obama and me

Obama and me

Can you tell these memoirs apart?

Is the Vatican evolving?

Is the Vatican evolving?

Not the way politicians do.

Best state: Maine

Best state: Maine

Two studies give its hospitals high marks for safety and patient care.

The CDC’s worst week

The CDC’s worst week

The health agency seems surprised by each Ebola development.

But these constant reinvention attempts also reflect the intellectual and management fads of their eras. Years from now, I suspect, we’ll look back with a sort of time-capsule nostalgia at Gavin Newsom’s “Citizenville” and Cass Sunstein’s “Simpler.” These new manifestos on reinventing government perfectly capture the twin cultural and social-science obsessions of the early 21st century: the networking power of social media and the explanatory power of behavioral economics.

Newsom, the lieutenant governor of California, writes with the faith of the first guy in line outside the Apple store. Americans are more disengaged than ever from their government and political leaders, yet they’re totally into their smartphones and Facebook friends. So if technophobe governments and politicians would just embrace these technologies and platforms, democracy would be renewed. Newsom calls this, in a burst of creativity, “Government 2.0.”

Written with Lisa Dickey, “Citizenville” is a collection of examples — big and small, real and imagined — of Government 2.0 at work. It’s about using your phone to find a parking spot and then pay for the meter. It’s about NASA offering cash prizes for citizens to design an app that can track the universe’s dark matter. It’s about CityChat, a “one-stop destination” for mayors to trade ideas on how to improve their cities.

No challenge, it seems, is too daunting for some suitably disruptive innovation. “How do we make it possible — through apps, Web sites, social networking, or whatever — for people to take greater part in governing?” Newsom asks. (Yes, he really says “or whatever.”) Increased civic participation, he affirms, is the promise of “our new hyperconnected world.” Newsom even has a chapter titled “There’s an App for That” — the first unironic use of the phrase since 2009.

The author calls for the release of massive government data sets, not merely because transparency is desirable in principle but because it would unleash citizen-entrepreneurs who can develop applications that empower us all and shame governments into better performance. “It may be a dry, boring-sounding word, but real data are fascinating and powerful,” Newsom lectures, “a living, breathing, ever-changing picture of people and their needs.”

If data are liberated, citizens can better track crime or accident statistics in their neighborhoods, prompting local government action; they can learn which hospitals have better safety records and thus make decisions that can save lives. Open data has led to Google Earth on our screens and GPS systems in our cars. It creates trust in government, opportunities for entrepreneurs, and new jobs and industries — a “win-win-win,” Newsom raves. No one ever loses in “Citizenville,” because everyone is plugged in, logged on and hitting the “like” button.

“We have to meet people where they are,” he writes. “And where they are right now is playing games and spending time on social-networking sites.” Everybody? Even in California, that’s hard to believe.

For Newsom, everything bad about government is “top-down,” “bureaucratic” and “hierarchical,” while everything good flows from feedback loops, crowdsourcing, the cloud, mashups, hackathons, digital natives, big data or whatever. It’s the reinvention of government, buzzword by buzzword.

Sunstein’s reinvention project feels more subtle, more promising and more unnerving at the same time.

During President Obama’s first term, Sunstein served as director of the OIRA — the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs — the sort of obscure but influential Washington outfit that conspiracy theorists despise. (At the time of Sunstein’s confirmation process, Glenn Beck warned that he was the “most dangerous man in America.”) Created in 1980, the OIRA studies and signs off on new federal rules; it is “the cockpit of the regulatory state,” as Sunstein puts it.

Some regulations take the form of commands, such as a mandate for greater energy efficiency in household appliances or a requirement (recently abandoned) that cigarette companies put graphic health warnings on their products. But Sunstein doesn’t like forcing us to do things — he’d rather just “nudge” us.

He defines nudges as “approaches that do not force anyone to do anything and that maintain freedom of choice, but that have the potential to make people healthier, wealthier and happier.” Or, a little simpler: making it more likely that you will do smart things that, on your own, you might avoid.

Sunstein scours the explosion of research in behavioral economics — which seeks to explain how people act in the real world, rather than in economic models of a rational, profit-maximizing public — for potential nudges “that show real opportunities for saving money and saving lives.”

So when the USDA recasts dietary guidelines from a nonsensical food pyramid into an easier-to-understand food “plate,”it is nudging us to eat better. When we are defaulted into a retirement plan at work, rather than having to actively opt into it, we are nudged to save for our old age. When pollution disclosure requirements shame business leaders, corporations are nudged into reducing their environmental damage more effectively than if the reductions were mandated.

Nudges reflect a kind of “soft paternalism” on the part of regulators, Sunstein admits. They know best, but they’re not going to force anything on us, just a gentle push here and there; you may not even notice. Nudging is necessary, he writes, because folks too often rely on “System 1” of their brains — the one that makes snap judgments based on biases or habitual thinking — rather than “System 2,” which reaches deliberative, calculated decisions that reflect complexity.

Sunstein is a System 2 kind of guy in a System 1 kind of world. “In many important contexts, especially those that are complex, new, or unfamiliar, you shouldn’t blink,” Sunstein writes, in a little dig at Malcolm Gladwell, “and you really shouldn’t trust your gut.”

Okay. But should you trust Sunstein’s instead?

Sunstein insists that there is nothing nefarious about nudges, about monkeying with the “choice architecture” that governs the daily decisions of busy, unwitting citizens. All potential rules, he says, are subjected to a rigorous cost-benefit analysis, before and after the fact. And if regulators under- or overestimate benefits or costs, it is out of genuine error rather than political opportunism. “Agencies make a lot of mistakes,” Sunstein says, “but there does not appear to be a systematic bias in one or another direction.” Not entirely comforting.

Sunstein, now director of the Program on Behavioral Economics and Public Policy at Harvard Law School, seems proud of his work at the OIRA — he refers to “historic” and “unprecedented” rules issued under Obama and notes at least a dozen times how his efforts “save lives.” He also points out that the Obama administration issued fewer rules in its first four years than the George W. Bush, Clinton, George H.W. Bush or Reagan administrations in their first four years.

Yet this satisfaction in his public service belies some ambivalence about the public he served. On the one hand, Sunstein is a fan of the public-comment process that draft regulations go through. “Public officials often learn a great deal from the concerns and objections of citizens. (I certainly did),” he writes. And his epilogue concludes that “those who have the privilege of serving the American public should listen closely to those whom they are privileged to serve.”

But when members of that American public take the trouble to organize themselves into groups advocating their concerns, Sunstein finds them a lot less appealing. “On the rare occasions when members of my staff pointed out the views of interest groups, I responded (I hope with humor, but also with a point), ‘That’s sewer talk. Get your mind out of the gutter.’ ”

Similarly, Newsom criticizes the typical city council or town hall meeting, where the debate “often devolves into shouting” and “the loudest voices get the most attention.” But he’s in love with people who “can research, publish, organize, even foment revolution — all without getting up from their laptops or iPads or putting down their smartphones.”

Because people don’t shout on Twitter. And social media platforms are never hijacked for murky political purposes, only noble ones.

In his conclusions, Sunstein doesn’t appear too worried, either, that regulations based on otherwise sound social science would become a tool of politicians and regulators with “impermissible motivations,” as he puts it. But why wouldn’t they? After all, nothing seemed to prevent staffers in the supposedly apolitical Internal Revenue Service from distorting their duties with anti-conservative, pro-government biases. And an essay this month in the American, the online magazine of the American Enterprise Institute, invoked Sunstein’s work to suggest that “applied behavioral science could advance conservative principles on far-ranging policies related to marriage, education, retirement savings, and Medicare.”

This should shock no one. For all their zeal, Newsom and Sunstein are hammering around the edges of processes and rules that implement laws and policies forged in an entirely political world.

Reinventing government? Great. But who’s going to reinvent politics?

carlos.lozada@washpost.com

Read more from Outlook:

The end of everything

Please, President Obama. Not another ‘national conversation.’

Friend us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

CITIZENVILLE

How to Take the Town Square Digital and Reinvent Government

By Gavin Newsom with Lisa Dickey

Penguin Press. 249 pp. $25.95

SIMPLER

The Future of Government

By Cass R. Sunstein

Simon & Schuster. 260 pp. $26

 
Read what others are saying