June 22, 2019

"How Change Happens, Sunstein tells us, 'reflects decades of thinking.' This is another way of saying that it repeats decades of writing."

"To call it his 'new book' you’d have to accept that there is something meaningfully distinguishing it, beyond the physical barrier of its cover and binding, from his previous books—an assumption that in Sunstein’s case is easily disproven. Like an unstuck Mallarmé, Sunstein does not produce books so much as The Book, a single volume of ideas that’s recycled, with only minor variations, from title to title. Broaching a new Sunstein these days, you already know what you’re going to get: a section on the joys and uses of cost-benefit analysis, some dashed-off thoughts about utilitarianism and negative freedoms, three or four chapters on nudges and their importance to the design of seatbelt policy, the primacy of Daniel Kahneman–style 'slow thinking' over intuition and moral heuristics, some tut-tutting about social media, a Learned Hand quote or two, and a few weak anecdotes about Sunstein’s time as President Obama’s regulator-in-chief, all delivered through a prose that combines the dreariest elements of Anglo-American analytical style with the proto-numerate giddiness of a libertarian undergrad who’s just made first contact with the production possibility frontier.... How Change Happens conforms so comically to type that it repurposes several passages of text from Sunstein’s previous books, even his most recent ones. Hence he tells us that people typically think that more words, on any given page, will end with -ing than have n as the second-to-last letter—an anecdote you would have already encountered had you made it as far as page 30 of The Cost-Benefit Revolution. He explains the Asian disease problem and provides a number of choice-framing analogies also found in The Cost-Benefit Revolution. He retells the David Foster Wallace water parable spotted on page eleven of On Freedom, published in February of this year...."

From "The Sameness of Cass Sunstein/His books keep pushing the same technocratic fixes. But today’s most pressing questions cannot be depoliticized" by Aaron Timms (The New Republic), which as you can tell from the subtitle, goes on to find more substantive problems than chatty repetition.

What does "Like an unstuck Mallarmé" mean? I had to look it up. Here (from "Blocked/Why do writers stop writing?" (The New Yorker, 2004)):
After the English Romantics, the next group of writers known for not writing were the French Symbolists. Mallarmé, “the Hamlet of writing,” as Roland Barthes called him, published some sixty poems in thirty-six years. Rimbaud, notoriously, gave up poetry at the age of nineteen. In the next generation, Paul Valéry wrote some poetry and prose in his early twenties and then took twenty years off, to study his mental processes. Under prodding from friends, he finally returned to publishing verse and in six years produced the three thin volumes that secured his fame. Then he gave up again. These fastidious Frenchmen, when they described the difficulties of writing, did not talk, like Wordsworth and Coleridge, about a metaphysical problem, or even a psychological problem. To them, the problem was with language: how to get past its vague, cliché-crammed character and arrive at the actual nature of experience. They needed a scalpel, they felt, and they were given a mallet.
So you get what Timms is saying about Sunstein.

35 comments:

Darrell said...

I hope it's printed on clean-burning paper for when climate change kicks in--in the negative direction.

Temujin said...

I like to start my days with lighter reading and work into the thickets of more dense topics as the day moves on (and the coffee kicks in). You clearly think like a law professor and do the opposite. I'll look for sartorial links later today.

David Begley said...

Aaron Timms didn’t like the book.

Birkel said...

Technocrats.
Top. Men.

Counter example:
Bob McNamara, the smartest guy in the room.

Case Sunstein is an over-credentialed idiot.

Sebastian said...

"Like an unstuck Mallarmé"

That's funny.

"today’s most pressing questions cannot be depoliticized"

That's not funny. It's also why the Althouse preference for boring politics makes no sense. Gotta choose sides, this way or that.

Sure, you can choose to try and "depoliticize" questions, but that would require you to oppose progs at every turn. Good luck!

tim in vermont said...

To them, the problem was with language: how to get past its vague, cliché-crammed character and arrive at the actual nature of experience. They needed a scalpel, they felt, and they were given a mallet.

If that’s how you feel, give up! If writing well was easy, what would the point be then?

rhhardin said...

The prose poems of Mallarme and Valery are worth reading
https://tinyurl.com/yyyclzpb
The tiger (this and following one)

PB said...

I don't want to hear one thing from or about Cass Sunstein, until his wife Samantha Power comes clean about the unmasking she did or allowed to be done using her credentials.

Wince said...

Don't be taken-in by Timm's pithy take-down of Sunstein's formulaic "neo-liberalism" quoted here.

It's a call to be marched instead of lured or "nudged" into an all powerful state.

Timm's wants to remove the democracy from "democratic socialism".

Bob Boyd said...

Scroll up to the next post to see an action shot of Timm's reviewing Sunstein's book.

Seeing Red said...

The Great Nudger. IF ONLY we would listen to him, then things would be ok.

traditionalguy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
traditionalguy said...

It seems to be a dose writers' about self pity that English words are not sufficient for their genius. Maybe they are just not as talented as they presume. God forbid that the skill with English words is born into a foetus at conception. That would imply "it"is a living soul needing to be born and cared for a measeley few years.

David Begley said...

Isn’t Cass Sunstein married to Samantha Power? Power who spied on the Trump campaign and is going to be indicted?

wendybar said...

Sunstein is married to serial Unmasker Samantha Powers. His previous book called "Nudge" was how written to show how to NUDGE people into believing the lefts lies.

buwaya said...

The Frenchmen had my problem. Very good way to put it.
Their lack of productivity however shows that they weren't doing it for a living.

And then there was Balzac, who was doing it for a living.

Bob Boyd said...

You'd think Sunstein would be smart enough to know that "nudgers" like himself will always be impatiently shoved out the way by people eager to start prodding us with bayonets.

Narayanan said...

Earlier honest description by past writers was "iron fist in velvet glove" =>>> nudge

Danno said...

Blogger David Begley said...Isn’t Cass Sunstein married to Samantha Power? Power who spied on the Trump campaign and is going to be indicted?

You'd think he would write about some of the juicy tidbits Samantha uncovered in her spying on U.S. citizens. That would monetize the crimes she perpetrated while in her UN role.

Narr said...

I was the only kid on my block to subscribe to TNR, from maybe 1980 to 2000. I enjoyed the movie and book reviews more than the politics, and whatever their other faults I thought many of the writers wrote well. I ended my subscription after an ownership change and too many hassles trying to renew. I haven't really missed it.

They had articles from the likes of John Lukacs (too often ignored) and John Keegan (overrated but not ignorable), and columnist/editors Sullivan and Wieseltier had spunk.

Narr
I did not realize Cass was Mr. Power

Bruce Hayden said...

“I don't want to hear one thing from or about Cass Sunstein, until his wife Samantha Power comes clean about the unmasking she did or allowed to be done using her credentials.”

It is always a bit surprising realizing, again, how incestuous the DC political community is. Much of it seems to have been hidden from us because the wives didn’t take their husband’s last name.

But it is important to keep these relationships in mind. For example, Sunstein has long come across as an ivory tower academic trying to make sense of the regulatory state, and figure out how to streamline it. So he ended up working for a bit as the Regulatory Czar for the President whose Administration set records for new regulations. He might have made an impact under Trump, but was little more than the Dutch boy with his finger in the dike under Obama, esp after his party lost both houses of Congress after his first two years, and had to resort to regulation (etc) to impose their socialist ideals without Congressional approval.

But then you look at what his wife was doing in the Obama Administration. She appears to have been a key player in illegally using NSA database searching as a political tool to attack their political enemies. Someone who had no apparent reason for FISA unmasking authority apparently was ordering the unmasking of the electronic communications of roughly one political enemy a day during Obama’s last year in office.

Oh, and the regulatory tie in - Power’s unmasking was made possible by DAG Sally Yates tweaking the rules for authorizing and disseminating FISA information on US Persons (almost all US citizens here). Wonder what Sunstein thinks about Yate’s regulatory tweaks that should, and still may, send his wife to prison. None of Yate’s FISA changes were big enough, themselves to ring bells at the FISC that approved them. Essentially Sunstein nudges. It was the combination of those tweaks, those nudges, that allowed his wife to drive a truck through mall holes created, allowing her to do what FISA was explicitly designed to prevent, the spying on Americans for political reasons.

Ken B said...

Meh. Aren’t you for boring? Isn’t no better than what he said before a high standard?

Narr said...

Birkel mentioned McNamara. That reminded me of the last mention here, which had gone by before I could post. I have heard his experiment in drafting 100k low-category recruits dubbed "McNamara's Morons" and "McNamara's Retards."

An aunt of mine worked as a teacher for the most illiterate ones, working on giving them a Basic English vocabulary.

Narr
She found it trying

William said...

Refrain from moral heuristics. The most significant fact about Sunstein is not his marriage to Samantha Powers, but rather that a person who is married to Samantha Powers chooses to instruct us in moral heuristics.

buwaya said...

Florence Kings stuff on the last page was always the best thing in NR.
Like Seligmans column was the best part of Fortune.

wholelottasplainin' said...

When I heard Sunstein had written a book called "Nudge", my instant response was to raise my middle finger in the air and shout, "Nudge THIS!!!"

Scratch a prog, find a totalitarian...every time.

Douglas said...

What the lefties really hate about Sunstein is that he vigorously advocates cost/benefit analysis, which doesn’t leave a lot of room for pure virtue-signaling laws.

Earnest Prole said...

In Sunstein’s defense he still operates in the realm of reason, unlike his friend Laurence Tribe who has been driven to utter madness by Donald Trump.

narciso said...

She wanted for the un to intervene on behalf of the Palestinians, against Israel, one might say her interest in genocide studies isnt academic.

Dave Begley said...

Will Cass visit his wife when she is in jail?

Maybe he could write a book about that.

Bilwick said...

My impression is that all of Sunstein's books push the same line: "I'm all for freedom, except when people don't do what I want." Am I wrong?

Ingachuck'stoothlessARM said...

dirty tricks, IBNLT his wife's, et al--

Isnt that "How Change Happens" ?

rcocean said...

Remember Alvin Toffler and "Future Shock". One reason i never liked Newt Gingrich is he was always blathering about Toffler and how we needed to change because of the "information revolution".

I've become more and more suspicious of these "futurists" and scaremongering intellectuals.

Lurker21 said...

One of the wittiest and cruelest things written about the Obama administration was the online piece in The Exile about Sunstein, Power, and Nussbaum:

CASS SUNSTEIN: MEET THE HORRIBLE NEW OBAMA-ERA ELITE, OR “ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MIDDLEBROWS”

TerriW said...

I used to have a theory that someone's favorite Dean R. Koontz book was whichever one they read first.

I started asking around, and it was usually true. Of course, this was back in the day when people were actually reading his books.

But maybe it'd work that way for Sunstein, too.