Left and Right

Cass Sunstein’s latest TED Talk of a book offers the kind of technocratic whimsy that left and right can agree to hate

By Michael Lind, Tablet

f you open a copy of the Encyclopedia of Political Ideology and look up “technocratic neoliberalism,” the dominant policy paradigm since the end of the Cold War in the contemporary West, you will find a picture of Cass Sunstein—or at least you would, if such an encyclopedia existed. Following a successful career as a legal scholar at Chicago, Columbia, and Harvard, and as a public intellectual who in his early years wrote thought-provoking books on subjects including the cost of government and Franklin Roosevelt’s Second Bill of Rights, Sunstein broke out of the highbrow ghetto in 2008 to reach a much larger audience with a book he coauthored with University of Chicago economist Richard Thaler, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness.

Nudge was not Sunstein’s first venture into the genre of midwit nonfiction. That was Infotopia: How Many Minds Produce Knowledge in 2006. Perhaps it is coincidence, but Infotopia came out only a year after the publication of Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, co-authored by Steven Levitt and the journalist Stephen J. Dubner. Freakonomics became a global bestseller, spawning a blog, a podcast, and sequels including SuperFreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance (2009), Think Like a Freak: The Authors of Freakonomics Offer to Retrain Your Brain (2014), and When to Rob a Bank: …And 131 More Warped Suggestions and Well-Intended Rants (2015).

Levitt teaches economics at the University of Chicago, where Sunstein taught law for 27 years before joining the faculty of Harvard Law School. I do not know whether the sudden superstardom of Levitt, his younger Chicago colleague, inspired Sunstein to try his hand at the middlebrow genre of pop nonfiction. There were certainly other exemplars of buckraking in this vein to be followed, including Malcolm Gladwell, whose pop psychology bestsellers included Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (2005) and The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (2006), and Spencer Johnson, author or co-author of Who Moved My Cheese? An Amazing Way to Deal with Change in Your Work and Your Life (1998) and The One-Minute Manager (1982).

Books of this ilk are written according to a formula as rigid as that of a cozy mystery or a Tolkien-clone fantasy trilogy. The author, sometimes an academic, poses as a defector who shares new research insights with general readers, who are thrilled to be let in on the scholarly establishment’s supposed secrets. Thus Steven Levitt, a conventional economics professor, becomes “a rogue economist,” and Simon and Schuster’s promotional material describes Cass Sunstein’s 2014 book, Conspiracy Theories and Other Dangerous Ideas, as “The most controversial essays from the bestselling author once called the most dangerous man in America—collected for the first time.”

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