Political Animal

Blog

August 04, 2012 7:11 AM Cass Sunstein resigns

By Kathleen Geier

On this sleepy Saturday in August we are having what is, by all appearances, a classic slow news weekend. But one news story of note is Cass Sunstein’s resignation as White House overseer of regulation. No reason was given for his departure.

Sunstein’s tenure was controversial. Labor and consumer activists and liberals in general were not exactly the biggest fans of the guy. Dan Froomkin explained why in this excellent profile from last year. The problem is with Sunstein’s basic ideological orientation: he accepts the neo-liberal, corporate-friendly frame that regulations tend to be too burdensome, and should be avoided or scrapped whenever possible. To that end, his top priority, upon assuming his job as regulatory czar, was to conduct an in-depth review of existing regulations, with an eye toward trashing the ones that are deemed to be too costly to business.

Coming at a time when radically deregulated financial markets pretty much crashed the entire global economy, plus, as Froomkin noted, the BP oil spill, the Upper Big Branch mine explosion, and “a bevy of food- and toy-related health scares and other dangers,” this seemed like a grotesquely misplaced priority.

As Froomkin points out in his article about Sunstein’s resignation, in office, the man did seem, for the most part, to stick to his Republican lite, anti-regulatory agenda. He is credited with scrapping or delaying “critically important regulations proposed by Obama’s cabinet agencies, including those intended to improve air quality, limit exposure to silica, and protect minors from dangerous agricultural work.” In addition, he implemented other dubious measures, “such as one that allows many poultry plants to speed up processing lines by eliminating federal inspectors.”

Predictably, this still wasn’t enough to make Sunstein’s critics on the right happy. However, according to Froomkin, it did earn him a semi-regular slot on the Wall Street Journal op-ed page, and at least some of the wingnuts speak warmly of him. For example, alleged car thief, arsonist, and gun-wielding punk Rep. Darrell Issa is on record as a fan:

Cass Sunstein appeared to recognize the harm overly burdensome regulations inflict on economic growth and job creation — although he was not able to stop the tsunami of regulations enacted by the Obama administration.

You can definitely count me as an un-fan, though.

I should point out that I have something of a personal connection with Sunstein. When I was a graduate student in public policy, I took his course in labor and employment law. I have nothing but praise for Sunstein as a teacher. He was a clear, engaging, and cogent lecturer, and also was one of the those exemplary individuals who will respond to your email questions within minutes. I was especially impressed by the latter trait, particularly since he was a hyper-busy superstar professor. I have had professors who were more or less completely unknown who would just ignore student emails. My adviser, for instance, who was hardly a household name, was someone whom I literally had to stalk (really — I’d get hold of his schedule for the quarter and hang out by the doorway after class to buttonhole him!). Otherwise I could never get in touch with him, because he would never respond to emails and phone calls (he was notorious for doing this with everybody).

So yes, I appreciated not only Sunstein’s lectures, which could be quite dazzling on occasion (and were not tainted by much ideological bias, so far as I could see), but also his generosity in making himself available to students.

But I do remember one moment that made me seriously call his judgment into question. He was announcing a campus event sponsored by the Federalist Society, and not only mentioned the fact that that organization was doing the sponsoring, but totally went out of his way to praise them and kiss up to them, in the most sycophantic way possible. I think he might even have explicitly denied that they had an ideological agenda! — or at least came close to doing so. I almost lost my lunch, and at that moment, sadly, I lost respect for Professor Sunstein. He is way too smart a man to not understand exactly what the Federalist Society is up to. So I had to conclude that either: a) he agrees with their extremist political agenda, or b) he doesn’t agree with it, but is possessed of “vaulting ambition which o’erleaps itself,” and that, to satisfy that ambition, he is over-eager to smarmily placate power — even the nastiest elements of it.

I vote for b), personally.

Finally, I will close with the concluding paragraph of the Froomkin piece, which manages to smuggle in a delightfully rude and disrespectful scatological metaphor. Bravo, Mr. Froomkin!

But some critics expect little change. “While Sunstein’s office served as the health and safety sphincter for the federal government, he was not running his own agenda,” said Ruch. “He was merely taking direction from a finger-in-the-wind White House.”
Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee

Comments

  • SadOldVet on August 04, 2012 8:49 AM:

    Careful Kathleen...

    You are walking close to the line when you criticize a DLC/DINO/Repuke-Lite type while posting on Ed (DLC/DINO/Repuke-Lite) Kilgore's blog!

  • c u n d gulag on August 04, 2012 9:04 AM:

    Now, if only his leaving will create a vacuum powerful enough to suck Geithner, Bernanke, DeMarco, and a few of the other people who are about as useful as mammaries on a male bovine, with him.

    Mr. Sunstein - "Cass" MY @$$!!!

  • Nancy Cadet on August 04, 2012 9:24 AM:

    Tell me again why every Harvard prof, appointed to government, is a genius technocrat whose work is totally benign. I'm of course making an exception for Elizabeth Warren, who is up front about her allegiances . Who fights for workers in the Obama administration? Is Hikda Solis alone?

    Thomas Frank makes a great argument about the current loss of one side's voice (ie. Labor unions, populist defenders). Heard a great if depressing interview with him on Sam Seder's podcast Majority Report.

  • delNorte on August 04, 2012 9:39 AM:

    "such as one that allows many poultry plants to speed up processing lines by eliminating federal inspectors."

    ...if only he had done the same thing in the Senate, where the federal inspectors (the Republican ones, at least) have ground the legislative and confirmation processing lines to a near halt

  • Hedda Peraz on August 04, 2012 10:07 AM:

    The cloistered halls of ivy, with their leather elbow patches and dry sherry are one world.
    Washington DC is another.
    Genteel fantasy vs hard ball reality. Both have tenure, but earned in vastly different ways!

  • Jim on August 04, 2012 10:48 AM:

    And what, exactly, is it that Federalist Society is "up to"?

  • Dredd on August 04, 2012 11:05 AM:

    Good riddance.

    He was also fascist oriented when it came to dissent against administration policies (any administration, not just Obama's:

    What can government do about conspiracy theories? Among the things it can do, what should it do? We can readily imagine a series of possible responses. (1) Government might ban conspiracy theorizing. (2) Government might impose some kind of tax, financial or otherwise, on those who disseminate such theories. (3) Government might itself engage in counterspeech, marshaling arguments to discredit conspiracy theories. (4) Government might formally hire credible private parties to engage in counterspeech. (5) Government might engage in informal communication with such parties, encouraging them to help. Each instrument has a distinctive set of potential effects, or costs and benefits, and each will have a place under imaginable conditions. However, our main policy idea is that government should engage in cognitive infiltration of the groups that produce conspiracy theories, which involves a mix of (3), (4) and (5).
    (Conspiracy Theory).

  • Dredd on August 04, 2012 11:07 AM:

    Good riddance.

    He was also fascist oriented when it came to dissent against administration policies (any administration, not just Obama's:

    "What can government do about conspiracy theories? Among the things it can do, what should it do? We can readily imagine a series of possible responses. (1) Government might ban conspiracy theorizing. (2) Government might impose some kind of tax, financial or otherwise, on those who disseminate such theories. (3) Government might itself engage in counterspeech, marshaling arguments to discredit conspiracy theories. (4) Government might formally hire credible private parties to engage in counterspeech. (5) Government might engage in informal communication with such parties, encouraging them to help. Each instrument has a distinctive set of potential effects, or costs and benefits, and each will have a place under imaginable conditions. However, our main policy idea is that government should engage in cognitive infiltration of the groups that produce conspiracy theories, which involves a mix of (3), (4) and (5)."

    (Conspiracy Theory).

  • anon for a reason on August 04, 2012 12:03 PM:

    Heh. At last, you've given me a venue for my own personal Cass Sunstein story. Which is this: many years ago, when I was in one of his classes, a discussion arose about Catharine MacKinnon's anti-porn work. This was pre-Internet-ubiquity, and one of the postulates on which he based his analysis was that only men produced or consumed the stuff.

    As it happened, I knew otherwise, because I knew about science fiction fandom. I told him as much. Only to have him categorically refuse to believe me. It could not be true, he insisted: the women I told him were writing and consuming it all by themselves were surely being passing off the work of their husbands or boyfriends as their own, or were writing for the entertainment of those male persons, or something. No matter what an actual witness was telling him, it could not be that the facts were other than he had imagined them.

    He was a wonderful teacher, among the best I've ever seen. But my respect for his mind has never recovered from that one incident. What kind of a thinker rejects evidence, just because he doesn't like it?

  • smartalek on August 04, 2012 1:02 PM:

    "What kind of a thinker rejects evidence, just because he doesn't like it?"

    Publicans.
    And conservatoids.
    Or was that one of those "rhetorical question" things?

  • Anonymous on August 04, 2012 2:11 PM:

    "What kind of a thinker rejects evidence, just because he doesn't like it?" Most of them. Daniel Kahneman won a Nobel in economics for his work on this topic. Failing to use disconfirmatory evidence knows no level of education or distinction.

    Most likely Sunsetein recognizes the elegance in a world with limited regulation, but also fails to interact with anyone whose life might benefit from regulation that does "interfere" with practices of business. Having known a great many academics, an association with an ivy is pretty meaningless, on its own, in terms of real skill and ability.

  • Stuart on August 04, 2012 4:33 PM:

    The criticism on the left of Cass Sunstein is difficult to understand. Before taking office, this was one of the most progressive thinkers at the highest levels of academia (see his book "The Second New Deal" for starters).

    In office, the Obama Administration has forged one of the most impressive regulatory records in modern times (probably since the Nixon Administration ironically). New regulations on energy efficiency, automobile emissions, salmonella standards as well as dozens of others. If Sunstein gets blame for the regulations not issued (a questionable claim at best) then he should get some credit for the ones that came out.

    It is true that there has been a slowdown in regulation this year but that is politics, not Sunstein. In a close election, President Obama has made the decision to slow down the pace of regulation and deny potential rhetoric to his opponent. The regulations that Sunstein is accused of slowing down or stopping will certainly see the light of day after the election. Of course then, people will attribute this to Suntein's departure rather than the political calculation that it represents. They will be wrong.

  • TCinLA on August 04, 2012 8:19 PM:

    Has anyone ever met a law professor who didn't have his head up his ass and lived in WhooppeWhacko World?

  • Noah on August 04, 2012 10:28 PM:

    From where I sit, Sunstein's tenure has been a mixed bag although, frankly, I can't imagine how anyone could hope for OIRA at its best to receive a much better assessment.

    But this post really grates on me like most of the liberal commentary about Sunstein from the moment of his appointment - namely, just how shallow and conspiratorial its been. Sunstein is one of the most prolific legal minds, writing both for the academy, the public, and any other hybrid of audiences, on a truly breathtaking range of subjects, publicly changing or recalibrating his views for reasons he articulates explicitly; in other words, his 'worldview' is a matter of public record and is predicated on some basic philosophical commitments but is not guaranteed to imply a clear ideological course of action. And even people with stubborn - even broadly accurate - stereotypes of legal academics willing to put in even an hour learning where the man's coming from can't credibly conclude that he's primarily, or even mostly, a creature of the ivory tower.

    I mean, the man's last book, intended for a civilian audience, is about how organizations can help people make better choices by embracing 'libertarian paternalism'. The contradiction isn't subtle but the book, whatever its merits, isn't a measly pamphlet. It's lazy and/or intellectually dishonest to say much about the theory without reading for a few hours, maybe even the whole book. And obviously the same is true about Sunstein's career, in academia and at OIRA. As much as any left-of-center rag still fighting the good fight, that's the least I'd expect from WM.