Barack Obama - Information Czar - Cass Sunstein

Last Updated : Sep 20, 2010

Summary

On January 7, 2009 President Obama announced that Cass Sunstein would be named the to head the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA). Professor Sunstein went through the confirmation process and was passed by the Senate on September 10, 2009 with the support of 6 Republicans and with 6 Democrats opposing the nomination. Given that the position occupied by Director Sunstein is an official appointment and that he went through the normal confirmation process, Director Sunstein is not a "Czar" as most people apply to someone who did not go through the appointment process.

Cass Sunstein is a controversial appointment to this office for a number of reasons:

  • He has expressed views that a "second bill of rights" should exist and that each person has
    • the right to a house
    • the right to a job
    • the right to health care
    • the right to social security
    • the right to freedom from monopolies
  • He has shown adverse views of the first amendment
  • He has spoke against the second amendment
  • He has authored documents that call for government intervention to quell "conspiracy theories." he then defines opposition to man-made global warming as a conspiracy theory and gives the authorization and procedure that the government could use to demoralize and discredit dissenters.
  • He has stated that hunting should be banned, but stated later that such an idea was done only in provocation of thought
  • He has made questionable remarks about the rights of animals and comparing the killing of animals for sport or for meat as comparable to the extermination of people
  • He has authored a book stating that people must be "nudged" by the government to behave in the correct manner

In essence, Cass Sunsteins views are at odds with what most people would consider to be a coherent reading of the Constitution and a realistic viewpoint of moral values of the United States. He has spent the recent years writing about methods to sway the population to those views and to discredit those who would not be swayed. He advocates openly for government control of information and advocates propaganda style tactics against those who oppose his ideas. He is now the Head of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. 

 

The First Amendment

In 1995, Cass Sunstein wrote a book titled Democracy and the problem of free speech. In that book, he argues that the type of free speech protected today was not the "free speech" that the founders had in mind. He states that:

Sunstein argues that the media does little to cover the political topics of the day and nothing to cover them in depth. He advocates for a "New Deal" when it comes to the media where the solution is free media time for political candidates, federal guidelines for the coverage of public issues, and curtailment of the ability of the wealthy to buy access in the media.

It is important to note that this book was written prior to the large usage of the internet by politicians and the availability of information through sites such as this one. However, Sunstein has argued recently that the large availability of information has led to a "cyber-balkanization" where people only address those whom already agree with them.

 

Position on the Second Amendment

As part of a 2007 speech on the second amendment, Professor Sunstein stated the following about the second amendment:

 

Positions on the "Second Bill of Rights"

Professor Sunstein has advocated for a second bill of rights and has stated that the idea was one of the US's greatest exports to Europe, but has been lost here in the US. In a 2004 book titled The Second Bill of Rights: FDR's Unfinished Revolution and Why We Need It More than Ever, Professor Sunstein argues that in addition to the rights promised in the original bill of rights (freedom of religion, freedom of speech,etc) the following things should be rights:

  • the right to an education
  • the right to a job
  • the right to a home
  • the right to social security
  • the right to freedom from monopolies

In support for this second bill of rights, Sunstein points out one of Roosevelts quotes that "necessitous men are not free men." He does state that such items should not be in the constitution as that would give judges too much power. He refers to a "post-Reagan blunder" of being against government 

 

Position on Conspiracy Theorists

In 2008, Professor Sunstein wrote a document titled "Conspiracy Theories" which details some causes of conspiracy theories, as well as some of the reasons that they spread so quickly and are believed so fervently. The document also addresses some things that government can do in response to conspiracy theories. The document is controversial not just in the ideas that Sunstein puts forth to deal with conspiracy theories, but in the definition of a conspiracy theory as well.

Early in the document, Sunstein loosely defines a conspiracy theory as follows:

Sunstein goes on to give several examples of conspiracy theories which include the theory that the CIA killed JFK and that aliens landed at Roswell, New Mexico and the government has covered it up. He also goes on to note that the idea that global warming is a fraud is a conspiracy theory which can be rebutted using the methods he outlines.

Those methods include the following:

  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 counter speech.
  5. Government might engage in informal communication with such parties, encouraging them to help.
  6. Government might engage in cognitive infiltration, which is a mix of 3,4, and 5.

Among the solutions proposed, Sunstein speaks mostly about cognitive infiltration. He states that some government officials could openly dialogue with groups promoting the idea and others can pretend to be parts of the group and introduce holes in the theories from the inside. This is done in an effort to undermine what Sunstein refers to as a "crippled epistemology of those who subscribe to such theories."

In further discussing recommended solutions to counter conspiracy theories, Sunstein notes that the impact of such a theory must be taken into account. He notes that using resources to counter theories which have no negative effect on society is not ideal and uses the example of children believing in Santa Claus as a conspiracy that adults engage in that has not net drag on society. 

While Sunstein does not address the idea of global warming beyond listing it as a conspiracy theory, the entire document seems to read as justification and procedure for dealing with those who do not believe in man-made global-warming. The idea is labeled as a conspiracy theory, the authorization for government intervention is given as failure to believe in the idea could result in global catastrophe, and the document then lists methods of discrediting and discouraging dissenters using the authority of the government.

 

Positions on Animal Rights and Hunting

Cass Sunstein has been a proponent of animal rights and has issued many speeches and papers concerning this topic. While speaking at a forum called "facing animals," Professor Sunstein stated that while ultimately the needs of humans must prevail, often the rights of animals are not considered at all. He argues that if this continues, the treatment of animals for food may be looked back upon and compared to the extermination of people. This entire forum can be seen here.

In the same forum, Professor Sunstein spoke about the banning of hunting if it's for the purpose of sport. When questioned about this speech during his confirmation hearings, Professor Sunstein stated that he did not make such remarks except in response to a question and to provoke thought on the matter.

 

In a 2004 book titled Animal Rights: Current Debates and New Directions, Professor Sunstein argues that there is a hypocrisy in the manner in which people treat animals. Dogs and cats seem to have certain rights in that they are protected through animal cruelty laws, but that those laws can only be enforced by the state. An animal has no standing in a court of law to bring suit against a person who abuses it. Professor Sunstein argues that either people should be given the right to bring suit in the name of an animal and cites the example of a person viewing the abuse of an animal, or the animal itself should have standing to do so. He argues that the state does not do enough to enforce animal rights and that this added standing would decrease the level of abuse against animals.

There are also a number of arguing points in the document that place the rights of animals at the same level of the rights of humans. Professor Sunstein echoes those points in the Facing Animals forum where he compares the cognitive and reasoning abilities of a fully grown horse to that of an infant. The book also cites calls for a total ban on hunting for enjoyment but does not endorse or negate this view.

 

Nudge

Professor Sunstein has recently written a book titled Nudge and details the notion that people are not good at making large decisions and are also resistant to government intervention. The idea is that the government judges what is right and then "nudges" people along with right path. In the narrative below, Sunstein uses the example of global warming as an area that people need to be nudged. He notes that requiring every company to keep track of and publish their level of greenhouse gas emissions can be a method of nudging people to conform for environmental standards.

References

[1] Website: The Chicago School of Law Article: The Rights of Animals : A very Short Primer Author: Cass Sunstein Accessed on: 09/20/2010

[2] Website: Scott London - Book Reviews Article: Review - Democracy and the Problem of Free Speech Author: Scott London Accessed on: 09/20/2010

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