BY CHRIS SZABLA
It’s been called the “czar revolt”. On Labor Day, President Barack Obama ’91’s “Special Advisor for Green Jobs, Van Jones, resigned amid new revelations of controversial statements. Jones’ signing of a petition calling for an investigation into what former President George W. Bush knew about the attacks of September 11, 2001 before they took place, and an incident in which he called Republicans “assholes”, led to pressure from cable news anchors and other Obama opponents, who called for Jones’ head.
The pushing out of the insightful Yale Law grad, whose work focused on the potential of environmentalism to lift the economy, caused conservatives to smell blood. They have since started to go after some of Obama’s other political appointees, many of whom were never subject to confirmation hearings and, hence, never properly vetted by the administration. Representative Eric Cantor (R-VA) even suggested the administration was using such appointments to install “radicals” in government.
HLS Professor Cass Sunstein ’78 is one of Obama’s appointees, slated to be a so-called “czar” overseeing the administration’s regulatory activities. And Sunstein’s position actually more tenuous than Jones’: he has in actuality been nominated to head the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), a position that requires Senate confirmation. That has fueled right wing pundits, who have sought to stop Sunstein’s confirmation in much the same way they assaulted Jones.
UPDATE: Sunstein was confirmed by the Senate, 57-40, in a September 10 vote. The attacks, however, continue, likely motivated by an attempt to force his resignation.
Fox News pundit Glenn Beck has attacked Sunstein directly on 12 of his shows, according to the Washington Independent. In blog posts and conservative newsletters across the internet last week (including one, StopSunstein.org, exclusively devoted to the professor), stories multiplied about Sunstein’s positions. Many lifted statements from Sunstein’s recently published book, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, co-authored with University of Chicago economist Richard Thaler.
Among the most controversial is an assertion that Sunstein supports solving the problem of low organ donations by making the donations of the recently deceased “opt-out”. Many family members of the deceased did not know whether their relative intended to donate organs upon death, and often refuse the possibility out of uncertainty. Sunstein and Thaler wrote in Nudge that there should be the presumption that one would donate unless they say otherwise.
Sunstein’s views on animal rights have also proven controversial, especially an assertion that humans ought to be able to sue on animals’ behalf. Even some conservative Blue Dog Democrats, such as Rep. Dan Boren (D-OK) have attacked the academic for this reasoning.
Nudge has been sitting on bookshelves for months, and even earned Sunstein accolades as one of the world’s top public intellectuals, so his arguments in the book are hardly new. In fact, this is not the first time the longtime academic has come under political attack for his scholarly views. Last spring, it was left wing groups that were opposed to his confirmation by the Senate, pointing to his support for cost-benefit analyses, which they said abstracted issues of human welfare to mere calculations. In neither case has Sunstein ever suggested that all his theoretical views might inform his work at OIRA – in fact, he has explicitly denied this possibility.
And unlike Jones, Sunstein may be able to count on some unorthodox allies: conservatives – at least conservative intellectuals. Libertarian law professors such as Richard Epstein and Glenn Reynolds have shown particular support for their fellow scholar, whose post in the Obama administration was actually created in 1990 at the behest of a Republican Party then fearful of runaway regulation. In this most recent “revolt against the czars,” at least these conservatives appear willing to stand on the same side of history they did during the last.