UNDERNEWS

Undernews is the online report of the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who covered Washington during all or part of one quarter of America's presidencies and edited alternative journals since 1964. The Review has been on the web since 1995. See main page for full contents

July 19, 2009

OBAMA'S SCARY PAL, CASS SUNSTEIN

One of the clues that Obama was not who he professed to be during the campaign was his closeness to Harvard professor Cass Sunstein. When Obama appointed Sunstein to direct the White House Office of Management and Budget's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, the Center for Progressive Reform illustrated the problem.

CPR - The job is perhaps better known by its informal title: "regulatory czar," so named because the holder is charged with signing off on all major proposed regulations. In the recent past, the OIRA has been a place where regulations to protect health, safety and the environment go to die, or at the very least be weakened.

A group of CPR member scholars expressed serious concern about Professor Sunstein's support for the very methods used to weaken and defeat badly needed regulations. Among the concerns:

- Sunstein is a stout supporter of cost-benefit analysis as a primary tool for assessing regulations, despite its imprecision and the ease with which it is manipulated to achieve preferred policy outcomes;

- He supports such cost-benefit approaches as the widely condemned "senior discount" method for undervaluing the lives of seniors in cost-benefit analyses, an approach even the Bush Administration was forced to disown;

- He rejects the "precautionary principle" as a basis for regulating, thus ensuring that dangerous pollutants and products will be given the "benefit of the doubt," rather than well-grounded concerns about health and safety;

- He supports the centralization of authority over regulatory decisions in the White House - OIRA in particular, even though Congress delegated the exercise of expert judgment to the regulatory agencies, not to OIRA's staff economists in the White House.

- He has written that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration might be unconstitutional.

Progressive Review - Obama constitutional advisor Sunstein is also opposed prosecuting Bush officials for crimes and told the NY Times, "I would be stunned to find an anti-business [Supreme Court] appointee from either [Clinton or Obama]. There's not a strong interest on the part of Obama or Clinton in demonizing business, and you wouldn't expect to see that in their Supreme Court nominees." According to After Downing Street, Sunstein told a netroots convention that prosecuting government officials risks a cycle of criminalizing public service, he argued, and Democrats should avoid replicating retributive efforts like the impeachment of President Clinton--or even the "slight appearance" of it.

And now this:

Kyle Smith, NY Post - Advance copies of Sunstein's new book, "On Rumors: How Falsehoods Spread, Why We Believe Them, What Can Be Done," have gone out to reviewers ahead of its September publication date, but considering the prominence with which Sunstein is about to be endowed, his worrying views are fair game now. . .

In "On Rumors," Sunstein reviews how views get cemented in one camp even when people are presented with persuasive evidence to the contrary. He worries that we are headed for a future in which "people's beliefs are a product of social networks working as echo chambers in which false rumors spread like wildfire." That future, though, is already here, according to Sunstein. "We hardly need to imagine a world, however, in which people and institutions are being harmed by the rapid spread of damaging falsehoods via the Internet," he writes. "We live in that world. What might be done to reduce the harm?"

Sunstein questions the current libel standard - which requires proving "actual malice" against those who write about public figures, including celebrities. Mere "negligence" isn't libelous, but Sunstein wonders, "Is it so important to provide breathing space for damaging falsehoods about entertainers?" . . .

Sunstein also believes that - whether you're a blogger, The New York Times or a Web hosting service - you should be held responsible even for what your commenters say. Currently you're immune under section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. "Reasonable people," he says, "might object that this is not the right rule," though he admits that imposing liability for commenters on service providers would be "a considerable burden."

But who cares about a burden when insults are being bandied about? "A 'chilling effect' on those who would spread destructive falsehoods can be an excellent idea," he says.

"As we have seen," Sunstein writes, having shown us no such thing, "falsehoods can undermine democracy itself." . . .

He alludes on page 3 (and on page 13, and 14, and 45, and 54 - the book is only 87 pages) to the supposedly insidious lie that "Barack Obama pals around with terrorists." Since Sunstein intends to impose his Big Chill on such talk, I'd better get this in while I can. The "rumor," i.e., "fact," about the palsy-walsiness of Obama and unrepentant terrorist Bill Ayers (Ayers referred to Obama as a "family friend" in a memoir) did not "undermine democracy," i.e., prevent Obama's election. The facts got out, voters weighed them and ruled that they weren't disqualifying.

Sunstein calls for a "notice and take down" law that would require bloggers and service providers to "take down falsehoods upon notice," even those made by commenters - but without apparent penalty.

Consider how well this nudge would work. You blog about Obama-Ayers. You get a letter claiming that your facts are wrong so you should remove your post. You refuse. If, after a court proceeding proves simply that you are wrong (but not that you committed libel, which when a public figure is the target is almost impossible), you lose, the penalty is . . . you must take down your post.

How long would it take for a court to sort out the truth? Sasha and Malia will be running for president by then. Nobody will care anymore. But it will give politicians the ability to tie up their online critics in court.

Sunstein, trying to fair, argues that libel awards should be capped at $15,000, or at least limited for anyone demonstrating financial hardship. But $15K is the limit you'd pay to your opponent. The legal bill is the scary part, and the reason bloggers already have plenty of reason to be careful about what they say, even if they don't much fear a libel conviction.

Sunstein dreams of an impossibly virtuous America: "We could also imagine a future in which those who spread false rumors are categorized as such, discounted and marginalized . . . people would approach rumors skeptically even they provide comfort and fit their own biases." But if his chilling wind doesn't work, Sunstein may try to make good on the implicit threat that runs through his book: that he would redefine libel as the spread of false information and hold everyone up the ladder responsible.

If this happened, the blogosphere would turn into Pluto overnight. Comments sections would slam shut. Every writer would work on a leash shorter than a shoelace.

Sunstein is an enemy to every news organization and blogger. We should return the favor and declare war on him.

1 Comments:

Anonymous Cass Sunstein wears pantyhose said...

I heard an internet rumor that every single word Cass Sunstein used in his book has been used before - used by good people for good purposes - and will be used again in the future by good people for good purposes, long after Cass Sunstein bites my ass and the dust.

July 21, 2009 7:50 AM  

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