- The Washington Times
Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The White House has kicked off several federal projects aimed at influencing how Americans react to certain policy reforms, going so far as to solicit behavior experts to join a British-style “Behavioral Insights Team” to help nudge voters into accepting key political programs.

“Behavioral sciences can be used to help design public policies that work better, cost less and help people to achieve their goals,” a document on the government program states, Fox News reported.

The document, emailed by White House senior adviser Maya Shankar and obtained by Fox News, also seeks applicants to join the federal government’s behavior modification team.

England already has one such group; it’s called the “Behavioral Insights Team,” and has recently recommended to the government how best to compel Brits to pay their taxes, Fox News reported.

The main thrust of the White House-backed group: To “experiment” with ways to control, sway and tweak Americans’ behaviors so they do everything from saving more money for retirement to curbing energy uses and trimming energy costs, Fox News reported.

The new program has already been used in conjunction with Department of Health and Human Services and Department of Agriculture policies, Fox News said. And it hails from ideas discussed years ago, most notably on the heels of publication of a 2008 book written by President Obama’s former regulatory czar, Cass Sunstein, who referred to such government actions as “nudges.”

Advocates say nudging helps move the political process along, absent regulation. But detractors say nudging relies on inaccurate data to drive Americans into compliance.

“I am very skeptical of a team promoting nudge policies,” said Michael Thomas, an economist at Utah State University, to Fox News. “Ultimately, nudging … assumes a small group of people in government know better about choices that the individuals making them.”

And sometimes, that small group of people actually promotes something that’s wrong — for instance, when small teams of scientists argued at one point that trans-fats were actually more healthful than saturated and unsaturated fats, he said.

“Now we know this is an error,” Mr. Thomas said, in the Fox News report.

• Cheryl K. Chumley can be reached at cchumley@washingtontimes.com.

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