The influential new book “Nudge” (Thaler and Sunstein 2008) comes from the emerging field of behavioral economics, which investigates the non-rational ways in which people make decisions.

Its policy implications are radical – it advocates what the authors call “libertarian paternalism”. This paradoxical prescription is based on the idea of ‘choice architecture’ – the notion that the way we are presented with choices deeply influences the decisions we make. So if we shape ‘choice architectures’ that guide us to make beneficial choices, by and large we will.

For example, the way food is ordered on a school self-service lunch counter affects what pupils choose to eat, and hence their future health. This can shape our choices to make us healthier, or unhealthier – so there is no escaping the ‘choice architecture’, whether we like it or not.

Politicians of both Left and Right seem to be signing on to this approach in the hopes of cheap solutions to difficult policy areas (such as poor diet) whilst maintaining people’s ‘choice’.

The ideas certainly have strong support in research evidence – although the degree to which they work in practice is more questionable.

Probably the strongest policy idea to emerge from this strand of thinking is the positive “default” idea. For example, instead of being given the choice to opt in to a pension scheme you are automatically included unless you exercise your choice to opt out. Or, more controversially, you are assumed to consent to organ donation in the event of your death unless you specifically take action to opt out.

This certainly has potentially radical implications for law and policy-makers, who are more used to proscribing acts than framing policies and laws that are meant to ‘nudge’ people in the ‘right’ direction. It remains to be seen how effective, or how widely applicable, this approach might be.

Thaler, R. H. and C. R. Sunstein (2008). Nudge – Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness. New Haven and London, Yale University Press

And thanks to Andrew W for pointing out the Nudge blog.

The Spirit Level – Wilkinson and Pickett

A new book has been causing a bit of a stir in policy circles in the UK – ‘The Spirit Level’ is not another diatribe for or against God, as the name might suggest, but a book about equality.

The main message is fairly simple – affluent societies tend to suffer social ills like mental health problems, drug use, physical health, obesity, educational problems, teenage births, violence and crime in direction correlation to how equal or unequal they are. And people are unhappier too. Once you get above about $25,000 per capita GDP, the relationship between rising affluence and rising welfare disappears and is replaced by equality rather than affluence. Continue reading “The Spirit Level – Wilkinson and Pickett”

The Art of Public Strategy – Geoff Mulgan

Geoff Mulgan’s new book on ‘The Art of Public Strategy’ is an riveting read, fizzing with insights and ideas.

Mulgan played a big role in the Blair government, as a policy adviser and Head of the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit. He also has a strong history as a think-tanker and author, so his writing is full of insider anecdote, big ideas and shows a remarkably broad sweep. Having said all that is has several faults. Continue reading “The Art of Public Strategy – Geoff Mulgan”

‘Made to Stick’ – how to make your key messages memorable

This book looks at what makes ideas “stick” – why some ideas spread easily whilst others don’t.

Being able to communicate effectively has become increasingly important for public managers in democratic states. “A medium-sized ‘butter’ popcorn at a typical neighborhood movie theatre contains more artery-clogging fat than a bacon-and-eggs breakfast, a Big Mac and fries lunch, and a steak dinner – combined!” Continue reading “‘Made to Stick’ – how to make your key messages memorable”