Wednesday 11 July 2012

A shove is not a nudge

A mere five weeks after it happened, Michael Bloomberg's ban on large sodas has attracted the attention of Oliver Burkeman of the Guardian, who thinks it's all a fuss over nothing because the corporations are more powerful than the politicians, man.

The money that Coke spends on advertising and sponsorship surely shape that architecture far more powerfully than anything Bloomberg could ever do.

Er, no. Bloomberg can have the police bust a place and arrest its owner for selling a drink, just like he has the police arrest bar-owners who allow their patrons to smoke. Coca-Cola, by contrast, can put up adverts trying to persuade people to drink their drink. Corporate advertising and state power are in no way commensurate. As big a corporation as Coca-Cola is, its executives do not have the power to caution, fine, arrest and jail citizens on a whim. Bloomberg does, and by God does he use it.

But the reason for this post is not to rake over the coals of Bloomberg's latest piece of draconia (summary: people with principles hate it, everyone else either admires it or doesn't care). It is because Burkeman has committed one of my pet peeves and got Nudge wrong. He is hardly alone in this—many libertarians fear the book because they find it sinister while many, er, 'liberals' like it because they see it as a cute word for illiberalism—but Burkeman is unusual in that he actually seems to have read it and still misrepresents it. makes no sense to see Bloomberg's policy as an incursion on anyone's liberty. The proposal is a classic example of a "nudge", as defined by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler in their famous book of that name. It doesn't stop you guzzling as much Coke as you like, but it modifies your "choice architecture" – the context in which you decide how much Coke to guzzle – so as to guide you towards the healthier option. Likewise, as Sunstein and Thaler explain, you can transform the dietary choices of school pupils by making salads slightly easier to reach for than fries; nobody's deprived of their right to fries. You can transform savings habits with bank accounts that move a portion of wages into a separate account unless the user opts out.

To see this intrinsically as a restriction on liberty is to misunderstand "choice architecture"...

I wonder who has really misunderstood "choice architecture"? Burkeman or the guy who invented the term?

Oliver Burkeman has offered a sort-of mea culpa here and here.

Later in the year I'll be speaking a Spiked event where I'll be defending Nudge from this kind of thing. Details to follow in a few weeks.

You can read my review of Nudge here. And this was my experience when I appeared on the Moral Maze talking about Nudge in 2010. Everyone got the book wrong then too, except one of the other guests, a certain Richard Thaler.


Eric Crampton said...

The book isn't bad, but it seems designed to lead to this kind of thing. The line from nudge to shove had to have been known to be hazy. And there were tons of warnings that this would be the outcome of his proposal.

Smart Driver said...

I'll be happy to add an update to my post to clarify that my use of the term shouldn't be taken to imply Thaler's endorsement of my doing so. It might take till tomorrow morning to get posted now.

I'm going to assume you don't really believe that the person who coins a term automatically gets to decide how it's applied. But moving on from that, I'm sincerely intrigued as to why, exactly, this can't be viewed as a nudge. (Thaler doesn't say in his tweet, and you don't say in your post.) The ban is *not* on consuming certain quantities of soda; it's a ban on (some) stores selling soda in certain sizes. It has become a bit harder, but not by any means impossible, or punishable by any kind of state sanction, to drink massive amounts of Coke in New York City. It has become a bit easier to take the choice to stick to smaller sizes. I'd be sincerely intrigued to understand why that can't be characterised as a nudge.

Oliver Burkeman said...

I have no idea why the above post is credited to "Smart Driver" (?!) It's from me.

Oliver Burkeman

Andrew said...

Isn't it also true that the line about the soft drink/tobacco industry spending more on advertising/lobbying has the following weakness:

Tobacco industry spends $30 mil to fight a tax
Anti-tobacco spends $15 mil, claims they're outspent

Anti-tobacco encourages tax on the basis of it helping close a $1 billion budget shortfall. Mind, this is $1 billion per year, not a 1-time $1 billion tax.

The state has more incentive to raise taxes in this case. It's the legislators who get to appropriate the tax money who matter the most.

Wigarse said...

I too would like to see you explanation for why this is not a nudge because it's not immediately clear to me what the problem is.

Snurgle said...

"It has become a bit easier to take the choice to stick to smaller sizes."

Says it all. Inarticulately, but still.

Get out of our lives.

Christopher Snowdon said...

As I recall, the criteria for a nudge are that you're nudging people towards what the vast majority would like to do (not BECOME, eg. slim, but DO, eg. have a Coke of their choosing - unlike Bloomberg they have targets for outcomes at the population level) and that the penalty for doing otherwise should be minimal, if anything. Consequently they are against bans of any kind which necessarily have serious consequences for offenders.

I've got to leave the house. I'll write more about this tomorrow.

SadButMadLad said...

Oliver Burkeman comes across as someone who knows better than anyone else. If you think the word nudge means a gentle guide rather than a draconian dictat Oliver will say that you are wrong because he is right. If you think black is black, Oliver will say that you are wrong because he is right. Oliver is a know it all who actually knows nothing and tries to hide it by writing lots of words.

Anonymous said...

A nudge would be hey we dont like the smoke please move!

Bloombergs nudge is a swift kick in the BOLLOCKS!

Jonathan Bagley said...

This originated from Thaler, so isn't it up to him to say whether it is a "nudge"? It's hard to define, but you know one when you see one. Banning large sodas seems a long way from painting a fly in the bowl of a men's urinal - the oft quoted example. I would say, always serving the smallest size unless the customer specifies otherwise is more of a nudge.

Blingmun said...

Without wishing to double up re my message on your original nudge post, but whilst I admire your efforts to defend Nudge, which is benign, from association with the Ban Brigade who are most certainly not, the two things arise from a dangerous assumption that we should deny at every opportunity. Namely, that the government has a legitimate role concerning itself with what I do with my own body.

Libertarians must insist that our bodies and minds are ours to use and abuse and enjoy or destroy. Life is about balancing risk and reward, or short term certainty with long term speculation. If once you allow that government should gather information about general risks to individuals and that they might as well do something about it then you've conceded way too much ground. You've basically accepted that limited government is bad for individuals.

Oliver Burkeman said...

I guess I'm still confused, though, about why the presence of a ban (on retailers) automatically disqualifies this from being a nudge (on soda drinkers). There is no conceivable interpretation of the Bloomberg proposal that would involve any form of penalty for people who decided, despite the increased difficulty, to consume gargantuan amounts of Coke.

(Of course, I understand why you and commenters here would be predisposed against this kind of policy more generally. I don't expect to reach agreement on any of that.)

Jonathan Bagley said...

Oliver, perhaps it's partly the scale of the inconvenience. To go back to the urinals example; there is no inconvenience whatsoever. At the other end of the spectrum, I've heard some people try and describe the smoking ban as a nudge to get smoking rates down. Apart form the fact it hasn't worked - prevalence has remained at 21% for the first three years following the ban, after falling steadily for decades, it is a huge inconvenience to smokers. Many of us no longer visit pubs.

Longrider said...

I guess I'm still confused, though, about why the presence of a ban (on retailers) automatically disqualifies this from being a nudge (on soda drinkers).

Because it is a ban. Pretty obvious, really.

Joanthan Bagley summed it up - the retailers serving the smaller sizes as a default unless asked is a nudge. A ban of any sort is not.

Christopher Snowdon said...

The ban on drinking a large Coke from a single cup may seem a pretty small freedom, as indeed it is, but it is one which is not an option in New York now. It is not merely that New Yorkers are subtly *persuaded* to choose a smaller cup. It is *verboten* and that is what distinguishes it from a Nudge.

Of course people can buy two cups of Coke, so it will be a relatively minor inconvenience (and an ineffective anti-obesity strategy), but it remains a forced inconvenience from which the customer cannot opt out. Opting out is essential to the Nudge strategy.

I would be (genuinely) interested to know how far this thinking would have to go before it was considered a ban in your eyes? Would selling beer only in half pints be acceptable? What about banning medium and large portions of fries? Selling only one cigarette at a time? Are these still nudges and if not, why not?

Noggin the Nog said...

I really don't give a shit if people want to refer to Gov interference in my life as a ban, a nudge, encouragement, assistance or any other such clap-trap, PLEASE LEAVE ME ALONE FFS!

If I want to swig a bottle of Jack Daniels, diluted with Coke, whilst smoking a ciggy and whistling the Horst Wessel Lied, wtf has it got to do with anyone else?

Stuff like this makes me want to deliberately do the opposite of what such insane schemes actually want, just to annoy nannying tossers in Gov.

It is precisely because the matter of how much Coke I drink is (or should be) a non-issue that it is SO important that people stand up to this patronizing bullshit., because if they don't, these morons will not stop until EVERY area of EVERY person's life (except theirs, of course) is regulated, licensed, franked, stamped, indexed, numbered and inspected.

Noggin the Nog