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F.A.Z.-Column by Emanuel Derman : American Misgivings

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Bild: Kat Menschik

Id rather live in the USA than in Putins Russia or under the control of the billionaire members of the Chinese Communist Politburo. Nevertheless, in America these days there are numerous insect bites to the soul.

          The Damning of Snowden. This week President Obama held a press conferences in which he pledged greater transparency and more control over government surveillance. Yet simultaneously he denounced Edward Snowden. You would have to be blind and deaf not to grasp that all this attention to the NSA by Obama and Congress would never be happening if not for Snowdens revelations. Not only Obama, but The New York Times, too, responds to the message but wants to shoot the messenger.

          Many of my friends say that they would have more respect for Snowden were he to have taken his punishment for breaking the law. I say: Whence comes this notion that one should pay the price for ones principled actions? The world runneth over with powerful people who pay no price at all. I think of Bill Clinton, who, in one of his last acts as president, pardoned Marc Rich, who helped Americas enemies and whose wife was a big Clinton donor. Did Clinton pay any price? Too many people seem obsessed with Snowdens putative style rather than his content. You dont have to be against defense and intelligence to appreciate that the current debate is useful.

          Respect for the Fed. If you came from Mars and fell to Earth, you would be amazed to discover that one man in the world, Ben Bernanke, appointed and unelected, holds the fate of the US economy and markets in his hands. Economists of any persuasion seem to love the Fed, even if not Bernanke; the chair of the Fed, whoever he is, is their man in Havana. Every day now newspapers make odds on whether Obama will appoint Larry Summers to replace him. As Laurence Kotlikoff and Jeffrey Sachs recently wrote in the Huffington Post, what the Fed needs most now is someone to restore financial integrity to markets. Its fairly clear that  Summers, while experienced in the ways of the financial world (and thats a  good thing), is a pretty compromised candidate. Yet Friends Of Larry write op-ed after op-ed explaining that if only you knew him as they did, you would realize what a good fellow he really is. The outcome, of course, all depends on Obama, and there seems to be a pro-Larry campaign being organized.

          Liberal Paternalism. One of the pro-Summers op-ed writers is Cass Sunstein, who together with Richard Thaler was one of the architects of  Nudge, the fashionable methodology now increasingly embraced by liberal paternalists, especially privileged ones.(Are there any other kind?). Nudge aims to tilt the ground beneath your feet so that  We will  unwittingly choose to do what They have figured out is good for us. Thaler, according to the NY Times, was part of a  consortium of behavioral scientists advising Obamas campaign, and Obama is reported to be setting up a Nudge Squad to help implement policies.

          Nudgers attribute the tactic of adjusting incentives to the so-called science of behavioral economics, but its actually an old story. For decades stores have listed prices as $1.99 rather than $2.00, relying on the perception that a number starting in 1 rather 2 makes a difference. Movie theaters sell supersized barrels of popcorn for just a fraction more than a small cup.  The US tax code offers a mortgage deduction that encourages you to borrow rather than save.  You dont need a degree in advanced psychology to know how to tempt people.

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