Cass Sunstein Draws Big Crowd in Return to Law School

Meredith Heagney
Law School Office of Communications
May 1, 2012

What does baseball have to do with government regulations?

Plenty, according to Cass R. Sunstein, Administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in President Barack Obama’s administration. In each, it’s wise to look at statistics, research, and measured results to gauge effectiveness – of a player or a regulation – rather than just trust one’s gut instinct.

Sunstein, who taught at the Law School for 27 years, presented, “Regulation 2.0” to a standing-room-only crowd of students, faculty, and staff on April 2.

Referencing the book “Moneyball,” and the film of the same name, Sunstein explained his own approach to government rules as similar to scouts sizing up baseball prospects: They may look good, but what will they accomplish? In Sunstein’s role, he’s responsible for making sure the payoff is there for American citizens and businesses.

“Numbers beat intuition, most of the time,” he said.

Sunstein outlined how his office and the Obama administration have encouraged agencies to make rules as effective and as easy-to-follow as possible for the American people. A key part of this is to enable consumers to make comparisons.

For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s old “food pyramid” model was confusing and not user-friendly, he said. The new graphic shows a plate that might ideally be consumed at a typical meal, with half the surface made of fruits and vegetables, and meats and grains taking up a quarter each. Similarly, the fuel economy label required on new cars has been revised to include more information, such as money saved on fuel costs compared to the average new vehicle. Sunstein advocated “smart disclosure,” such as utility companies giving customers statistics on their energy use.

“If consumers get this material, they can make better choices in many domains,” he said.

He also expressed his office’s desire to simplify government forms that Americans have to deal with. That’s already taken place with the once-cumbersome FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid).

Sunstein values public input and closely reads comments submitted to proposed rules at regulations.gov, he added. He cited $91.3 billion in net benefits to U.S. citizens because of rules finalized in the first three fiscal years of Obama’s presidency. That includes lives saved, money saved, and illnesses and injuries avoided.

The speech was of special interest to Adina Goldstein, ’14, who worked as a research assistant in the Federal Reserve before enrolling in the Law School.

She noticed, when applying for Law School aid, that the FAFSA was easier to complete than when she did it as an undergraduate, she said. And as a former government employee, she knows well the value of simplicity when serving the public.

“I liked his point about making information more available and accessible,” she said.

Dean Michael Schill introduced Sunstein, who was on the faculty from 1981 to 2008, as a scholar whose contributions have been plentiful and groundbreaking, in diverse areas of the law.

“Few scholars in the history of the academy have had such an important effect on multiple fields,” he said. And Sunstein was as talented a teacher as he was a scholar, Schill added.

“Cass was, to many of his students and his colleagues here at the University of Chicago, the man who inspired them and opened them up to new ways of thinking and appreciating the law.”

Students crowded the steps of the lecture hall to hear the speech, which Sunstein peppered with pop culture references and quips about federal bureaucracy.

He expressed his gratitude for the Law School and the warm welcome.

“It’s a complete thrill to be here,” he said. “Coming to Hyde Park after being away so long is joyful.”

Faculty: 
Michael H. Schill