Cass Sunstein is the Robert Walmsley University Professor at Harvard. His new book, The World According to Star Wars, will be published this March.
 (January 2016)

Parking the Big Money

A beach in the Virgin Islands, which, along with countries like Switzerland and Luxembourg, are a notorious tax haven for the wealthy
A lot of wealthy people in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere have been hiding money in foreign countries—above all, Switzerland, Luxembourg, and the Virgin Islands. As a result, they have been able to avoid paying taxes in their home countries. Until recently, however, officials have not known the magnitude of that problem.

She Was Houdini’s Greatest Challenge

Harry Houdini, about to be padlocked into a packing case and lowered into New York Harbor, 1914
What is the greatest competition in American history? In boxing, you might single out Muhammad Ali against Joe Frazier, or perhaps Jack Dempsey against Gene Tunney. In chess, it has to be Bobby Fischer against Boris Spassky. In politics, it might be John F. Kennedy against Richard Nixon, or perhaps …

Why Free Markets Make Fools of Us

An advertisement for Rolls-Royce from the late 1950s
George Akerlof and Robert Shiller believe that once we understand human psychology, we will be a lot less enthusiastic about free markets and a lot more worried about the harmful effects of competition. In their view, companies exploit human weaknesses not necessarily because they are malicious or venal, but because the market makes them do it.

Who Knows If You’re Happy?

Car hop serving motorists at a drive-in eating place in Keemah, Texas, September 1945; photograph by Esther Bubley from David Campany’s The Open Road: Photography and the American Road Trip, just published by Aperture
When I was working in the federal government in 2010, I asked a colleague how things were going. His answer was unusual: “My moment-by-moment happiness is pretty low, but my life satisfaction is great.” As it happens, he was an expert on the last two decades of social science research …

The Refounding Father

As a member of the Supreme Court from 1975 to 2010, John Paul Stevens exemplified impartiality with his capacity to listen, his unfailing humility, and his insistence on giving respectful attention to opposing views. Stevens also revered, and reveres, the American Constitution. Now at the age of ninety-four, he has published a book calling for no fewer than six new amendments to the nation’s founding document. No Supreme Court justice, sitting or retired, has ever done anything of this kind.

How Do We Know What’s Moral?

The Trolley Problem, described as follows by David Edmonds in Would You Kill the Fat Man?: ‘You’re standing by the side of a track when you see a runaway train hurtling toward you: clearly the brakes have failed. Ahead are five people tied to the track. If you do nothing, the five will be run over and killed. Luckily you are next to a signal switch: turning this switch will send the out-of-control train down a side track, a spur, just ahead of you. Alas, there’s a snag: on the spur you spot one person tied to the track: changing the direction will inevitably result in this person being killed. What should you do?’
Are certain actions intrinsically wrong, or are they wrong only because of their consequences? Suppose that by torturing someone, you could save a human life, or ten human lives, or a hundred. If so, would torture be morally permissible or perhaps even obligatory? Or imagine that capital punishment actually deters …

The Battle of Two Hedgehogs

David Hurn/Magnum Photos In 1980, the ecologist Paul Ehrlich entered into a dramatic bet with the economist Julian Simon. Insisting that population growth would produce scarcity, Ehrlich wagered that the prices of five specified metals would increase over the next decade. Insisting that innovation in methods of finding, …

It Captures Your Mind

Bill Brandt: Northumbrian Miner at His Evening Meal, 1937; from ‘Bill Brandt: Shadow and Light,’ a recent exhibition of his photographs at MoMA. The catalog, by Sarah Hermanson Meister, is published by MoMA and distributed by DAP. For more on Brandt's work, see the NYRgallery.
The feeling of scarcity can put people in a kind of cognitive tunnel, limiting what they are able to see. It depletes their self-control. It makes them more impulsive and sometimes a bit dumb. What we often consider a part of people’s basic character—an inability to learn, a propensity to anger or impatience—may well be a product of their feeling of scarcity. If any of us were similarly situated, we might end up with a character a lot like theirs. An insidious problem is that scarcity produces more scarcity. It creates its own trap.

An Original Thinker of Our Time

Albert Hirschman visiting his son-in-law Alain Salomon’s architectural project to develop a small park for children on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, 1971
Albert Hirschman, who died late last year, was one of the most interesting and unusual thinkers of the last century. An anti-utopian reformer with a keen eye for detail, Hirschman insisted on the complexity of social life and human nature. He opposed intransigence in all its forms. He believed that political and economic possibilities could be found in the most surprising places. Hirschman’s work changes how you see the world. It illuminates yesterday, today, and tomorrow. His categories become your categories.

It’s For Your Own Good!

Detail of a 2012 advertisement protesting New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposed ban on the sale of soda in containers larger than sixteen ounces
Many Americans abhor paternalism. They think that people should be able to go their own way, even if they end up in a ditch. When they run risks, even foolish ones, it isn’t anybody’s business that they do. In this respect, a significant strand in American culture appears to endorse the central argument of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. In his great essay, Mill insisted that as a general rule, government cannot legitimately coerce people if its only goal is to protect people from themselves. Mill’s claim has a great deal of intuitive appeal. But is it right?

The Hidden Stakes of the Election

Many of the biggest battles of the day—over health care reform, financial reform, environmental protection, workplace safety, civil rights—will ultimately be settled in court by lower-court judges in rulings that will get little public attention. The Supreme Court has upheld the Affordable Care Act, but some of the rules that are necessary to implement it may turn out to be vulnerable. Unlike presidents, judges often stay in their jobs for decades, and any president is in a position to shift the judiciary in major ways. Of course it is true that the 2012 presidential election will help to establish the meaning of the Constitution. Perhaps equally important, it will help to establish the fate of numerous rules designed to protect public safety, health, and the environment.

The Enlarged Republic—Then and Now

To many modern readers, the Federalist Papers seem formal, musty, old, and a bit tired—a little like a national holiday that celebrates events long past but lacks any sense of struggle and excitement, or even a clear message. But under stringent time pressure, starting in October 1787, Alexander Hamilton, James …

How Independent is the Court?

In 1922, Charles Garland, a twenty-one-year-old undergraduate at Harvard, received $800,000 from his father’s estate. Believing that he was not entitled to money he had not earned, Garland made a grant to the American Fund for Public Service, which was dedicated to the support of movements for social reform. The …