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Listen to a short interview with Cass Sunstein
Host: Chris Gondek | Producer: Heron & Crane
Nuclear bombs in suitcases, anthrax bacilli in ventilators, tsunamis and meteors, avian flu, scorchingly hot temperatures: nightmares that were once the plot of Hollywood movies are now frighteningly real possibilities. How can we steer a path between willful inaction and reckless overreaction?
Cass Sunstein explores these and other worst-case scenarios and how we might best prevent them in this vivid, illuminating, and highly original analysis. Singling out the problems of terrorism and climate change, Sunstein explores our susceptibility to two opposite and unhelpful reactions: panic and utter neglect. He shows how private individuals and public officials might best respond to low-probability risks of disaster--emphasizing the need to know what we will lose from precautions as well as from inaction. Finally, he offers an understanding of the uses and limits of cost-benefit analysis, especially when current generations are imposing risks on future generations.
Throughout, Sunstein uses climate change as a defining case, because it dramatically illustrates the underlying principles. But he also discusses terrorism, depletion of the ozone layer, genetic modification of food, hurricanes, and worst-case scenarios faced in our ordinary lives. Sunstein concludes that if we can avoid the twin dangers of over-reaction and apathy, we will be able to ameliorate if not avoid future catastrophes, retaining our sanity as well as scarce resources that can be devoted to more constructive ends.
Sunstein, a University of Chicago law professor, often writes about government regulation. Here he focuses specifically on cost-benefit analysis (CBA) of actions that governments (as well as the private sector and individuals) can take to ward off potential crises. CBA has been used, most famously by George W. Bush's administration, to guide national policy; Bush critics believe the numbers are often fudged to get the results the White House wants. Oddly, Sunstein fails to investigate the science and politics of the Bush administration's chief cost-benefit guru, John D. Graham, but he does explore the uses and potential misuses of CBA, often in sufficient detail to challenge readers not well grounded in economics and statistics. Global warming serves as the narrative thread throughout the book, but Sunstein also looks at appropriate reactions to terrorist threats, genetic modification of food, hurricanes and avian flu, among other issues. Within the complex explanations, Sunstein does a reasonable job of achieving his three goals: to understand individual responses to worst-case scenarios (usually to "plan far too much [or] far too little"); to suggest more sensible public policy regarding low-probability risks of disaster; and to dispassionately evaluate CBA as a tool, especially as it pertains to policy making in the future (Nov.)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Worst-Case Scenarios is an important and timely book.
— Glenn C. Altschuler
Sunstein's book is best when he discusses how we weigh up the costs of protecting ourselves against the benefits of doing so. Many object to cost-benefit analysis, regarding it as cold and mechanical, particularly the placing of monetary value on human lives. Sunstein accepts it is a rough instrument, but he argues that many of us implicitly use it.
— Michael Skapinker
Sunstein writes engagingly, though in a way that scolds us a little for our irrational foibles; and he can illuminate very complex areas of rational choice theory—controversies about future discounting, for example (most of us prefer the certainty of $10,000 now to the certainty of a larger sum ten years hence, even adjusted for inflation), and commensurability (the assessment of such diverse consequences as monetary loss, moral loss and the loss of a zoological species in some common currency of analysis)—so that intelligent thought about decision-making in conditions of uncertainty is brought within reach of the sort of non-specialist reader who is likely to have a practical or political interest in these matters...Sunstein illuminates a whole array of difficult and technical issues: the logic of irreversibility, the basis of low-level probabilistic calculations, the "social amplification" of large single-event losses, different ways of taking into account effects on future generations and ways of thinking about the monetisation of disparate costs and benefits.
— Jeremy Waldron
1. Of Terrorism and Climate Change
2. A Tale of Two Protocols
6. The Future