7. Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler
for taking behavioralism from niche to necessary.
White House policy advisor | Washington
Economist | University of Chicago | Chicago
Sunstein and Thaler describe themselves as "libertarian paternalists," but you probably know them more simply as the behavioralism gurus. Their big idea -- to use small policy tweaks to overcome human capriciousness -- has turned the field of economics upside down and, most recently, won them an ear at the Obama White House. Humans, the two men argue in their book, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, tend to be emotional, rash, and uninformed, and value the present more than the future. They're far from the rational creatures upon which so much economic policy is based.
So what's a responsible government to do? Use free market policies that "nudge" citizens toward the smart options they wouldn't otherwise select, such as setting "opting in" as the default choice for retirement funds and organ donation. It's a quietly revolutionary idea from two brainy guys: Thaler is a University of Chicago-trained economist whose name has been mentioned along with "Nobel" more than a few times; Sunstein is a Harvard-trained lawyer who clerked for Thurgood Marshall and "seems to write a book about as often as most people run the dishwasher," as one 2008 profile put it. Clearly, people in power are reading: Thaler is reportedly advising the British Conservative Party on economic policy, and Sunstein, as the new head of the White House's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, is nudging Obama administration rules on everything from avian flu to student loans. Sunstein and his wife, Samantha Power (No. 80), are the only married couple to be named individually to this year's Global Thinkers list.
"The concept behind libertarian paternalism is that it's possible to maintain freedom of choice -- that's libertarian -- while also moving people in directions that make their own lives a bit better -- that's paternalism. We think it's possible to combine two reviled concepts." --Sunstein, Grist magazine