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Ruth Marcus / Politics

Nudge Government Run Amok

WASHINGTON -- Judging the wisdom of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's ban on super-size sugary sodas depends on where you draw the line between nudge government and noodge government.

Nudge government makes sense. It harnesses human nature to steer citizens to smarter choices.

For example, higher prices reduce consumption, so government wisely taxes products it disfavors, such as tobacco.

But nudge government need not be nearly so directive. People take what they see first, so if schools set up cafeterias with the fruit and salad up front and the chocolate cake at the end of the line, they encourage children to eat healthier lunches.

People are inclined to stick with the status quo -- to put it less politely, we're naturally lazy -- so if retirement plans are structured to take effect automatically unless people opt out, workers will save more.

Such simple changes in "choice architecture," as Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler write in "Nudge," can "move people in directions that will make their lives better."

Noodge government is nudge government run amok. Noodge, from the Yiddish nudyen, to pester, is both noun and verb: Stop noodging me. You are such a noodge.

There is no bright-line test for the nudge/noodge divide. Noodging is like obscenity -- with noodging, you know it when you feel it. But noodging is also like food allergies -- the more you are exposed the less tolerant you become, until the most minimal encounter can trigger a full-blown attack.

This last point helps explain the super-size reaction to Bloomberg's super-size edict: It arrives as the United States has become, for many people, the embodiment of Noodge Nation. First they came for our incandescent light bulbs, then they made us buy health insurance. Soon the compulsory broccoli-buying will commence.

This response is both overwrought and ginned up, as in the full-page ad that ran in The New York Times. "The Nanny," blared the headline, over a Photoshopped image of Bloomberg as Mrs. Doubtfire.

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Copyright 2012 Washington Post Writers Group



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