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Arts & Culture

Cass Sunstein Explores The Bureaucratic Sludge That Slows Us Down In Latest Book

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Sludge - yuck. Not just the kind that sticks to your shoes - the kind that sticks in your craw, bureaucratic sludge - long forms, long lines, entering the same information over and over, time and again, like the first days of COVID vaccinations when screens would flash back, we're sorry, try again, try later - or never. In his new book, "Sludge: What Stops Us From Getting Things Done And What To Do About It," esteemed legal scholar Cass Sunstein, who is also now senior counselor at the Department of Homeland Security, shows how sludge isn't just a nuisance but can hurt our health, perpetuate poverty, frustrate democracy and cost jobs, scholarships and opportunity. Cass Sunstein, thanks so much for being with us.

CASS SUNSTEIN: Thank you. A great pleasure.

SIMON: What are some examples of sludge that stand out to you?

SUNSTEIN: Well, here are a few. If you want to cancel a subscription to something, whether it's a magazine or enrollment in something that your bank has given you...

SIMON: Yeah.

SUNSTEIN: ...It might be that you have to spend a lot of time filling out forms, or you might have to fill out a lot of online documents that are really complicated that ask for information you lack. It might be to change your cellphone plan, as I did actually yesterday. It would take - and this is, indeed, autobiographical - 75 minutes, even though the changes were extremely small.

SIMON: Yeah.

SUNSTEIN: It might be that you're suffering from anxiety or depression, and it might be that it takes hours and hours, maybe days and weeks, to get the kind of help you need. All of those are sludge.

SIMON: You suggest that a number of companies and, for that matter, a number of government agencies count on sludge.

SUNSTEIN: Completely. So one thing that has grown up over the last few years is something called dark patterns, which means internet operators who are trying to take your money or take your time have something going on which makes it really hard for you to find out, let's say, terms that you're actually agreeing to without quite knowing it or makes it so that you are enrolling in something that you have no need for and no interest in, but it takes a lot of sludge navigation to find out or that makes it really hard for you to get out of an agreement which was really easy for you to enter into. Those dark patterns are maybe fraud, certainly manipulation, and they enlist sludge in order to make you part with your money. That's a big problem.

SIMON: You do say that there are some forms of sludge which are a good idea. I mean, I say this as the father of two teenagers. I wish there was more sludge involved in trying to get a tattoo.

SUNSTEIN: There are some things where purchases might be reckless or ill-considered. And so online, it might say, are you sure you want to, where it might be about a purchase, it might be about the elimination of some service that you maybe are benefiting from, like electricity. Are you sure you want to? Or it might be that there's an effort by the government or a private institution to make sure that people who are trying to get something really have a right to it or a need for it and documentation is necessary to make sure they have that right or that need.

SIMON: Is the result of so much sludge - does it work to make people distrust government more, not claim benefits that are theirs, just trust private industry?

SUNSTEIN: It does. And it has terrible effects of multiple kinds. So we've all experienced frustration at sludge, which can be, why are they asking me to fill out this really long form? Multiply it times a very big number, and then you get the degree of frustration which many people are facing when, let's say, they're sick and they're trying to get some medical help or someone who's poor who has a legal right to benefits so that they can go to college or someone who's poor who has a right to benefits so that they can feed their family, and getting access to the benefit is really hard because the form's too complicated for them to handle. And for people who are sick or old or poor or really busy with one or another thing, sludge is especially harmful, which is to say that for the very class of people who are most vulnerable - I'm thinking, in some respects, most of the elderly here - sludge is most insidious. And that's why the effort to reduce sludge is not only an effort to help all of us navigate our lives better. It also is an imperative of justice.

SIMON: Cass Sunstein - he's the author of "Sludge," also, of course, a Harvard professor and a senior counselor of the Department of Homeland Security. Thanks so much for being with us.

SUNSTEIN: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.