Cass R. Sunstein ’75 is the Robert Walmsley University Professor at Harvard, where he established the Program on Behavioral Economics and Public Policy at the Law School. He was awarded the Holberg Prize in 2018, described by some as the Nobel Prize for the social sciences and the humanities. Outside of academia, Sunstein served as the administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in the Obama administration.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
FM: Where is your favorite place that you’ve lived? Chicago, D.C., Cambridge?
CRS: Massachusetts. Of all the places I’ve lived, my favorite is Concord, Massachusetts, And of all the places I’ve worked, my favorite is Cambridge, Massachusetts.
FM: Why is that?
CRS: Cambridge just has a combination of energy and sense, meaning there’s a lot of intellectual energy, people are full of ideas. There are nice restaurants, it isn’t too crowded, it’s pleasant, and also you can find what you need there. I’ve lived in New York, which is amazing, but a little overwhelming to me. And I’ve lived in Chicago, which I really like, but Cambridge is better than any workplace I’ve lived.
FM: At Harvard, you’re not just a professor at the Law School — you also teach a Gen Ed, “Making Change When Change Is Hard.” What inspired you to teach that course? And why do you enjoy the opportunity to teach undergrads?
CRS: It grew out of a course that my wife and I created a few years ago. We had come out of the government; she was in the area of foreign policy, and I was in the area of domestic policy. And we thought that we had learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t to make change, and that there would both be general lessons from particular events and also there might be enduring lessons from events in the last 40 years, some of which we were privileged to be observers of or participants in. We both thought that undergraduates have brilliance, of course, because it’s Harvard, but also they have a kind of openness to ideas of their own that maybe are completely original. When you’re in grad school you might be a little more careful, which is amazing and fantastic. But there’s something fantastic about people who are willing to think something completely fresh.
FM: You teach Gen Eds with large lecture halls of undergraduates, but I know that you’ve also appeared to testify before congressional committees quite a few times. What’s scarier: facing a crowd of undergraduates asking you questions or a panel of Congresspeople?
CRS: Well, what’s scary is playing for Harvard Squash for the national title. That’s scary. Or what’s scary is — right now I’m faculty fellow to the squash teams — getting on the court with someone on the men’s or women’s teams. Those are scary things. Teaching a large class is, to me, exciting, and testifying is a privilege. Testifying as an academic really isn’t scary at all. It’s an opportunity, and you want to be helpful, and it’s not a scary thing. If you’re testifying as a public official, you’re representing the administration for which you work, and you want to make sure that you don’t cast anything in a bad light.
FM: When did your love for squash come about? And how long have you been playing it exactly?
CRS: Well, on my first day on the planet, my dad took me to a squash court and had me watch the finals of a local tournament. And I was crying — you know, I was just out of the womb, so I was crying a lot. But as soon as I heard the bounce of the ball, I started to calm down. And even though I was only one day old, I smiled, which was very unusual. Okay, that’s all made up. None of that is true. [laughs] I started to play squash at Middlesex School in Concord, and I started to play regularly in eighth grade. And I just loved it. I love the fact that it was fast and that there were lots of decisions to be made in a hurry. It was love at first sight.
FM: Do you frequently attend Harvard squash games?
CRS: I have, through the years. In my current capacity, my family’s in Washington, D.C., so I commute back and forth. I do get down there these days, at least once a week. And I see that the team at Harvard has fantastic tradition and squash. They’ve won national titles on multiple occasions, both on the women’s side and the men’s side. I saw them very recently, and they look terrific.
FM: Going back to your Gen Ed, “Making Change When Change Is Hard,” any advice on what could possibly need to be changed at Harvard?
CRS: Well, I mean, most of my work is really about public policy. So I work on health and safety issues, I work on environmental issues, and higher education isn’t something that I’ve taught or studied aside from being lucky enough to be part of an institution of higher education. My observation of those parts of Harvard that I’m privileged to see is just very favorable. The students are amazing, the faculty is tremendous, the range and diversity of opportunities for students is out of sight. From what I’m observing in my classes and just as I walk around Cambridge, it’s a tremendous institution. [dog barks in the background] And my dog is very much in agreement with that.
FM: Dogs or cats?
CRS: Dogs. I honor cats and their existence, and I wish them well, but dogs have captured my heart. You’re hearing two of them.
FM: What are their names?
CRS: They’re Labrador Retrievers, and one is Snow and [the other is] Finley. And you can hear them being fed because I take orders from them and they are very insistent that I do my job, which is to feed them.
FM: That is definitely the priority. So I know that you have lived in quite a few big baseball cities. Boston, Massachusetts is one of them. Are you a fan of any team?
CRS: I have been all my life a big Red Sox fan. But the current Red Sox I’ve followed with less intensity than past Red Sox. I have a deep emotional commitment to the Red Sox, but I don’t have a deep understanding of the 2022 season.
FM: This past summer, the Supreme Court made the decision on Dobbs, overturning Roe. They are currently hearing the case on race-conscious admissions, and that has the strong likelihood of being overturned as well this coming summer. What would you say to young people who have become a bit disillusioned with the law, the courts? Why do we still need to study them and respect them?
CRS: The rule of law is fundamental to a free society. The law ensures background conditions for freedom from violence, for free speech, for freedom of religion, for an ability to get from one place to another without people putting you behind some bars unless you’ve done something that warrants that. And the law is an instrument that can be used for great good and is being used for great good every day. It’s being used today to protect the environment, to protect people’s personhoods against people who want to hurt them or take something from them. It’s being used today to help keep the water clean. It’s being used today to help keep workers safer than they would otherwise be. The precondition for much of what we take for granted, so the fact that Harvard students are able to have various things that, in the arc of human history, are great, in terms of opportunities, liberties, and resources — the law has everything to do with all of those things. So if one doesn’t like the direction of the Supreme Court of the United States, the law allows you to say that, to explain to the Supreme Court itself why you think it’s gone in the wrong direction, of course, through lawyers, but also through The Crimson or through newspapers. And then the law is essential to study so we can maintain its best features and improve on those features that aren’t so good. There are a lot of people who are celebrating the new conservative Supreme Court, and it was sought by people in the political process for decades; they’ve gotten there. I’m not in agreement with the central directions of the current Supreme Court, but that should intensify our interest if you also are not in agreement and trying to make things better.
FM: I know that you clerked for Justice Thurgood Marshall, way back in 1979 to 1980. Are there any lessons from your time clerking for Justice Marshall that you believe can be used to inspire or give young people hope that not all is lost?
CRS: Well, keep in mind that young people have very diverse political views and very diverse views about the law. A lot of young people are enthusiastic about the conservative direction of the court. So for them, what we’re seeing now is hopeful, and the liberal court of the 1960s and 1970s is both ancient history and worrisome. For young people who think that the current direction is not a good one, Marshall thought that you use the best arguments you have. And sometimes you’re going to lose, especially with people who are not inclined to agree with you. But you use the best arguments you have, and you win sometimes. Marshall, on a conservative court, won a lot. Not as much as he would have wanted. But he won a lot on civil rights issues and free speech issues, issues involving sex discrimination. He was in dissent frequently, but it may be the fact that he was in dissent was noticed by the majority and led them to greater caution than we would have otherwise seen. That’s probably true. So I think the thing to think, if you don’t like the direction of the court, is that in every 10-year period, the court switches significantly. And whether the court is going to switch in 2032 from where it is now depends on a lot of things, including what kind of arguments people make. It was a quite conservative court that said the Constitution guarantees a right to same-sex marriage. And there we were, and the arguments seemed to the majority to be convincing.
FM: I know that you were an undergrad at Harvard who played squash, but what I only recently learned was that you were also a member of a certain semi-secret Sorrento Square social organization, otherwise known as the Lampoon. Did you enjoy your time on the Harvard Lampoon?
CRS: Since 1876 or something, Harvard has been blessed to have a terrific publication that is both journalism and humor. It’s news and sports. It’s technology, it’s music. It’s the breeding ground for the journalists who have defined American journalism. And the fact that Harvard’s only had one outlet has been okay, because the outlet is so spectacular. The fact that Harvard has had so many opportunities with respect to sports and so many courses you can take and majors, and the fact that it has only had one publication for all these years — that is the Lampoon, that’s okay because the Lampoon is so great. If you want to do interviews, or if you want to do stories on politics, or if you want to do something about Taylor Swift, or if you want to do something about political campaigns — the Lampoon is where everyone goes. So its universality, I think, is why it redeems its uniqueness at Harvard. Other universities, they have a humor magazine plus a newspaper, maybe a daily newspaper. Harvard just has the Lampoon, but —
FM: Professor Sunstein, this Q&A is going to become unpublishable!
CRS: Okay, so, The Crimson is magnificent, needless to say —
FM: Okay, now we can run the piece.
CRS: There is the Lampoon and The Crimson, like LeBron James and Michael Jordan, and they’re both really good. And which is better? They’re different. The Lampoon ... it’s complicated, isn’t it? Humor is complicated. When I was there, there were people of unbelievable talent who became really famous in the world in which they wrote — not famous like Taylor Swift is famous — but famous in the worlds in which they wrote. And they did that because they were so talented, so this is what they ended up doing for their lives. And they were really great at humor. When I pick up the Lampoon now — which is every morning and every night, I basically spend focusing on the Lampoon. And Christmas. My family, we all just read the Lampoon — it’s good, it’s funny.
FM: You never considered a career as a comedian? Were you always set on being a law professor?
CRS: I appreciate that, but I did not.
— Staff writer Miles J. Herszenhorn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.