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Understanding Today’s World Through The Lens Of Star Wars

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Cass Sunstein, Star Wars

With Cass Sunstein, Founder and Director of the Program on Behavioral Economics and Public Policy at Harvard, Former White House Regulatory Czar, Author of The World According to Star Wars

What Does Luke Skywalker have to do with Ruth Bader Ginsburg or Brexit with Star Wars? Turns out that in Cass Sunstein’s new book, The World According to Star Wars, there are parallels with both.

Cass Sunstein

Cass Sunstein is Founder and Director of the Program on Behavioral Economics and Public Policy at Harvard University. He is also currently the Robert Walmsley University Professor at Harvard. Cass generally writes books and articles of a more serious nature. However, this time, his then five-year-old son’s obsession with all things Star Wars inspired him to write.

Focusing on the star-power, as it were, of a phenomenon that has spanned over four decades, earned 30 billion dollars, and captured the imagination of children and adults all over the world, Cass’s book was the outcome of his desire to get a better understanding of the force within Star Wars.

The Hero With A Thousand Faces

George Lucas, the creator of Star Wars, has often spoken about how his development of Star Wars was influenced by Joseph Campbell’s 1949 book The Hero with A Thousand Faces.  The book outlines the age-old motif of the hero’s journey. In such mythology, the usually reluctant hero is called upon to face a formidable challenge. He survives after walking through moral and physical hot coals. Ultimately, the hero returns home in victory, like Homer’s Ulysses and Lucas’s Luke Skywalker.

Parallels With U.S. Society

In his book,Cass uses episodes of Star Wars to offer up insights on our own constitutional law, global economics, and political uprisings. He explores the ethical and practical choices we all must face in life. And he shows us how every pivotal stage in history has its own dominant force. Whether for good or evil, it propels societies and cultures in new directions.

The 2016 Presidential Election

For instance, Cass Sunstein believes America just experienced a pivotal stage in its own history in 2016’s presidential elections. The rise of anti-establishment candidates Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders and the fall of pro-establishment Hillary Clinton reflected feelings of disenfranchisement, “falling through the cracks”, lack of opportunity, and excessive government interference that many Americans felt in urban, industrial, and rural settings.

Americans were also frustrated with our leaders’ inability to enforce change. And so the stage was set for what took place in 2016’s presidential campaign. America watched as the old order was challenged and a rebellion brought Donald Trump to the White House.
Cass further points to changes in Europe. For example, the Brexit vote in Great Britain shows this force of change isn’t just happening in the U.S. but has taken on global proportions.

Parallels With The U.S. Judiciary

In The World According to Star Wars, Cass draws an interesting analogy between America’s judicial system and the Supreme Court, in particular, to an aspect of Star Wars.

Each of the seven episodes of Star Wars must be faithful to the ones preceding it so that each episode adds a layer to the total story and must be faithful to what came before. Similarly, the U.S. Supreme Court performs in much the same way. Here, each case, whether it involves affirmative action, abortion, same-sex marriage, or any other issue, must respect the actions and judicial decisions that came before it.

History Changing Moments

There are, of course, earth-shaking cases that cause great societal shifts. For instance, the ruling on eliminating school segregation was met with rebellion before it became the new order and achieved general acceptance. So it is in Star Wars. In The Empire Strikes Back, the pivotal “I am your father” moment puts things in new perspective which suddenly all makes sense. Until then, somewhere, someone gets another bad feeling about something. Once again, our hero leaves home and hearth to fight the forces of evil.


Disclosure: The opinions expressed are those of the interviewee and not necessarily United Capital.  Interviewee is not a representative of United Capital. Investing involves risk and investors should carefully consider their own investment objectives and never rely on any single chart, graph or marketing piece to make decisions.  Content provided is intended for informational purposes only, is not a recommendation to buy or sell any securities, and should not be considered tax, legal, investment advice. Please contact your tax, legal, financial professional with questions about your specific needs and circumstances.  The information contained herein was obtained from sources believed to be reliable, however their accuracy and completeness cannot be guaranteed. All data are driven from publicly available information and has not been independently verified by United Capital.

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Steve Pomeranz: Cass Sunstein is the Founder and the Director of the Program on Behavioral Economics and Public Policy at Harvard University. This is my first time meeting him, but his many books include one of my favorites, the bestseller Nudge written with Richard Thaler whom I heard speak about the book in Chicago a few years ago.  Hi, Cass, it’s a pleasure to have you here.  Thanks for coming.

Cass Sunstein: Hi, Steve. Great to be on.

Steve Pomeranz: Cass, sit back for a second and allow me to set the scene.  Imagine the most powerful country in the world and a set of smaller countries unified in the effort to bring peace and prosperity to the world have been challenged by rebellious forces and extremists.  In the meantime, within these same countries, forces of change are moving toward a direction of isolation and division.  What do you think I’m describing?  Is this Brexit, or is this a description of your book The World According to Star Wars?

Cass Sunstein: It’s recognizably connected with Star Wars.  How this involves developments in Europe is a more complicated question.  My initial answer is it sounds like Star Wars, the prequels.

Steve Pomeranz: I do think that there are some analogies to your book and to what’s going on today.  First of all, let me just ask you—you write so many serious books—what prompted you to write a book relating to Star Wars themes?

Cass Sunstein:    It was basically my little boy, now seven years old, who at age five got improbably obsessed with the Star Wars movies for at least six weeks.  When he was focused on the Star Wars movies, I got really curious about why these movies became the defining saga of our time.  Why did they earn 30 billion dollars?  Why are children all over the world really interested in Star Wars?

Also, I got keenly interested in how George Lucas, the mastermind of the saga, how did he come up with this stuff?  It turns out that there are a ton of surprises, false starts, and unanticipated bursts of imagination, both in the success of Star Wars—which was not expected—and in the genesis of Star Wars.  When I saw all that, it connected with things in business, as your opening question suggests, and politics, definitely in law, in economic developments.  Once that seemed to fall into place, I was hooked.

Steve Pomeranz: The saga of Star Wars was very much based or helped with Joseph Campbell’s 1949 book The Hero with A Thousand Faces.  Joseph Campbell was an important influence on Lucas.  I’d like you to take a moment to describe George Lucas’s universe.

Cass Sunstein: I think you’ve got the sun, so to speak, S-U-N, of Lucas’s universe, which is the monomyth, which is an idea that many religions and cultures have as cultural myths, have a tale of a hero’s journey where there’s someone who is isolated with a family and at home, who’s called to some very big adventure, who initially declines, who then says yes, who finds a mentor who is challenged and maybe whose life is at risk, who surmounts the challenge, who lives, and then eventually returns home at least in some way.

That monomyth, which you can see in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam in various forms is the core of the tale of Star Wars.  George Lucas told that tale both about Luke and about Anakin Skywalker.  And, in some ways, about Leia Skywalker, also the heroine’s journey.  That’s what Lucas was about, but he gave it some very original twists, having to do with self-government and freedom in that sense and also freedom of choice at the individual level.

Steve Pomeranz: Right, I want to get into that particularly in today’s world.  I guess him tapping into this age-old theme is one of the great reasons for the success.  When you think about Star Wars, you think the Empire, and you think about the rebels.  One side’s good is another side’s evil and vice versa.

It’s a little bit more complicated than just purely good and evil.  Talking about the shifting that’s going on in American society today, we’re not really talking about good or evil.  We’re talking about the status quo being upset by, in a sense, rebellious forces.  Take us through some of the parallels between Star Wars and what’s going on in American society today.

Cass Sunstein: There’s a tale in Star Wars about an authoritarian government that gets dismantled by freedom-loving rebels.  There’s also a tale in Star Wars about a republic that is not functioning so great.  It gets undermined from within by authoritarian forces.  I think the first tale of the triumph of republics is best understood as parallel to the American Revolution.  I don’t think that’s what Lucas had in mind, but I think that’s the closest parallel.  In terms of the disintegration of self-governing society and its usurpation by an authoritarian government, the best parallel is Nazi Germany and that George Lucas did have a mind, at least as one of the historical models.

The United States now is, in my view, an extremely well-functioning republic for all of its challenges by historical standards.  It’s stable, robust, and massively successful, notwithstanding the economic and, let’s call them, old-style republican challenges that are making democracy work well.  I wouldn’t say that we’re at risk of an Emperor Palpatine.  I wouldn’t say that we are now an Empire that’s being rebelled against by people who don’t like it.

Steve Pomeranz: You don’t see us at that point then where there’s an analogy with these.  There is a force of change taking place in American society where the status quo, I think in some way, seems to have become very solidified and maybe to a degree inflexible.  Many individuals seem to be unhappy with how the economy is treating them.  Therefore, you’re starting to see a change takes place.  Is this just imagined or do you see this as something that’s actually happening?

Cass Sunstein: You raised a great point.  The forces of change have two faces right now.  One is Donald Trump and the other is Bernie Sanders.  They’re very, very different.  In terms of your point—to underline where I think you’re on to something—is that in any period in which a nation’s legislative branch is paralyzed by an inability to reach a consensus, there is an attraction to many people in the idea of a strong man who will set things right.

Now the strong man could be a woman, but, in our case, I think some of Trump’s appeal, whether you like him or not, is that he is seen as possibly steering things on a course, at least, when previously we’ve been buffeted about on the ocean.  That you can see in Europe now.  It’s certainly something that the Star Wars saga depicts in a very negative sense.  I’m not a Trump supporter by any means, so I don’t think that this is a good model for the United States.  There’s no question that there is appeal, and there’s a real parallel there with a psychological and political depiction in Star Wars that we are seeing.

The Bernie Sanders idea isn’t about a strong man.  It’s about unjust inequality.  What Sanders is depicting is not a paralyzed legislature so much as a government.  Which, in his view, is run by a self-interested elite, namely wealthy people and banks.  I’d say two things about that.

First, and less important, I just don’t share that view.  Though I admire Sanders’s moral commitment, I don’t think he has America right.  Much more important for purposes of the present discussion, that particular dynamic is not the dynamic depicted in Star Wars.  Star Wars does depict a different kind of rebellion.  What Star Wars depicts is something like the appeal and false authority of the strong man.

Steve Pomeranz: My guest is Cass Sunstein.  He’s the Founder and Director of the Program on Behavioral Economics and Public Policy at Harvard.  He has co-written the book Nudge with Richard Thaler, very well regarded book.  His new book is The World According to Star Wars, that hero’s journey and this understanding of how this myth plays out generation after generation or, really, civilization after civilization.  We’re trying to get some context here.

Cass, you specialize in behavioral economics.  You’ve shown that if people describe options in a certain way, you can get people to do and even see what you want.  You get a chance to lead them, I guess in a positive sense, and perhaps manipulate them in a negative sense.  You don’t have to really be a futurist to see this is a common human condition.  Can you describe that to us a little bit?

Cass Sunstein: The way I’d phrase it as that that human beings are not computers.  They are not algorithms, that we are subject to predictable biases.  That how problems are described and what the starting point is can often influence outcomes.  If you’re defaulted into a system where you have a double-sided printer, you’re going to be saving a lot of paper.  If you’re defaulted into a single-sided printer, you’re going to be using a lot of paper.  If you’re defaulted into a savings plan of a certain kind, chances are you’re going to stick with it; most people do.

If you have to sign up, the likelihood is that at least a significant number of people won’t.  People’s risk judgment is often a product of what readily comes to mind.  If you hear about people getting Ebola, you might be really scared even if the statistical risk is really low.  We have about forty years now of really terrific research on how people’s thinking departs from standard rational models.  This is true basically of all of us if we’re human.

If you have a GPS, it can counteract some of your biases by just telling you this is the right direction to go if you want to get to your preferred destination fast.  If you have a problem described as one which, if you use an energy conservation approach, you’ll save a hundred dollars a year.  That tends to be less effective than if you don’t use it, you’ll lose a hundred dollars a year.  People are very unhappy with the idea of losses.  Just describing something as a loss can trigger their attention.

What we’re doing here now in response to your question is first, how people are not perfectly rational.  They’re not irrational, but they are not perfectly rational.  Second, how either a public-spirited, a self- interested outsider or a family member can oppress people in the directions that may be in the interests of the person or may be in the interest of the person who’s doing the nudging, let’s say.

Steve Pomeranz: You may have two people with the same exact ideas, and one of them, perhaps, is using fear as a mode for communication.  Since the human being is wired to react more to fear than to pleasure, that person may be able to manipulate us more or have more power over us.

Cass Sunstein: Completely.  If people are scared of, let’s say, losing money in the stock market, that can really get them to put the money under their pillow.  Whereas if they’re hopeful of making money in the stock market, that’s good.   But it’s less good than the fear of losing money is bad for most people.

Loses, I’d say, are very stirring to the human brain, more so than gains are stirring to the human brain.  This is actually true not just of human beings; it’s true of a wide range of mammals.  There may be an evolutionary reason for this, that losses can get us going. It is true that people can be manipulated in this way, and politicians sometimes do that.  They can also be helped in this way by people who are just trying to help people make wiser choices.

Steve Pomeranz: Very interesting.  You mentioned earlier that the Star Wars saga has some elements to it that inform us about how the law works.  Recently we’ve seen some landmark decisions from the Supreme Court.  I was wondering where the analogy is with Star Wars and how the Supreme Court makes decisions.

Cass Sunstein: Yes, great.  In Star Wars, there are episodes.  We now have seven.  Each episode has to be faithful to the one that came before in the sense that it can’t ignore it and just conclude that what happened there was somebody’s dream.  It has to respect it.  It also has to—and we’re talking about Star Wars now—make the unfolding narrative good rather than idiotic or farcical.  That’s the goal in the creation of new episodes of Star Wars.  When it works, the goal is fulfilled.

The Supreme Court is doing something actually quite analogous.  If the court is deciding an issue involving affirmative action, the power of the president, or abortion, it basically has to respect the prior episodes.  In extraordinary circumstances, you can overrule them, but those are really extraordinary.  It has to respect them, but also make what the justices think is good sense out of them.  The contest within the court and the country really is often how the court respected prior episodes.  And has it made sense rather than nonsense out of them.

American law actually has “I am your father” moments, so to speak, as in the Empire Strikes Back where the law takes a shift that makes you see everything in a new light.  When it’s working well, people have an immediate reaction of “You’re kidding” or “Oh, my god,” but quickly followed by a reaction of, “Of course, that’s right.” That’s what happened with eliminating school segregation, though it wasn’t universal—that’s right.  It took a few decades.  With same-sex marriage, I think we’re seeing something pretty similar.

Steve Pomeranz: The book The World According to Star Wars, the author Cass Sunstein, Founder and Director of the Program on Behavioral Economics and Public Policy at Harvard University and also coauthor of the best-seller Nudge with Richard Thaler.  Cass, so interesting.  Thank you so much for joining us today.

Cass Sunstein: Thank you, a great pleasure.  Really enjoyed it.  Thanks, Steve.