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Worst-Case Scenarios Hardcover – December 19, 2007

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Sunstein, a University of Chicago law professor, often writes about government regulation. Here he focuses specifically on cost-benefit analysis (CBA) of actions that governments (as well as the private sector and individuals) can take to ward off potential crises. CBA has been used, most famously by George W. Bush's administration, to guide national policy; Bush critics believe the numbers are often fudged to get the results the White House wants. Oddly, Sunstein fails to investigate the science and politics of the Bush administration's chief cost-benefit guru, John D. Graham, but he does explore the uses and potential misuses of CBA, often in sufficient detail to challenge readers not well grounded in economics and statistics. Global warming serves as the narrative thread throughout the book, but Sunstein also looks at appropriate reactions to terrorist threats, genetic modification of food, hurricanes and avian flu, among other issues. Within the complex explanations, Sunstein does a reasonable job of achieving his three goals: to understand individual responses to worst-case scenarios (usually to plan far too much [or] far too little); to suggest more sensible public policy regarding low-probability risks of disaster; and to dispassionately evaluate CBA as a tool, especially as it pertains to policy making in the future (Nov.)
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Worst-Case Scenarios is a powerful intellectual treatment about the most difficult problems facing society. The book makes it clear that these problems do not have easy answers. Sunstein's analysis also makes it clear that we would be better off if societal decision makers fully understood the insights he brings to these problems. (Max Bazerman, Harvard Business School)

Sunstein cuts through a great deal of confusion that is preventing the development of coherent and rational public policies. The issues raised by low-probability, high-consequence events are becoming more important as the world is more interconnected. Governments and citizens are not prepared to deal with these issues. This book will help. (Jonathan Baron, University of Pennsylvania)

Professor Sunstein provides cogent advice about how people should respond to low probabilities of catastrophe. He strikes a thoughtful middle ground, showing how we should be careful without being paranoid. While the applications to terrorism and climate change are insightful, his intellectual approach offers guidance for all sorts of possible catastrophes. The book is a must for leaders of business and government throughout the world. (John Graham, Dean, Pardee RAND Graduate School)

Worst-Case Scenarios is a rich analysis, both explanatory and normative, of societal responses to catastrophic risks such as terrorism and global warming. Sunstein occupies the fertile middle ground between the proponents of traditional rational-actor models and cost-benefit analysis, and those who reject these approaches entirely. (Matthew D. Adler, University of Pennsylvania Law School)

Worst-Case Scenarios is an important and timely book. (Glenn C. Altschuler Baltimore Sun 2007-12-30)

Sunstein's book is best when he discusses how we weigh up the costs of protecting ourselves against the benefits of doing so. Many object to cost-benefit analysis, regarding it as cold and mechanical, particularly the placing of monetary value on human lives. Sunstein accepts it is a rough instrument, but he argues that many of us implicitly use it. (Michael Skapinker Financial Times 2008-02-02)

Sunstein writes engagingly, though in a way that scolds us a little for our irrational foibles; and he can illuminate very complex areas of rational choice theory--controversies about future discounting, for example (most of us prefer the certainty of $10,000 now to the certainty of a larger sum ten years hence, even adjusted for inflation), and commensurability (the assessment of such diverse consequences as monetary loss, moral loss and the loss of a zoological species in some common currency of analysis)--so that intelligent thought about decision-making in conditions of uncertainty is brought within reach of the sort of non-specialist reader who is likely to have a practical or political interest in these matters...Sunstein illuminates a whole array of difficult and technical issues: the logic of irreversibility, the basis of low-level probabilistic calculations, the "social amplification" of large single-event losses, different ways of taking into account effects on future generations and ways of thinking about the monetisation of disparate costs and benefits. (Jeremy Waldron London Review of Books 2008-04-10)

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press; First Edition edition (November 19, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674025105
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674025103
  • Product Dimensions: 1.2 x 5.8 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,456,811 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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5 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Kenneth Anderson on July 5, 2008
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Cass Sunstein has written a superb analysis of how cost benefit analysis can usefully be applied to extreme situations - worst case scenarios. He takes up two - mostly climate change, but then compares it to counterterrorism. My comments below focus on the application of cost benefit analysis in responses to terrorism; I admire Sunstein's analysis, but think it has limitations in its application to terrorism.

Regnant approaches to terrorism are driven not just by narrow cost benefit analysis, but by a still narrower focus on something we might call "event-specific catastrophism": preventing the next attack. This is as true of the Bush administration as of its leading opponents. What has the Bush administration focused upon, in speech after speech to the public? The imminence of the next attack, and the need to prevent it. One hopes this is mobilizing rhetoric for larger policies against jihadist terrorism, but in considerable part, the uncertain next attack is the focus of policy - a long-term strategy, if one can call it that, even after seven years, of just trying to make it to the next day unscathed.

Despite much discursive rhetoric about long-term policy and the war on terror, much US policy is what, in a strategically informed plan, might well be considered the very last defensive perimeters. Airport security, daily monitoring of cell phone traffic, internet analysis in hopes of seeing spikes that might indicate imminent terrorist action, watch lists, and many, many cement barriers. Presumably no one in Britain is reassured by the fact that the Glasgow attack was prevented not by perceptive police work, nimble intelligence agents, deep penetration of homegrown terrorist cells - but simply by a physical barrier at the airport.
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6 of 19 people found the following review helpful By aaron on February 29, 2008
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I recommend reading this book. Dr. Sunstein considers many modes of thought and the book should get you thinking.

Throughout the book Dr. Sunstein uses two main narratives to examine how people react to uncertainty, Terrorism and Global Warming. He provides a very PC perspective, probably to better reach a broad audience and get them thinking about how we deal with what we don't know. The book is an exercise to get the lay person thinking about uncertainty rather than an objective analysis of how to deal uncertainties. It should get the reader to consider how we over and under react and how costly it is.

Sunstein makes the very good point that people have over-reacted to the historic risk level of terrorism (with much unnecessary cost in life and resources) and explores why. He also makes the point that probabilities alone are not enough to make decisions. Context is also important. That said, he possibly over emphasizes the fact that people over-react to more highly salient risks and he fails to thoroughly consider why people react strongly to risks involving justice and intent (especially that there is also a signaling component).

While most of us make the mistake of over-reacting to highly salient risks, Sunstein does the opposite. He makes the mistake of greatly exaggerating the risks of Global Warming. For the sake of argument, he makes up numbers. But the numbers are absurdly high, even when considering them as the likelihood that a risk will increase rather than the likelihood of an actual event happening or not.

When dealing with the uncertainty created by human actions, Sunstein also neglects uncertainty that already exists. The human component of global warming is small (and the greenhouse gas component of that is less than half).
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