The Blog

News and stories from the campaign to reclaim individual responsibility and liberate Americans from bureaucracy and legal fear.


Legal Idiocy #10: Six Employees. One Inmate. No Sense.

The juvenile detention center in Manitowoc County, WI, costs over $300,000 a year to operate. It holds one offender. When the county executive proposed closing the facility and moving the lone juvenile to a neighboring county, they were rebuffed. Why? David Frum explains: "Answer: a union work rule. The relevant contract forbids the county to do any subcontracting if unionized workers have been laid off. So, unless the county can find other jobs for the six juvenile detention center workers, the county cannot contractually pay another county to store its lone inmate."

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Legal Idiocy #9: Dead Letter Law for Dead Letter Offices

Despite operating at a loss of $8.5 billion in fiscal year 2010 alone, the United States Postal Service is hamstrung in its ability to close the least profitable of its 32,000 branches due to a law that states they can only close offices "for maintenance problems, lease expirations or other reasons that don't include profitability."

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Red Tape Makes Yogurt Enterprise a No Go

The latest issue of The Economist carries the revealing tale of Homa Dashtaki, an Iranian immigrant in California with a knack for making “fantastically good yogurt”—but whose attempt to live out the “American dream” by selling the product has been stymied by too much law:

After three months of operating (for about $300 in revenues a week, and no profit at all), [Ms. Dashtaki] encountered that other American tradition, red tape …. For although she had spent a year getting the required permits from Orange County, she had, it turned out, yet to make the acquaintance of the ‘milk and dairy food safety branch’ of the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA). On a Saturday morning in March, Ms Dashtaki got a call and was told to shut down or risk prosecution.

Ms. Dashtaki’s research revealed that the regulations affecting her yogurt operation dated back to 1947—and were based on “the core assumption that all dairy products are made from raw milk, thus requiring elaborate processes that involve proper pasteurisation.” Because her yogurt is made with pasteurized milk, Ms. Dashtaki was hoping for a waiver—but she was told no, and that she would need to “set up a ‘Grade A’ dairy plant.”

The article continues:

Ms Dashtaki soldiered on. Then a licensing officer told her that the code does not permit milk to be pasteurised a second time. So ‘in order to comply with the order to re-pasteurise my already pasteurised milk, I would need to get exemption from the head of the CDFA,’ she explains. The tale thus went from Kafka to Catch-22.

Today Ms. Dashtaki’s yogurt enterprise “remains just a wispy little thing.” As she contemplates trying it in another state, or simply packing it in, the The Economist concludes: “It looks like California’s regulators have triumphantly saved their population from the threat of mass poisoning once again.”

Please share your thoughts on this article—and if you’ve got a story about how red tape has stymied your entrepreneurial efforts, we’d like to hear it. Thanks. 

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Maryland School the Latest To Show ‘Zero Tolerance’ for Discretion

Two 17-year-old lacrosse players were recently suspended from their Maryland high school for running afoul of the school’s “zero tolerance” policy on weapons. One of the students, who had never before been in trouble at the school, was suspended for ten days after a pen knife was found in his lacrosse bag. (He was also handcuffed and arrested by the police for “possession of a deadly weapon.”) The other student was suspended for one day after he was found with a lighter—which the school deems “an explosive device”—during the same search. School officials were not moved by the students’ explanation—which was supported by coaches, players, and parents—that the items were used to fix their lacrosse sticks—and instead insisted they were just following Maryland law.

Designed to give school officials more authority, as Common Good Chair Philip K. Howard explains in Life Without Lawyers, zero tolerance policies have come to symbolize some educators’ inability and others’ unwillingness to take responsibility to do what’s right. On this, the Baltimore Sun asks: “If we consider it a central mission of our schools to teach children not just to memorize facts but also how to think and reason, what kind of message does it send if those in charge employ none of those skills?”

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Legal Idiocy #8: The Seats on the Bus Go Unused

An April 2011 New York Times article relates that the Port Washington, NY, school district sends out 17 buses with 1,122 total seats at the end of the school day, despite the fact that more than half of those seats routinely go empty, to comply with state laws that require districts “to provide a seat for every eligible child every day.” “‘It’s ludicrous to be doing this, and you can’t get anyone to listen,’ said Geoffrey N. Gordon, the Port Washington superintendent, who estimated that the practice of running more buses than needed costs the district $2 million a year.”

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Legal Idiocy #7: Uniform Absurdity in New Jersey

An April 2011 report by New Jersey Comptroller Matthew Boxer reveals that of the $22 million a year the state spends on clothing allowances for state workers, some $3 million goes to workers who aren’t required to wear a uniform. The report also found that “only California’s $450 clothing allowance comes close to New Jersey’s $700 allowance, with many others paying between $58 and $175 …. And unlike other states, New Jersey does not require the employee to submit a receipt to verify clothing purchases.”

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Legal Idiocy #6: There’s a Rule Against Everything

In an interview with C-SPAN, explaining why “the biggest project [on his desk] is to really liberate the workforce,” New York City Deputy Mayor Stephen Goldsmith states: “Over the last hundred years, in order to make sure that mayors didn’t hire their friends and give contracts to their buddies, there are lots of rules. And if 100 rules are good, 1,000 rules are good. And if 1,000 rules are good, 10,000 rules are good. And now, there’s a rule against everything.”

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Joel Klein on How Legal Excesses Hurt American Education

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, former New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein relates how legal excesses have hindered America’s public schools. Of the New York City teachers contract — which hamstrings school administrators' and teachers' ability to make daily choices — Klein writes: “[It’s] an extraordinary document, running for hundreds of pages, governing who can teach what and when, who can be assigned to hall-monitor or lunchroom duty and who can’t, who has to be given time off to do union work during the school day, and so on.”

Klein goes on to argue that, due to the legal hurdles put in place by unions, “it’s virtually impossible to fire a teacher for non-performance.” “In New York City, which has some 55,000 tenured teachers,” he explains, “we were able to fire only half a dozen or so for incompetence in a given year, even though we devoted significant resources to this effort. The extent of the problem is difficult to overstate.” 

Common Good Chair Philip K. Howard has written extensively about the need to free schools from too much law, including most recently in a letter to the New York Times in which he argues that there’s a deal to be made with educators—bulldoze bureaucracy in exchange for accountability. “There’s no need to tell teachers how to do their jobs if they can be accountable when they don’t,” he writes.

Read more from Start Over’s “Solution” section—and provide your feedback here.

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The Death of Common Sense Re-Released With New Afterword

death of common sense legal reform united states america

Common Good Chair Philip K. Howard’s 1995 New York Times bestseller The Death of Common Sense was re-released this week. The book contains a new afterword by Howard — titled “Start Over: A New Operating System Based on Individual Responsibility” — in which he writes:

“Accomplishment always requires judgment on the spot. At every level of society, people must be free to take responsibility. They must be free to make choices needed to do their jobs. This doesn’t mean they’ll succeed. But not having the freedom in daily choices guarantees failure.”

Click here to buy the re-released paperback or Nook editions of the book from Barnes & Noble — or here to buy the earlier or re-released Kindle edition from

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Philip Howard discusses Start Over on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart

Recently on "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," Philip K. Howard discussed Common Good’s Start Over campaign which aims to put the need for a structural overhaul of government on the agenda for the 2012 campaign.  Jon Stewart agreed that “We need a spring cleaning of grand proportions.”

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