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

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Re-Empowering Individual Initiative

Howard's Daily by Philip K. Howard

This is the week of the TED conference in Vancouver. As a former speaker there I’ve gotten to know some amazing participants. What they seem to have in common is self-empowerment. They view themselves as inventors, not only of products but of their own lives and beliefs. TED talks inspire people not only because of the particular topic but because of the demonstration of individual initiative on display.

Individual self-determination is harder to accomplish in the modern world of big business, big government, and bureaucracy everywhere. We have the tools of instant knowledge but fewer obvious ways to act on that knowledge in an individually creative way. Young people come into the job market and find themselves in jobs hemmed in by high walls of established corporate protocols. Retirees can’t find cracks in the bureaucratic walls to make a difference in their communities. They’re not “certified” to teach or provide hospice care. The municipality insurance doesn’t cover volunteers.

This airless, over-organized world can discourage people. Professor Barry Schwartz made the point that a structure can change people. They involuntarily adopt its values. People stop asking what’s right, and just follow rules. They even watch people die because the rule says they should ”get permission” to help rather than acting themselves, as we saw recently in DC.

Arianna Huffington has an inspirational new book, Thrive, which exhorts people to make choices about their personal priorities. Maybe it seems like the world around you demands that you give up your personal life for success, but don’t buy it, she says. Personal fulfillment comes from deliberate choices about what you value. Individual initiative starts are home. She’s right, and her breezy, self-confident sermon about life’s meaning, addressed mainly to women, comes at a time when both men and women are under enormous pressure to sacrifice basic joys and needs to the demands of the workplace.

David Brooks is also on this beat. His sermon, delivered yesterday at TED, suggests that we’ll never get the leadership we need to pull ourselves out of this cultural and bureaucratic rut until we stop listening to the muse of raw ambition and begin listening to our souls about what is right and what is wrong. Only with humility and a sense of uncertainty can we face honestly the imperfect choices needed to move forward responsibly. Here too, the answer lies in self-discovery and a commitment to self-determination.

The problem here is not just that people are discouraged from self-determination. Modern society is organized to avoid human choice. Ever-more-detailed rules are designed to prevent people from acting on their own sense of right and wrong. Leadership might as well be illegal. What does the law allow? A giant bureaucratic blob has paralyzed the halls of power as well as the nooks and crannies of our lives. The solution, as in our personal lives, is to seize back these choices. But reclaiming democratic self-determination is not a matter of personal will, but of an organized movement to rebuild government into a structural framework based on human responsibility. Self-determination is indeed the secret sauce of fulfillment, as Arianna Huffington’s new book makes clear. That truth applies equally to the structures of our democracy.

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The Two-Way Peril of Regulatory Ossification

Howard's Daily by Philip K. Howard

Courtesy of an excellent daily compilation service called Muhr’s Must Reads, I read an essay titled "The Regulatory Confidence Cycle," by Harvard Law Prof. Mark Roe. Professor Roe warns against complacency in thinking that Dodd-Frank has shielded the economy against financial crisis like that in 2008. "Like generals fighting the last war," he warns, the protections of new regulations will not necessarily guard against new crisis.

He’s correct to a point: Regulations by themselves will almost never guard against abuse, any more than an automatic alarm system is foolproof protection against wrongdoers. Effective regulatory oversight always requires vigilance and human judgment. In the mortgage bubble crisis, pretty much everyone was asleep at the switch, relying on triple A ratings and other "objective" indicia of stability when any alert person would see that the loans were garbage. 

But the deeper problem of post-crisis regulation is that it is often counterproductive. Regulations always have unintended consequences. They cost money; they divert compliance and management energy to rote compliance rather than alert oversight. Dodd-Frank is so complex and expensive, industry insiders tell me, that it drives small banks into the arms of larger banks, arguably exacerbating system-wide risks. The real Maginot Line created the harm of complacency; regulatory Maginot Lines can cause failure by forcing people to do things that make no sense. 

The more detailed the regulation (Dodd-Frank is 850 pages; the Volcker Rule is 950 pages), the sooner and more counterproductive the unintended consequences will appear. The goal should be to focus on regulatory goals, not mindless compliance. Regulators and management alike should be always alert to new facts and trends. This is why an ideal regulatory structure, as Bank of England economist Andrew Haldane proposed in his speech "The Dog and the Frisbee," is one that is made up of broad goals and principles, not detailed prescriptions.  

To guard against the next financial crisis, the first task is not to rely upon Dodd-Frank, but to go back and radically simplify it.

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Momentum Builds to Reform the Regulatory Process

Federal News Radio reports on increasing momentum in Congress toward serious reform of the outdated and costly regulatory process. At a Tuesday hearing, Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) noted the dire state of federal regulations:

Each year, well over 70,000 pages of additional regulatory requirements are published in the Federal Register. In the past two decades, the code of federal regulations has expanded by as much as 25 percent to an astounding 180,000 pages. Many of these new rules do represent significant costs to the economy, regularly in excess of $100 million each year... The annual cost of federal regulations now we are estimating at $2 trillion, and this continues to grow substantially.

One reform proposal comes from Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), sponsor of the Regulatory Improvement Act, who pointed out the desperate need to address the accumulation of outdated regulation:

We need to find better ways to ensure we revisit regulations on a regular basis, [Sen.] Roy Blunt and I introduced S. 1390, which basically is a BRAC commission for regulations. The idea is an independent analysis of regulations to come before the Congress with recommendations about whether they should be continued, modified or eliminated. They'd have an expedited process in Congress. This idea, by the way, came from the Progressive Policy Institute, and it's received quite a bit of positive attention.

Common Good strongly supports measures to untangle regulatory and legal detritus. Click to read our proposals for cleaning out obsolete law and overhauling regulation.

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The Perils of Political Science

Howard's Daily by Philip K. Howard

I always wondered what political scientists did. If you too are curious, read some of the 30 or so essays that the Washington Post has collected for a series on political polarization. With a few exceptions, the ones I read seem to accept the inevitability of democratic dysfunction. Political scientists slice and date the data to explain why polarization is, or is not, a new phenomenon, and similar abstract points.

A post by Stanford political scientist Morris Fiorina is titled "Gridlock is bad. The alternative is worse." The gist is that parties focus on polarized positions (say, Right to Life vs. Right to Choose), which do not reflect the more moderate views of the general electorate. Therefore, he concludes, gridlock is better than action. 

I guess that’s a point. Far more important is this question: Why is it that parties get bogged down in litmus test issues, and never get around to issues vital to the daily functioning of society? However strongly you feel about abortion and gun control, the debate will do nothing to solve deficits, make schools work better, or save fish in the sea. 

I have a different hypothesis than Prof. Fiorina: Modern American politics is an artificial game designed for gridlock. Polarization is a useful tool to excite the extremists. As long as the tug of war continues over divisive ideological issues, party coffers will keep ringing with new campaign money. Prof. Fiorina has no reason to fear action on these issues; that’s the last thing Ted Cruz or Harry Reid wants. Then they would bear responsibility for the consequences. 

The disaster of modern politics is that our leaders are not even debating the real issues: Decaying infrastructure, obsolete entitlements, unmanageable civil service, and a disjointed regulatory system that makes starting a business unimaginable for most people—the US now ranks 20th in the world for "ease of starting a business." These are not ideological issues. That, apparently, is why politicians don’t address them. Who wants to take responsibility for change that, inevitably, some people won’t like? Better to rant and rave over ideological issues where gridlock is virtually guaranteed. 

The genesis of litmus test politics probably lies in a toxic mix of gerrymandering, campaign finance, and reflexive social fears of Big Brother telling us how to live our lives. Whatever the causes, America’s political culture has changed. This isn’t the way the game worked under Howard Baker and Everett Dirksen and Sam Rayburn, but this is the way the game is played today. What’s missing? For starters, there’s no accountability for the growing dysfunction. It’s hard to hold anyone accountable when everyone—public and politicians alike—is trapped in a black hole of ideological stalemate—just turn on Fox News or MSNBC—without a line of sight to a new vision of a functioning democracy. The only people with visions are the loonies on both extremes.  

America shouldn’t fear action. It should fear a political culture designed to divert attention away from practical realities. The solution is a clean break: New leaders who do not get overwhelmed by cynicism, emboldened by a popular movement to fix this broken system, top to bottom. At this point, America has far more to fear from continued paralysis than from action.

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The Hidden Causes of Bureaucratic Paralysis

Howard's Daily by Philip K. Howard

The Hill newspaper hosted a breakfast forum last week on the state of federal regulation. The panel consisted of former senators Blanche Lincoln (D) and George Allen (R), Susan Dudley at the GW regulatory center, Robert Weissman of Public Citizen, and me. The tone was generally moderate, and everyone seemed to agree that calling for wholesale "deregulation" is not useful. Most regulatory goals are unassailable—say, for worker safety or clean water.

But most agreed that regulation (as it's practiced in the U.S.) is a bureaucratic nightmare, and often ineffective. Some panelists pointed the finger at unaccountable agencies who, year after year, write the regulations. Robert Weissman focused on insufficient enforcement resources. I pointed to overly detailed statutes and regulations which become instantly obsolete when circumstances change. There seemed to be general agreement on the need for a mechanism to revisit old laws to see how they’re working—such as a mandatory "sunset."

So far so good. But then, prompted by a question from the audience, the panel began discussing how regulations should be structured. The senators both felt that laws and regulations should provide "clear metrics" by which the success of the program should be measured. Robert Weissman pointed out, correctly in my view, that many public goals embody moral and qualitative choices not readily quantifiable. What is the metric, say, for a successful special ed program? The number of students helped? What if the quality of the program is lousy? Moreover, anyone familiar with cost-benefit analysis knows how easily the numbers can be fudged. Metrics can be useful as a tool of analysis but not as the sole lodestone of success or failure.

While Robert Weissman did not buy into the notion of clear metrics, he did seem to believe that compliance with rules was a key to regulatory success. He pointed out that in the recent West Virginia chemical spill, the company did not have the required "materials safety data sheet" showing how toxic the chemicals were. But rules are just a rigid metric and often poor substitutes for right and wrong. For example, "MSDS" safety sheets required by worker safety regulations don’t leave room for judgment, so information on highly toxic chemicals is buried in thick notebooks containing sheets describing the perils of "Joy" dishwashing liquid and other benign chemicals. Yes, it would be harmful to chug a jug of Joy, but most workers probably don’t have that urge. Almost no one actually reads the thick notebooks on MSDS sheets. It’s too hard to find any pertinent information. By not leaving room for human judgment to decide which chemicals are likely to cause harm, the rule requiring MSDS sheets is just a version of the boy who cried wolf.

Regulation can be coherent only if humans have room to use their judgment. Safety sheets should be displayed only for chemicals likely to cause harm. Letting people use their judgment doesn’t mean they can do whatever they want. Everyone is still bound to honor the goals and principles, and, if there is a dispute, there’s always a court to complain to. But accepting the role of human judgment opens the door to an open field of common sense instead of a bureaucratic jungle. There’s no need to tangle everyone up in legal vines—the 950 page Volcker Rule comes to mind—if we accept that regulation, like every other life activity, requires human judgment. Bureaucracy could be radically simplified if it focused on goals and guiding principles instead of rigid rules and metrics telling people exactly how to do their jobs.

I had this discussion almost 20 years ago with Joe Dear, the head of OSHA (the worker safety agency) under Clinton. I had been highly critical of OSHA in my book The Death of Common Sense, because studies showed that all its thousands of rules detailing exactly what kind of equipment to use, etc., had done almost no good. How could that be? It seemed that focusing on rule compliance had diverted attention away from the most important factor in safety—a workplace culture valuing safety training and attitudes.

Joe Dear turned out to be a remarkable public servant. He looked like a triathlete, and had an unusual willingness to question bureaucratic assumptions. He started encouraging regional managers to rethink how OSHA did its job. In Maine, OSHA entered into an informal arrangement with large employers to promote safety attitudes in lieu of mindless compliance with all the rules. Once the focus was on how workers did their jobs, instead of handing out fines for, say, having a railing of 38 inches instead of the required 42 inches, the workplaces became safer places. Letting humans use their judgment—both regulator and regulated—proved to be far more effective than focusing on compliance with thousands of rigid rules.

Last week on the Bloomberg ticker the news read that Joe Dear, who had become the Chief Investment Officer of Calpers, had died of cancer at age 62. What a great guy. What America needs, now more than ever, are public servants like Joe who are willing to buck the system by taking responsibility to achieve public goals.

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How Congress Misses the Point on Regulatory Reform

Howard's Daily by Philip K. Howard

This week the House passed several bills that purport to reduce excess or unwise legislation. Called the ALERRT Act (Achieving Less Excess in Regulation and Requiring Transparency Act), it would make it harder for agencies to write new rules. It has about zero chance of becoming law with a Democratic Senate. With one possible exception, however, even if it did become law it wouldn’t relieve the burden of unnecessary regulation. 

America now ranks 20th in the world in ease of starting a business, and probably close to last in ease of rebuilding infrastructure. But this is because of the massive accretion of obsolete laws and regulations, not the new ones. It is hard to find one regulatory program that isn’t obsolete or broken in significant ways. But most of these regulations aim for worthwhile public goals, so what’s needed is not deregulation but practical re-regulation. So why doesn’t Congress turn its focus to fixing what’s broken, including the many obsolete statutes that it enacted? Who else has that responsibility?

Sure, there are new regulations that Republicans oppose, such as stricter fuel-efficiency standards for big trucks. But these are a drop in the bucket compared to the obsolete old ones. If Congress really wants “to serve the American people and use taxpayer dollars wisely,” it should start the hard work—yes, sorry—of dislodging the special interest stranglehold on the status quo. By stacking more process on new regulations, the House is dodging its own complicity and contributing to the general paralysis. 

So what would relieve unnecessary regulatory burdens? Sunsets on regulations and laws would be a good start, requiring lawmakers to periodically revisit how regulations actually work. Requiring an independent commission to report on whether the regulations, as written, serve the public good would enhance public accountability. Further, Congress wouldn’t need to put so many shackles on new regulations if it took back the authority to overturn regulations. Why shouldn’t Congress, as the constitutional lawmaking body, always have authority to veto regulations that are written under explicit congressional delegation? Today, under Supreme Court rulings, Congress can only veto a regulation if it “presents” this congressional act to the President for his signature, as it would with a new law. A constitutional amendment is thus required to restore congressional oversight of regulations it considers unwise. (I discuss this and other amendments as part of a Bill of Responsibilities in The Rule of Nobody, out in April). 

One of the proposed bills in the ALERRT Act does strike me as deserving some consideration—the Sunshine for Regulatory Decrees and Settlements Act which limits how federal agencies and plaintiffs can enter into settlements that result in new regulations. Using the guise of a lawsuit to “settle” by imposing new regulations and consent decrees is just a way to give courts authority that, under the Constitution, is supposed to be lodged in Congress.

Regulation-wary legislators from both parties should obviously oppose new rules they think are unwise. But that will do nothing to alleviate the existing regulatory heap that is piled high with burdensome, unnecessary rules. Moreover, imposing more bureaucratic process is unlikely to accomplish the goal of fixing new regulations, and just contributes to the bureaucratic sludge.

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Attracting Good People to Government

Howard's Daily by Philip K. Howard

What one thing would you change to make government work better? I’ve gotten this question many times. Pressing the reset button is clearly needed, because the dysfunction of endless bureaucracy and bought-off democracy has led to structural paralysis.

No new vision can work, however, until there’s been a complete overhaul of civil service. Over 22 million Americans work for federal, state, and local government. How well government works depends on how well they do their jobs. Today, most public employees wake up and go to work in suffocating bureaucracies. Teachers are demoralized by legal shackles that prevent them from maintaining order or, indeed, from teaching with the spontaneity needed to form a genuine bond with their students.

Three recent articles highlight the brokenness of public service. All are thoughtful, but in each case fail to come to grips with the depth of the challenge and the extraordinary opportunity of remaking the social contract with public employees.

  1. In 2011, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker succeeded in breaking the power of public unions over hiring, firing, and seniority entitlements. Steven Greenhouse’s post-mortem in this weekend’s New York Times acknowledges that the changes resulted in greater efficiency, and that most public workers had dropped out of unions once they were allowed to. But he also suggests that the efficiencies are on the backs of public workers (such as higher contributions to health care) and have resulted in widespread demoralization. I am a little skeptical, and would like to see an impartial survey from a respected research outfit like Public Agenda. I also have two immediate comments on the report:

    First, the unstated assumption of the report is that perhaps Wisconsin should return to the good old days of union power. But Wisconsin public unions, like public unions generally, were notoriously hidebound. It was impossible to terminate lousy teachers and other employees. It was almost impossible to manage them. The retirement rules were abusive, with some workers "retiring" in their 40s or 50s with pensions "spiked" by excess overtime in the last year of employment. Under seniority rules, a young teacher who was honored as one of the best first-year teachers in Wisconsin was forced to be laid off. Aaargh!!! There is a lot to talk about with public service, but the one place we don’t want to go is back to the old days. 

    The NYT story also assumes that civil service policy ultimately turns on your view of labor vs. management. I reject that premise: What’s important here is the public interest. The litmus test for Scott Walker’s reforms is whether they helped the public. If they result in better, more efficient government, then those are markers of success. If they demoralize public workers, then the reforms are not sustainable, and will drive good people away from government.
     
  2. "Here’s How To Reform Civil Service in America" is the headline of a Washington Post interview of Prof. Linda Bilmes, an expert on civil service at Harvard’s JFK School. On tenure, she says, correctly, that bad employees are "a real morale drag for those who are working hard." But she blames this on inexpert managers: "Federal managers don’t know how to deal with poor performers." Excuse me: the legal armor surrounding civil servants is nearly impregnable. (See The Collapse of the Common Good.) As one manager told me, "you have to dedicate years" to getting rid of a bad employee. Far more efficient to work around the bad apples. And yes, one bad apple can indeed spoil the barrel. That’s one of the reasons working in government is so demoralizing. The solution is to strip away the legal armor, and replace it with non-legal checks on termination, such as an oversight committee that includes line employees. Everyone in an office knows who’s doing the job and who’s not.
     
  3. Why aren’t more good people going into government? Prof. Bilmes suggests that young people are impatient: "If we want to attract the cream of the crop of this generation, the government needs to step up its game technologically and change the way agencies work to permit pockets of what I call ‘intrapreneurship,’ where people can create new things and run with new ideas."

    EJ Dionne, in a Washington Post column, suggests that recruitment is a marketing problem, mainly caused by right-wing disparagement of public service, and that Obama should "lift up government service as a noble calling. The people we deride as bureaucrats are those who do the daily work of self-government on our behalf. We should never forget that self-government is a thrilling idea."

    Actually, working for government would be, for most people, an awful experience. Who wants to work in a place where your ideas make no difference? The bureaucracy is exhausting. As Prof. Bilmes points out, it starts with the opaque, convoluted recruiting process. But that’s only the introductory quicksand to what promises to be a lifetime of frustration. Former NYC Commissioner Sam Schwartz noted that the bureaucracy of modern government drives good people out: as he put it, "expulsion of the fittest."

    What amazes me is how many good civil servants stick it out, and deliver needed services despite work conditions that constantly trip them up. They deserve medals. But they’re not proof of a working system, but of the extraordinary strength of human character. Imagine what good they could do if they were free to roll up their sleeves and take responsibility.

Let’s agree on this: Getting able people into government should be a core goal. They should be honored, and treated fairly, and paid reasonably. Public service should be a noble career.

How do we achieve that? I believe America needs a new social contract for public employees. The first principle should be personal responsibility—meaning both the authority to make a difference, and the accountability that goes with that. Avoiding abuse is important—no spoils or arbitrary dismissals—but those goals can be achieved without tiptoeing through a legal minefield. The starting point is to acknowledge that the current system needs to be abandoned: As a report from the Partnership for Public Service concluded: "Today’s federal civil service system is obsolete."

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Rubbing Salt in the Wound

Howard's Daily by Philip K. Howard

A shipload of salt to deal with this year’s snow and ice on New Jersey’s roads has been detained in legal limbo in Providence harbor, en route from Maine. The problem, detailed in today’s New York Times, is that it’s illegal for a foreign-owned vessel to ship goods from one U.S. port to another. (There’s even a word for it, I learned. Domestic shipping is called "cabotage.") Now, there’s nothing apparently wrong with the ship, which had just finished unloading its cargo in Maine and was available to take on the salt immediately. But an obscure 1920 law known as the Jones Act requires a U.S. ship, with a U.S. crew, on all domestic routes. There’s a cottage merchant marine industry and union that exists just because of this law.

In this era of free markets, one would think that protectionist laws from almost 100 years ago would have gone the way of the horse and buggy. But laws have remarkable staying power (as we saw two weeks ago with the continuation of New Deal-era farm subsidies). The same onerous process for enacting a law applies to repealing it, with one additional, almost insurmountable, hurdle: the law now is surrounded by an army of special interests who will do anything to defend it (think campaign money and ad hominem attacks on would-be reformers). That’s why, in the strange culture of Washington, repealing laws is so rare as to be almost unthinkable. Getting rid of old laws violates the laws of legislative physics.

Laws pile up, year after year, like sediment in the harbor. Society, meanwhile, is increasingly paralyzed. The U.S. now ranks 20th in the world in ease of starting a business. This is because of thousands of laws like the Jones Act.

American democracy has a structural problem: there’s no political or legal imperative to clean the stables. The accumulation is so bad that, as I argue elsewhere, America should initiate a series of commissions, area by area, to recommend what are known as "recodifications" of law—new, simpler codes that reflect current national goals and priorities. Going forward, most regulatory programs should periodically "sunset," with an action-forcing mechanism (perhaps a constitutional amendment) that prevents Congress from simply re-enacting the same program in a midnight vote. 

It’s impossible to run a government, much less balance public budgets, under the weight of a hundreds of laws and programs that are obsolete in whole or part. The weight grows heavier every year. It will break, sooner or later. Perhaps it’s time to start thinking about to fix it.

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Finding Infrastructure in the Stimulus Plan

Howard's Daily by Philip K. Howard

Yesterday’s White House report, claiming 6 million jobs saved by the $800 billion stimulus plan, predictably prompted partisan debate on fiscal waste. I will not tread into the foggy land of economic theory, except to note that spending more money intuitively always stimulates economic activity—but at the cost of economic health in the future if the money isn’t invested to stimulate future growth (which economists call a "multiplier" effect).  

Probably the wisest investment is in rebuilding America’s decaying infrastructure. This was the focus of the President’s push for the stimulus back in 2009, and also the headliner in the report issued yesterday: The stimulus "initiated more than 15,000 transportation projects, which will improve nearly 42,000 miles of road, mend or replace over 2,700 bridges, and provide funds for over 12,220 transit vehicles," plus improving 6,000 miles of rail. 

These all sound like good investments to me, but I was curious how much of the stimulus plan went to these transportation infrastructure projects. Towards the back of the report (Table 8 on p. 34) there’s a chart that gives the number: $30 billion. That’s a little over three percent of the total stimulus plan. 

Three percent!! American infrastructure recently received a D+ rating from the American Society of Civil Engineers. All those repair projects, listed above, only scratch at the surface of America’s decaying infrastructure. Why wasn’t more spent on this urgent need? Modernizing American infrastructure will improve competitiveness, create a "greener" footprint, and has a high "multiplier" on each dollar invested. We know that’s what President Obama wanted at the outset. Why didn’t it happen? 

Let’s break this down into two questions. First, how did the headline goal of the stimulus—rebuilding infrastructure—become a small footnote? Because, as Obama subsequently discovered, "there’s no such thing as shovel-ready projects." The approval process for any significant project (a new road, or power line, or pipeline) approaches a decade, and often longer. An impenetrable legal swamp stands between America and a modern infrastructure.

Second, if not infrastructure, where was most of the stimulus money spent? About $500 billion went to tax cuts, unemployment benefits, and "state fiscal relief" (shoring up insolvent state budgets). The remaining $300 billion was spent on actual projects, of which the big beneficiaries were: (i) subsidies for clean energy ($78 billion), (ii) subsidies for education and child support ($50 billion)(student loans, special ed, and support for disadvantaged children), (iii) health and health IT ($32 billion), (iv) transportation infrastructure ($30 billion, as noted above); (v) environmental cleanup ($28 billion), (vi) new buildings ($24 billion), (vii) scientific research ($18 billion), and a few other categories.

Look at where the stimulus money was spent. Virtually none of the stimulus categories require a significant government approval process. The conclusion is unavoidable: Government is unable to pursue vital public investments because government has lost the authority to approve them. It's pathetic: Government can't get out of its way. If America really wants to rebuild the economy with modern infrastructure, the first task is to rebuild its own authority structure so that approvals take 12 months, not 12 years. See here and here.

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Clueless in Washington

Howard's Daily by Philip K. Howard

You will laugh, or maybe cry, when watching Jon Stewart’s recent interview of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. (You can see Part 1 here, Part 2 here, and Part 3 here.) 

Why is it, Stewart asks, that everyone talks about politics, and no one focuses on government’s inability to get things done sensibly? Pelosi: Republicans are obstructive.

Stewart: To make the Democrat’s case, wouldn’t it be helpful if government could actually do the job competently? Pelosi: Democrats need better messaging.

What about the failure of the Obamacare rollout? Pelosi: "I don’t know." Stewart, rising as if to leave: "Let me get the House Minority Leader here—I can ask her. … How do you not know?" Pelosi: "It’s not my responsibility."

Stewart: "Has the regulation become so onerous that government can no longer be agile?" Pelosi: "The procurement process…everybody knew about that."

Stewart: The Obama campaign computer genius wouldn’t bid for the Obamacare IT contract because he couldn’t figure out how to navigate the "300-page document" for bidding. Pelosi: "It doesn’t matter. … It should have been prepared for."

Stewart: "Do we have a foundational problem?" Pelosi: No. Stewart asks for an example of government’s ability to do its job "in an agile and efficient way." Pelosi: The Affordable Care Act.

Let’s pause for a minute. Here we have the top House Democrat who, apparently, doesn’t understand that government doesn’t actually work very well. Not that Republicans would get to the point either. They would be quick to jump on government’s failures, but rarely offer solutions to help government work sensibly.

Political leaders apparently see all issues through the lens of partisan debate, not whether government actually works. In the hermetically sealed bubble that is Washington, our would-be leaders fight about ideology. Dysfunctional bureaucracy, as Pelosi put it, "doesn’t matter. … It should have been prepared for."

Oh, ok, who is in charge of making government work? Pelosi says it’s not Congress’s responsibility. The President is neck deep in decades of statutory and bureaucratic accumulation, like the 300 pages of procurement regs, and lacks legal authority to clean it out. So ask yourself again: who’s in charge of fixing government?   

Change will only come from the outside, as retiring Sen. Tom Coburn recently noted. Fixing broken government will require a popular movement to force change. Someone recently asked me what the rallying cry might be for a movement. Maybe we could sponsor a contest. Should we demand that every member of Congress resign? Or call for a constitutional convention? 

The moral here is not that Pelosi looked ridiculous. She has the wrong idea of her responsibility. She doesn’t know what her job is. That’s a flaw in America’s political culture. The only way to fix it is dramatic intervention from the outside.

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