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

Blog — Legal Idiocy

Warning: You Will Sue

Via James Maxeiner, here's a refreshingly (or depressingly) honest warning sign from Wisconsin (source):

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City of Angels Seeks Red Tape Savior

While stories of federal government inefficiency usually involve more jaw-dropping numbers and create more heat among the chattering classes, paralyzing and wasteful bureaucracy permeates every level of government. Steve Lopez of the Los Angeles Times this week tells the story of Bob Stone, a fix-it man hired to curb L.A.’s red tape problem--for an annual salary of $1 (which he still hasn’t received). Mr. Stone is no stranger to government paralysis; he was instrumental in Vice President Al Gore’s "reinventing government" initiative (in which Philip Howard also participated). But in L.A., Mr. Stone found a bigger challenge than he had expected: "After struggling and battling the federal bureaucracy for 30 years, I thought L.A. would be a pushover. But it's tougher than the federal bureaucracy."

Mr. Stone discovered that city employees are forced to navigate a labyrinth of approvals and checks, even for what should be simple tasks, like ordering firefighter uniforms. Both workers and managers waste countless hours following outdated procedures, filling out paperwork, and struggling with obsolete technology:

"Two-thirds of what passes as management is interfering with workers getting their work done," Stone said, attributing the suffocating practice to a 19th century notion that "the way to manage is to control what people do."

So Mr. Stone is doing his best to simplify--replacing complex and expensive procedures with simple and affordable alternatives, saving the city money and, perhaps even more importantly, freeing city employees to do their jobs. As Lopez writes:

Any large organization, public or private, has dumb ways of doing things just because that's the way they have always been done. And at any given time, Stone suggested without irony or exaggeration, roughly one-third of all employees are impeding the work of the other two-thirds.

Does that mean there are too many employees, I asked? What it means, Stone countered, is that employees could get a lot more done if they weren't bound and gagged by red tape and managerial impediments.

More cities could use the kind of intervention Mr. Stone is undertaking. And perhaps such efforts can serve in turn as instructive examples for federal bureaucracies.

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A Half-Baked Idea

The latest example of rules run amok comes from a section of the 2010 “Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act” that controls what food can be sold in schools. While the law’s goal—reducing childhood obesity—is noble, its approach is ham-handed, lumping traditional vending machine fare together with bake sales. As the Wall Street Journal explains:

At Chapman School in Nebraska, resourceful students hawk pizza and cookie dough to raise money for school supplies, field trips and an eighth-grade excursion to Washington. They peddle chocolate bars to help fund the yearbook.

But the sales won't be so sweet starting this fall. Campus bake sales—a mainstay of school fundraisers—are going on a diet. A federal law that aims to curb childhood obesity means that, in dozens of states, bake sales must adhere to nutrition requirements that could replace cupcakes and brownies with fruit cups and granola bars.

In an editorial criticizing this aspect of the law, the Santa Cruz Sentinel and Monterey County Herald quote Philip Howard’s The Rule of Nobody:

The rules governing what can be served and what can't be served are so convoluted as to be incomprehensible. Welcome to governing in 2014, when complex written rules are taking precedence over common sense in trying to solve complex health problems. In his new book, ‘The Rule of Nobody,’ writer Philip K. Howard explains it this way: ‘Rules have replaced leadership in America. Bureaucracy, regulation and outmoded law tie our hands and confine policy choices. Nobody asks, 'What's the right thing to do here?' Instead, they wonder 'What does the rule book say?'’

The editorial goes on to make a case for more flexible rules around school nutrition:

Childhood obesity is one issue that's crying out for leadership. Instead of putting the rule book in charge, why not empower schools and school districts to figure out best practices on their own? Childhood obesity is not a one-size-fits-all issue, and enforcing a law substituting grapes for a Snickers bar isn't going to miraculously cure the problem.

This isn’t the first time overzealous laws and regulations have stood in the way of getting food to the hungry, whether schoolchildren via bake sales or the homeless via soup kitchens. Public health is a legitimate concern—but that goal can sometimes be undermined, not promoted, by rules that bar homemade food from being prepared and served.

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Best (Worst) 4th of July Sign

To celebrate American freedom, follow these simple steps.

july_4_sign

This sign appeared on the blog 22 Words under the fantastic headline, "Have a Fun 4th of July (Unless You're at This Park in Lakewood, Ohio)."

via Lenore Skenazy

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Disabilities Act: Plaintiffs Come Second

The front page of today’s New York Times features a story on the Americans with Disabilities Act in New York City. Lawyers, trying to create fee opportunities, scan small businesses for code violations. Once a violation is discovered, the lawyers then seek out a disabled person to serve as plaintiff. Most cases are settled without advancing to trial. The plaintiff typically receives $500 while the lawyer can win thousands of dollars in fees.

The Times reports that one plaintiff alone has filed 143 suits, as many as nine per day.

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The Plain Writing Act: Simplifying regulatory language

If you've ever tried to read through federal regulations, you're familiar with sentences that read like this: "This subpart identifies those products in which the Administrator has found an unsafe condition as described in Sec. 39.1 and, as appropriate, prescribes inspections and the conditions and limitations, if any, under which those products may continue to be operated."

Thanks to this kind of convoluted language, government rules and directives are often impenetrable. This is especially true when those rules are intended to serve as detailed instruction manuals for every eventuality. It's a big problem for individuals and small businesses that lack the resources to employ compliance experts who can decipher complex regulations and bureaucratic mandates.

Continue Reading...

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Rigid Regulation? Why you still have to turn off your Kindle when planes takeoff and land

Pass through security. Wait for your boarding group to be called. Fasten your seatbelt. Turn off your electronic devices. It’s all part of the routine for anyone flying on commercial airlines.

Much of that routine stems from Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations intended to maintain a standard of safety—including that last, most dubious order, to turn off electronics. We’re told electronics can interfere with airplane communications. It’s a pain to shut down your laptop or e-reader during takeoff and landing; but better that than crashing the plane, right?

Continue Reading...

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America the Fixable: Robert Litan

The most recent installment in our ongoing series with The Atlantic, written by Robert Litan of the Brookings Institution, Kauffman Foundation, and Bush Institute, argues that the system of occupational licensing in our country--the system that requires a specific certification regime for lawyers, nurses, and many other professionals--is flawed and harms the economy:

The standard "justification" for licensing is that the imprimatur of the state and the compulsory training that goes along with it is required to protect consumers. But in more cases than not, licensing today better serves incumbent service providers by keeping potential competitors from entering the market and, thereby, market prices for their services artificially high.

Occupational licensing is one more example of special interests hijacking regulation to promote their own interests at the expense of jobs and economic growth.

Read the full article here.

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Hope Your Clock is Accurate…

If it isn't, you'll have a hard time following the speed limit in this Michigan town:

speed sign

Let's cross our fingers that no traffic accidents occur while drivers squint at the sign, trying to figure out whether it's 8:20 or 8:24.

When a rule becomes too specific, it can be nearly impossible to follow. Obeying this sign would be so much of a hassle that it's hard to imagine drivers going to the trouble. Instead, they'll use their judgment--slowing down if it's pick-up or drop-off time, if they see a traffic cop, or if there are children about. The sign won't help inform drivers about when to drive slowly, for the simple reason that no driver will be able to read it.

Simple guidelines would be more effective and reliable. But in a society obsessed with legal fear, sadly, speed limit signs aren't the only example of specificity gone awry. Our laws and regulations balloon to thousands of pages, trying in vain to address every possible contingency. Instead, they gum up our businesses and courts, costing billions of dollars and countless hours. Many of those pages do about as much good as this sign.

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Legal Idiocy #15: Warning: Reading All Potential Side Effects Might Cause Drowsiness

The New York Times reports on a May 2011 paper in the Archives of Internal Medicine which reveals that “the average drug label lists 70 possible side effects and some drugs list more than 500”—including those that are minor, uncommon, or could occur in the absence of taking the drug. Indiana University’s Dr. Jon Duke, one of the paper’s authors, states that drug companies’ fear of lawsuits is responsible for this frequent “overwarning.” The Times article relates: “Listing every inkling of an adverse reaction can help drug companies in lawsuits, Dr. Duke said. If someone sues about a side effect that is listed in the drug’s package insert, the company can say patients had been warned.”

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