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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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The Human Thing

Howard's Daily by Philip K. Howard

Real people, not rules, get things done. Rules exist to prevent bad conduct (thereby enhancing our freedom). Legal protocols, such as speed limits and contract law, allow people in a crowded society to move around without crashing too much. Organizational systems in companies, hospitals and schools can help mobilize humans to build products and provide services.

But only humans, individual people, make anything happen. Whether a school, hospital or business succeeds always hinges on the commitment, skill and judgment of the people. Government too requires individual initiative.

American history can best be told as a story of individual accomplishment—not just inspirational political leaders, such as Washington or Lincoln, but social leaders such as MLK and, especially, innovators in every aspect of commerce and society—from Fulton to Edison to the Wright brothers to Gates.

Jack Kinzler, longtime head of Technical Services at NASA center in Houston, died this past week at age 94. He famously rigged up telescoping fishing poles to figure how to build a replacement heat shield for the Skylab. He also fabricated the 6-iron which Neil Armstrong took to the moon. Reading the New York Times obituary, you can practically see the twinkle in his eyes when confronted with technical difficulties. Oh, and this legendary NASA genius never attended college.

Modern culture is not friendly to individual initiative. The dramatic exceptions, such as Steve Jobs or others in technology, only prove the rule. Sociologist Robert Bellah and colleagues spotted this trend a few decades ago, when they found that Americans increasingly consider freedom to be the freedom to be left alone, not the freedom to do things. We are free to aspire to flat screen TVs in every room, but not, say, to start a business or to volunteer at the local school.

Like all cultural phenomena, this growing sense of powerlessness has complex roots. One important source, as I write about, is the steady bureaucratization of social activities. The US now ranks 20th in the world in ease of starting a business. Many schools don’t want volunteers—there might be legal liability if something goes wrong. The land of the free has become a legal minefield.

The ultimate symptom of powerlessness is that America has also lost its confidence. We fear people making decisions. What if their judgment is deficient, or biased? We huddle together and move only in unison, shielded from the risk of individual choice by an ever denser legal jungle. This voluntary confinement reflects a fear of human nature, fed by a modern trend of analyzing human judgment as only slightly removed from bestial instincts. But this attitude “sells humanity short,” David Brooks wrote this past week. People grow and mature and develop values that far surpass their primal origins.

All the people we admire, in our history and in our lives, are people who take responsibility for their choices. They are people whose first instinct is to ask, “What is the right thing to do?” and not, “What does the rule require?” Whatever works in any community or business is always the result of individual effort. People of energy and good will wake up in the morning, determined to make a difference.

Many of the problems that cause us to wring our hands—starting with the dysfunction of democracy—can be described as failures of individual initiative. Who’s responsible for the budget deficits? Exactly. Nobody. David Remnick's recent profile of President Obama in the New Yorker reflected a kind a fatalism, that even the President could only respond to the situation presented, with little opportunity to lead us to a new place.

This is perhaps America’s greatest cultural challenge. America needs to believe again in the capacity of individuals to make a difference. If the machinery of democracy is paralyzed, we must rebuild it. If we can’t volunteer in our communities, we need to change the rules. If the culture has stumbled into the quicksand of social distrust, leaders with moral authority must emerge to pull it out. Nothing will fix itself, including America’s insecure culture. Only humans can make things work.

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The Worse Things Get, the More Cautious Experts Become

Howard's Daily by Philip K. Howard

Nick Kristof’s essay last weekend bemoans the growing distance between academic thinkers and the world of public policy. One point that rings true to me is the almost emotional aversion by academic experts to coming up with solutions. As he notes, “In the late 1930s and early 1940s, one-fifth of articles in The American Political Science Review focused on policy prescriptions; at last count, the share was down to 0.3 percent.”  Common Good's online policy forum series, NewTalk, has engaged expert academics who often show more interest in exhaustively analyzing problems than imagining potent solutions.

Government is broken. Everyone knows it. While there are a few experts out there actively pushing a new vision—for example, Harvard’s Larry Lessig with campaign finance reforms—they are the exception. The worse things get, the more reluctant experts are to go out on a limb to suggest new ideas.

Now, I don’t happen to believe that experts have a monopoly on wisdom. The more specialized they are, I’ve observed, the more likely their ideas will depart from good sense. But even a bad idea prompts debate and gets people thinking about change and innovation.

When things aren’t working, it’s easy to criticize. It’s even easier to throw up your hands and observe that nothing is politically feasible. After all, Congress can barely avoid national default by raising the debt ceiling.

But the current system is not fiscally sustainable. The time will come when America must make new choices. For these choices to be good choices—moral as well as practical, and consistent with America’s noble founding values—there must a new vision. Who is coming up with that vision?

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The Perils of Legal Certainty

Howard's Daily by Philip K. Howard

You will profit by reading philosopher Simon Critchley’s recent reflection on Dr. Jacob Bronowski and the dangers of certainty. People who think they possess a final truth, driven compulsively towards their view of certainty, often cause evil, whether they're religious fanatics like Savonarola or, as Bronowski discusses, the officials who devised the Final Solution.

A responsible human must look life in the eye, open to the moral and factual uncertainties presented by many choices in human dealings. Critchley: "There is no God’s eye view, Dr. Bronowski insisted, and the people who claim that there is and that they possess it are not just wrong, they are morally pernicious. Errors are inextricably bound up with pursuit of human knowledge, which requires not just mathematical calculation but insight, interpretation and a personal act of judgment for which we are responsible."

Applying this principle of human responsibility for moral choices has applications throughout the range of human endeavor. (See this thoughtful essay by Roger Berkowitz of the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College). Let’s look at law for a minute.

Legal certainty is accepted orthodoxy. Of course law should be certain, we have been taught. Only then will people know what’s expected of them, and not be fearful of arbitrary officials. In pursuit of certainty, laws have become ever more detailed. The new Volcker Rule regulating proprietary trading by banks is almost 1,000 pages long. The Affordable Care Act is almost 3,000 pages long. Nursing homes are typically regulated by 1,000 rules. In total, there are over 100 million words of binding federal law, and several billion words of state and local law. 

Do all these detailed dictates achieve certainty? Of course not. Law is an unknowable jungle. Does all this law safeguard us against arbitrary officials? No, it’s a legal minefield. No one can comply with it all. We’re at the mercy of the state. Does all this detailed law make government a well-oiled, smoothly-running machine? HELP!! There’s hardly any program, even the best of them, that doesn’t waste vast resources in bureaucratic nonsense.

Public solvency is basically illegal in America. All this detailed law prevents the president, and any governor, from making the choices needed for fiscal responsibility. 

Our obsessive quest for legal certainty has left our society, ironically, in a very uncertain state. The only cure is to abandon legal certainty and embrace human responsibility as the operating philosophy for most activities of government. 

Canadian management theorist Brenda Zimmerman makes the distinction between activities that are "complicated"—like engineering, or rocket launches, or surgery—and activities that are "complex"—such as raising a child, or running a healthcare system. Complicated activities profit from detailed rules, checklists, and protocols. Complex activities require balance, and tradeoffs, and moral choices. Detailed rules cause failure.

Law can support a free society, I argue in my new book (April), only when it abandons this obsessive quest for certainty. Law should instead set goals and principled boundaries, leaving room for humans to make practical and moral choices. Real people, not rules, make things happen. Automatic government is a false philosophy. Democracy is supposed to elect people to act on their vales, not to avoid them by mindlessly applying detailed rules. Of course people will sometimes abuse this trust. Look at the George Washington Bridge lane-closings. But officials there are paying the price. The worst system is one where things fail, and there’s no one to hold accountable. That’s what we have today: The Rule of Nobody. As Jacob Bronowski passionately explained, avoiding human responsibility is the root of much evil.

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Swimming with the lawyers

by Lenore Skenazy

Here's a sign of the times, sent from a vacationing reader who admits the rule does not seem to be enforced much.

Swimming rule

Of course it makers sense not to swim alone. But requiring two adults over 21 is treating a dip in the pool like shark-diving  in a hotdog suit. This is what happens when you start worrying about liability and wondering what precaution a jury would consider ENOUGH precaution.

Or when your lawyers start worrying for you.

Lenore Skenazy is a public speaker and the author of the book and blog “Free-Range Kids,” which launched the anti-helicopter parenting movement. She’s going to be posting here from time to time on issues of interest to Common Good supporters. As Lenore puts it, she’s ready to make “America the Home of the Brave again, not the Home of the Bureaucrats So Stupid that a Hazmat Crew Gets Called to a High School When a Student Brings in a Mercury Thermometer. (Which really happened a few months back, in Florida.)” And here’s her outrage of the week. Chime in!

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Students! Barricade the Doors & Hide Under Your Desks! Suspect Has a…oh…never mind

By Lenore Skenazy

Lifted from a friend of a friend's Facebook page:

Just spent 20 minutes under a desk with my colleague...door locked and blinds closed. Turns out it was a false alarm, but scary nonetheless.

In fact, it turned out to be a guy with a cell phone or some other tool. Here's the full story. It happened at Cal State University Long Beach, and according to the  school:

The alert came only hours after University Police held an active shooter and mass casualty drill...designed to test the Student Health Center’s ability to perform triage in the field, according to a Cal State Long Beach press release.

Do you think awareness was heightened just a little too much? That's my guess. I know the idea is, "If you see something, say something." But if you start SEEING THINGS -- as in imagining the worst every time you see a guy with a bulge -- good luck.

lou

"Is that a gun in your pocket or are you just ready to kill me?"

Lenore Skenazy is a public speaker and the author of the book and blog “Free-Range Kids,” which launched the anti-helicopter parenting movement. She’s going to be posting here from time to time on issues of interest to Common Good supporters. As Lenore puts it, she’s ready to make “America the Home of the Brave again, not the Home of the Bureaucrats So Stupid that a Hazmat Crew Gets Called to a High School When a Student Brings in a Mercury Thermometer. (Which really happened a few months back, in Florida.)” And here’s her outrage of the week. Chime in!

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The diaper of doom

By Lenore Skenazy

So a new diaper is being developed with a “QR” code on the front. When a baby pees, some kind of litmus strip inside the diaper analyzes the, uh, output and the QR code reflects what it has found. You simply snap a picture of the code, and use the app to...

Obsess about incredibly small risk.

“Seriously, what parent wouldn't want to use smart diapers to take some of the guesswork out of keeping their baby's health in check?” gushed one early review. The answer is: Anyone who understands that guesswork is fine, when it comes to parenting.

If your baby isn’t sick or special needs, why treat every diaper change like a trip to the endocrinologist? This is a new way of looking at our kids: As if it is only some kind of miracle that keeps our children alive from one second to the next. That is the kind of distraught outlook that makes us demand ever more laws, regulations and surveillance to insure against even the tiniest of odds that something COULD go wrong.

The assumption that something terrible is happening that we just can’t see is the same impetus behind keeping kids indoors (there may be a predator in hiding!), and not trusting any foods except locally grown spelt (there may be some toxic chemical we just can’t detect!) and pivoting video baby monitors (there could be someone sneaking into the baby’s room!) and all the TSA stuff (that lady COULD be smuggling a bomb in her unopened can of Coke!). Yes, there is the possibility of any or all those happening BUT the odds are so great, when do we decide to live with a bit of uncertainty?

When we grow up and understand that there is no way to eliminate ALL RISK. Aiming for zero risk means seeing only what COULD go wrong in any endeavor. The result is a million reasons not to do anything at all – not to build, explore, innovate. Not to do anything except sit there at home, taking pictures of the diaper and pacing the floor until the app gives the all clear.

Until the next change.

Lenore Skenazy is a public speaker and the author of the book and blog “Free-Range Kids,” which launched the anti-helicopter parenting movement. She’s going to be posting here from time to time on issues of interest to Common Good supporters. As Lenore puts it, she’s ready to make “America the Home of the Brave again, not the Home of the Bureaucrats So Stupid that a Hazmat Crew Gets Called to a High School When a Student Brings in a Mercury Thermometer. (Which really happened a few months back, in Florida.)” And here’s her outrage of the week. Chime in!

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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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Save the drowning man? But we’re not certified yet!

By Lenore Skenazy

I love the Scouts (got two of my own) and appreciate the old motto: Be Prepared.

BUT -- there's preparation that's safe and sane, and then there's super-stratospheric safety that goes so beyond what's necessary that the end result is red tape. And how safe is it to be wrapped up in tape?

Guess. (This is a letter I got over at Free-Range Kids last week):

Dear Lenore,

Last year our daughter decided that she wanted to join the Girl Scouts.  My wife signed up to be an assistant.  Over the next few months we discovered what a strange and dysfunctional organization the Girl Scouts had become. 

You see, in order to have a camp fire on the Girl Scout campgrounds, you need to have someone who is “fire certified.”  My wife was all eager to earn this certification so that the girls could have a good time.  So she had to attend a two-hour class where she learned all about fire safety and how to properly build a campfire. 

You’d think that would enough, but you would be wrong.  She then had to attend another two-hour class on a Saturday.  Certified yet?  Of course not.  Now she had to attend a weekend camping trip where the parents could practice their skills and finally become certified.

This is where it gets absurd.  A bunch of parents go off on a camping trip where they are presented with rules that treat them as though they are children.  They still can’t have a camp fire! And if they have to go to the bathroom, they need to go with a buddy. Yes, even if it’s the middle of the night, you’ve got to wake somebody up. (Sanity prevailed and they all agreed to break this rule.)

Then, as they were sitting in a small group and talking, my wife hears a muffled cry.  After a minute or two she figures out that someone is crying for help.  The group rushes down to the lake where they can see that an elderly man has fallen out of his fishing boat and is unable to climb back in.  He's hanging onto the side of his boat, his legs submerged in the cold lake water.  He is minutes away from drowning.

When my wife and her group got to the lake, they encountered another group of moms who had arrived first.  Were they rushing out to save this man?  Of course not.  They were debating amongst themselves over who was “water certified” to help him!

Water certified?  Fortunately, they finally threw caution to the wind and my wife and some other parents got a boat out and rescued the man.  When the ambulance arrived, the EMTs estimated that he had been about five minutes' away from not being able to hold on any longer.  It’s so sad to me that these women were more worried about who was certified to help this man, than they the fact he was minutes away from drowning.

But at least my wife is now certified to start a campfire.  It only took two classes and a weekend trip. --  Brad, the Dad

Lenore Skenazy is the author of the book and blog “Free-Range Kids,” which launched the anti-helicopter parenting movement. She’s going to be posting here from time to time on issues of interest to Common Good supporters. As Lenore puts it, she’s ready to make “America the Home of the Brave again, not the Home of the Bureaucrats So Stupid that a Hazmat Crew Gets Called to a High School When a Student Brings in a Mercury Thermometer. (Which really happened a few months back, in Florida.)” And here’s her outrage of the week. Chime in!

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Make It Simple

A crisis of complexity is wreaking havoc on business, government and finance--and there is a pressing need to simplify society. That's the central message of the new book Simple, written by Alan Siegel and Irene Etzkorn.

"Simple" book cover

In 1980, the authors point out, the typical credit card contract was about a page and a half. Now it's 31 pages. Other practical examples of how complexity and lack of clarity waste money and time abound:

  • One study found that landline phone customers spent more than $2 billion a year for unauthorized charges largely because the bills were so confusing most customers didn't even know they were being overcharged.
  • Because of the complexity of insurance contracts, one survey found, as many as one-half of policyholders are misinformed about their coverage.

  • The U.S. Constitution, written in the 1790s and the basis of the entire American government, is 0.1 percent of the length of the current income tax code, which runs 14,000 pages. Figuring out the ins and outs of the tax code costs American taxpayers billions.

In a world where there are over 425,000 iPhone apps, 241 selections on the Cheesecake Factory's dinner menu, and 454 lotions at Sephora, complexity is an issue that touches every aspect of modern life.

"One of the great misconceptions  about the complexity," writes Siegel and Irene, "is the belief that the people who made things so complicated--the bureaucrats, the technocrats, the lawyers--are the only ones who can get us out of this mess." They continue: "It's time for us to demand--of, if in leadership positions, to develop and put into effect--new ways of borrowing money, of paying taxes, of accessing government, of purchasing products, of communicating." This can be done, they argue, by transforming the way we do business and reinvent everyday practices and processes plagued by complexity.

Philip K. Howard, Common Good chair, recently hosted an event in New York featuring Siegel and Etzhorn and a discussion of the book. Howard pointed out that simplifying government, law and regulation is the central mission of Common Good's agenda--which is key to reinvigorating America's economy and reducing federal budget deficits.

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Walmart vs. birthday party parents: Who’s got the most hysterical overreaction?

By Lenore Skenazy

Readers--Here's a story from the NY Daily News that highlights two of the things that drive me craziest about our culture:

A family in Maine was serving a Walmart cake at their 2-year-old's birthday when they found a paring knife baked into it, on the bottom, clearly left there by mistake. Said the traumatized dad, the incident "put a dampener" on the party and people started to leave.

As if folks usually stick around for hours after the cake. Nothing more fun than the dregs of a party with over-tired toddlers! But the dad, sounding weepy, added, "We're not going to get that second birthday back ever."

Ohmigod--he’s right! How is anyone expected to recover from a blow like that? The family will NEVER get back a non-paring-knife-marred-cake-cutting-moment when their kid is two again! Naturally, that kind of thing is so unfair, so deeply disruptive to the natural order of things, that the dad said he may sue.

If he does, I hope he is thrown right out of court, and into a cake. (And if, ironically enough, there's a pointy thing in there, well...)

For its part, Walmart sounded almost sane and strong for a second, offering the family only its apologies and a replacement cake. Right on! But then a spokesman added that the chain was "now banning the use of pairing knives at its bakeries across the country."

Wha!? Just because ONE person in ONE Walmart screwed up ONE time with a paring knife--not an AK47--now the chain is banning ALL paring knives at ALL times in ALL Walmart bakeries? Are apples going to peel themselves for the pies? Is the store going to ban cleavers from the meat department, too?

What's disturbing about Walmart's response is how quickly and cravenly the corporation was willing to pretend that the problem was X, and now it is solved forevermore, by X banishment.

But the problem is obviously not paring knives. The problem is that human beings screw up sometimes, and this shouldn't be a sue-able offense unless there was gross negligence or malice, or some really unconscionable filling, like prune pudding. If a minimum wage bakery employee spaces out, it's time to talk to that employee, not issue an across-the-board edict.

So my ideal punishment for the Walmart legal team? Send them a cake. Prune pudding filling. No one goes home till it’s eaten. - L.

Lenore Skenazy is the author of the book and blog “Free-Range Kids,” which launched the anti-helicopter parenting movement. She’s going to be posting here from time to time on issues of interest to Common Good supporters. As Lenore puts it, she’s ready to make “America the Home of the Brave again, not the Home of the Bureaucrats So Stupid that a Hazmat Crew Gets Called to a High School When a Student Brings in a Mercury Thermometer. (Which really happened a few months back, in Florida.)” And here’s her outrage of the week. Chime in!

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