American democracy in 2014 is “basically run by dead people – by past generations of legislators and regulators who wrote the laws and regulations that dictate today’s public policy,” says attorney Philip K. Howard in his latest book, The Rule of Nobody. Dead people “allocate most of the annual budgets and micromanage public choices. It’s not surprising that Washington works so badly. Imagine if you had to run a business by following every idea that any former manager ever had.”
The founder of Common Good, a reform activist group, Howard has made a career of trying to fix broken government, but he’s not just a voice in the wilderness. He has the ear of at least one person who may be poised to make changes in the future. Jeb Bush, a potential presidential candidate in 2016, cited Howard’s book, The Rule of Nobody, in a commencement address this year at Grove City College in Pennsylvania:
“He [Howard] compellingly talks about the confusing and complicated nature now of rulemaking at every level of government,” said Bush. “He argues that government itself is making America more inept. I agree. It seems to me that it’s time now for us to be bolder, to sunset the obsolete rules that exist so that the next generation can truly rise up.”
But does being bold really work? What changes are truly possible in today’s environment? The Fiscal Times spoke to Howard:
Maureen Mackey (MM): Why do you say government is making America inept?
Philip Howard (PH): Law is supposed to be the foundation of freedom. In a crowded, anonymous world, I believe we need more government oversight to make people feel free and to enhance society. We put our loved ones in the care of people we don't know at nursing homes and day care centers and other places every day – even the air we breathe is at risk. The market can’t solve everything by itself.
But the way we’ve created government suffocates freedom. It doesn’t let people adapt to meet legitimate public goals while also advancing their goals. Our legal system has become a version of central planning, telling people exactly what to do, when to do it, how to do it. Life has changed, but we use the same rigid requirements year after year, decade after decade. It’s why the U.S. ranks 20th in the world for starting a business.
MM: One of your solutions is to create a new coordinating agency to help citizens get permits to start a business. Is this not just one more layer?
PH: A citizen should not have to go to a dozen different agencies to start a business. Other countries have what they call one-stop shops. It’s basically the gold standard now in government regulation. The one-stop shop doesn’t add regulatory burdens. It’s designed to free us from having to go to the other dozen agencies. Its job is coordinating with a dozen others. In Germany, for example, if you get permission from the coordinating agency for an infrastructure project – you have permission.
MM: You say all of our government agencies and systems are broken. Isn’t this a terrible statement about America?
PH: No, it’s a terrible statement about a system of government that never adapts. There is not one program that isn’t broken. The question is whether it’s broken by 25 percent or 95 percent. Our system has a micro-management approach to regulating, where we try to tell people how to have a nice nursing home with a thousand rules, instead of doing what Australia did, which was create 31 general principles. You know, have a home-like setting. It’s much more effective. Then people can think for themselves. They don't go around with their noses in the rulebooks all day long.
MM: What does House Speaker John Boehner’s suit against President Obama say to you – how does it fit in here?
PH: The polarization in Washington is not because of the paralysis – it’s a symptom of the paralysis. Nobody thinks they can get anything done in Washington. Sure, every once in a while they pass a new law – usually in a crisis – or once in a while, they’re able to do something like Obamacare. But they almost never get rid of an old law because of special interest groups. So there’s cynicism. You’ve given up on trying to change things, so you make the other side look bad no matter what. You point fingers. It’s true of both sides.
There’s also a tendency to take very rigid positions and turn them into philosophy. A classic example would be of Grover Norquist, who says we should never raise taxes. I understand the argument about not raising taxes. But why don't we make government efficient first, and then if we really need to raise taxes, raise taxes? Not raising the highway trust fund gas tax after all these years – that’s absurd. That’s how we paid for our roads. I’d rather have smooth roads and bridges that don't fall down.
MM: Who’s at fault?
PH: The villain today is this big bureaucratic blob that everybody’s feeding from. Who in Washington is responsible for any of this? Who’s responsible for the budget deficit? Who’s responsible for our crumbling infrastructure? Nobody. In Washington, you make a certain amount of money; you have a very privileged life; and you pretend to be important. You have no responsibility.
We should demand that every member of Congress resign. Get new people in there. The culture has evolved to the point where many good people can't do anything because the system is too partisan and the rules too rigid. The Speaker can stop anything from going to the floor, such as immigration reform, for example. It’s structurally and culturally paralyzed – whereas the president can make some decisions. The problem is that the executive branch takes too much authority when it comes to lawmaking, but doesn’t have enough authority when it comes to implementation.
MM: You’re not a fan of Obamacare. You say it’s a lousy program. How would you fix it?
PH: When you’ve got a 2700-page statute and seven feet and counting of regulations, there’s no way you can implement it effectively. Anything that detailed might as well be designed for failure. I would scrap it and create a voucher system for people who need it – not for everybody. For people with preexisting conditions, I’d have a separate bureaucracy and have the government implement it. But I wouldn’t have this huge, one-size-fits-all bureaucratic structure. I would decide the income cutoff and have a voucher system that’s redeemable and accountable. That would get rid of the fee-for-service arrangement. Obamacare fails in efficiency, coherence and adaptability. It doesn’t necessarily fail in providing health care to people who didn’t have it. But it’s a horrible law, not in purpose but in implementation – like most government programs.
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