As Californians grapple with the major issues facing our state and work to find ways to fix our broken government, Common Good founder and chair and conservative columnist Philip K. Howard makes the case for the importance of long-term thinking to any real solution. Howard recently spoke as part of the Long Now Foundation’s seminar series on long-term thinking. His talk is summarized here by Stuart Brand, co-founder of Long Now and co-chair and president of its board of directors.
Americans have made major adjustments to our government before, Howard declared. At the beginning of the 20th century a Progressive era ended strict laissez-faire. The New Deal in the 1930s provided social safety nets. In the 1960s Civil Rights came to the fore. Now we need a fourth big change, because our government has managed to paralyze itself with the accretion of decades of excessively detailed laws.
In the Eisenhower era the entire Interstate Highway system was installed in about 15 years. That couldn’t happen now. Getting permission to build one offshore wind farm near Cape Cod took a decade while 17 agencies studied it, and 18 lawsuits now pending will delay the project another decade. The Interstate Highway Act was 29 pages long. Our new Health Care bill is 2,700 pages.
The news laws obsess over methods instead of focusing primarily on goals and responsible institutions. They disable the power of office holders to decide and act because they try to prevent bad choices, and thus they disable the power to make good choices. Liberals want to head off game-playing corporations, and conservatives want to keep government officials from having too much power. The result is broken government and a citizenry maddened by a system that defies common sense.
Only real people make things happen, Howard said, not laws alone. We need a framework that enables real people to take responsibility, to have the authority to say “Do it,” to say “You’re fired,” to be accountable and to require accountability.
To get there, Howard proposes three modifications of our government’s operating system.
One, a spring cleaning of all budgetary law. Three-quarters of most budgets are now locked in, so present decision makes have no flexibility and they wind up taking money from schools and parks. We need to create an omnibus sunset law, so all budgetary laws have a requirement to be discarded or revised every ten or fifteen years.
Two, laws have to be radically simplified. They must be understandable and revisable. They have to enable the people executing the laws to use their judgment. That means focusing primarily on goals.
Three, public employees have to be accountable. Which means: if they fail to perform, they can lose their job. Under the present system government worker unions have captured the apparatus that employs them and made much of it work primarily for them rather than primarily for the public.
The system will not fix itself. It is up to the public – us – to mobilize and demand this kind of overhaul, to find leaders who will demand it, and support them.
Stuart Brand is the co-chair and president of the Long Now Foundation Board of Directors.