Try Common Sense

Philip K. Howard: Action, not moderation, is the salve for American polarization

Polarizer in chief

Polarizer in chief

Polarized politics is a formula for public failure, a downward spiral of distrust and greater paralysis. Pulling out of this spiral is difficult because polarization is good business for politicians and pundits. Political coffers fill up with contributions from people who loathe the other side. President Trump has a unique genius for sowing division — playing to people’s fears and attacking the weaknesses of his opponents. Social media fans the flames of the latest outrage.

Some think the cure to polarization is more moderate politicians. By fixing electoral machinery that appears to favor extremists, such as gerrymandering and restricted primaries, reformers hope to return to the happy days when leaders from both parties could sit down and work things out. They long for Ronald Reagan and House Speaker Tip O’Neill.

Moderation is just happy talk, however, without a new vision of how to govern better. How would moderate leaders fix schools, or reduce health care costs, or issue permits within a year’s time instead of a decade? None of the candidates in the 2020 presidential election offers a cure to the alienation that Americans feel towards Washington.

Washington, meanwhile, plows forward, a giant bureaucratic state crammed with red tape and obsolete programs. Democracy has degenerated into a kind of legal perpetual-motion machine, taking upwards of a decade to approve vital infrastructure projects. Bureaucracy is everywhere. According to the World Bank, the U.S. ranks 53rd in ease of starting a business. Practical choices throughout society are stymied by overbearing law — whether maintaining order in the classroom, being candid with an employee, or letting children walk to school alone. Is your paperwork in order?

Reformers have confused cause and effect: Paralyzed government, not polarization, is the original sin of modern government. Bureaucratic densification since the 1970s has made government beyond human control. Government’s inability to respond to public needs is the chicken that laid the egg of polarized politics. The inability of Americans to roll up their sleeves and fix things leads inexorably to extremism. Political leaders who can’t get things done compete instead by pointing fingers and screaming louder.

Populism thrives on fear and anxiety. A collective sense of powerlessness spawns the instinct to vilify “the other.” Government is toothless to deal with dislocations of global commerce, new technology and waves of immigrants. Self-reliance is stymied by faceless bureaucracy. Unresponsive government prompts anxious citizens to embrace populist solutions.

In 1939, the organizational expert Peter Drucker wrote that fascism had taken root because the establishment had offered “no new order” to counteract the dislocation of the Great Depression. But fascism was doomed to fail, Drucker argued, because its popularity was based on attacking scapegoats, not a positive governing vision. The solution to a destabilized society in which people feel powerless, Drucker argued, must be “built upon a concept of the nature of man and of his function and place in society.” People must be able to help themselves and their society.

The way out of America’s downward spiral is not moderation but a radical spring-cleaning of government to re-empower Americans at every level of responsibility. Liberating people to act, not top-down solutions, is the cure to paralysis.

The only cure for alienation is ownership. This requires not wholesale de-regulation, but rebooting government with simpler, open frameworks that set goals and governing principles. Simpler codes will allow Americans to understand what is expected of them and afford them flexibility to get there in their own ways. Only then will officials and citizens have the freedom to make sense of daily choices.

Action, not moderation, is the salve for polarization. Conventional wisdom is that letting individuals use their judgment will exacerbate social conflict. Evidence suggests the opposite: A study in Britain found that professionals with opposed ideological views generally arrive at similar solutions when confronting concrete problems. Studies of American judges and of German bank regulators also found remarkable consistency.

Local communities must be able to run schools in their own ways. Health care providers must be accountable for overall quality, not to compliance police playing “gotcha.” Officials must be empowered to set up and give permits in “one-stop shops.” Governors must have freedom to try new ways to manage unemployment relief and other public services. Citizens must have someone to call, and to blame, when things aren’t working.

Reviving human responsibility does not solve societal challenges such as income stagnation, climate change, or immigration. But it reinvigorates a culture of practical action that is the antidote to corrosive polarization. Empowering people to be practical in their daily challenges will likely rub off in their political views. Polarization will fade away when Americans, waking up each morning, feel that both they and their officials in Washington can make a difference again.

Philip K. Howard is chair of Common Good and author of the new book Try Common Sense (W.W. Norton, 2019). Follow him on Twitter @PhilipKHoward. He’s also a friend and occasional colleague of New England Diary editor Robert Whitcomb. This piece first ran in The Hill.


Philip K. Howard: Answers to Washington gridlock are hiding in plain site


The cornucopia of policy ideas presented by Democratic presidential hopefuls is remarkable mainly in what’s been omitted: the need to overhaul Washington so that it can deliver public services effectively. A huge opportunity awaits any political leader with the nerve to seize it.

A recent survey by political scientist Paul Light found that about 60% of Americans support “very major reform” of Washington. That’s what voters had hoped for when Barack Obama promised “change we can believe in.” When that didn’t work out, 8 million Obama voters turned around and voted for a rich braggadocio who promised to “drain the swamp.”

But Trump’s bluster hasn’t translated into any coherent plan to fix Washington. His executive orders mainly undo Obama’s executive orders, such as removing restrictions on coal-burning power plants. That’s probably not the swamp-draining that most voters hoped for.

Instead of tapping into the broad centrist demand for overhaul, Democrats are rushing to the left. They’re competing with promises of more public freebies (Medicare for all, college debt forgiveness, universal basic income) and with angry sermons about victimization. But voters know that the public fisc is already gushing red ink (the annual deficit is about $10,000 per family), and identity politics is toxic to centrists who believe in self-reliance.

It’s almost as if Trump himself had scripted Democratic positions. He has a feral genius for ridiculing weakness. Trump may not have a vision for dealing with most of America’s challenges, but he likely won’t need one. He knows that Americans hate Washington, and he’s a virtuoso at playing that tune.

Instead of promising the moon, why don’t Democrats promise to clean house? Public opinion is aligned for a historic transformation of Washington. A vision for a simpler, more practical government could appeal not only to centrists but also to Republican voters who know in their hearts that real leadership is impossible without a positive governing vision and moral authority.

Almost any sensible reconfiguration of Washington would dramatically advance the stated goals of both parties:

• Rebooting legacy bureaucracies could marshal the needed resources for climate change and wage stagnation. Runaway bureaucracy is staggeringly expensive. About 30% of the healthcare dollar is spent on administration, or about $1 million per physician. Schools in more than 20 states now have more non-instructional personnel than teachers.

• Republicans want to cut red tape and get government off our backs. A simpler, goals-oriented regulatory framework would eliminate 1,000-page rulebooks for schools, hospitals and employers. Instead of Big Brother breathing down our necks, Washington would become a distant trustee, protecting against miscreants who cross the line, not micromanaging daily life in America.

The sticking point to overhauling Washington is not American voters, but Washington itself. Washington is organized to preserve the status quo. Political leaders are entrapped by their alliances to interest groups. Gosh, we can’t get rid of 1930s programs such as farm subsidies ($16 billion), or inflated wages on infrastructure (about 20% higher than market), or lower taxes for investment professionals ($14 billion), because those interest groups help Washington pols get reelected.

Fig leaves can’t disguise the self-interest of these legacy programs. When Democrats talk about “due process” for teachers and civil servants, voters know this means zero accountability. When they wave the sword of individual rights, voters start holding on to their wallets. Indeed, much of Trump’s voter appeal is his refusal to kowtow to the politics of victimization and correctness.

Republicans aren’t much better. When they talk about stimulating the economy with lower taxes, they usually mean lining the pockets of their supporters by increasing the deficit, not reducing the public waste they deplore. When Republicans talk about deregulation, they don’t usually mean cutting red tape, but cutting regulatory oversight altogether—usually to benefit an industry, not the public. Their anti-regulatory overreach helps explain why the last four Republican administrations have been so ineffective at reining in big government—and, in fact, presided over bureaucratic growth.

Governing shouldn’t be this hard. It doesn’t take a genius to remove mindless red tape from schools and hospitals. No Ph.D. is required to phase out obsolete subsidies and reset priorities. Nor does it take a mind reader to discern what most voters want. Americans want government to be practical. And they want to be practical in their own lives and communities.

Being practical requires that officials and citizens are free to make choices. Then other people need to be free to hold them accountable. None of these choices are available today, because law has supplanted human responsibility. Practicality is illegal in Washington bureaucracy. That’s why, for example, it takes upwards of a decade to get a permit for vital infrastructure projects.

Nothing can get fixed in Washington until responsible humans can make new choices. That’s why the only path to a functioning democracy is to reboot Washington. Officials and citizens alike must be liberated to take responsibility. Instead of being shackled to 1,000-page rulebooks, we must be free to make choices that we think are sensible.

Rebooting Washington is a simple idea, as obvious to most voters as it is radical to most political insiders. The virtues are not hard to explain: It would both reset priorities and revive human agency as the activating mechanism for public choices. Public debate would focus on success and failure, not abstract theories. Electing new leaders would make a difference.

American voters know the system is broken. But it won’t be fixed by making voters choose between a liberal or conservative fork in the road. What Washington needs most is practicality, not ideology. The leader who articulates a principled vision for practical government could seize the day and lead a historic overhaul to restore common sense and dignity to all levels of public responsibility.

Philip K. Howard, chairman of Common Good, is a New York-based lawyer, civic leader, legal and regulatory reformer, author and photographer. His latest book is Try Common Sense: Replacing the Failed Ideologies of Right and Left. This piece first ran in Forbes magazine. Hit this link. Or this link.


Philip K. Howard: A radical centrist platform for 2020 --replace red tape with individual responsibility


Centrist politics don’t offer the passion of absolutist solutions. In the words of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.): “Moderate is not a stance. It’s just an attitude towards life of, like, ‘meh.’”

But electoral success in 2020 likely will hinge on who attracts the centrist voters. One issue seems to unite most Americans: Frustration with how government works. Political scientist Paul Light recently found 63 percent of voters support “very major reform” of federal government, up from 37 percent 20 years ago.

For several decades, Americans have elected “outsider” candidates who promise some version of Barack Obama’s “change we can believe in.” Yet nothing much changes. The elections of Obama and Donald Trump can be viewed as symptoms of unrequited reform. When Obama’s promise of change got bogged down, 8 million Obama voters turned around and voted for Trump. Now Trump’s promise to “drain the swamp” is headed towards futility, amounting to little more than reversing Obama-era executive orders.

What’s missing is a governing vision that makes Americans part of the solution. Only then can leaders attract the popular mandate needed to overcome the resistance of Washington. Only then will there be a principled basis for officials and citizens to make practical choices going forward.

The best model for modern government is to revive the framework of democratic responsibility designed by the Framers: Replace red tape with human responsibility at all levels of society. This governing vision, though centrist, requires a radical simplification of Washington bureaucracies.

Over the past 50 years, almost without anyone noticing as it happened, the jungle of red tape in Washington has grown progressively denser — at this point 150 million words of detailed statutes and regulations (over 180,000 pages of the Code of Federal Regulations and over 40,000 pages of the U.S. Code). The effects of this build-up include bureaucratic paralysis and pervasive micromanagement of daily choices throughout society.

Bureaucracy is staggeringly costly. Common Good’s 2015 report, “Two Years, Not Ten Years,” found that a six-year delay in permitting infrastructure more than doubles the effective cost of projects. Twenty states now have more non-instructional personnel than teachers in their schools, mainly to comply with legal reporting requirements. The administrative costs of American health care are estimated to be as much as 30 percent — that’s about $1 trillion, or $1 million per physician.

Bureaucracy is a prime source of voter alienation. Many Americans today don’t feel free to be themselves — almost any decision, comment, joke, or child’s play activity can involve legal risk. Rule books tell us how to correctly run schools and provide social services. Small businesses are put in an almost impossible position of being regulated by multiple agencies with detailed requirements — a family-owned apple orchard in New York state, for example, is regulated by about 5,000 rules from 17 different regulatory programs. Fear of offending employees leads many companies to impose speech codes that, studies suggest, exacerbate discriminatory feelings.

Since Ronald Reagan’s tenure in the White House, the Republican mantra has been deregulation. Yet what frustrates most Americans is not public goals, such as safeguarding against unsafe work conditions, but micromanaging exactly how to organize a safe workplace with thousands of detailed rules. One-size-fits-all regulations often drive Americans to resistance, because rigid rules don’t honor tradeoffs, local circumstances, or a sense of proportion in enforcement.

This reform vision is simple: Focus regulation on goals and guidelines. Simpler codes will allow Americans to understand what is expected of them and will afford them flexibility to get there in their own ways. The reform is also radical: Legacy bureaucracies must be largely replaced with these simpler codes. Detailed rules would be limited to areas such as effluent limits where specificity is essential. The resulting regulatory overhaul would be historic, comparable in magnitude to the Progressive Era.

Area by area, recodification commissions would propose to Congress new codes. Public goals that require practical choices, such as overseeing safe and adequate services, would allow flexibility and local innovation. Instead of Big Brother breathing down our necks, Washington would be more like a distant uncle, intervening only when citizens or local officials transcended boundaries of reasonableness.

Not that long ago, that’s how government was organized. The Interstate Highway Act in 1956 was 29 pages long. Ten years later, over 20,000 miles of highway had been built. By contrast, the most recent highway bill was almost 500 pages long, and implemented by thousands of pages of regulations.

Law is more effective when people focus on goals. The Constitution is only 15 pages long, but its principles nonetheless are effective to protect our freedoms. Agencies where officials take responsibility for ultimate goals, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention with its focus on disease reduction, accomplish more than those such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which is organized around rote compliance with thousands of rules.

No one designed the current bureaucratic tangle. It just grew and grew more, as each ambiguity sprouted a new rule. Leaders can’t lead it, because the rules trump common sense. But that’s precisely why a new movement is needed. Legacy bureaucracies never fix themselves.

Philip K. Howard is chair of Common Good and author of the new book Try Common Sense (W.W. Norton, 2019). Follow him on Twitter@PhilipKHoward.


Let managers manage; watch the rowers from a fixed-up ‘Red Bridge’

The Henderson Bridge (aka “Red Bridge”) over the Seekonk River.

The Henderson Bridge (aka “Red Bridge”) over the Seekonk River.

Adapted from Robert Whitcomb’s “Digital Diary,’’ in

Some good and bad news in Rhode Island the past few days.

Let’s start with the bad news. The well-regarded and reformist Providence schools superintendent, Christopher Maher, has decided to step down. And while he gave a frequently used explanation for exits – to spend more time with his family – another reason seems to be that he’s frustrated by the bureaucratic limits on his ability to get things done to improve the city’s schools – improvement they urgently need.

The fact is that the superintendent needs far more freedom to improve the system. World War II Adm. Chester Nimitz famously said: “When you’re in command, command,’’ but the Providence schools chief is remarkably hamstrung. As Hillary Salmons, executive director of the Providence After School Alliance, told The Providence Journal in the Feb. 27 article “Another schools chief is leaving”:

“When the City Council controls any {expenditures} over $5,000 how can anyone manage his resources? It’s going to be hard to attract leadership with a district hamstrung by these structural impediments.’’

People in authority should be given, well, authority to do what needs to be done and of course be held accountable for their decisions. I keep citing my friend Philip K. Howard’s books on red tape and bureaucratic paralysis, the latest entitled Try Common Sense. It seems very appropriate here.

There need to be changes to enable future Providence school superintendents to actually manage their department.


On a happier note is news that the nearly crumbling Henderson Bridge (aka “Red Bridge”), connecting the East Side of Providence with East Providence, will be rebuilt in a fashion to make it more of a public asset.

The new version will be narrower, with only two lanes instead of the current unnecessary four lanes (put in for a superhighway that never happened), but will include  bike/pedestrian paths in both directions. Thus the bridge will offer people in our area yet another way to enjoy the views up and down the Seekonk River as it enters Narragansett Bay, and get exercise while doing it.  It will be a fine place from which to watch the Brown crew and other rowers on the river,

Kudos to the Rhode Island Department of Transportation for this plan.

By the way, my favorite writer about bridges and other transportation infrastructure is Henry Petroski – e.g., see his book The Road Taken: The History and Future of America’s Infrastructure.


Philip K. Howard: Red tape has replaced responsibility


For decades now, Americans have slogged through a rising tide of idiocies. Getting a permit to do something useful, say, open a restaurant or fix a bridge, can take years. Small businesses get nicked for noncompliance of rules they didn’t know. Teachers are told not to put an arm around a crying child. Doctors and nurses spend up to half the day filling out forms that no one reads. Employers no longer give job references. And, in the land of the First Amendment, political incorrectness can get you fired.

We’d all be better off without these daily frustrations. So why can’t we use our common sense and start fixing things?

But common sense is illegal in Washington. Red tape has replaced responsibility. No official has authority even to do what’s obvious. In 2009, Congress allocated $800 billion, in part to rebuild America’s infrastructure. But it didn’t happen because, as President Obama put it, there’s “no such thing as a shovel-ready project.” Even President Trump, a builder, can’t get infrastructure going. The entire government was shut down in a spat over one project, the Mexican border wall, that the parties don’t agree on. How about fixing the broke rail tunnel coming into New York?

Washington’s ineptitude is only the tip of the iceberg. A bureaucratic mindset has infected American culture. Instead of feeling free to do what we think is right, Americans go through the day looking over our shoulders: “Can I prove that what I’m about to do is legally correct?”

Every Republican administration since Reagan has promised to cut red tape with deregulation. “Washington is not the solution,” as Reagan put it: “It’s the problem.” But Washington has only gotten bigger during their terms in office. That’s because deregulation is too blunt: Americans want Medicare, clean water, and toys without lead paint.

Americans are not stupid. Government drives people nuts because it prevents anyone from being practical. Nothing’s wrong with requiring a permit for a new restaurant, but should you have to go to 11 different agencies? Who has the job of moving things along in Washington and making sure officials focus on real issues? That would be, uh, no one.

No one designed Washington’s giant bureaucracy either. It just grew, like kudzu, since the 1960s. Its organizing idea is to tell everyone exactly how to do everything correctly. Mindless compliance replaced human judgment. A new problem? Write another rule. The steady accretion of rules is why government has become progressively paralytic over the past few decades.

Back in the old days, of say, JFK or the late Sen. Majority Leader Howard Baker, government fixed problems by giving some official that job and then holding them accountable. Congress authorized the Interstate Highway System with a 29-page statute, and nine years later over 21,000 miles had been built. Today, the red tape would probably prevent it from being built at all.

It’s time to bite the bullet: Washington can’t be repaired; it must be replaced. Creating a coherent governing framework is not so daunting. Most bureaucratic detail is irrelevant when people are allowed to take responsibility again.

Instead of bickering over a laundry list of reforms, Americans should demand a few core principles:

* Radically simplify regulation. Law should set goals, not require mindless compliance with thousand-page rulebooks. Let Americans take responsibility and meet public goals in their own ways. More local control will not only work better but restore pride and self-respect.

* Accountability is key. Democracy is toothless without accountability. Accountability today is lost in legal quicksand and then strangled by public unions. Fairness should be protected with oversight, not exhausting lawsuits.

* Shake up Washington. Obsolete laws, bureaucratic stupor, partisan politics and lobbyists’ money all preserve the status quo. Reboot everything. Disrupt the electoral process by changing campaign rules. Move most agencies out of Washington — the bureaucratic culture there is toxic. Let the FDA go to Boston or San Diego. Send the worker safety agency to Ohio.

Experts say that change is impossible, pointing to the gridlock in Washington. Incremental change may be impossible, but big change is inevitable. Americans are fed up. That’s why they elected Donald Trump president and why Democrats are steering to the far left.

What’s missing is not public demand for change but a coherent vision of how Washington can work again. My proposal is basic: Replace the dense bureaucracy and put humans in charge again. Empower Americans, at all levels of responsibility, to make practical and moral daily choices. Then hold them accountable for how they do. Let Americans be American again.

Philip K. Howard, a New York-based lawyer, civic leader and writer, is chairman of Common Good and author of Try Common Sense: Replacing the Failed Ideologies of Right and Left.

Move the FDA to Boston?


Harvard Medical School quadrangle in    Longwood Medical Area   , Boston.

Harvard Medical School quadrangle in Longwood Medical Area, Boston.

 Adapted from Robert Whitcomb’s “Digital Diary,’’ in

One of the most intriguing of  the ideas in \Philip K. Howard’s new book – Try Common Sense: Replacing Failed Ideologies of the Left and Right -- is to move a lot of federal operations out of Washington to get them away from the entrenched  lobbyist-run corruption there and closer to the people and in some cases to outstanding local expertise. Such moves would liberate more federal employees to take decisions in the public interest.

The crux of Mr. Howard’s books is that people should exercise more individual judgment and  take on more responsibility instead of turning over so much of their lives to regulations and legalism. They should be encouraged to exercise common sense. 

“All the ligaments and tendons of Washington’s permanent apparatus – civil servants, lobbyists, lawyers, contractors, media and politicians – are conditioned to play their roles in its giant bureaucratic apparatus.’’ (I happen to think that the civil servants are the best of the lot….)

So Mr. Howard writes: “How can we govern sensibly or morally when officials in Washington refuse to change direction? The answer is that we can’t. …Why fight this culture head on? Start moving agencies out of Washington to places where people are not afraid of taking responsibility.’’ Big companies move all the time. Why not agencies?  And some could be moved to places with considerably lower operating costs than metro Washington. 

Mr. Howard suggests, for example, that the Food and Drug Administration’s headquarters could be moved to Boston or California, where there are many, many physicians, biologists and others in health-care-related  fields. Or the Department of Housing and Urban Development could go to Detroit. Consider that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention works well with its Atlanta headquarters.

This redistribution would also  more fairly share the vast wealth associated with the federal government, which is so heavily concentrated in the Washington, D.C., region, which vies with  San Francisco as the richest metro area in America. 

Whether or not you agree with Mr. Howard on this or that policy proposal, you have to give him credit for, as he told me, “trying to change how people think about’’ government and civil society/citizenship in general. That has to be the start.

Oh yes, let’s move all or part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to the great ocean research center of Woods Hole.

A view of    downtown    Woods Hole from the water, including Marine Biological Laboratory and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

A view of downtown Woods Hole from the water, including Marine Biological Laboratory and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.




'Try Common Sense'

— Graphic by Olga Generozova

— Graphic by Olga Generozova

Commentary has begun on Philip K. Howard’s new book, Try Common Sense, available Jan. 29.

TIME highlights it as a "Book to Read": "As the rhetoric between American political parties grows more tense, Philip K. Howard offers a solution based in practicality." says the book "offers up concrete proposals not just to reform government but to route around it and get on with our lives." Listen to the recent Reason Podcast interview with Philip here.

Leading thinkers such as Jonathan Haidt, Former Sen. Alan Simpson, Mary Ann Glendon and George Gilder have strongly endorsed the book.

On the other hand...a review by Mark Green in this Sunday's New York Times attacks the book, asking: "Is now really the best time for a jeremiad against 'regulation'?" Because the book attacks left-wing ideologies (as well as those on the right), it's perhaps not surprising that Green, a prominent left-wing partisan, doesn't deal with the actual themes of the book - including how to make regulation practical. 
More to come soon...

On Jan. 30, Philip will be discussing Try Common Sense at Politics and Prose in Washington, D.C. The event is free and open to the public.

On Feb. 19, Common Good and The Center on Capitalism and Society at Columbia University will host a morning forum, Bureaucracy vs. Democracy, discussing the need to reboot legacy bureaucracies. Details will follow, but you can RSVP now by emailing