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Has the United States lost its 'can-do' attitude?

(Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
(Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Author Philip K. Howard says Americans are in a crisis of human disempowerment.

But he says re-empowerment is possible, and that could lead to a national flourishing.

Today, On Point: Has the United States lost its ‘can-do’ attitude?


Philip K. Howard, author and attorney. His latest book is “Everyday Freedom: Designing the Framework for a Flourishing Society.”


Part I

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Our guest today says the United States has lost its can-do attitude. Philip K. Howard says Americans are in a crisis of human disempowerment. And he says the source dates back to the 1960s, and a series of legal frameworks put into place then, on a wave of cultural and political backlash.

That wave has now crested over the life of every American, he says, all the way from the most politically powerful people in the land to teachers, workers, parents. “Bureaucracy is crushing everyone,” Howard says. “Without individual freedom, the nation has lost its ability to solve problems effectively and efficiently.”

But, Howard insists, within this diagnosis of the problem lies the solution to that problem. And that’s what he offers in his new book,Everyday Freedom: Designing the Framework for a Flourishing Society.” Philip K. Howard, welcome to On Point.

PHILIP K. HOWARD: Great to be with you, Meghna.

CHAKRABARTI: Let’s start off with an example. You point to teachers in the classroom as paragons of American individuals who have lost their agency.

Why and how?

HOWARD: In so many ways. Because of a mutant view of due process, teachers feel they can’t maintain order in the classroom because they may have to go to a hearing to prove that Johnny threw the pencil first. So the result of that, according to studies that have looked at this, is that they practically exude a sense of a lack of authority, which, of course, many students in the classroom read perfectly.

And so contributes to disorder, which means that none of the students can learn while there’s disorder. There are also bureaucratic vise that’s imposed by the Department of Education and other rules, some sort of strict course plans and such that are in part a reaction to the fact that the teachers’ unions are so powerful that they’ve made it impossible to hold teachers accountable.

So the establishment, the boards of education and such, impose, dictates on how to teach while the teachers’ unions impose requirements to make it impossible to get rid of teachers who are not effective. And so the real teachers in the classroom find themselves basically unable to do what’s needed to be an effective teacher, which is to draw on their character and personality and gain moral authority with their students and interest in the joy of learning.

It’s just a terrible situation.

CHAKRABARTI: So this is a really interesting example and why I wanted to start off with it, because you’ve said a lot of things which I want to explore in much greater detail with you. But it also happens to be one that we have done several shows on, and to your point about teacher disempowerment, in terms of behavior and discipline in the classroom, we received literally a flood of calls from folks in a previous show that said that’s exactly what they experience every day in their classroom.

Your observation there is matched with reality. And similarly, about perhaps restrictions on what and how those things are taught in the classroom, but for different reasons. But I want to play here, Philip, for a moment, one of our listeners. This is Santiago Perez, who’s a college professor in Portland, Oregon, and he told us that some of the courses he teaches are so popular.

SANTIAGO PEREZ: They’re actually split into different sections with different instructors, and he thinks standardizing the way those different sections are taught is actually stifling for teachers.

One of the aspects that I love the most about my work is striving to improve my pedagogical approaches to student engagement and learning outcomes.

Unfortunately, management is very strict in enforcing homogeneity across these sections and sometimes for understandable reasons. However, this means that we are told in detail what and how to teach and even how to assess student learning. This takes much of the joy of teaching, especially when the dictate is peppered with major pedagogical flaws.

This, coupled with very limited opportunities for professional development, greatly stifles creativity and innovation in teaching. Trying to convince management and other instructors to implement changes is next to impossible.

CHAKRABARTI: So that’s Santiago Perez in Portland, Oregon. Now Philip, he definitely, he’s aligned with you there in terms of what he sees as unnecessary restrictions on individuality amongst the different section instructors there in Portland.

But I did hear you aim and fire your arrow directly at teachers’ unions as the cause of this, and to be fair, you’ve written other books that are very critical of unions. A previous book of yours is “Not Accountable, Rethinking the Constitutionality of Public Employee Unions.” But I would say, Philip, that teachers would say, it’s not the unions that are stripping them of individuality and agency in the classroom, it’s much, much higher than that.

It’s the federal government, it’s state governments that decided to make, create a whole culture of accountability testing, of corporatized curriculum, so that state departments of education and even the federal government, they’re the ones who are killing agency and saying, “You have to use this curriculum, you have to teach to this test,” etc.

HOWARD: That’s correct. It’s a downward spiral. So I’ll just start with the solution. The solution is to let teachers actually have agency. To act on their personality, to adapt to the situations before them. Some teachers, most teachers, perhaps, will take advantage of that. And the quality of learning will dramatically increase.

But some teachers will not be good. They just won’t have the knack for it, or they’ve lost their energy. And in those situations, you have to let those teachers go. And the teachers’ unions prevent letting anyone go. There’s near zero accountability, because of the teachers’ unions constraints. So if there were accountability.

And you can have checks and balances to make sure that your accountability is fair, but if there were real accountability, you wouldn’t need all of those bureaucratic requirements that have been imposed by the federal government and such, and some of those were imposed because the misguided people at the top thought they could turn teaching into an assembly line.

You and I and the professor can agree that’s idiotic. And that’s bad. But you can’t go to a situation where the teachers are free, until the ones who are not effective can be let go. So you have to have both sides.

CHAKRABARTI: Why not? But why not, though? Why not just say, “You don’t have to teach to this test.

Go, teachers!” What’s stopping the other bureaucracies from doing that?

HOWARD: People who run organizations want the authority to manage the organizations. And there are more than two ways to do this, but in general, there’s a model of you give people more agency, which is what I recommend.

And then you hold them accountable if they’re not effective. No one will give anyone power if they can’t be accountable. No one will say to a teacher, go into the classroom and teach that the world is flat. There are people who do that, right? Who believe that. So, unbelievably So you have to have accountability.

Accountability is key to any trusting organization and its key not mainly to get rid of bad people. That’s important. It’s key to achieve mutual trust that everyone’s doing their job. Everyone’s meeting the standards of excellence of that organization. And if you take away accountability, then it’s like letting the air out of the balloon.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. I just wanted to jump in because this, I was pushing to get to this detail, Philip, and I appreciate it because what you say in the book is that yes, more individuals definitely need more autonomy in their workplaces, but it has to be matched with accountability. Point very well taken. But it’s also, while it’s a concept that’s clear and has a definable edge to it, in reality, it’s kind of more muddy, right?

Because just to stick with the teachers for another second here, there are at least five states in this country that outright ban collective bargaining from teachers’ unions, right? Texas, Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and I’m not sure that any of those states stand out as having, as doing remarkably better than the other 45 states in education.

HOWARD: That’s right. And those states also don’t have accountability, just to be clear. So they don’t have collective bargaining, but the culture of the public service in this country has been influenced by not only collective bargaining, also the political power of the unions, and also frankly, by a kind of a general avoidance of responsibility by people in government.

And so some combination of those things makes it so that teachers in Georgia are also not accountable. And I haven’t seen a study, and I haven’t done a study of why that is. It’s not because of collective bargaining agreements, although there are in states like that often requirements to meet and confer, which is used as a way of achieving the same thing.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. You see this same lack of autonomy in just about every American now, Philip?

HOWARD: It varies by the area, it’s worse in the public sector. Police Derek Chauvin, the policeman who killed George Floyd, was someone who was thought to have a bad record, many complaints against him, but the police commissioner had no authority to terminate him or even to reassign him.

And in Minneapolis, where he was, there were, had been 2,600 complaints, citizen complaints about the police in the prior decade, of which 12 resulted in discipline. The longest, the most severe discipline was a 40-hour suspension. So we’re talking about zero, basically zero accountability in the police department, doctors and nurses spend half their days filling out forms. That’s because of reimbursement bureaucracy. It’s because of obsessive compulsive regulation on privacy and such. And it causes them to burn out.

Part II

CHAKRABARTI: Today we’re speaking with Philip K. Howard. His new book is “Everyday Freedom: Designing the Framework for a Flourishing Society.” In which he argues that bureaucracy and onerous and really ancient rules are preventing individual Americans from flourishing in their lives, in their work, and therefore it’s holding the entire country back.

And Philip, we got a lot of responses from listeners when we said we were going to do this hour with you. So I just want to give them a chance to have their say a little bit more. For example, housing and land use came up quite a bit. So here’s Jacinda Barbehenn, an On Point listener from Bedford, Massachusetts, who says she sees a lot of unnecessary red tape in building and zoning codes.

JACINDA BARBEHENNN: Zoning codes have become so onerous over the last hundred years of their existence, going from one- or two-page document to multiple hundreds of pages of rules and regulations, that it’s nearly impossible for the average citizen to be able to navigate them without multiple professionals. Building codes, similarly, have become onerous over the years, all starting with a good intent especially around fire protection.

But have been additive over the years and never really taking out some of the things that maybe now are redundant, we have crippled ourselves in the United States with the ability to build midsize apartment complexes and small condo buildings, because all buildings with more than a couple of units require multiple staircases.

CHAKRABARTI: I’ll say, Jacinda really knows her local zoning laws and building code very well. Here’s another listener. This is Laureen in Roanoke, Virginia. And she told us about the thicket of red tape she had to wade through when she tried to build an accessory dwelling unit in her backyard that she wanted to rent out for extra income.

LAUREEN: I went to the bank and was told that because of the neighborhood in which I live, there wouldn’t be any homes comparable to mine in order for me to get the loan, construction loan. There I was, having to cancel my dream. I would say that something as positive as trying to increase the value of my home, which would in fact benefit the neighborhood and the surrounding homes, that I was not able to find finances, it just goes to show the disparity between amongst Blacks and the challenges we face.

I just wish there weren’t so many red tapes and hindrances.

CHAKRABARTI: And Laureen in her message really wanted to underscore that she feels that red tape and the unnecessary rules is holding back Black Americans. Okay, so Philip, your book is called Everyday Freedom. How do you define what everyday freedom is in American life?

It must go beyond the freedoms that we are guaranteed in the Constitution.

HOWARD: Actually, some of the freedoms we’ve guaranteed, like free speech, no longer exist on campus, for example. Everyday freedom to me is mainly a process of implementation. So people need to have the authority to roll up their sleeves and get the job done.

Most of the failures of government are not failures of policy, the political parties argue about policy. It’s the failure to give a permit. It’s the failure to deal with homelessness. It’s the failure to make health care cost effective so that everybody can get it.

And it’s say, building codes. Dealing with homelessness requires breaking through a whole bunch of government silos, including the building codes, so that people can build what used to be known as single room occupancy housing. We need to build housing that not only has clean and safe rooms for people, but also assisted living apartments, so that to protect the middle institution, to replace the middle institutions that were shut down 50 or 60 years ago, and the codes don’t allow any of that, it’s literally madness.

It’s like we’re suffering from central planning, except the central planners are all dead. We have all these codes that have built up, literally several billion words of codes. And people treat them like a state of nature. They’re not. They’re just artificial things that were written for good intentions and they need to get like anything else.

It needs a spring cleaning.

CHAKRABARTI: So we’re going to get to the chapter that you wrote about a reverence for established law in just a minute. But so I want to ask you Philip, like this central idea that Americans need to have the authority or autonomy to get the job done, whatever that job is.

You point to a specific time in American history where you say that authority or that even philosophy was rolled back entirely. So explain, what happened, what do you think happened in the 1960s? What do you point to?

HOWARD: We woke up to abuses that were real abuses, racism, pollution, gender discrimination, unsafe cars, lies about Vietnam, locking up disabled children in horrible mental institutions, Watergate, we had reason.

Good reason to change all those values in our law, which we did. But the geniuses at the time, not only wanted to change the value to make it so that there could never again be an abuse of authority. And so authority itself became a target for reformers, not changing values, but the actual idea of authority.

So we created a legal system with mainly three techniques designed to preempt human judgment. The first was sick rule books that not only told people what to do, have a safe workplace, but exactly how to do it. So those are seeing 1,000-page rule books before. Procedures where not only would you have to go through a process, which is, I think, generally a good idea. For example, environmental review.

But you had to go through a process where you proved what the correct answer is. As it happens, you can’t prove most things that are important. You can’t prove who’s a good teacher and who’s not. You can’t prove what the right tradeoff is in environmental review. You have to make a judgment. And then we had this, we inverted the idea of rights from rights against state power.

To being rights against anything bad happening to you, and so rights became rights against other people’s rights And so we now have a workplace where no established business will give a job reference. Because somebody might claim that it violates their rights. So literally we have a land of the first amendment, a country where candid reviews are rare and where almost no established business will say anything other than we confirmed that he worked here.

CHAKRABARTI: I absolutely hear what you’re saying, and I think many listeners would be nodding in agreement, Philip, but I have to say, as I read your book, I came up against repeatedly, a moral quandary, let me put it that way. Because let’s use the ‘no one will give anyone a review other than to say they’ve worked there.’ Isn’t that the other side of the coin of individual freedom or autonomy, it’s also the freedom to be protected from let’s say lies or disparagement.


HOWARD: If someone tells a lie, there are claims for people telling a lie, but when somebody is expressing an opinion, no, you’re not supposed to be protected from other people’s opinions. A free society, we’ve lost the idea of what freedom is. Freedom is a law, the whole point of law is to instill trust that people won’t do bad things to you.

So law is like a fence around a corral where, you can’t, no one can sell you polluted water, or they can’t cheat you or tell lies about you for that matter. But within that field, within that fence is a field of freedom where people should be free not to get along. Where they’re free to live their values, where they’re free to do things in a million ways.

We’ve lost the idea that success is not a system. Success is not an assembly line. Success, in most activities in life, requires all these judgments on the spot. Even digging a hole. Is, are there power lines above? Is there a rock below? Is there a gas line nearby? The simplest things in life require judgment.

Read studies about successful waiters and waitresses, it’s incredibly complex, so people need the freedom to make things work. And also mutual trust requires candor and spontaneity. And we don’t, we’re losing that.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay, so I would love to get this down to the level of concrete examples, because when you said digging a pothole, for example, it conjured up a lot of images of, in my mind, in terms of, let’s say all the construction work I see, happen to see where I live.

I’m guessing that they’re digging or repairing potholes. Like I’m guessing that, let’s say they’re digging for a gas line in the right place, right? I have to trust them to do that. But then when they’re done and they patch it up, it looks like an insane patchwork of cracks and half bleeped repairs of when they just throw tar over something and call it a day. I guess what I’m saying is, how do we know, or what is the accountability system that needs to be put into place so that the people who make the best decisions, because no one’s saying everyone’s good at it, right? Going back to the teacher’s example, how can we put in an accountability system in order to ensure that the best outcomes are had when people are all at all different judgment levels?

HOWARD: Yeah, completely. So one of the things that’s been lost to our age is the relationship between authority and freedom. Authority is not the enemy of freedom. Authority is actually a requirement for freedom. The authority of law is what creates a free society. Without law protecting against pollution and theft and all that, we’re not free.

We’re in a state of anarchy. So we’re in this kind of Hobbesian world, right? So we need the authority of law to be free. Within a school, let’s take the school example. You need the authority of the principal to maintain standards, including, hopefully a protection of the freedom of the teacher to express themselves.

But that authority requires making the judgments about who’s doing the job and who’s not. We don’t trust people to not do those for the wrong reasons anymore. There’s a lot of distrust in our society. So I’ve suggested to the head of the teachers’ union, whom I know, why don’t we have a parent teacher committee from the school that has the authority to veto any termination decision? That’s it. Doesn’t have the authority to make management decisions, but can veto something it thinks is unfair because everybody knows who the good teachers are and who aren’t such generally.

So you can have checks and balances, but within any institution, within a workplace, the authority to maintain standards, to make sure everyone’s rowing in the same direction, all those kinds of things, to make sure the guy’s fixing the potholes or fixing them in the right place.

That’s really important for the institution to work and for the people within it to be free.


HOWARD: And in good institutions, the way that works, the authority is not telling people how to do their job.


HOWARD: It’s actually more like a security guard at the door. We’re saying, I’m going to maintain standards, but you do the job as well as you can.

CHAKRABARTI: This sounds like a wonderful system, Philip. And I’m on board with it, again, as a concept. But I do wonder if there are certain situations in which, you know, saying those in authority are the ones who basically set the vision or the goal, right? And that relies on the people who are part of that system to come up with the best ways they can to meet that goal.

And you measure as you go along. But aren’t there potentially areas in which we do actually need those stricter rules and regulations. Because there can be so many different opinions on how to get to a goal. And also, just for sheer safety, environmental safety, health safety, workplace safety, for example.

HOWARD: It depends on the area. So in the management, experts make the distinction between complicated activities where there are like a thousand moving parts. And one missing one causes failure, like a rocket launch or something. And complex activity where there are lots of tradeoffs, running a classroom, running a hospital.

And so in situations that are, quote, complicated, Let’s take environmental protection. You can’t have a rule that says let’s have a reasonable amount of pollution. You actually do have to set standards. It’s really important to say, this is how much you can pollute, and you can’t pollute anymore.

At the same time, and I worked with Clinton and Gore on some reforms in the ’90s on this, it’s useful to be able to waive those rules where you can create a better environmental footprint, by focusing on some other pollutant. And yes, there are situations where you want precise rules.

There are things like the seatbelt rule for automobiles that are quite efficient. Probably wearing a helmet in a factory, so safety helmet is a really good rule to have, but having material safety data sheets for everything that might kill you, including Joy dishwashing liquid is not useful because you have 1,000 pages here, hanging in the factory. And what you need are the few pages, the one on hydrochloric acid or whatever the thing that’s really harmful is. Not a thousand, because you’ll never find the one you need. So studies on worker safety have suggested that there should be far fewer rules and much more of a focus on a culture and training of safety. And regulators who look at workplaces, mainly looking at their records.

In looking at particular unsafe industries, like there’s some industries that are just credibly unsafe. The glue factories for cheap furniture, for example, people inhale glue all day long. It’s just terrible. So it’s really important for the worker’s safety agency, not to go around giving people fines, because their paperwork is not in order. Who cares?

Within reason, what they need to be is be focusing on safety.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. Let me just quickly ask you though, Philip, are you a libertarian?

HOWARD: No. So I’m not a libertarian because I’m focusing on, I’m calling for more government authority. I’m for giving the officials more authority to focus on really what makes safety. Giving the principals more authority over the schools, et cetera.

But I’m a libertarian in the sense that I believe in human agency. I have one idea, which is only humans make things happen. And if you don’t let humans be themselves and use their judgment. Then things were going to fail.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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