The Carnegie Council's lecture series on civility is made possible with generous support from the Dilenschneider Group.
JOANNE MYERS: I'm Joanne Myers, director of Public Affairs Programs, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council I'd like to thank you all for joining us and for being part of this discussion on civility.
For the second lecture in this series, we are focusing on the role of law in recent times and its impact on everyday life. It is a discussion that the Carnegie Council, in conjunction with the Dilenschneider Group, is proud to be hosting.
As a well-known leader of government and legal reform in America, we are delighted that Mr. Howard has accepted our invitation to speak on this topic. As many of you may know, his writings, advocacy initiatives, speeches, and reform proposals on these issues have figured prominently in the national discussion.
Among his many accomplishments, he is the author of the best-selling book The Death of Common Sense and founder of Common Good, which is a national bipartisan coalition organized to restore common sense and legal reform to American life. Accordingly, he has been on the forefront of arguing against an excess of government regulations and the law. He believes that our growing dependence on the law, too many government regulations, and too much litigation have had serious consequences for the quality of public discourse in America, often leading to unnecessary bitterness and conflict. This, in turn, undermines civility and creates disrespect for the law.
As an example, he talks about our fixation with rights. While the notions of rights are as American as apple pie and a quintessential part of our Constitution, they have taken on a new role in recent years. Today, rights are used not as they were originally intended, as protections against coercion by the state, but as a new, and often invisible, form of subsidies that undermines our capacity for deliberation and collective decision making, thereby weakening democracy, social progress, and personal freedoms.
Now, you may be wondering, what is the best way to foster more productive dialogue, dialogue that will simultaneously produce the agreement necessary to advance the common good, thus ensuring democracy for all? For the answer, please join me in giving a very warm welcome to our guest today, Philip Howard.
Thank you for joining us.
PHILIP HOWARD: Thank you, Joanne. Thank you all for coming here. It's an honor to be here. It's also a mandate. I do everything Bob Dilenschneider tells me to do. This is one of those pleasant things that Bob has given me the task to talk about.
I hope that you won't be too offended by what I say about civility and law; and, if you are, that you will be civil in your disagreement. [Laughter]
My interest, for the last decade and a half, has been in considering the relationship between authority and freedom. What I've concluded is that the growth of law has corroded the institutions of authority in our society, with many deleterious effects, and one of the victims of that is our sense of ethics and civility.
What I mean by "civility" is a concept that actually goes back to the origins, which is the norms and manners required to live in a city, in a crowded place, which is where the word comes from. We live in a crowded world now, which is increasingly interdependent, and we have to have norms that allow us to interact more freely.
It's not just the absence of rudeness, which is another way that we commonly think of civility. The phrase also embodies adherence to ethical codes of behavior, to basic honesty in human dealings, and, perhaps more importantly than anything else, respect for the common good. The higher the level of civility, the higher the level of trust in society in these often anonymous dealings; and the higher the level of trust, studies repeatedly show, the greater both our economic and our psychological well-being.
Talking about the norms of how we relate to each other is actually an extraordinary subject, and it's the reason this organization exists.
Civility is how we define our culture. There was a wonderful scholar, judge, and cabinet minister in England about 100 years ago, called Fletcher Moulton. He gave a great talk, which was then reprinted in The Atlantic in 1924, called "The World of Manners." He said there were three great domains of human action:
- One was the domain of positive law, where law tells us what to do and we have to abide by the law in a free society.
- The second was the domain of free choice, where we can do whatever we want to do and no one will think otherwise. That's what living in a free society is: we have this open field of freedom where we can act according to our instincts.
- But then, he said, there is this great area in between called the world of manners, and it's this area in between, he argued, that defines a culture, and that ultimately the success of the culture depends on how we maintain this world of manners.
He put it this way: "Between 'can do' and 'may do' ought to exist the whole realm which recognizes the sway of duty, fairness, sympathy, taste, and all the other things that make life beautiful and society possible." So it's all the norms of how we relate to each other in so many ways that ultimately define our success as a culture.
Lord Moulton concluded that this was the area of society that was most important, but also most unenforceable, because it depends on people's values. I agree with that partially, but I disagree with it profoundly in another way, which I will get to at the end.
So if we look at American society today and you polled Americans and you ask "How are we doing from the standpoint of our civil norms and such?"—and there have been many recent polls addressing this—you will find that we're not doing very well.
A Harris Poll last month found that 87 percent of the public believes our political system imbues society with anger and ill temper and is counterproductive to the health of our society. Eighty-seven percent in a poll is virtually unanimous.
Similar other polls in the same time found approval rating for Congress at 7 percent. That's also more or less matching numbers.
We've all seen the attack ads in every election. It swayed the last election. They attacked the other side based on arguments that were half truths, and probably more untruths, and yet they were successful in several Republican races. We don't approve of them, and yet we know it rubs off on the culture.
Many moderate observers believe that the Gabby Giffords shooting in Tucson was a result of this ill temper—almost distemper—of our political system that appears to be designed to polarize the public rather than to make legitimate arguments.
You'd have to say, when you look at the political debate, that there are almost no legitimate solutions in sight. One party essentially has as its main platform "no new taxes" and the other party has as its platform "we're not going to touch any entitlements."
My friend Will Marshall, who runs the Progressive Policy Institute, commented recently that "It's not true that bipartisanship is dead in Washington—there's a perfect bipartisan conspiracy to bankrupt the country."
If you look at corporate America, you'll see a same phenomenon of self-interested action, where CEOs manage for short-term profits, not for long-term health (say, with research and development), and seem to manage for very large, oversized compensation packages—not, again, necessarily conducive to restoring trust in the society.
You go to schools. The culture of respect is nonexistent in most urban public schools. Public Agenda did a survey for us a few years ago, where they found that 43 percent of the high school teachers in America say they spend more time maintaining order than they do teaching. Think about what that means. That means the students in those classes are getting, at most, half the learning that they're supposed to get.
What happened to order? That has actually been studied by Richard Arum at NYU, among others. It turns out there's a direct correlation between the rise of due process and the decline in order in America's schools.
Public Agenda also did a survey about law in schools, and found that 78 percent of the middle and high school teachers in America have been threatened with lawsuits for violations of the rights of their students by their students.
Now, it's not that they would mostly sue and if they sued they would win, but think of what it says about the corrosion of authority of teachers that students sue with impunity and believe that they have legal rights to avoid the legitimate decisions of teachers in a classroom.
Go to the professions. The word "profession" comes from the idea of professing values. A profession exists because it's supposed to stand for values of basic honesty and standards of conduct, whether it's in the legal profession, medical profession, accounting profession, or others.
As a practicing lawyer, I don't trust anything another lawyer says or writes. I have seen so many misquotes of cases, so many distortions of facts, that the other lawyer knew were disingenuous, that it has become commonplace to argue whatever you think you can get away with in a crowded courtroom.
A few years ago, I was talking about the state of the profession on a stage in front of 5,000 people in Richmond, Virginia, with several prominent legal scholars. At one point, they started talking about lawyer advertising. They said, "The Supreme Court has held that advertising by lawyers is protected by the First Amendment; therefore, it must be an okay thing; therefore, we should not only accept it but should embrace it. We should have more billboards that say 'Want to get rich? Call 1-800-LAWYER'"—or whatever we see on the subways and advertised on cable TV shows.
So I said, "Just because it's legal doesn't mean it's ethical. Why don't we treat lawyers who have these disreputable advertisements in a way that shows a lack of respect and not let them in the bar associations and not give them at least some of the courtesies and advantages of being in a profession if they're not professing our values?"
At which point, the Harvard law professor on the stage turned to me, dripping with disdain, saying, "What are you going to do, shun them?"
I said, "Well, actually, in any profession worthy of the appellation that's exactly that you do. You say that they are disreputable because they don't abide by what you believe are the good values of the legal profession."
Then we go to the public, because it is a big part of the problem here. We've trained everyone to see everything as a matter of individual rights—parents, everyone. They think: "There's a problem; it's a matter of rights." So you have this phenomenon where citizens think that the rights that our Founders gave us to protect freedoms and create a society where we could actually work towards the common good now means grabbing at the common good like it's a dead carcass—"Give me more," pounding on the table.
Ask any principal of a school about this kind of behavior—the threats of lawsuits by parents, to get everything for their child, irrespective of the effects on all the other students in the school.
So what's the solution to this? We have this corrosion that the public generally feels of ethics in our society and civility.
The typical solution is to give a sermon to tell people to be nicer. My father was a preacher. He gave a lot of sermons telling people to be nicer. I never saw that it had much effect, but it was better than not giving a sermon.
President Obama, in his State of the Union Speech, very eloquently called for "a new era of responsibility," where people would wake up in the morning and go forth and not just see things from their selfish point of view but look at everything from the point of view of all of society.
That's incredibly naïve. That isn't how people are. For the reasons stated by Reinhold Niebuhr, among others, people are organs of self-interest. They can justify anything as long as it's in their interest. Many people will do what they can get away with doing.
If we want to restore civility and ethics, we have to have a social structure that allows us to judge people based on civility and ethics.
Talking about responsibility, it is peculiarly a concept that starts at the top, not at the bottom. Only if the teacher has authority to dismiss the disruptive child without paperwork, without proof, without due process hearings, can she maintain control of the classroom. Otherwise the students will learn, as they all have, that they can game the system with impunity because they feel her lack of authority, that she doesn't have the time to actually go through and fill out all those forms and go to the hearings.
Only if the manager actually has the authority to fire someone who's a jerk, who doesn't get along with people or doesn't try hard, will everyone else understand that the culture of this business is that people try hard and they pitch in and they help each other; they don't elbow people out of the way. When's the last time you saw a manager firing somebody for lack of civility or ethical lapses?
In America today, you're not even allowed to give a job reference, speaking of not valuing ethics. That's the rule—my own firm has that rule—because who will protect you if somebody sues and says it was not a good enough reference; or, if you give a good one, that the person wasn't any good. So the rule is everyone just says, "I confirm that So-and-So worked here from this date to this date." That's the rule in America, just like the rule in America is that a teacher can't put an arm around a crying child.
A couple of weeks ago, a seven-year-old in Queens was handcuffed because he was disrupting the classroom. The rule is you're not allowed to restrain the student, because they're scared they might get sued or accused of inappropriate touching. So they called the police, and the police led the seven-year-old away in handcuffs. Is that good for the student? That's not uncommon. I could give you 20 stories like that.
If a bar association can't judge lawyers based on the perceptions of their committees on the ethical values of those lawyers, what's the point?
It used to be, when I was a young lawyer, to get into the New York City Bar Association you had to have really legitimate letters of reference; you had to practice for a while. Going to a good school wasn't enough. People had to vouch for your character. Today, all you have to do is prove you have a law degree and you've never been indicted. It's virtually automatic membership.
It's no secret what happened here. We woke up to bad values in the 1960s, and they were bad values—racism, gender discrimination, pollution, ignoring disabled children. One after another, practically every month, there was a new revelation about what we might call abuses of authority in our society.
The solution that we came up with was that we were not going to allow people in responsibility to have authority to assert their values anymore. We were going to lay it out as precisely as possible in law; and, if you couldn't lay it out in law, we would have a legal process where everything would be proved by objective proof. That's where we got due process for ordinary school discipline—you're not sending the kid to jail; you're sending him home. We had this idea that we wanted perfect fairness everywhere.
But it didn't work. It didn't give us good values. It left a vacuum, and the vacuum has been filled by the selfish values by people who figure out how to game the system. Rights, as Joanne said in the introduction, which are our greatest principle for protection against abuses of government authority, have now become a tool of self-interest.
So how do we get this back? We have to restore the authority to act on our values at every level of society. This is going to require a profound legal overhaul in general, replacing bureaucracy with broader principles and individual responsibility.
We need to accept the fact that all choices to do anything in life are human—rules don't make anything happen; only people do. People apply their values either in a good way or in a bad way. There will be people who will assert bad values, and in my system we can hold them accountable for those bad values. But you can't take values away without making everything fail.
Freedom as a formal structure we haven't talked about in a long time, really in our lifetime. But the formal structure is this: law sets boundaries; it tells you what you can't do or you must do—you have to pay your taxes, you can't steal.
But those same boundaries are supposed to affirmatively define and protect an open field of freedom, what the philosopher Isaiah Berlin called "frontiers not artificially drawn within which men shall be enviable." On that open field of freedom people can do whatever they want—they can be jerks, they can have bad values.
Lord Moulton is right, that we can't have law tell people what their values are; that's the antithesis of a free society.
But this open field doesn't work unless law lets us judge other people by their values. They can be jerks, they are free to be jerks, but we are free to judge them. What modern law has done is taken away our freedom to make those value judgments.
It has also taken away the freedom of the people maintaining these boundaries. They can no longer actually assert norms of reasonable behavior, whether it's judges, principals, or anyone else. That has to be restored. Public authority needs to be restored so that people with responsibility have the authority to do their jobs.
Democracy is not supposed to purge our values. Democracy is about asserting values. We want to elect and appoint people who are constantly asserting their values, and if we don't like them, we elect someone else. Instead, we are disempowering everyone, up and down the line.
In the private sector, the same thing. We've got to restore the freedom to judge other people. We do have to protect against discrimination. But discrimination is generally a systemic problem, it's not an individual person problem, so you can safeguard against patterns and practices of discrimination without taking away the ability of employers to write reference letters and to judge people by what they do all day.
And then there's the political system. There is a problem of powerlessness here which I'm doing a lot with. We're just starting a new campaign called Start Over, which is designed to do a basic overhaul of our regulatory system.
What happens today is Andrew Cuomo goes to Albany to be governor, and he finds that 75 percent of the budget is cast in legal concrete, with deals and statutes made by people who are long dead. He can't change one word of that or shave 5 percent off to balance the budget without getting a majority of the legislature to act.
So there is this extraordinary powerlessness that has come from the accretion of law. It's not that law is doing the wrong goals; it's just you need to do a spring cleaning every once in a while so you're meeting today's goals.
It is not so farfetched to say that democracy today is run by dead people. It's all these laws that have piled up that don't allow anyone—the president can't approve a power line; it would take ten years. You know the smart grid he promised in his campaign? He got to office, he was going to stimulate the economy by spending billions on a new smart grid to create a green infrastructure for America. No way. It will take ten years just to go through the approval process.
The interstate highway system, by contrast, was authorized in an act in 1956 that was 29 pages long, and 14 years later 35,000 miles of road had been built. Today, they would not have been finished with the environmental impact review.
So there is a problem of powerlessness having to do with the accretion of law.
But there is a bigger problem, and it is us. The politicians are appealing to our short-term self-interest.
"I won't touch Medicare." You have to touch it. You don't have to get rid of it. We don't want to get rid of Medicare. I'm close to getting Medicare myself. We don't want to get rid of it. But we have to touch it. We can't afford the health care system so we have to rethink how we organize it.
You can't just keep piling law on top of all these entitlements. We have entitlements from the New Deal, such as cotton subsidies. It's completely absurd.
Our Founders actually made a mistake. They didn't realize that it would be 100 times harder to repeal a law than to pass one. What's happened is the law keeps piling up and no one even talks about repealing the law. But that's because each one of those laws has a special interest and each of us has a special interest.
If we're going to fall for the politics of "let me keep my entitlements/lower my taxes"—which are more or less the two choices we are given—then we are going to get a system that's fundamentally disingenuous and that's never going to solve the problems that we have.
Somehow we have to abandon this politics of self-interest and create an organizational structure where we hold politicians accountable for legitimate proposed solutions to the many challenges of our day, not the pie-in-the-sky rhetoric, hurling accusations back and forth. That's the reason that it's so non-substantive, because they're just appealing to our emotions, not to anything real.
In conclusion, what I wanted and tried to say in this is to get good values in a society, to get civility, we have to have the legal authority to assert them. We also have to have the backbone to assert them, which we don't seem to have in politics.
We don't have the legal authority. It would actually be illegal for the teacher to do things that she needs to do to run a classroom and to imbue her students with good values.
We are in a period where we are going to have to fundamentally rethink the legal structure of our society, and that's the only way we're going to get back the America that we all believe in.
Questions and Answers
JOANNE MYERS: Thank you very much for really setting the foundation for an interesting discussion. I'd like to open the floor to questions. I just ask that you identify yourself when the microphone comes to you.
PHILIP HOWARD: And not throw anything.
JOANNE MYERS: And not throw anything.
We'll start with John.
PHILIP HOWARD: I knew John Brademas was going to ask the first question. I see the sternest critic right in front of me, former dean of NYU Law School. Why do you have smart people at these things? Can't you just get people who don't know anything? [Laughter]
QUESTION: John Brademas. Thank you very much. That's a fascinating statement.
I put my observation and question from the background of somebody who was for 22 years a member of Congress, of the House of Representatives, from Indiana. I had to be a candidate every two years. I learned very quickly that the style that one used in the House of Representatives as a member of one's committee or as a member of the full House was to be respectful of the perspectives of your colleagues.
You would say, "Mr. Speaker, I ask the gentleman from Illinois if he would yield to allow me to put a question to him." That respect for the perspectives of others really characterized the nature of the political process. You couldn't bludgeon your way through. After all, there are 435 members of the House of Representatives, and you couldn't insist "it's got to be my way and no other way."
I simply want to make the point that, at least from my perspective, it's imperative that one respect the perspectives of one's colleagues and to do so in a gracious way. "Will the gentleman yield?" is what you say if you want to put a question.
Mr. Speaker, I yield back the balance of my time.
PHILIP HOWARD: Interesting. Thank you.
Were you there when Howard Baker was in the Senate? Senator Baker, Alan Simpson, and Bill Bradley are on Common Good's Advisory Board, so I talk to them about the same things. They believe not that the conventions of civility on the floor have disappeared, which I don't think they have actually—I watch C-SPAN because there's nothing else on TV to watch—but the conventions of intellectual honesty have substantially eroded since you were in the House. They would certainly subscribe to that assertion.
While campaigns are always tough, the attack ads that we see are different. There were attack ads in 1800 too, but somehow there's a disconnection between substance—I don't know if you agree with that—today in the political system and a refusal to acknowledge honestly the difficulties that our country is facing with tough possible solutions.
People don't want to touch those third rails. I can understand why they don't want to touch them. So we're careening towards a cliff. You don't see either party willing to say, "We need to turn the wheel over here."
QUESTIONER: With 100 members of the Senate and 435 members of the House of Representatives, you should not be surprised that there are differences of opinion.
PHILIP HOWARD: Sure.
QUESTIONER: That ought not to shock anybody.
PHILIP HOWARD: No, it doesn't shock me. But to give you my own personal experience, we have a proposal at Common Good to create special health courts to replace the malpractice system. The idea is to make justice reliable for whoever is right so that doctors don't squander $100 billion in unnecessary tests and so that they're actually candid with patients again because they trust the system of justice.
We developed this in a partnership with the Harvard School of Public Health; all the patient safety experts are involved; the big consumer groups are for it—everybody is pretty much for it. The trial lawyers hate it because it would do away with this idea of suing for the moon and getting a settlement.
I was talking with a Democratic leader of Congress a couple years ago. He said, "That's a great idea. It would solve the problems. I can see exactly how it would work." He said, "Well, how do the trial lawyers feel about it?"
I said, "Well, they hate it. They love the extortion factor of suing."
He said, "Well, then we can't do it."
I said, "Why?"
He said, "Because they hate it."
I said, "But who do they represent? I've got the consumer groups."
He said, "It doesn't matter. They give us the money." So that was an honest evaluation.
So then I went to the Bush White House and I said, "This is a great opportunity. I can get Democrats up on the stage behind President Bush and all these consumer groups. It will be a great public relations coup because the Democrats are sold out to the trial lawyers."
I get this mumble-jumble back and forth, and finally it's translated for me: They don't want to be for it because they would rather push a reform that they know won't pass, which is caps on damages, so they can blame the Democrats for not solving the problem.
That ought to be a capital crime. It's one thing to be bought off, which special-interest groups do. It's a lower ring of hell to actually propose reforms that you think are bad and you know won't pass so you can blame the other side.
I don't know if that went on when you were in Congress. That's a new level of cynicism.
QUESTION: Good evening. I'm Philip Schlussel.
Do you agree that a code of responsibility might very well be taught in all of our lower schools and then extend to elected and appointed offices in the country?
PHILIP HOWARD: Codes of responsibility are a good idea. But they tend to just be words, like listening to the sermon on Sunday, unless they are accompanied with teeth, unless people really act on them.
There are all sorts of principles of behavior. The Virginia Military Institute has a very simple principle about cheating. It's an absolute rule. They have a couple of principles. That's one of them. They enforce it. So if you have principles and you're willing to enforce it and you have the authority to, they're great. And they're not too long either; they're statements of respect.
Now, in New York City there are literally 200-page handbooks on student rights. That's the opposite, it's really the antithesis, of a code of responsibility.
QUESTION: Sondra Stein.
In addition to what you say, it seems to me that the corrosive power of this mass of money that's so corrupting and so controlling has really distorted the public discourse and the actions we take. Money is a big problem there.
PHILIP HOWARD: I couldn't agree more. I would be for public financing.
If you look at the subsidies that everybody agrees make no sense—take the ethanol subsidy, $5.5 billion a year. That's 100,000 families each paying $55,000 a year in taxes going to a subsidy that no one I've ever heard can defend.
All you'd have to do with public financing is get rid of one of those subsidies and you'd pay for it. That doesn't include all the other farm subsidies, all the tax expenditures, and the other things.
Washington is so cheap. You can create $1 trillion of value with a couple of billion dollars of campaign contributions.
QUESTION: A quick comment and a question.
There is nothing particularly new about this lack of civility. Anyone who has read Colonial newspapers—what they said about Lincoln, what they said about Franklin Roosevelt—knows that there are large swaths of American history when this has been the case, and also times when it hasn't been the case.
But my specific question relates to something you mentioned only in passing, and that is the courts, namely the Supreme Court. What would you say to them about the Citizens United case? What would you say about some of their decisions in the last several years?
What would you say about the confirmation process for Supreme Court justices? When Byron White was confirmed, his hearing consisted of one question: "What is the job of the Supreme Court?" He answered: "To decide cases." He was right about that, of course. Scalia was confirmed unanimously. Now you can't get a Supreme Court justice that's confirmed with more than about 58 votes.
What would you say about this process? What would you say to the Court? What would you say to the Congress?
PHILIP HOWARD: On the approval process, I think it was the opinion of Lindsey Graham that it's the prerogative of the sitting president to appoint officials and judges, and if they are qualified, which is not that high a bar, he believed they should be approved. I don't think we should have all these tortured debates on either side. So we agree on that.
On Citizens United, I'm not a student enough of the jurisprudence to know whether on the law that was right. As a matter of policy, I completely agree with you. As I said, I'm for public financing.
The corrosive effect of money is staggering. But the point about the power of money that's not made is that money is generally used to preserve the status quo. The reason the special interests are so powerful is because they are guarding subsidies that are already codified in law.
One of the things that my group, Common Good, is suggesting is that there be automatic sunsets for all laws with budgetary implications. Entitlements, you name it—everything has to be re-enacted with new findings every ten years, let's say, so that you can actually look at what society's priorities are.
Every public dollar involves a moral choice. A dollar that's wasted in unnecessary health care is a dollar that's not available for pre-kindegarten education. It's as simple as that. So if we don't make fresh choices about our budgets—over half the budget doesn't even come up for vote because it's cast in legal concrete from the 1960s.
Money is very corrosive. But the idea that law is permanent is the kind of myth—if you will, the sacred cow—that the special interests all surround. If we can actually disabuse people of that notion, say, "No, we have to change everything; we have to make choices"—the trial lawyers or corporate America never get bills that say "Let's give even more ability to pollute." They just couldn't get away with it. But what they can do is keep law exactly the way it is, and that's what they use their money to do.
QUESTION: Thank you for a very stimulating talk. There are so many questions that arise tangentially with this.
PHILIP HOWARD: I recommend asking John Brademas almost all the questions because he has probably thought about them more than I have.
QUESTIONER: I'm sure you agree that role models can have a powerful influence on society and civility.
PHILIP HOWARD: It's called leadership.
QUESTIONER: Certainly starting with the president—
PHILIP HOWARD: Right, who is a model of civility actually.
QUESTIONER: —and right down to the enforcement arms of the police.
PHILIP HOWARD: Absolutely.
QUESTIONER: If the police are civil, it makes a very big difference. We have had riots where they have not been civil.
I was also just wondering whether you found any correlation between the economic cycle and a cycle of civility or a lack of civility. In other words, in very good times is there some correlation of more civility and in hard times less civility?
PHILIP HOWARD: People who are desperate do the things that people who are desperate need to do, often committing crimes to feed their family, or whatever. Certainly, desperate times lead to measures of survival.
I don't know that prosperity makes people more civil. I don't think it really worked on Wall Street particularly.
Even in a recession, this is the richest society in history. Our problem may well be too much affluence, where we don't value the commons. We think it's all about just getting stuff for yourself, and we take for granted the things that our grandparents and great-grandparents actually fought for, the values of right and wrong, the benefits of the common good, and safeguarding the resources of the school. Instead, it's just "Oh, they're doing that? Just let them go ahead and get away with it."
So, if anything, affluence, as it is sometimes with individuals, allows bad values to foster because people lose their sense of interconnectedness.
QUESTION: Naiden Stoyanov, Stamford Plus magazine.
You made some great points, and I especially liked the point about the respect in schools. That's where pretty much everything starts. But also, you mentioned that change starts from the top, and I thought that this was quite an interesting point.
What do you think about the current political system and technology, increased communication between each and every one of us, who have, as you said, special interest either way, and the fact that in the past we used to send representatives for three years and now we send them of course for two years. But accountability was pretty much mostly when they were getting elected. It seems like now—even senators every six years—they're supposed to be less accountable this way. It seems like the accountability of our politicians today is an every-minute thing, it's not even an everyday thing, because of the Internet.
Don't you think that this is detrimental to the legislation and the law-making ability that they have? What role does technology play? How can we maybe change the political system? What do you think?
PHILIP HOWARD: Politicians spend some enormous amount of time raising money. That addresses the point that the woman just beside you made. You need to fix that so that people can do their jobs. And it does corrode people's choices. They have to raise money, so they have to avoid offending.
One could look at the current political process, if you were a cynic, and say, "The job of a political leader today is to figure out a way to make the other side look bad without offending anybody on your side." That's a cynical way of looking at it, but I don't think that's entirely inaccurate.
I didn't say change starts at the top; I said responsibility starts at the top. So if you don't have mechanisms in society where somebody in charge can actually say, "This is right and this is wrong in my office, in my classroom," if they don't have the ability to actually assert those values, those values will go away.
Today change has to come from the bottom. Political leaders are disempowered. They can't say the things I'm saying.
I had breakfast with Mitch Daniels two weeks ago and we were talking about this. He had all these incredibly substantive ideas about how to deal with problems—do away with tax expenditures completely, start from the ground up, maybe have a smaller mortgage deduction and a limit on charitable deductions, but that's it. You'd save $1 trillion right there, just on that one. These are very bold things that he would have been willing to say as a candidate—he probably would have lost because of it—but nonetheless he would have been willing to say as a candidate.
We need to create a groundswell of support for people and political leaders who are willing to say things that aren't for our self-interest, because we know that they're in the broader interest. Unless we come together and find a way to create a movement behind responsible change, our political leaders keep responding to these short-term political needs, and they're going to follow a "no new taxes/keep my entitlements," back-and-forth routine.
We just announced on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart last week that we're creating this campaign called Start Over, startover.org. We just hired a producer-writer from The Colbert Report to run it. We're interviewing animators to do animated content. We're thinking about running our own presidential candidate who would be animated. [Laughter] It would be a she—it's about time we had a female candidate for president—and somebody who could actually be honest and actually comment on what the other candidates are saying honestly.
If you want to get involved, let's talk. We're trying to create a vocabulary and a mechanism to build pressure for the idea of restoring human responsibility at every level of government.
QUESTION: Thank you. William Verdone.
Many years ago, I taught ethics for junior high school students. I called it "optional thinking," because it was wonderful to have a student say, "Well, gee, I never thought of it that way." That's options and that's thinking. To answer someone's question in the front, we ran out of money due to budget cuts.
A flip side of that is about five years ago my mom fell and stumbled and broke her wrist. Okay, off to the hospital. Two weeks later, we get a call from a lawyer: "Who do you want to sue?" Now, how do lawyers get what I thought was private information?
PHILIP HOWARD: That was me who was calling. [Laughter]
QUESTIONER: Was that you?
And so my mother answered and she said, "Myself. I was the one who fell. No one did anything other than that." We're the most litigious society on earth.
PHILIP HOWARD: Right. I've written books about this, which I'm not going to repeat word for word.
The danger, the cost, of today's legal system in America is not that there are so many crazy lawsuits—and they don't usually win. It's the fear that has infected the culture. It's the fear that makes it so you can't put an arm around a crying child, so that there is nothing for a kid over the age of five in a playground—no seesaws, no merry-go-rounds, no jungle gyms—because all those things will involve an accident from time to time. They also lure the children there to learn how to take care of themselves and all those sorts of things.
I had a neighbor who was a doctor, and he and his wife were visiting his parents, and they hadn't shoveled their sidewalk, and she slipped and fell, and they sued his parents. They explained it by saying that it was an insurance scam. Oh, okay. So that raises everybody's insurance.
Imagine anyone even thinking that way 50 years ago. That's a decline in civility, the sense that you just grab at the cart, you just grab at things, and can get money.
That's what we have to change—judges' authority to run courtrooms—so that those sorts of things aren't allowed too. Another one of the changes in authority needed.
QUESTION: I'm Peter Glankoff.
I'd like to ask you a question about civility, ethics, and fairness in American society today, in particular with specific reference to what I believe is the greatest disparity in wealth in the country's history.
I've noticed—and I've been looking for it—there have only been a few discussions of the use of the word "fairness." I don't find it as prevalent as it ought to be. When I speak informally about it, I always feel like I'm sounding like a socialist and I'm going to be condemned at that moment when I talk about income inequality and the notion of fairness in American society and how that's related to civility. I was wondering what your thoughts might be on that.
PHILIP HOWARD: I personally think that you're a communist. [Laughter]
QUESTIONER: I used to be offended by that. [Laughter]
PHILIP HOWARD: It's a significant problem, and it's caused in part by the globalization of markets. There's just so much leverage. One product becomes popular, and all of a sudden, whether it's Google or whatever it is, vroom, it's off the charts, and whoever owns it or developed it now has 1,000 times what they would have had 100 years ago when you had more local markets. So part of it is somewhat unavoidable.
But the people who are trying to avoid increases in taxes from 35 to 39 percent, for example, are shooting themselves in the foot, because sooner or later the shoe will drop here and they'll get a wealth tax that's not unlike the taxes from the 1950s—punitive rates and such. It is something that needs to be addressed. There needs to be a discussion about it.
I don't think the phenomenon is largely the result of some sort of insidious behavior. It's largely the result of the size of modern economic institutions and what happens when people get to the top of them.
There's a problem with CEO compensation, because CEOs aren't largely creating the businesses; they're just people who rose to the top. So they are more like workers. In Europe, they have a different system for compensation, by and large, than they have here.
I would commend to you a recent article by Dominic Barton, who's the new senior partner of McKinsey, on what he views as the coming crisis of capitalism, which is characterized by short-termism, grotesque wealth, inequality, and other things. That is coming from the head of McKinsey.
As we're rethinking the social contract and trying to restore people's freedom to take responsibility, we also have to rethink other values and what we mean by fairness.
QUESTION: Bob Dilenschneider. Philip, thank you for a great set of remarks.
Are there societies or cultures, past or current, where we can learn lessons? The French, the Chinese, the Indians, Cossacks, do they have lessons to teach us?
PHILIP HOWARD: That's a great question. There are lessons to be learned from other cultures.
Germany just passed a law basically mandating a systemic review of old laws, to clean out old laws so that new laws meet current needs. That's an example.
There's a great book coming out by Cambridge University Press that I wrote the foreword for comparing the United States' system of civil justice with civil justice in Korea and Germany. It takes one case and follows it through each system. You can't believe how stupid our system is compared to those systems. Those systems are so much more fair. They're so much more available to real people. You can't go to court if you're a real person in America; it's too expensive.
So absolutely there are a number of lessons.
Most cultures also have other problems. They have bureaucratic problems. They have the problems of big institutions and others. They have the problem of labor with a version of short-term profits—"Let's grab everything for ourselves even if the state can't afford it," pensions and the like. Greece and France have that problem as well.
But yes, there are absolutely lessons that others can learn. This is a conversation that would be very productive to be had internationally, because we're all in one market now and we all need to deal with each other, and it would be nice to have the same basic norms on civility, law, and freedom. That would enhance trust, commerce, and people's sense of ownership in their own cultures.
Thank you all again for coming.