Leave a comment


Jan 9, 2010 | Blinding bureaucracy

The death of common sense

I’ve had the opportunity to read through The Death of Common Sense by Howard and it’s made a few things clearer to me, both in a rather depressing way. The book’s general idea is about how law and bureaucracy are stifling much needed progress because of the need to follow legal mandates and codes that are often written with good intentions.

A good example is the fact that New York City tried to introduce public toilets on municipal roadways, importing self-contained toilet systems that worked perfectly in Paris and London. These units would clean and disinfect themselves automatically and open doors automatically after 15 minutes in order to prevent people taking shelter inside. Because of well-intentioned ADA laws, however, the city had to include wheelchair accessible units, even though these needed to be significantly larger and required a full-time attendant. Among other things, the city could only install so many before they realized the costs of maintaining a wheelchair-accessible public toilet was too expensive, and alternatives like having accessible restrooms available in nearby businesses were not legally acceptable.

Paris public toilets
Public asset or bureaucratic nightmare?

Similarly, many compelling cases of legal paperwork halting social welfare projects (in the areas of education, hospital care, environmental sustenance) are highlighted in the book. But aside from all that, reading it made me realize two things:

1) I read books with a main thesis that I think I’ll agree to

I feel that the books I choose in the library end up becoming non-fiction anecdotes and exposures about things I’m curious about, but this book in particular highlights how it highlights what I feel about the way bureaucracy often ends blinding people, and how laws are never sufficient unless they allow for a case-by-case analysis of its use. This is particularly important because we can’t expect lawmakers to be able to envisage every single possible case in which those laws will be put to the test.

2) I feel sorry for environmentalists

One of my surprisingly enjoyable classes at Swarthmore’s engineering department was Environmental Systems, in which I learned about how advanced modelling can be used to identify and propose solutions for reducing environmental waste and harm. As an academic, the task is fantastic and absolutely important. Now, more than ever, scientists and researchers are needed to back up claims to help save the earth from mankind’s own ruin. But the problem is that the effort spent in doing that research can quickly become wasted through legal processes.

Consider the $25 million spent over a 10 year period analyzing the effect of dredging the Port of Oakland in order to accommodate larger boats. The port obtained authority to begin dredging in 1984. Environmentalists were brought in to analyze the effect of displacing the mud that would be excavated, but none of the lawmakers could agree where the mud should go. After 25 years, the dredging project was completed last September.

It’s all fine and dandy when we think that those $25 million helped pay for capable and willing researchers and scientists who were out to make sure the environment wasn’t being destroyed. But I would absolutely hate to be part of a process that delays development just because of legal mumbo jumbo. Call me jaded, call me naive. I’m more comfortable making a difference one step at a time, even if it’s just mere inches a day.

This entry was posted on Saturday, January 9th, 2010 at 10:52 pm, EST under the category of Life, Oh Life. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.