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The Death of Common Sense, by Philip K. Howard

- Abstract

Until recently, the federal government purchased hammers according to a 33-page specification sheet; its Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) required that bricks be labeled a hazardous substance in the workplace. In New York City, which frequently provides the limiting case for such stories, it takes up to two years and over 209 steps to purchase many capital items. The city’s attempt to provide much-needed public toilets was derailed because the experimental Parisian-style kiosks could not be made accessible to wheelchairs as required by law. And city rules forbid bus drivers from dislodging coins accidentally wedged in fare boxes, lest the drivers fall prey to the blandishments of a stray quarter.

All these stories—and more—appear in Philip Howard’s disquieting book. Howard, a practicing lawyer active in New York City public life for more than twenty years, has accumulated a remarkable litany of governmental folly, bureaucratic ineptitude, and individual foolishness. The Death of Common Sense is a lawyer’s plain-language brief about the failure of American law, and it has clearly struck a responsive chord, remaining high on the best-seller lists for weeks on end.

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