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Our real ailment: Ruled by rules

| Saturday, April 19, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

To the author of the new book “The Rule of Nobody: Saving America from Dead Laws and Broken Government” (W.W. Norton & Co), gridlock, partisan polarization and self-dealing — problematic as they may be — are just symptoms, not the disease.

What truly ails federal, state and local government is a surfeit of detailed, rigid laws, rules and regulations that have made leadership, even commonsense decision-making, nigh impossible, according to prominent Manhattan attorney Philip K. Howard, founder and chairman of the nonpartisan reform coalition Common Good.

By making lawmakers on both sides wary of giving each other any leeway, today's deep partisan and ideological divisions encourage such burdensome rules and laws. Howard also points out that corporations favor the barriers such restrictions impose on potential competitors, public employees like how such rules limit their accountability for the actions they take, and “self-interested plaintiffs' lawyers” find plenty to exploit in our “rules-based regime.”

Rather than asking what's right to do, Howard contends, government asks what the rulebook says to do. As a result, waste occurs, debt rises, schools fail, health-care costs soar, the economy falters — and even problems that seem simple and easy to solve become bureaucratic nightmares.

Among examples that Howard cites is the case of Franklin Township, N.J. After a winter storm there, it took 12 days and $12,000 to remove a fallen tree that had caused a creek to flood — because of engineering work and permits mandated by a state environmental rule.

Howard urges that America “radically simplify its operating system and give people — officials and citizens alike — the freedom to be practical,” according to the publisher. And in doing so, he'd have the nation be guided by the Framers' notion that laws should set goals and boundaries, not dictate details of behavior. He reminds that James Madison warned about laws “so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood.”

The book is an impassioned plea to do away with the regulatory minefield that government has become — while Americans, regrettably accustomed to such burdens, still can find a way out.

PSYCHOPATH STUDIES, IRAQ'S FIRST KING & PIXAR LESSONS

“The Psychopath Whisperer: The Science of Those Without Conscience” by Kent A. Kiehl (Crown, available Tuesday) — Robert Hare, creator of the 20-question Psychopathy Checklist, served as mentor to author Kent A. Kiehl, a University of New Mexico professor. Kiehl developed and took into prisons the first mobile functional MRI scanner, examining the brains of more than 500 psychopaths and 3,000 other offenders. The resulting forensic neuroscience archive, the largest of its kind, reveals that diminished brain structures for emotional engagement and reactions correspond with psychopathy. The book discusses that finding's implications for the legal system and for the debate over whether psychopathy is rooted in genetics or environment. It also covers the story of the author's research, addresses the worries of those who suspect someone close to them is psychopathic, and uses the cases of two presidential assassins and two highly disruptive boys to illustrate its points.

“Faisal I of Iraq” by Ali A. Allawi (Yale University Press) — Middle East history might be different had the fate of this book's subject been different, too. The Shiite author, a National University of Singapore professor who was Iraq's first postwar civilian minister of both defense and finance early in this century, tells the story of a man born in 1883 into Mecca's Sunni Hashemite dynasty who worked with T.E. Lawrence against the Ottoman Empire during World War I. A month after his installation as Syria's king, Faisal was deposed when the Allies gave the Syria Mandate to France. A year after that, the British installed him as king of newly created Iraq, where he was what a Wall Street Journal review calls “a leader dedicated to tolerance, incorruptibility and progress” for 12 years, until his fatal heart attack at age 50. Under his successor, a Nazi-sympathizer son, decades of bloody disorder began, leading to Saddam Hussein's regime.

“Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration” by Ed Catmull with Amy Wallace (Random House) — As a boy, the lead author dreamed of being a Disney animator. He earned a computer-science doctorate and was recruited by George Lucas to integrate technology into moviemaking. He went on to co-found Pixar with Lucasfilm colleague John Lasseter and the late Steve Jobs (who financed the venture between his stints heading Apple), turning out financially and critically successful computer-animated movies. The book offers insight into the Pixar corporate culture that fosters both commercial and creative excellence, relating lessons applicable to other businesses: Managers shouldn't prevent risk-taking but should make it safe for others; fixing errors is often cheaper than preventing them; everybody should be able to talk to anybody, regardless of where they rank on the organizational chart; and without putting in considerable energy, consensus can't be counted on to effect change.

Alan Wallace is a Trib Total Media editorial page writer (412-320-7983 or awallace@tribweb.com).

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