The First Rule Of Government: Don’t Get ‘Stuck On Stupid’

Gary Shapiro President and CEO, Consumer Technology Association
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I like to think I’m among the majority of Americans who want a better government for my family, my colleagues and my community. I’d welcome basic competence, but will settle for generally rational decision-making. Good governance should not be a party differentiator; and based on recent actions (and inactions) by both sides, poor decision-making can be a bipartisan affliction.

The Republican Congress, in its budget-cutting zeal, is slashing funding for programs that reduce government waste, fraud and abuse. The Brookings Institution details how cuts in administrative budgets for Medicare, the Internal Revenue Service, Social Security Disability and other programs will actually cause the government to waste billions of dollars.

Meanwhile, some government agencies under our Democratic president are so focused on the trees, they ignore the forest stalling innovation on our roads, in the air and across our borders. A few examples:

  1. To reduce accidents caused by distracted drivers, the Department of Transportation wants to completely block the use of portable devices like smartphones in cars. This well-intentioned, but blunt-force approach disregards innovation in hands-free technologies as well as the reality that parents want to stay in touch with babysitters, doctors need to stay connected with patients, and delivery workers need to connect with their dispatchers. It also ignores our huge advancements in assistive driving technology, such as alerts that wake up drivers who are falling asleep, veering out of their lanes, not looking at the road or about to collide.And a University of Michigan study found that installing technology to prevent intoxicated drivers from starting their cars would save almost 60,000 lives over 15 years. Yet, DOT has yet to prioritize this game-changing innovation.
  1. Within the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), commercial drone use is so heavily limited that some companies are shifting their test facilities outside the United States. Our nation has always led the world in aviation and aerospace innovation, consistently striving to be the “first in flight” – until now. We need a clear, straightforward and expedited policy framework that promotes innovation and safety here in the U.S. And drone hobbyists need to watch out, too – according to the FAA, if a drone userposts a video on YouTube, it’s considered commercial use and thus regulated.
  2. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has entered agreements with Mexico, Ecuador and the Philippines, encouraging those countries to train their citizens on U.S. union laws so they can come to this country and organize unions in American workplaces. But these agreements don’t distinguish between workers who enter the U.S. legally and those who do so illegally. So, an employer who fires an illegal-immigrant worker — an action required under federal immigration law — could be sanctioned by the NLRB, if it decides the worker’s union activism was the “real” reason for the dismissal.

The federal government doesn’t have a monopoly on what I’d call stupid decisions – enacting rules that hinder, rather than help, American excellence. Californians must now cut their water use because the state banned bigger reservoirs, choked efforts to build desalinization plants, and continues to pump millions of gallons of fresh water into San Francisco Bay, all for dubious environmental theories. This is the same state where Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a bill requiring that regulators rely on the most recent scientific data. Instead, he left California stuck with a tech-related law that hasn’t been significantly updated in more than 30 years – rules that now impact digital and connected devices, but were written in an era of brick phones and cassette players.

With examples like these, it’s no wonder that – despite the innovation oasis of Silicon Valley – California isn’t among the ten Innovation Champions in the Consumer Electronics Association’s inaugural Innovation Scorecard. The new report evaluates and grades every state and the District of Columbia according to their policies that support and promote innovation – but California was merely an Innovation Adopter, the second-lowest tier among our four categories.

The first rule of government should be, “don’t be stupid.” And at a minimum, government should embrace the ethos behind the popular medical phrase, “First, do no harm.” Political candidates running for office should make a pledge to stop the stupidity; and the administration should look for job candidates for agency-level positions that convey good judgment and rational thinking. Once we stop choosing “stupid,” we can start working toward competency.

Gary Shapiro is president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA)®, the U.S. trade association representing more than 2,000 consumer electronics companies, and author of the New York Times best-selling books, Ninja Innovation: The Ten Killer Strategies of the World’s Most Successful Businesses and The Comeback: How Innovation Will Restore the American Dream. His views are his own. Connect with him on Twitter: @GaryShapiro.