Crap and Trade

Oh, just for the title. William Saletan on who should pay whom for a public toilet:

In Los Angeles, for example, the Times reports, “All of the APTs in the city, except two on skid row, charge a quarter for each use.” Why the skid-row exception? Two reasons seem pretty clear. First, homeless people don’t spend quarters lightly, if they have them at all. Second, if the city doesn’t give them a free indoor place to relieve themselves, they’ll use a free outdoor place: the street.

You can’t exactly sell a lot of advertising around a john for homeless people. That means no company can make money off such a toilet. The toilet’s existence, therefore, implies that the city is willing to pay a significant subsidy to dissuade those people from soiling public space.

Why don’t you get subsidized the same way? Because you’re no threat. You don’t foul sidewalks. If you have to choose between peeing in private for 25 cents and peeing in public for free, you’ll cough up the quarter. This might be the only environmental issue where wealthier people pollute less than poor people do.

From an egalitarian standpoint, reverse toilet discrimination makes sense. It’s a means test: from each according to ability; to each according to need. But from an environmental standpoint, it’s crazy. A central and well-justified principle of environmental law is that the polluter pays. In this case, it’s the nonpolluter who pays. The polluter—the person who pees in the street—pays nothing.

There is more, including an Indian experiment to pay people to use public toilets. But I’m not sure about this “environmental standpoint”. Great idea in principle but there is no point trying to get the polluter to pay if he, she or it can evade the charge via public urination, fly-tipping, or offshoring to China. A little pragmatism, please…

Tim Harford’s blog

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Tim, also known as the Undercover Economist, writes about the economics of everyday life.