18 July 2008

Not My Tribe Considers Toilets

I've noted before at this blog that I often disagree with the authors of Not My Tribe, but continuing my recent focus on toilets, I'll highlight two posts there today on that subject.

Should Yellow Mellow?

Marie Walden today, makes the case for flushing your toilet less often so as to emulate our neighbors in the Golden State.

In the comments there, I suggested that her one third of household water use for flushing statistic (from the Colorado Springs Gazette, which is not the world's best newspaper) is really closer to one eighth (based upon the East Larimer County water company's statistics).

I also tend to disagree with the no flush policy enshrined in the California motto, "if it's yellow, let it mellow, if it's brown, flush it down," although I see her point. In my view dual mode toilets (a big flush for solids and a small one for liquids), and gray water toilets (where clean water in a house is recycled for flushing for which less clean water is satisfactory) make better sense as water conservation solutions than low flow toilets (a personal pet peeve), or the waterless urinals that they have at the recreation center in Golden, Colorado closest to town hall.

Is Capitalism A Big Toilet?

Three Cheers For Socialized Sewage

Tony Logan, meanwhile, examines the crappy world toilet situation as an example of the failure of capitalism. He is, of course, absolutely correct sanitation in much of the world is dismal. I've twice in recent days discussed latrines as the best short term solution to that problem in the Third World, at least until decent municipal sanitation can be established.

He offers the sad state of world sanitation as exhibit one in a larger indictment of the failure of capitalism to solve the world's problems, and hence, the inadequacy of capitalism itself at solving problems that perhaps communism could. He looks to an allegedly capitalism driven worldwide toilet shortage as a metaphor for capitalism's role in impeding U.S. efforts to secure decent healthcare for all.

I would also freely agree that good sanitation is best handled with government as the primary actor via municipal water and sanitation systems (which might be called "socialized sewage" by histrionic Republicans), secondarily through regulation of housing development through building codes by local government, and with a decided tertiary role assigned to individual firm or household involvement in solving the problem.

Market based solutions and personal responsibility for disposal of human waste free of government involvement makes sense only in rural America and the exurbs, where septic systems are preferable for reasons of cost to establishing the infrastructure necessary to maintain municipal systems. In urban and suburban areas, sewage is what they call in economics a "natural monopoly" because the economies of scale involved in have a comprehensive sewer system overwhelm all other considerations.

But, despite being a strong proponent of socialized sewage, I also disagree with Mr. Logan. I do not think that capitalism is the root cause of the Third World's woes in the toilet arena or otherwise. The industrialized world's greatest sin is of omission, it has not done a good job of finding a way to help other countries secure public health, healthy economies and better governments.

Indeed, conceptualizing economics issues in the developed world as capitalist or communist is an important reason that the industrialized world has done a poor job of promoting development elsewhere. Inherent in the domestic political movement that distrusts excessive government activity is the fact that the U.S. and the rest of the developed world used government to solve a lot of the problems that government isn't solving abroad in the Third World long ago, so we have forgotten about these uncontroversial government institutions and roles in our public discourse. When industrialized world policy makers come to the Third World, that arrive with their attitudes framed by a political discussion irrelevant to solving the problems at hand.

When Did The United States Develop?

If we want to look for the right lessons from our political history to solve the Third World's problems, which should look not to the present but to the eras in our own history when we solved similar problems, and even then, we need to ask ourselves if those solutions make sense elsewhere.

Flush toilets came to most of urban America before the Civil War, and to most of the rural American South during Reconstruction and the decade or two that followed (a trend that real began to take hold, incidentally, while Northern carpetbaggers were in charge).

Urban America mostly had municipal electrical service already when the Great Depression hit, after which the Rural Electrification Administration was established to do the same in rural America, a task mostly completed in two or three decades (I have the statistics in a past post at this blog on the History of Energy also reproduced at dKospedia).

Municipal police forces were first established in the late 1800s, replacing the local, mostly volunteer militias that preceded them, and soon became the norm nationwide. The nation didn't need a national law enforcement agency (the FBI) until Prohibition led to massive organized crime, and state level law enforcement growth was mostly a product of the automobile, which made state highway patrols necessary. Even today in the United States, more than 90% of law enforcement officers are at the county and municipal level, with multiple state police and federal law enforcement agencies, sometimes working at cross purposes with each other, making up the balance of law enforcement officers.

Likewise, most, but not all, states use locally elected prosecutors or district attorneys, or prosecutors appointed by local government elected officials, to decide who should be prosecuted and what plea bargains should be struck. A larger share of the judicial function in criminal cases takes place at the state level, but probably a majority of criminal cases are still heard before judges who are either elected locally, or appointed by local elected officials.

In contrast, the national government has played a leading role in Britain (Scotland Yard) since the day of Queen Victoria and continues to have little local control of law enforcement (there are 42 police districts in England with appointed supervisory boards, but most law enforcement policy is set by the Home Secretary who is a member of the cabinet appointed from Parliament), and the autonomy of local government in the U.K. has been limited for most of its history. Both Italy and France likewise historically ran local government from the central government through appointed local prefects, with the establishment of strong elected local government bodies not really taking hold until the late 20th century.

I don't have good dates on the history of municipal fire protection services, but suspect that this was probably widespread in urban America even sooner (fire protection was a general civic duty of neighbors in rural America until a very late date, and volunteer fire departments remain common in small communities).

Indeed, most of the governmental functions that work seamlessly and invisibly in the United States, but are obviously and tragically absent or mishandled in most of the third world, are governmental functions which a assigned to local governments and are mostly non-partisan in the United States.

How Did The U.S. Get Strong Elected Local Governments?

The American tradition of strong elected local governments dates to the Colonial era and the Puritan's Mayflower Compact, and continues uninterrupted, helps explain why such important and basic governmental functions were assigned to them. The practical communication and transportation gaps between the European monarchies that established colonies in the New World and the subject colonies made local autonomy a necessity. Also, a large share of American local governments were established after the right of ordinary (or at least middle class and affluent) people to vote was widely established internationally, and most importantly, in Britain, while many European local governments pre-date the popular franchise (although there were democratically governed towns long before there was democratic national governments in any great number), so the establishment of elected local government required innovation in Europe. National governments run by elected officials, which were more responsive to reformers than monarchies, were established before elected local governments were established in much of Europe.

Property taxation was the primary method of American municipal finance from pre-Revolutionary War days, until after World War II, at least, and remains a dominant means of finance for many municipal governments. Where property taxation didn't do the trick, early American governments in the feudal tradition, received services in kind, on juries, in the local militia, and so forth, to finance government undertakings that government didn't. Property taxes were initially the only tax source for public school funding and remain the dominant means of providing the local component of funding for public schools. And, as property tax scholars note, in relatively egalitarian communities, where home values tend to be similar, property taxes look a lot like simple head taxes. Meanwhile, in communities with gross inequalities of wealth, property taxes are quasi-feudal, with major property owners financing such governmental services as exist, for the benefit of their "subjects."

Of course, prior to the American Revolution, property ownership was still tied to the franchise, and it remained tied to the franchise for almost century after the Revolution in much of the United States. Also, historically, and really up until the Warren court really took up the cause of nationalizing the Bill of Rights and giving those rights practical legal meaning, the legal responsibilities of a local government weren't much different from the local responsibilities of a private corporation. In any case, state statutory restrictions on local government powers prior to the widespread onset of home rule charters, left local governments with little general legislative authority. With a financing mechanism limited to homeowners based on home value, a franchise limited to property owners, few operational requirements uniquely associated with having a governmental character, and limited general legislative power, municipal governments in the days when most municipal governments around today were founded looked more like today's home owner's associations than like modern governmental entities that happen to be municipalities.

Capitalism, Communism, Islam, and the Roman Empire

There is more to the scope of government than the tired old fight between capitalists and communists. The fight between capitalist and communists only makes sense in societies that have reached the stage of economic development where it makes sense and evolved in the first place, the industrial age. Then, at that stage of the game, some societies, like the British and Americans, accomplished industrialization mostly through the private sector, while in much of the rest of the world, major industrialization efforts were largely government led. (The Japanese and Korean system of oligarchic cabals sort of splits the difference.) But, until a society has meaningful physical capital, who owns that capital is irrelevant.

The Third World is full of disorganized communities in which no one is in a position take roll up their sleeves and turn underutilized services and resources into useful collective action. Governments, religious organizations, civic organizations and businesses are all devices for organizing groups of people bringing about that kind of action.

My take on the explosive initial growth of Islam is to a great extent the ability of its leaders to organize people to take action to better their communities that Islam's unified leadership fused church and state made possible. After the collapse of the Roman Empire, the pagan communities that Islam conquered, were disorganized and far less dynamic. Certainly, the Islamic empire was also extended at the tip of the swords of horse riding soldiers, but military force alone can't explain how that empire grew so fast from such a tiny baseline. Islam expanded from a tiny community of Arab believers, to an empire that stretched from Spain and Morroco to Indonesia, mostly in the first couple of generations following the death of its founding prophet. Force of arms alone, despite only minimal advances from pre-existing warcraft that arose at the time, makes a less persausive argument for this dramatic expansion than the force of ideas (in this case a more functional social organization), which could have muted organized opposition and permitted conquered territories to be easily co-opted.

Similar community catalysis can been seen in those areas, both inside and outside the United States, where Islam and Islamic institutions (or other religious organizations, such as the tremendously rapidly growing Christian churches and organizations in Africa) are growing most rapidly today. For example, the ability of the Taliban's Islamists to shake people out of three decades of anarchy into a coherent functioning society largely explains there rise to power in the stateless nation that was Afghanistan before they took control, until they were swept out of power just as they were on the verge on controlling the entire country in the post-9-11 invasion by the United States and its allies. If the Taliban hadn't organized Afghan society out of the funk it had fallen into, prior to the post-9-11 invasion, the country would have been ungovernable by anyone.

Back To Toilets

Where am I going with this and what does it have to do with Third World toilets?

Most places that have bad sanitation also have rampant unemployment. This is notable because unemployment is not primarily a shortage of jobs, but is instead a key measure of a societal failure to creativity and entrepreneurship. Behind the visible lack of physical capital is a lack of human and social capital. Unemployment happens when not enough self-starters with power can thing of anything worthwhile for less self-driven people to do. In any community with poor sanitation, there is no shortage of worthwhile work that could be done by unemployed people. Creating good sanitation systems is work that doesn't have to be done with cheap manual labor, but it is also work that certainly can be done that way.

In any community with both bad sanitation and rampant unemployment one of the big underlying problems is a lack of leadership to put two and two together to make everyone better off. It doesn't really matter if leaders style themselves as local government officials, business chiefs, clergy or non-profit organization directors. All that matters it that someone establishes some social structure to meet people's obvious needs with resources that are already available to meet those needs. It isn't that these communities don't have people that could potentially be those leaders, but those people either lack the know how, or can't manage to secure the authority they need, to make a difference.

In contrast, a well organized society, like that of the Romans, who were well known as the best plumbers of the ancient world, the Egyptians (who invented surveying out of the need to manage flood damage), the Greeks, the Incas and Mayans, the Anasazi (also known for their good water management), the Chinese Dynasties in their golden age, and the Islamic empire at its peak, can achieve high levels of civilization even without modern technology or particularly unusual natural resources.

What the Third World real needs is some way to get their societies organized to meet their basic needs using well established technologies, so that they can, having established the basic necessities for functioning, move on to making a better life for themselves from a firm foundation.

The Third World plays Plato

Plato, in his political treatise, The Republic compared various forms of government and asked which was best. Much of the Third World, is with greater and lesser degrees of conscious thought, asking the same question. What kind of society do we need to have to secure the good life?

The most of the Third World is neither capitalist nor communist. Many Third World monarchies, dictatorships and one party systems are for practical purposes feudal or neo-feudal. Other places, like Somalia, Northwestern Pakistan, and the rural portions of most Third World countries that are far from their small numbers of government officials and sprawling haphazard cities, are often pre-feudal, with fractured tribes and warlords having predominant influence locally.

It is little wonder then, that Islamists have been these places their new centers of evangelization and power bases. Reforming these kinds of communities is what brought Islam to the powerful role it has in today's world. The trouble is that while Islamist are good at bringing communities out of chaos and into order, they can impede further development in the organized urban communities that follow. Iran seems to have developed some sort of nascent democratic capitalism shepherded by Islamic theocracy, as have a couple of Islamic monarchies, but there are been more failures than successes, and even now Iran is experiencing intense international friction and chaffing against the limitations theocracy imposes upon it domestically, simmering below the official surface. Theocracy is a dead end development strategy.

Both capitalism and communism would be a boon to these countries, which have neither in any meaningful sense, if they could be pulled off. But, capitalism presumes a strong state to enforce the legal rights of the capitalist who has no army of his own. Communism presumes a society of full of people who have the inclination and ability to manage a whole society of large enterprises by committee. Most Third World countries lack either. Marx himself was very aware that neither capitalism nor communism are the default grounds states of economic organization, and are, instead successors to early modes of economic organization. Theocracy, another leading economic organization option, is effective at first in the situations the Third World faces, but is a dead end in the long run.

Democratic capitalism works pretty well in some places, and those places happen to be the wealthiest societies on the planet. But, democratic capitalism is only a means to an end, and I, at least, am not ideologically committed to it. I favor it because it often works, as a practical matter, not because it is right as a matter of some modern day natural law. Indeed, one important reason why the developed world has less than burgeoning enthusiasm for encouraging the economic development of the rest of the world has been the long list of failures that its efforts to put in place governmental and economic institutions in their own image has produced.

Democratic capitalism requires a lot of elements to work. These include elected officials who know how to give direction to civil servants in ways that produce result and have workable plans for securing the results the public is asking for, significant levels of administrative competence for a large class of civil servants, widely held commitments by community members and civil servants to non-corrupt administration, high levels of societal organization, strong coincidences between written law and actual practice in daily life, secure governmental authority, national level civic and political organization, a widespread money based post-subsistence economy, and a consensus on the core rules under which rule of law will operate. If enough of the elements needed to make democratic capitalism work are absent, it is unstable and can't produce effective civil government. In the industrial world, the necessary elements are so ubiquitous these predicates to making it work can be virtually ignored. But those elements are not present everywhere. Often in those countries, the military is the only institution organized enough to salvage the state at all (or is, at least, the most organized governmental institution in the country), so it steps in (often prematurely) when the fumbles of the civilian democratic regime grow obvious and no one manages to step up to the plate to fix them in normal civilian democratic channels.

For all its faults, colonialism was probably, on the whole, better than what it left in its wake, for the average citizens of colonial regimes. While almost all initially adopted democratic capitalist regimes upon attaining independence, you can count on your fingers the number that managed to hold onto it continuously afterward. The most notable post-Colonial regime to stay democratic, India, did so only after enduring a painful ethno-geographic schism and carefully hewing a middle line between communism and capitalism, and only after several hundred years of making a more nuanced assessment of the lessons to be learned from its colonizers, a period much longer than most of its fellow colonies of first world countries. Alas, as the small number of successful post-colonial regimes makes clear, like theocratic regimes, colonial powers also have a tendency to thwart further development. In the colonialism case, these thens to happen when colonized powers threaten to compete with the domestic industries and interests of the colonizing power.

Given the spectacular collapse of the one party rule regime that was the basis of the Soviet Union's empire, and the lack of necessary predicates to a thriving democratic capitalist government in much of the rest of the world, it is little wonder that prominent alternatives like Iran's theocratically restrained democracy, and China's more organic and undoctrinaire species of Communist government, look attractive. I'm not conviced, given the bloody and tumultuous history of Maoist communism in the world, even if much of that has faded away, that Chinese communism is much more attractive, although it has enough currency that the first democratic parliamentary regime of Nepal, upon shedding its monarchy, is one that calls itself Maoist.

I can't easily point to a way out that is better than the options discussed above. If there were a clear example, everyone would have followed it by now and there would be no Third World. But, sketching out the problems with the current approaches is a good first step to finding a better solution, even if it may have to wallow through muddy territory full of crappy alternatives on the way there.

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