24 March 2011

Class, Culture, Toilets and Time

I heard two recent stories about toilets in Asia in the last twenty-four hours.

HADENYA, Japan — The colossal wave that swept away this tiny fishing hamlet also washed out nearby bridges, phone lines and cellphone service, leaving survivors shivering and dazed and completely cut off at a hilltop community center. . . . With no time to mourn for their missing loved ones, they were immediately thrust into the struggle to stay alive in the frigid winter cold, amid a hushed, apocalyptic landscape of wrecked homes, crushed vehicles and stranded boats. They had scant food and fuel and no news from the outside world — not even the scope of the devastation.

On Wednesday, after the Japanese military finally reached them for the first time since the tsunami struck 12 days ago, by erecting makeshift bridges and cutting roads through the debris, they told a remarkable tale of survival that drew uniquely on the tight bonds of their once-tidy village, having quickly reorganized themselves roughly along the lines of their original community: choosing leaders, assigning tasks and helping the young and the weak. . . .

Almost as soon as the waters receded, those rescued here said, they began dividing tasks along gender lines, with women boiling water and preparing food, while men went scavenging for firewood and gasoline. Within days, they said, they had re-established a complex community, with a hierarchy and division of labor, in which members were assigned daily tasks. . . .

Refugee centers like this one in Hadenya exhibit a proud cooperative spirit, and also a keen desire to maintain Japan’s tidy perfectionism. Along the hallways, boxes of supplies lie stacked in orderly rows. The toilets are immaculate, with cups and soap neatly lined up. At the entrance, sheets of paper list names and assigned tasks for the day, like chopping firewood, carrying supplies and cooking.

From here.

How can you not admire a society that is organized enough to keep its toilets immaculate and its people well organized, even in the most dire circumstances?

Yesterday, I heard a story on the radio about the state of rail infrastructure in India (probably NPR or the BBC although I can't find a link to the story), where construction surges ahead in places like Mumbai, while the existing infrastructure is aging and underfunded. Particularly striking was an account of a train called the "Super" which was anything but. It's toilets, typical of passenger rail in India, were noxious. As another recent story on the subject sums it up:

For most visitors, rail travel in India is an indispensable part of any holiday, although an ability to overlook the often filthy toilets and deal with basic comfort and crowded carriages is required.

India has no shortage of cheap labor. Indeed, it has a government program that guarantees every person in India who shows up wanting to work a minimum wage job a certain number of days per year, usually on infrastructure projects. It also has trains full of people who could volunteer to do the work if organized properly. But, it doesn't. It has nausea inducing cesspools used only by the most desperate instead that make life miserable for train passengers and present a poor image of the country to every traveler domestic and foreign.

Meanwhile, Japan manages to keep its toilets pristine, even an isolated village devastated by a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and a tsunami that hasn't had contact with the outside world for a week and a half.

It is hard to chalk this difference to religion. Both Hindu and Islamic religious precepts give considerable attention to ritual purity and cleanliness; at least as much as the Shinto, Buddhist and Confucian syncretism found in Japan. Nor can one look to differences in climate - if anything, toilet cleanliness is more important from a public health perspective in sultry India than it is in frigid Northern Japan. Nor, must toilets on conveyances necessarily be putrid. Amtrak and most commercial airlines manage to have at least marginally clean toilets most of the time. Back in the era when trains were a leading means of intercity transportation in the United States, toilets on trains were cleaner than they are on Amtrak today.

Instead, it is a product of culture, and perhaps, in a not unrelated way, of economic development. Japanese communities place a premium on having decently clean toilets and are willing and able to organize themselves to secure them. India's rail culture continually drifts on the edge of mayhem and chaos, and the communities that use and manage it lack the will to decide that nasty toilets on trains don't have to be tolerated.

It isn't that South Asians don't prefer clean toilets to dirty ones. An ability to provide indoor plumbing and running water are now central to a young man's hopes of securing a good marriage match in India these days, very much as they were in the Reconstruction Era American South. But, for whatever reason, today's India is having trouble organizing itself as a society to secure this desirable thing.

American culture is somewhere in between. There are places - upper floors of office buildings, university classroom buildings, McDonald's restaurants, airports, the Cherry Creek Mall in Denver, and country clubs, where toilets are routinely tidy. There are other places - small rural gas stations, the Burger King restaurant at Cherry Creek North in Denver, public parks, the first floor of inner city libraries, outhouses at construction sites, and bus stations, where nasty bathrooms are the norm.

In America, toilet cleanliness is a pretty reliable social class marker. The higher the social class of the people who usually use it, the cleaner they tend to be, although this is also strongly a function in the institutional culture of the toilet operator. Toilet cleanliness is also something that is typically greater in private settings than in public ones in the United States, although there isn't a firm general rule.

There are other fascinating things one can learn from toilet culture as well. Americans, despite their strong ideological commitment to market approaches to economics, very rarely charge directly for using a toilet, although many establishments try to limit them to customers only, especially in areas with large numbers of transients. The decidedly socialist leaning French, by comparison, routinely charge a small fee to use a toilet, or at least expect users to tip an attendant. French fee for service toilets tend to be quite clean.

Toilets are interesting as a cultural indicator because they are impossible not to observe if you spend any amount of time someplace, because it is a universal indicator since every society has to have some way of handling the issue, and because it is pretty much impossible to hide their condition.

To the extent that toilet conditions reflect some version of economic development and social class, how "civilized" a culture is to use an out of fashion term and way of thinking, and there seems to be reason to think that this is something of a general trend, one also has to ask how much this is an effect of affluence, and how much it is a result of some attitude about how communal affairs are managed that gives rise to affluence. Are clean toilets a result of a shared high value afforded to a tidy and well ordered public sphere? Of shared social norms? Of minimal civic obligation? And, these these same values translate into affluence in the economy?

People like Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the modern Turkish State, were convinced that this kind of thing was crucial to economic development. His agenda for reform included not just changes to the legal system and political system, but such cultural level reforms as the adoption of a national, Western style dress code designed to root out social and religious markers of the Ottoman era, despite the lack of an obvious connection between wearing suits and ties and conducting the affairs of a modern society. After all, as a former employer of mine enjoyed observing, the British conquered the world in shorts. But, it also seems that there really is something cultural that has to transform in the course of economic development.

One of the fascinating examples comes from British history in the early Industrial Era, one of the first places in the world anywhere that was organized socially and technologically on an industrial basis (continental Europe followed later, often heavily driven by government action as opposed to private investment). At that time and place was a cultural upheaval that included a greatly increased attention to punctuality and uniform time measurements. Clock towers went up all over England to keep communities synchronized. Many farm workers in the first waves converting to the industrial regime had great difficulty getting used to ideas like showing up on time and getting paid by the hour. While not many economists study international toilet cleanliness levels, there is an entire subfield of studies on the link between punctuality and time consciousness and economic development (see e.g. here and here and here and here and here and here and here). Economists study how fast people walk, how fast people talk, how timely trains are, and more. The aphorism about the Italian fascists is that at least they managed to get the trains to run on time. Standardized time zones have their origins in the efforts of train operators to coordinate their time tables.

Certainly, suits and ties are any more necessary to economic development than kimonos. Likewise, toilet cleanliness is not a cause of the rise and fall of great empires. But, one doesn't have to believe such absurdities to conclude that economic development and cultural transformation are inextricably intertwined, and that the development of some set of social virtues is as a critical a technology as the railroad or the internal combustion engine to attaining the economic scale and social coordination that is necessary for an affluent society.

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