What dog poo teaches us about drug policy

Why don't we let dogs crap on the street? Mostly because it's nasty.

Matt Yglesias makes the point that the intersection between rules and norms isn't always clear cut.

When you look at a public health problem like the fact that the streets of Buenos Aires are frequently smeared with dog crap, it is tempting for anyone who spends most of their time thinking about public policy to argue for a political – that is, legislative – solution. But most places where this particular problem has been solved don't need to resort to the law all that frequently at all. As Yglesias writes:

The fact that in major American cities people generally clean up after their dogs is clearly related to the laws on the books about this, but it's also clearly the case that in practice police departments are not dedicating vast resources to the issue. And in fact though the gains from not having dog shit on the sidewalk are meaningful, they're relatively small compared to the costs of a rigorous enforcement of pooper scooper laws. But what I recall from growing up in New York in the eighties is that the norms shifted to the point where enforcement costs are now very low simply because there's not that much violation.

Now, it is possible to change norms with legislation. But it's equally possible to change norms without legislation, or, for that matter, to enact legislation which does nothing to norms. For examples of all three, look to drugs policy. Heroin has been all but eliminated as a socially-acceptable drug, while the same has not happened to marijuana. Meanwhile, despite increasing control surrounding sales, cigarettes have been fundamentally legal for years, but the norms surrounding their use have changed completely.

Groups who want to change society often go straight to pushing for legislation which, they hope, will do the job for them. But the really effective organisations also skip the political aspect entirely, and try to directly change the norms which, on a day-to-day basis, guide our behaviour far more effectively than the intricacies of law.

Take, for example, the idea that one ought not waste water. Unlike recycling, there's no legal requirement there (in Britain at least – unless there's a hosepipe ban). And unlike reducing electricity usage, there's little financial motivation, since few people are on metered water yet.

There is a narrower point to be made too, which is that dog crap on the pavements is something which could be solved essentially overnight, but hasn't. Require dog licenses to own a dog; require DNA samples to obtain a dog license; match any pavement crap to DNA samples on file.

It's an idea which is perennially suggested, and rarely acted upon – except in a few gated communities, where it has been remarkably successful:

The PooPrints process required all current tenants to bring their pet(s) to our office where their mouths were swabbed for a DNA sample. Any new pets introduced to the property by current or new residents must have a DNA sample taken prior to the move in date.

We believe the PooPrints program has been a huge success for us. We no longer have dog waste complaints, our properties are clean and waste free, and our resident retention rate has increased.

Buenos Aires, take note.

A dog. The dog is adorable. But the dog poos. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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General election 2017: Why don't voters get more angry about public spending cuts?

In 2012, 61 per cent were concerned about the impact of future cuts. By 2017 this was down to 45 per cent. What happened?

The shape of Jeremy Corbyn and Labour’s pitch to the country is clear. The overarching theme is a “rigged” system, a Bernie Sanders style anti-establishment campaign. 

This started with a clear economic focus, but will build out to public services and state support more generally: first, the switch to under-funded schools, and we’ll soon see the NHS emerge as the primary target. As the shadow Health secretary Jon Ashworth said, Labour believes the public has reached a “tipping point” in their concern about waiting lists and accident and emergency services.

And this focus makes perfect sense for Labour. It just won’t work as well as they might hope.

Why does it make sense? Firstly because there is record pessimism about the future of the NHS. Our poll from March showed that 62 per cent of those surveyed expect the NHS to get worse in the next five years, the highest we’ve measured – and by far the most negative outlook for any public service.

It also makes sense because this is one the very few important issues where Labour has a lead over the Conservatives. In our monthly issues index for February, more than half of voters said it was one of the most important issues facing the country, the highest level since 2002. And it’s always in the top three issues that people say determine their vote.

And Labour still have a lead on the NHS: 36 per cent say they have the best policies of all the parties, with the Conservatives on just 23 per cent.

So why will it not work well for Labour? 

First, Labour’s lead on the issue is nothing like it was, even in the relatively recent past. In 2012, 46 per cent thought Labour were the best party for the NHS, and only 16 per cent thought the Conservatives were. In previous decades, Labour was up above 50 per cent at various points. They’ve lost a lot of ground as the originator and defender of the NHS.

Second, while Corbyn is right to claim that issues like public services have more day-to-day impact on people, our relationship with Europe is uniquely dominant right now. Outside a major political upheaval like Brexit or an economic meltdown, there is no doubt that the NHS would have topped concerns over the winter, as we’ve seen it do many times before. We have a special relationship with the NHS, and when we feel it’s under threat it can trump all other concerns - as in the early 2000s, when more than 70 per cent said it was the key national issue. But instead, Brexit tops the list right, with the EU higher in people’s minds than at any point since we started asking the question in 1974.

In any case, it’s not even clear that a real tipping point has been reached in our health care concerns. While our worry for the future is extremely high, current satisfaction and overall ratings are still high, and not declining that much. This is shown across lots of surveys of individual health services: ratings are slipping, but slowly. And this is brought home by international comparisons – we’re the most worried about the future of our health service out of 23 countries, but we’re also among the most satisfied currently. We’re a country-level example of the “worried well”.

And this leads to a fourth point – expectations of public services seem to be shifting. The narrative of the necessity of spending cuts is so firmly embedded now that expectations of the level of service we can afford as a country may have moved for the long-term.

We asked in 2012 what percentage of planned spending cuts people thought had been made. Of course, this is an impossible question to answer definitively, but it is a useful gauge of how long a road people think we have ahead. Back then, people thought 40 per cent of planned cuts had already happened. Now, five years later, we think it’s still just 37 per cent. The idea of semi-permanent austerity has taken hold.

Of course, this could still provide a key leverage point for Labour, if people think there is a way to avoid this future. But the key point is that the cuts are not biting at a personal level for large proportions of the population, rather they are concentrated among quite a small proportion of people. So, back in 2012, 32 per cent said they had been affected by cuts to public services – by 2017 this had actually declined to 26 per cent. No cumulative, growing resentment at the personal impact of cuts - in fact, the opposite. 

And similarly, back in 2012, 61 per cent were concerned about the impact of future cuts on them and their families. But by 2017 this was down to 45 per cent. 

We are constantly scanning for the “tipping point” that the Labour MP Jon Ashworth has identified. It may come suddenly, and if it comes it seems most likely it will be the NHS that shifts the balance. But there’s no sign yet, and that makes Labour’s message that much more difficult to land. 

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