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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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.