Friday, April 20, 2012

Don't be a litterbug!

Earth Day raises awareness about a whole range of issues, from climate change at the global level to littering at the local level.  Littering might seem a lot more trivial than climate change, but I think addressing both is partly a matter of changing the daily habits of millions of people.  I’ve been thinking a little about the environment at various levels, and how the issues are similar and how they’re different.

I’ve mentioned before in this blog that, as much as I love living in India, one of the things I find hard to tolerate is the presence of trash all over the place. Twice in recent weeks friends of mine have lamented about garbage in their neighborhoods.  In both cases, my friends told me government trash pickup is not regular so residents dump on vacant land.  In each case, an independent contractor had been identified to pick up the trash for a modest fee.  But the residents of these wealthy neighborhoods were not interested in paying for the service. 

Figuring out how to address garbage in the streets depends in part on why it happens.  When I studied economics, we talked about something called a “free rider” problem.  The free rider problem explains why people might continue littering even if they really would prefer to live in a clean city—and would be willing to pay the cost to have a clean environment.  (The cost of keeping the street clean would be money in the case of a trash collection fee or just the effort to dispose of garbage properly in the case of general littering.)  The problem is, if I pay but others don’t, I’ve paid for nothing, since the environment will still be dirty.  If 90% of us bear the cost but the other 10% don’t, we’ll have a relatively clean environment—and those 10% who continue littering will be getting a free ride.  As more and more people look to get a free ride, the environment gets dirtier and dirtier.  Why should I pay if I don’t think others will? 

In economics, the free rider problem is one of the justifications for government action.  In the example of neighborhood trash pickup, assuming we value a clean environment, if we had a neighborhood association that had the authority to collect mandatory fees, we could all vote to be billed by the association to pay the contractor.  We’d all be happy to pay since there would be no free riders.  In the case of littering more broadly, if we all valued clean streets, we might vote for politicians who campaigned on a pledge to crack down on littering. 

This example, though, shows why government action isn’t the only answer, and may not be effective all by its self.  What if people don’t value a clean environment?  Then they won’t vote for politicians who say they’ll raise rates to pay for trash pickup or pledge a crackdown on littering, and nothing will be done.  It’s also harder to solve the problem the broader it is.  It’s fairly easy to see government action as a solution if people value cleanliness and trash in the streets is mostly a matter of households dumping their garbage.  An effective trash collection service funded by the government based on rates collected by households could work and satisfy everyone.  But if casual littering is a big part of the problem, stricter government laws on littering would be much harder to enforce.   (Imagine the manpower and paperwork it would take if everyone who littered in Hyderabad today was ticketed and fined!) 

What are some alternatives or accompaniments to government action?  A starting point is public education that increases the value people place on hygiene and a clean environment.  For example, a public outreach campaign could explain that widespread garbage encourages rodent infestation and mosquito breeding, both of which increase disease prevalence and childhood mortality.  That might make people care.  Sometimes public education can contribute to other forms of “coercion” that substitute for government action.   In the U.S. littering has declined dramatically during my lifetime largely because of public outreach campaigns. In most places in the U.S. today, laws against littering are pretty much irrelevant, since the social pressure to dispose of trash properly is so strong.  Campaigns focused on children, who were urged: “Don’t be a litterbug!”  Today, a schoolchild who dropped his food wrapper on the playground would be severely criticized by his peers, a penalty much more effective than a teacher’s rebuke.  Social pressure has also made the wearing of fur pretty much socially unacceptable in the U.S. because of concern about abuses in some fur trapping practices—even though the trapping of wild animals only affected a few types of fur, and there is no similar social taboo associated with leather.

The issues associated with global climate change are much more complicated.  For starters, there is no global authority that can assure compliance by all in any scheme.  But one thing that is the same is that a solution will impose costs on everyone, and that will only be sustainable if there is popular consensus about the value of a reduction in greenhouse gases.  Achieving that is complicated by the fact that the benefits of action will accrue largely to future generations.  But the importance of public education is the same for climate change as it is for littering.  The potential for leveraging social pressures is evident in the proliferation of marketing campaigns for “green” products.  In the U.S., we are still fairly far from a real popular consensus on policies to combat climate change.  But I think grassroots trends and increasing popular interest suggest that we can make up ground quickly and reach a point soon when we’re willing to change old habits. 

I’m also hopeful that Hyderabad will soon embrace a new commitment to cleaner streets.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Voting Across Borders

Click here for video message by CG Dhanani

Indian and American citizens share certain democratic rights, and we also share the fundamental democratic responsibility to vote.  With U.S. elections coming up this year, I’ve been giving some thought to voting.  By that, I don’t mean thinking about whether or not I’ll vote (I will), but more general issues like voting participation rates and absentee voting.  

In the U.S., absentee voting has long been an accepted practice, largely through postal votes, although some states are experimenting with policies to encourage voting by creating more options that don’t require a voter to show up at a given place on a given day.  I know absentee voting isn’t accepted everywhere.  In my last country of assignment, Zimbabwe, the issue was a very heated one.  Many Zimbabweans left the country because of political repression, so naturally the opposition strongly favored allowing Zimbabweans in the diaspora to vote.  The ruling party adamantly opposed it.  In some countries, however, efforts to facilitate voting for citizens living overseas are much more direct than those of the U.S.  In my second last country of assignment, Gabon, I witnessed French citizens lining up in their embassy to cast ballots in French elections.  I can just imagine the logistical challenge we would face if thousands of Americans resident in Andhra Pradesh came to the Consulate in Hyderabad on November 6 to exercise their constitutional rights!

I was interested to see that India’s voter participation rates are quite similar to rates in U.S. presidential elections—and we’re both at the bottom end of a list of major democracies on voting rates, according to Wikipedia: Voter turnout - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.  The same article shows a surprising difference between the U.S. and India in the breakdown of voting rates according to socio-economic status.  In the U.S., voting rates rise as the level of education rises, while in India, those with college educations vote less than those without, and those who have studied at a post-graduate level have the lowest rates of all.  I’m not sure data from just one election really says very much—but it’s interesting in any case.

In the U.S., we have national elections every two years, but only hold presidential elections every four years.  (All seats in the House of Representatives and a third of Senate seats are up for election every two years.) Rates of voter participation are sharply higher in presidential election years, rising from roughly 37 percent of the voting age population to over 57 percent.  Rates of voter participation have been increasing in the U.S. since 1996, and the 2008 election reportedly had the highest eligible voter participation rate since 1960. 

It will be interesting to see whether that trend to higher voting rates continues in 2012.  I hope so.  Reported U.S. public dissatisfaction with government, which I discussed in a blog post last year, should motivate citizens to do their part to make government respond to their needs.  If we don’t fulfill our civic responsibility, we have only ourselves to blame if those elected don’t reflect our views. 

As government employees, my colleagues and I are subject to strict restrictions on partisan political activities, but we are fully authorized and personally energized to encourage our fellow citizens to participate in our political process.  We had an in-house session on absentee voting for Americans working at the Consulate the other day, and I was pleased to see how interested my colleagues were in the subject.  For Americans interested in absentee voting from India, there’s information on our consulate website, but all you really need to know is at another site: Federal Voting Assistance ProgramOne important point to note for American citizens: the Consulate is able to transmit your ballot through the U.S. mail for you.  (Even though voting is voluntary and filing tax returns is mandatory for Americans, we can only do this for voting, not for tax filing.)