You Want Intense Politics? Try Dog Poop Politics!

You may have heard a news item earlier this week in which the mayor of San Marino, CA (an upscale “planned community” in Los Angeles County) resigned after a resident’s security camera caught him tossing a bag of dog poop onto said resident’s lawn.

At TMS today, WaMo contributing editor and MSNBC contributor Tim Noah gives us the extensive backstory on this incident, and its relationship to what is apparently a raging nationwide debate over the sanctity of one’s trash bins against invasions by alien dog waste. A sample:

The first thing to be said about this debate is that for all its heat, it really isn’t where the action is. The real public policy issue is that dog owners need to bag and dispose of their dog’s feces. When they don’t, people are liable to step in it, which is unpleasant. In addition, should the waste matter fall down a storm drain, it will pollute whatever body of water it ends up in, spreading bacteria, killing fish, and posing some risk to human health. That the admonition to pick up after your dog is heeded more and more is something that anyone who remembers the bad old days will readily celebrate. That Americans are now arguing about whose trash to put the crap into is a measure of how far we’ve come.

The second thing to say about this debate is that it isn’t what it appears, i.e. an argument about whether we should regard people’s trash cans as part of what my friend the late journalist Jonathan Rowe termed “the commons,” i.e., resources that are shared by the community in practice even when not as a matter of law, or as private property that must be respected in accordance with principles famously laid down by John Locke.

Why isn’t this a boxing match between Rowe and Locke? Because in most instances the trash bin unambiguously is not the property of the homeowner who fills it with household refuse. It’s the property either of the city or of a contractor hired by the city to remove trash. Garbage cans nowadays are typically provided by the city so that they can be lifted and emptied by semi-automated garbage trucks. You may put your garbage in it but you may not take it with you if you move to another city, because it isn’t yours. Call it creeping socialism if you like, but where once we all owned our own garbage cans, today we do not. It pretty much always says so in lettering somewhere prominent on the can.

I don’t own a dog, but do puppy-sit now and then for my minister, and I have to admit occasionally availing myself of neighbors’ trash cans (when they are out on the street for pickup) for dog poop, particularly late at night when I don’t want to risk an unpleasant encounter with the raccoons who frequent the trash cans that sit in a very dark area behind our apartment. It did not occur to me that this was a deep matter of law and politics as well as etiquette, but Tim’s right: it’s a metaphor for some bigger disputes over “private property rights” that don’t turn out to be either “private” or “rights.”

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.