Edward Glaeser has long argued that inefficient rules keep America’s urban areas at less than optimal densities.
Buenos Aires has a dog poop problem. According to Atlantic Cities blogger Natalie Schachar, the formal rule requiring people to pick up after their dogs is rarely enforced. The lack of enforcement, along with an attitude of “if no one sees, let it be”, results in lower quality of life and public health concerns. If too many people adopt lax norms about picking up dog waste, the city could have a pretty serious problem on its hands.
Matt Yglesias makes an interesting point about the interaction between pooper scooper laws, social norms, and the need (or lack of need) for enforcement:
This is one of these things where you see how rules and norms interact. 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 [poop] 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.
Cities in low-violation equilibria are there because their local social norms encourage a greater number of people clean-up after their dogs — not because police officers are vigilantly watching every dog walker. The low-violation equilibrium involves self-enforcing social norms that keep violations low and reduce the need for expensive formal enforcement. So how might a city like Buenos Aires get from high-violation equilibrium to low?
More accessible disposal would lower the costs of compliance but shifting the local norm likely requires something more. Experiences in other cities suggest that an enforcement campaign that is concentrated and well-publicized can help to shift the equilibrium somewhat quickly.
In When Brute Force Fails, Mark Kleiman writes about New York City’s success against fare-beating and squeegee men in the 1990s. The NYPD quickly and substantially reduced both violations by publicly announcing crack-downs and immediately following-up with custodial arrests. The credible threat of arrest made both schemes unprofitable. Public communication of intent, combined with concentrated but temporary enforcement, shifted the city to a low-violation equilibrium in which high levels of sustained law enforcement were no longer needed.
In Buenos Aires, an educational effort might complement a temporary and well-publicized surge in enforcement. Ads that shame neglectful dog walkers can shift the underlying norms about acceptable behavior. City leaders might even borrow a tactic from former Bogotá mayor Antanas Mockus: he put mimes to work at busy intersections, mocking reckless drivers, careless pedestrians, and other scofflaws. If a concentrated effort to ticket irresponsible dog owners doesn’t do the trick in Buenos Aires, maybe public ridicule from an actor in a dog costume will.