A Problem That Can Be Fixed

(Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Nicholas Kristof is scandalized by the shortage of public toilets in New York City. It is, indeed a problem. (I stand by my description of Starbucks as a chain of public toilets with a sideline in coffee.) But he leaves out a big part of the story.

New York used to provide public toilets in the most straightforward way: as a commercial service. If you want something to happen, then figure out a way for somebody to make money from it – which is what New York did, for years.

In 1975, the usual reformers and improvers did what they usually do: They made things worse, legally prohibiting pay toilets at the behest of the National Organization for Women. And so New York went from having a modest economic incentive to provide public toilets to having no incentive at all — more accurately, negative incentives.

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This is the kind of problem that a rich society wants to have: one that can be fixed with money.

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