Avoiding wasteful government spending

Jacksonville, Florida has avoided it so successfully that residents who find rabid animals in their yards are completely on their own. After all, freedom includes the freedom to get rabies.

A little vignette from Jacksonville: a family discovers a rabid raccoon in the back yard and then discovers that no public agency is prepared to deal with it. Their mistake was not calling Grover Norquist, who no doubt would have been willing to drown the raccoon in the same bathtub with the federal government. Since Norquist already foams at the mouth, a bite wouldn’t have done him any harm.

Looking for a way to stimulate the economy quickly? How about sending some federal money to state and local governments so they can hire people instead of laying them off?

Update Thanks to reader Ed Whitney, who flagged this story for me. Since our hyper-active spam filter has prevented him from posting his comment, here it is:

“Problem solved” when the family kills the raccoon with a shovel—this is where we see the divergence between two philosophies of government. It is a matter of what we conceive as the “problem space” and its boundaries. Brett sees the problem space as the family back yard, with its boundaries defined by the fence that marks the boundaries the property line. This very nearly defines the conservative approach to government; it defines problems in terms of individuals and the boundaries of their private space. The individual family is affected by the rabid animal in the yard, and solves the problem by killing it with a shovel.

On the other hand, liberals will tend to see the problem space with larger boundaries. In this case, the problem space is the entire area in which rabies is endemic in the wild animal population. The entire community is affected by a wildlife population in which the prevalence of rabies is high, and the problem space crosses not only family property lines, but probably crosses county and even state lines.

That makes this story such a fine ink blot test. Or maybe an Ishihara color perception test. Being red-green colorblind, I see mostly spots on the images, but I know people who say that they can see numbers in the patterns. I do not think they are making things up; there are numbers there that I simply cannot see.

In the story from Florida, the pattern “Rabies Control=A Public Good” is loud and clear. If the family had bolted the doors and waited a while, the rabid animal would have gone to another yard, perhaps one where a small child was playing. Clinical rabies remains one disease with a case fatality rate close to 100%. It is a public good to have mechanisms to control it.

If Brett or I leave dirty dishes in our sink, they do not migrate to the neighbor’s kitchen and do not crawl off into the municipal water supply. “Clean Dishes= A Private Good.” Eventually I get tired of the pile of smelly dishes and get out the detergent and take care of them on my own without government assistance, as befits a private good.

This vignette serves well to illustrate a paradigm defining the distinction between conservative and liberal thinking about government and its role.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

36 thoughts on “Avoiding wasteful government spending”

  1. John Cole at Balloon Juice had the right a idea a little while back. The right’s faith in lower taxes and less government is so unshakable that giving them exactly what they want–in this case, a truly small government incapable of handling public health and safety issues–is the only way they will even think about maybe admitting they were wrong.

    Or not. With these people you never know. A return to the early 18th century could very well be their target.

  2. I don’t disagree with the point of the post or of the first comment. But that vignette is not a good example of the problem. It doesn’t mention lack of funds or layoffs, but seems like an example of bureaucratic disorganization that could occur in the most well-funded local government.

  3. “Using that logic, one of Kim’s family members killed the raccoon with a shovel and then took it away to be tested for rabies.”

    Problem solved. I daily face the fact that no government agency is prepared to deal with my dirty dishes, but they make it from the sink to the dishwasher somehow, anyway. The Gagers demonstrated that rabid coons somehow get dealt with even if government agencies don’t do squat. To a liberal, this is a disaster, somehow.

  4. Brett, do you really not see that a rabid raccoon is more of a public health problem than are your dirty dishes?

  5. If everybody was packing heat or carrying a shovel the way the Founders intended, this wouldn’t be a problem, now, would it?

    Besides, even a rabid raccoon is dinner.

  6. I think that Brett works at being obtuse.

    The next guy will get out his brand new .357 magnum with hollow point bullets (turns ’em inside out, don’tcha know). He won’t be cognizant of the need to be sure that all bullets go into the ground, the animal will get on a garbage can and we can only pray that he doesn’t kill his neighbors (even if they are called Brett). I mean, what could go wrong. The guy with the shovel was lucky – not all sick ‘coons will fail to get a bite before the shovel ends their existence. ( I’m explaining this so Brett will understand.)

    Their are places where a government person who knows what he/she is doing are really necessary.

  7. Brett’s reply is pretty reasonable and easily anticipated. If you want to persuade you have to at least deal with the obvious… We had a squirrel family living in our crawlspace recently. I called an animal control company. Even though the guy’s truck was plastered with anti-obama stickers. He got the job done. Not everything needs a government agency.

  8. The real libertarian solution to a rabid raccoon in your backyard is to wait for it to wander into someone else’s backyard. That solves the problem, and without paying anyone at all, thus preserving the your full unique and irreplacable economic output! You probably invented a new alloy while you were waiting, too. Good for you.

  9. My experience in this arena was biking along in Santa Barbara, and finding some Skunk roadkill.
    Called various places to find out who cleans it up, and nobody had the responsibility.
    Wasn’t my problem, since I lived miles away.

    Rabies somehow seems more interesting as a communal issue, since it’s a contagious disease, rather than just a mess.

  10. If private industry were just released from their shackles, they could create, innovate, and distribute a cure for rabies.

  11. Dan,

    Just in case that’s not snark, there is a cure (of sorts) for rabies. It’s called vaccination, and it has to take place reasonably promptly after exposure (generally within 10 days). Vaccination in one form or another has been around for rabies since Pasteur introduced the first protocol in 1885. We have much more effective vaccines now, but it’s better not to be exposed in the first place.

    And just for Mr. Bellmore’s information, rabies can be transmitted without bite exposure. It’s not common, but since saliva carries the virus, it can be transmitted by aerosol exposure of mucous membranes (think eyes, guy). Bashing a rabid raccoon with a shovel would seem a good way to splash saliva around. Mr. Kim ought to see his physician and get vax’d just as a precaution.

    And that is why we have (or used to have) vector control bureaus in our public health departments.

  12. Don’t forget Mosquito Abatement Districts too.
    All part of the BIG GOVERNMENT PLOT to SQUASH your freedom to get sick with Dengue

  13. I’m not as persuaded as you seem to be that the failure of a gaggle of government agencies to give a toss about such an elementary public function as rabies control, is a sign that said government is a good channel for deploying resources to the general benefit.

    Why is the US democratic process so good at getting money spent on things like lawn police, and so bad at getting money spent on things like this? How do you think that might be turned around? Do you think it even can?

  14. @BM, why wait? Why not toss the leftovers from dinner over the fence and help the raccoon make up its mind?

  15. Like Brett, I keep my vicious animal protective gear out in the wood shed hanging next to my fire truck. The price of freedom is eternal vigilance… and the cost of a whole lotta expensive equipment.

  16. Yeah, yeah, shovels are expensive equipment, can’t expect everybody to have one… Or to look in the Yellow Pages, and find that several different people would have gladly wielded the shovel for them, for a fee. Blast it, if a person’s first reflex is to ask the government to do something, there darned well OUGHT to be a government agency already in place to do it! That they could do it themselves has nothing to do with it…

    Look, you cited a case where somebody had a problem, discovered the local government wouldn’t solve it for them, and then proceeded to solve it themselves. The way people across most of the country would have, without the intermediate step of first trying to get somebody else to do the work. And you expected this to prove that the local government’s services were deficient, rather than that this service isn’t needed because people can hit their own damn coons with their own damn shovels?

    Whatever your politics, this was not what I’d call clever rhetoric. More like a bone-headed failure to recognize that one’s own spinal reflexes aren’t universal.

  17. The way people across most of the country would have, without the intermediate step of first trying to get somebody else to do the work . . . More like a bone-headed failure to recognize that one’s own spinal reflexes aren’t universal.

    I know humor and irony aren’t really your thing, but christ on a crutch, you couldn’t even make it two paragraphs here.

  18. Brett: “Yeah, yeah, shovels are expensive equipment, can’t expect everybody to have one…”

    It’s not about killing the animal. It’s about not getting infected yourself. Protective gloves, respirators (N95 or better), and goggles are generally considered the minimum level of PPE for dealing with potentially rabid animals. Gear and anything else that may have come into contact with the animal’s fluids or tissue should be treated with an appropriate disinfectant (especially if you splashed brain tissue all over the place by bashing its head in with your shovel). If there’s risk of the virus having become airborne as an aerosol (because, say, you bashed the animal’s head in with a shovel), using high-intensive shortwave UV light to disinfect the area may also be a good idea.

    No, I’m not joking. Rabies is serious business.

  19. “If private industry were just released from their shackles, they could create, innovate, and distribute a cure for rabies.”

    Uh, Dan, That’s the same private industry that no longer makes coral snake anti-venom (per Sean-Paul: The Agonist, 16 Aug. 2K11) since it isn’t a profit center? (Get bitten by a coral snake and you die modulus anti-venom: thus, today, you die). Of course there is no such thing as the greater good (saving people from snake bite, or rabies, or…).

    Dan, I expect that you were being ironic, and with most irony, there is a deeper meaning that sometimes needs explicating for those who refer to us “Liberuls” as “bone-headed.” As Katja easily demonstrated, Brett’s favored solution (take shovel to animals head) is itself dangerous as hell. I wonder who should pay for the vaccine the shovel wielder should be getting right now

    Perhaps we should be taking up a collection (I understsnd the vaccine is expensive as hell). Will Brett contribute? Especially as using a shovel was clearly a “bone-headed” act in itself.

  20. “Why is the US democratic process so good at getting money spent on things like lawn police, and so bad at getting money spent on things like this? How do you think that might be turned around? Do you think it even can?”

    I’ll have no problem admitting that the lawn-police syndrome might be mismanagement. But I’m also suspicious that there aren’t revenue pressures at work. Thus – and this is certainly true in other areas – the weakening and underfunding of government agencies compounds any inefficacies.

  21. If nothing else, there should be a public agency who knows enough to track and disseminate information about rabid animals. Because that raccoon didn’t come down with rabies by spontaneous generation. Even around here, where there’s no agency to deal with bears in people’s backyards, at least the police have the funding to issue notices that bears are around and to take down your bleeping bird feeders.

  22. Lawn police – Santa Barbara had that during the drought years, when it was illegal to water your lawn with tap water.

  23. “I wonder who should pay for the vaccine the shovel wielder should be getting right now”

    If I remember correctly the vaccine against rabies may have dire effects. So standard procedure being first to determine if the animal has rabies before applying the vaccine, that is if the animal is available for tests.

  24. “Mr. Kim ought to see his physician and get vax’d just as a precaution.

    And that is why we have (or used to have) vector control bureaus in our public health departments.”

    Let’s just remind everyone that neither “seeing your physician” nor “getting vax’d” are free. Neither is hiring a private agency. Meaning that Mr Kim has every incentive to ignore the problem and hope it goes somewhere else.

    And this is the point. This is not a PRIVATE problem — it’s not that this family wants the government to repaint their garage.
    Rabid animals can hurt anyone. It’s most efficient to deal with them when someone finds one, rather than hunting for them, or waiting till they have attacked. But if we stack all the incentives such that anyone encountering one will just ignore and hope it becomes someone else’s problem, we’re losing that efficiency.

  25. This thread has certainly been an education in rabies for me, particularly Katja’s comment. It’s gotten me to wondering. I’m guessing that localities that do have staff to handle rabies control give that staff other responsibilities as well, for there couldn’t be enough rabies control work to keep someone busy full-time. So what else is this staff person doing, that isn’t getting done in places that don’t have this position? Not that I’m expecting an answer on that.

    It also occurs to me that in the current political climate, every day we creep closer to Brett’s version of Utopia, and considering that, he should be a rather happy fellow.

  26. For those who don’t want to do it themselves.

    Indeed, this does demonstrate the huge philosophical gulf between liberals and conservatives. Not, let us note, a matter of one of us being wrong about the facts, but a matter of our having an entirely different approach to just about everything.

    They solved the problem themselves. If they didn’t want to do it themselves, they could have hired professionals to do it. You’re outraged because the government didn’t solve the problem for them, and then bill everybody, including the people who, when presented with the exact same problem, DID solve it themselves.

    “Rabid animals can hurt anyone. It’s most efficient to deal with them when someone finds one, rather than hunting for them, or waiting till they have attacked. But if we stack all the incentives such that anyone encountering one will just ignore and hope it becomes someone else’s problem, we’re losing that efficiency.”

    But, under precisely the set of incentives you decry, Kim DID deal with it when she found it, rather than ignoring it and hoping it would become somebody else’s problem. You just can’t recognize when you’re confronted with evidence that contradicts your world-view.

  27. Note that Brett used a different definition of the problem, reducing it to the simple terms of property boundaries and defending them while not acknowledging that what is outside my property boundary can be my problem as well. There is no “we” or “us” in his world. And a decently funded animal control does not just respond to house calls.

    His is a failure of the moral imagination and a failure to understand our world cannot be adequately understood in nice neat little atomistic terms.

    Before they invade a person’s property rabid animals will likely have passed the disease on to other animals, and if it encounters a human, not everyone will necessarily recognize the animal as deadly – with deadly results.

    Assuming Brett is intellectually persuaded he is right he might take a look at Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality. Berger has good old style conservative creds, and the ideas they develop are from a man who studied with von Mises, so he’s not a lefty or a post modernist.

  28. I wonder what Brett thinks about garbage collection in general? Currently household collection is universally provided by a legislated monopoly (the local government) and paid for by a tax levy.

    How would that work in a truly Libertarian system? How would he keep people from choosing the most cost effective approach for themselves as individuals and dumping their garbage in the nearest stream? How do Libertarians deal with the common good? Or do they just assume that such a thing doesn’t exist.

  29. “Currently household collection is universally provided by a legislated monopoly”

    I don’t think we can even start to discuss this intelligently until you acknowledge that household garbage collection is NOT, in fact, universally provided by a legislated monopoly. You are simply, objectively, blatantly wrong about that.

    Come back when you understand that, and can explain why you assumed a state of affairs so contrary to reality.

  30. There is something I find really limited about Brett’s position that is endemic to libertarians. Like they really miss the point. There is a sort of “duh” about noting that in the absence of government response, people will try to solve a problem themselves, and sometimes are successful. Yes, we know that. His straw man is his argument that liberals in all circumstances prefer government solutions and become “outraged” when people act for themselves. And like any straw man, that one should be left in a dumpster where the raccoons can’t get at it. What Brett, like all libertarian, can’t or won’t argue is why it’s better to leave these types of problems to the individual as opposed to collective effort — also known as the government. He doesn’t credit libs with having any cost/benefit analysis. The basic argument is that having an animal control agency in your local government will get better results — more effective at less cost.

  31. OK — wasn’t done with my comment @ Anonymous above — accidentally published. Anyway, if the world were as simple as Brett seems to think, all our problems would have been solved years (actually ages) ago.

  32. So here’s a couple interesting questions: Since Kim took the initiative and risk of dealing with the raccoon — performing a service that has value for the community –does the community owe her anything? Did she have an obligation to deal with it? Would she be morally bankrupt if she just let it wander off? If your answer to these is ‘yes’ you are not a libertarian.

  33. Haha, Brett! You’re like the grandpa I never had growing up! Did you really just link to a Yellow Page ad for a company called Rascal Rangers? Are you certain they deal with rabid raccoons? Do I want my neighbor hiring a company called Rascal Rangers to kill a rabid raccoon that’s 15 feet away from my daughter? Do I want a bunch of guys coming over to my neighbor’s house in a van with a few crossbows to take out the little guy? What do they do with the raccoon? How is the lawn sterilized to make sure infection can’t spread? Should we just expect the private company to “do the right thing” and not drive a minute down the road and toss it in the ocean? Do I want you killing a rabid animal with a shovel and walking into your house saying, “problem solved”? What if Kim couldn’t take care of it herself and couldn’t afford to hire a private company? Was it her fault for not having a fence? Should she just let it wonder off even if there are kids in the next yard? What if no private company will deal with rabid animals in a certain area? Does it matter to you if your community wants it taken care of in a different way? What if we’re in a park, and I don’t want you pulling out a gun and shooting a raccoon or beating it mercilessly to its death in front of my kids with the shovel you pulled from your F150 truckbed?

    Oh, and if somehow you’re not able to take care of your dirty dishes and it becomes a public health issue for your neighbors, some government folks are coming to your door. Better have your guns ready. Or will they even be able to reach your door? You did dig a moat around you’re house already, right?

    Few more questions: What if it was your neighbor who wasn’t doing his dishes and the smell became unbearable? Better, what if your neighbor opened up a landfill in his backyard and you started feeling sick? Do you link us to a company called Neighbor Nixers? I mean it is their property, so you’d just move I assume. You’ve LOST it.

    Henry hit the head with the second comment. Bureaucratic inefficiency is what these nuts are really upset about, only the narrative being sold now is that gov’t can’t be efficient, ever, and thus needs to be done away with completely. Brett, this isn’t a Liberal vs. Conservative debate. Only 20 percent of folks in this country are Galtians. Stop trying to add credibility to your fringe views by suggesting real Conservatives want you taking a shovel to a rabid animal in your backyard. I’m surrounding by them this week and they’re getting a kick out of your comments, too.

  34. Tim asks three interesting questions about the rabid raccoon. To answer them in order:

    First, does the community owe her anything? Assuming this to mean “any thing,” where a thing is an object of commercial value, I would answer in the negative. The community owes her the solidarity that makes human communities worth living in, and owes her its gratitude for eliminating a threat to the common good, but those “things” may not meet Tim’s criteria for the question.

    Second, did she have an obligation to deal with it? I would answer in the affirmative, under the conception of citizenship which people of a certain generation were raised with. She need not subject her own life to grave danger, and she should not be subject to legal action if she fails to try to kill the raccoon, but legal obligation may not be what Tim is talking about. If he is talking about a moral obligation of citizenship, in which individuals living in a community participate in the securing of the commonweal, the obligation exists and applies to this particular case.

    Third, would she be morally bankrupt if she let it wander off, knowing it to be likely to be rabid, the answer would be negative if “bankrupt” means having no moral virtues whatsoever. One cannot judge an entire character by a single lapse in a single instance. However, she would be morally diminished by intentional inaction.

    A single affirmative answer being sufficient to disqualify one as a libertarian, I stand excluded from the honor of membership in that group. As noted elsewhere, lovers of liberty are not to be confused with libertarians. Many kids who went to grade school in the Eisenhower-Kennedy era were taught about citizenship in a manner which would lead to affirmative answers to Tim’s questions. Libertarianism was a later phenomenon.

  35. Anonymous said: “He doesn’t credit libs with having any cost/benefit analysis.”

    This has been my experience with libertarianism. Cost/benefit analysis is a useful tool, but it can give the wrong answers when one neglects to include all of the costs and all of the benefits, or minimizes costs and benefits that are intangible. Libertarian solutions often assume that information costs and transactions costs are minimal or zero in situations where they manifestly are not.

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