Flush the johns

July 10, 2010

I’m slowly picking my way through Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classical Readings. Who knew Marx and Foucault would be such heavy going? The introduction by Charles Lemert was a relative breeze. Here’s my favorite part:

[S]ocial theory is the normal accomplishment of social human creatures figuring out what other creatures of the same sort are doing with, to, or around them. Such theories are everywhere, though they are not easy to come by. David Bradley, in his novel The Chaneysville Incident, explains why:

The key to the understanding of any society lies in the observation and analysis of the in-significant and the mundane. For one of the primary functions of social institutions is to conceal the basic nature of the society, so that the individuals that make up the power structure can pursue the business of consolidating and increasing their power untrou-bled by the minor carpings of a dissatisfied peasantry. Societal institutions act as fig leaves for each other’s nakedness. … And so, when seeking to understand the culture or the history of a people, do not look at the precepts of the religion, the form of the govern-ment, the curricula of the schools, or the operations of businesses; flush the johns.

Bradley then put into words what his readers all know but never have reason to say: The toilets on buses are foul, while those on airplanes are neat and well supplied, and it is no accident that poor people ride buses, while the less poor fly. It is, thus, a plau-sibly coherent social theory to say that such a society considers its poor filth, yet wishes to disguise this unpleasant attitude.

I’m not sure I’ve ever used a bus toilet, so I can’t really comment. This page makes them seem not so bad.

Back in science land, I’m reminded of the term “junk DNA,” coined in 1972 to describe the vast regions of the human genome that do not encode genes and seemed to have no obvious function. You might think of it as “non-celebrity DNA.” Much of it is made of short repetitive elements derived from virus-like DNA capable of copying and inserting itself into the genome. These days many people consider the junk DNA label outmoded.

From a Sci Am expert summary:

Although very catchy, the term “junk DNA” repelled mainstream researchers from studying noncoding genetic material for many years. After all, who would like to dig through genomic garbage? Thankfully, though, there are some clochards who, at the risk of being ridiculed, explore unpopular territories. And it is because of them that in the early 1990s, the view of junk DNA, especially repetitive elements, began to change. In fact, more and more biologists now regard repetitive elements as genomic treasures. It appears that these transposable elements are not useless DNA. Instead, they interact with the surrounding genomic environment and increase the ability of the organism to evolve by serving as hot spots for genetic recombination and by providing new and important signals for regulating gene expression.

stepped in it once at Sci Am by using the term in a story.


9 Responses to “Flush the johns”

  1. Michael K. Bassham Says:

    I have used a toilet on both a bus and on an airplane. The technology is different in part because of the regulations involved. The difference in technology directly impacts the odor and over all “foulness” of the bathroom. The other part of the equation is economics. Only two bus companies compete on a large scale nationally – Trailways and Greyhound. Only in a few areas do they overlap. Without much competition, they have little incentive to improve. But, in the larger scheme, they also compete with government subsidized trains, airplanes and automobiles (to reference the John Candy movie). Profit margins are low. Installing better technology and paying someone to clean the restroom at every stop would add cost that would help price tickets out of reach of many of their customers. On the other hand, I enjoyed chatting with you at Jason’s birthday party dinner.

  2. JR Minkel Says:

    Nice to hear from you, Michael. I enjoyed meeting you as well. I’m not a whiz with political economy, but can I infer that bus companies might be able to pay someone to clean the toilets if buses were government subsidized like other forms of travel? If that’s the case, then it seems as if government, by not subsidizing bus travel, has de facto chosen to treat the poor like filth.

  3. Michael K. Bassham Says:

    So if the government fails to forcibly take money from me to give to X in order to make Y more comfortable, that constitutes treating Y “like filth.” Interesting.

  4. JR Minkel Says:

    @Michael: Not at all. *You* posited the differential subsidization. From there, it’s standard Rothbardian / Friedmanian analysis to point out that if government subsidizes one segment of an industry over another, then government is favoring the subsidized group over the non-subsidized one. QED. 🙂

  5. Michael K. Bassham Says:

    Giving money to group A and not group B cannot be said to be treating group B “like filth”, even if one accepts the notion that such a funding differential constitutes favoring one group over another. This is getting a bit afield, but giving money to a group can be bad, i.e. not a favor, based on both cause and effect. That governmental gift of my money can be motivated by the soft bigotry of low expectations (“we have to help them because everybody knows they can’t do it on their own”). It can lead to the distortion of incentive structures and the tendency of a move toward dependency. Those things can have a very negative impact on a group and often distort the market.

  6. JR Minkel Says:

    I think we can both agree that government subsidies are potentially problematic.

  7. Michael K. Bassham Says:

    Agreed. Thanks for the discussion.

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