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Politics & Policy

'Toilet Totalitarianism' Could've Been Avoided

Trump's bathroom rant proved easy fodder for comedy, but there’s actually an interesting story lurking behind the history of toilet regulations. 

'Toilet Totalitarianism' Could've Been Avoided

Trump's bathroom rant proved easy fodder for comedy, but there’s actually an interesting story lurking behind the history of toilet regulations. 

Down the drain.

Down the drain.

Photographer: ByoungJoo/iStockphoto
Down the drain.
Photographer: ByoungJoo/iStockphoto

President Donald Trump’s call to restore America’s greatness often recalls an earlier, better time – a time when men were men and power plants burned coal. About a week ago, he explained yet another definition of greatness in our prelapsarian past: flush toilets that went through water the way a 1973 Lincoln Continental burned through leaded gas.

As the president made clear, the toilets of old were far superior to today’s appliances, which leave red-blooded Americans “flushing toilets 10 times, 15 times, as opposed to once.” While the president did not make it entirely clear who was responsible for our downfall, suspicion naturally gravitates towards liberals and their high-efficiency toilet regulations.

This episode proved easy fodder for comedy, but there’s actually an interesting story lurking behind the history of toilet regulations. In fact, the way that this country has tackled its toilet problem is typical of how it has tackled regulation in general -- delegating responsibility to manufacturers rather than consumers. There are serious drawbacks to that approach.

Though it’s possible to find forerunners to the modern flush toilets, they didn’t become particularly common until the late 19th century, when builders in cities began linking toilets to municipal sewer systems. Many of the first flush toilets stored water in a tank high above the bowl. When you pulled on the chain, a torrent of water would send waste on its way.

Inventors patented a host of other methods for cleaning the bowl, including tankless, pressure-valve toilets. But most residences went for cheaper tank toilets. By the 1920s, the modern porcelain toilet, which integrated the tank and bowl into a single porcelain unit, had become the standard. Most used about eight gallons of water. And all was well with the world.

But there was problem. As metropolitan areas grew, reservoirs grew stressed. New York City’s prolonged drought in the early 1960s led to the first campaigns to curb water use. “Don’t empty ash trays in the toilet,” the New York Times admonished readers. “Every flush uses 5 to 8 gallons.” But these efforts at moral suasion had little effect. For most readers, their own flush was, quite literally, a drop in the bucket of the city’s total use. Further, the price of water remained unchanged, so no one had an economic incentive to modify their behavior.

In 1965, Congress held hearings on the problem, and witnesses suggested a host of solutions. Donald F. Hornig, the director of the Office of Science and Technology, outlined the problem well. Americans were “wasteful of water” because “it has always been a low-cost good.” He continued, “Even with profligate water use, water bills are rarely so high as to cause water users to be cautious.” Among his proposals:  Governments should require “low-water-use devices.” This approach – regulating toilets instead of raising the cost of water -- became the preferred solution.

In 1976 and 1977, California was dealing with an especially harsh drought. The state decided to require all new homes to install low-flow toilets that used no more than 3.5 gallons per flush (or gpf, as it became known). Other municipalities and states followed suit, including Maryland later in the decade.

At first glance, this approach had a lot going for it. It cost governments nothing, and dumped the burden on the handful of companies that built toilets. And it cost consumers nothing. While there is no sign that they were flushing 10 or 15 times per bathroom visit, nothing was stopping them from doing so, either.

This solution mirrored how governments handled other, comparable shortages. For example, in the wake of the oil crisis, Congress imposed Corporate Average Fuel Economy Standards, which mandated that the average miles per gallon (mpg, not gpf) for a manufacturers’ output reach a certain, higher average. But Congress didn’t raise taxes on gasoline – a far more effective strategy that would have put consumers, not manufacturers, in the driver’s seat.

In these and other cases of regulatory fiat, the results left much to be desired. In the case of automobiles, carmakers carved out exemptions for certain classes of vehicles, subverting the intent of the regulation. As for toilets, the manufacturers did build new, high-efficiency fixtures. But most of the new designs simply cut the amount of water; they didn’t revolutionize the toilet itself.

The problems inherent in this top-down approach became apparent when state and local governments embraced 1.6 gpf toilets in the 1980s. Builders happily installed code-compliant toilets, little caring for whether they worked well. After all, the regulation made no distinction between compliance and quality. Inevitably, many low-flow toilets became known for their failure to flush.

Free market fundamentalists began complaining about what the Wall Street Journal memorably described as “toilet totalitarianism.” Environmentalists rightly retorted that some models on the market did a bang-up job despite using very little water. 

But what got lost in these exchanges was the simple fact that high-quality low-flow toilets came with higher costs, and builders in apartments and subdivisions had little direct incentive to install them. And homeowners with older, conventional toilets had no reason to change their ways: Water was as cheap as ever. Only the proudly planet-conscious would bother to get rid of their old bowl for a pricey Swedish number.

Had local governments imposed a significant tax on water use, demand for low-flow toilets would have bubbled up from below. This would have been akin to how Europeans encourage fuel economy via high gas taxes.  Consumers may choose to drive a gas guzzler or use an 8 gpf toilet. But there’s a strong incentive to shift toward lower levels of consumption.

Of course, no such thing happened. Instead, 1.6 gpf became national law in 1992: One toilet bowl fits all. American Standards, Kohler, and others wanted a single, national standard to replace the patchwork of state regulations. Environmentalist wanted to cut water use. They both got their wish, but the ultimate consumers were left out of the equation.

Complaints about the new low-flow toilets became legion in the ensuring years. Libertarians turned the new regulations into a rallying cry for a larger regulatory rollback. One typical screed painted the new toilets as a “devastating setback in the progress of civilization” and a “leap backward in barbarism.”

Most people have made their peace with low-flow toilets, but they’re not exactly popular, either. Sadly, this is typical of how the United States has crafted policies designed to limit the consumption of everything from gas to electricity to water. Despite the fact that these are problems that originate with the consumer, we shy from forcing people to consider the consequences of their actions.  Instead, we foist the problem on manufacturers.

There’s a better, more subtle way to solve the problem. If water – or for that matter, any commodity – is genuinely scarce, it should be priced sufficiently high to make consumers think twice before they flush money down the drain.

    This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Stephen Mihm at smihm1@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Mike Nizza at mnizza3@bloomberg.net