Paul Krugman on Masks and Public Urination

I agree with Paul Krugman about masking, but he’s wrong about public urination, and wrong to use the laws against it as an analogue of the laws requiring masking in the COVID-19 pandemic:

Relieving yourself in public is illegal in every state. I assume that few readers are surprised to hear this; I also assume that many readers wonder why I feel the need to bring up this distasteful subject. But bear with me: There’s a moral here, and it’s one that has disturbing implications for our nation’s future.

Although we take these restrictions for granted, they can sometimes be inconvenient, as anyone out and about after having had too many cups of coffee can attest. But the inconvenience is trivial, and the case for such rules is compelling, both in terms of protecting public health and as a way to avoid causing public offense. And as far as I know there aren’t angry political activists, let alone armed protesters, demanding the right to do their business wherever they want.

Laws against public urination do not impose a merely trivial inconvenience. If someone has a medical condition that involves urinary frequency or urgency, and there are no public bathrooms available (as often there aren’t), discreet “public” urination becomes unavoidable. Likewise if someone is homeless.

Public elimination may cause offense and public health issues in urban areas, but need not do either thing if done discreetly in suburban or rural areas. And with respect to public offense, I would ask: why is public elimination so much more offensive when done by humans than when done, say, by dogs? How is it that we take “dog walking” (a euphemism for “dog pissing and shitting on other people’s property”) so utterly for granted while heaping shame, opprobrium, and legal penalties on people who can’t find a bathroom in a society that makes them so scarce?

Krugman’s description of the issue is tendentious.

And as far as I know there aren’t angry political activists, let alone armed protesters, demanding the right to do their business wherever they want.

The point is not that public elimination should be done wherever or whenever one wants. That’s a fallacy of false alternatives. The issue is whether there are good reasons for easing or eliminating the penalties for public elimination in clear cases of duress or necessity. I think it’s nearly self-evident that there are, but neither law enforcement nor the courts are sympathetic to such claims, as Krugman’s own source makes clear (read this link, cited in his article, and discussed below).

Nor am I taking a sanctimonious attitude on the provision of public bathrooms. I understand why they’re so scarce: public bathrooms are notoriously abused, and once abused, hard to clean. Few people, even among professional janitors, can be hired to clean them. And we pay those who do a shit wage, if you don’t mind the pun. I would know, since it’s what I do for a living.*

So I’m personally acquainted with the trade-off involved. That said, I would rather that there be more public bathrooms to clean than more public elimination (or a needlessly severe stance against violators), even if I have to be the person to clean them (for a shit wage). More public bathrooms are probably too much to ask, however. If we’re going to skimp on public bathrooms, as I guess we are, we can’t legitimately adopt a Javert-like posture on public elimination. Either we provide for people’s needs, or we accept the fact that they’ll be forced to take the necessary measures to satisfy them. Alas, asking the impossible and then penalizing people for their failure to deliver seems to be a special fetish of our culture. So don’t expect a reasonable solution any time soon.

Krugman cites this very typical passage from an online essay by a lawyer who takes herself to be explaining the subject to the uninitiated:

Laws prohibiting public urination may be relevant to drunk and carousing college students, but other than that, they rarely affect those who are adequately dressed, fed, and housed. The majority of the population is never painfully far away from restroom facilities, and even if they need to use restrooms that are “for customers’ use only,” they can usually walk right in, without fear of being stopped.

Utter bullshit from beginning to end. First of all, “rarely affect” doesn’t entail “doesn’t affect,” does it? What about the cases in which someone is affected? Second, the categories of “drunk and carousing college students and “the adequately dressed, fed, and housed” aren’t exhaustive. What about the people who fall outside both? “The majority of the population” doesn’t include the minority. Are minorities unimportant? Further, isn’t it illegal to “walk right in” to an establishment that says that bathrooms are for paying customers only (when you aren’t a paying customer and don’t intend to be)? So is this lawyer advocating criminal trespass? Seems like she is. In quoting this author, Krugman appears unaware of the fact that many public bathrooms have been closed down during the pandemic. That’s bad enough, but the problem precedes the pandemic.**

Incredibly, Krugman’s legal source mentions homelessness, but doesn’t mention a single medical condition that might give rise to a valid claim of necessity. Apparently, in her legal universe, such conditions don’t exist. And yet they do. Can a person write on this subject and be that ignorant of the basics? Yes, she can–if she’s a lawyer. Leave it to a lawyer to cloak egregious medical ignorance in a misleading veneer of knowledgeable sophistication (often for a fee of several hundred dollars an hour). And even the necessity defense available to the homeless is described without comment on its transparent absurdity. I won’t quote it here (I have my limits with lawyerly obtuseness), but what homeless person would be able to satisfy the burden of proof described in the third section of the article?

People who find the inconvenience involved in laws against public urination trivial, or regard public bathrooms as there for the asking, live a life of privilege they’ve never questioned. Not everyone has that luxury. It’s about time–past time–to show some sensitivity for the claims of those who don’t.

*I’m a janitor in the (misleadingly named) operating “room” at Hunterdon Medical Center (Flemington, NJ), but the operating suite includes four public bathrooms–one in the men’s locker room, two in two separate women’s locker rooms, and one in the holding room for patients. We clean all four every night on the evening shift after we’re done cleaning the operating theaters, which are themselves full of blood, iodine, urine, and feces.

**Despite the time he’s spent in New York and New Jersey, Krugman appears ignorant of the fact that public restrooms have long been closed along New Jersey highways since well before the pandemic, that they’re not easy to find on New Jersey Transit, and that they effectively do not exist in most NYCTA subway stations (to say nothing of the subway cars themselves).

10 thoughts on “Paul Krugman on Masks and Public Urination

  1. Pingback: Nightcap | Notes On Liberty

  2. Krugman is one of the more consistently intelligent commentators on the NYT Op-Ed page, but in this case I agree, he selects a bad analogy. Then, failing to see what a bad analogy he’s picked, he doesn’t so much make an argument as he engages in a bunch of idle banter based on relatively crude stereotyping of who urinates in public and why. First of all, let me just put this out there: there is nothing about urinating in public that poses a health threat. Urinating and defecating are socially connected, but biologically different. Urine is sterile and urinating on the ground, pavement, the side of an alley, or the trunk of a tree generates no greater health threat than did the substances that were on those surfaces before they were urinated on. And yes, as far as public health is concerned, human waste is in every relevant way identical to dog waste. When we actually encounter public urination, in general what offends people about it comes down to quality-of-life factors: the aesthetics and smell.

    But in general people also are offended when strangers in a public place burp, fart, vomit, or just smell bad from poor hygiene. None of those is illegal. Under current conditions, can you really draw a distinction between those acts as being “involuntary” bodily realities, and urination being “voluntary”? I don’t think so. I think that ultimately the issue of public urination centers on a consideration of manners and behavioral norms, and isn’t properly within the domain of laws. It’s good manners to relieve yourself in public as discreetly as possible and only when absolutely physically necessary. It’s bad manners to get drunk and piss on my the side of my car in broad daylight. It’s not bad manners for your dog to piss on the edge of my lawn where my kids play, but hey that’s a debate for another day. None of this captures any of the important reasoning that should underpin policy about masking during a pandemic.

    It would just be a bad argument if not for the fact that there’s a bit of a “tell” in the choice of analogy: It’s an analogy that appeals to people who have the privilege of engaging with the reality of public urination only when they use the subway system on their way to the Whitney, or “Hamilton,” or their Upper West Side brownstone. Ironically, in many ways, upper middle class urban and suburban people who might agree with Krugman on the illegality of public urination are in principle more comparable to similarly privileged people who are pro-life on abortion than they are to people who are pro-mask: because of the fact that they have access to solutions (or ways of avoiding the problem) that other people don’t have, and because someone else’s solution offends them, it’s a non-problem for them that someone else’s way of solving the problem is against the law.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I sent the blog post above to Paul Krugman, who offered this rather bizarre reply below, which seems as much a concession as a confession.

    Krugman, Paul
    Fri, Mar 5, 4:40 PM (18 hours ago)
    to me

    I actually knew that urine wasn’t a serious hazard, but people think it is, and not worth losing a good motivator.

    He might as well have said, “Yeah, I just exploited a falsehood in defense of scientific rationality, but it’s for a good cause, so it’s all good.” And people wonder about the widespread distrust of science. With defenders like these…

    Anyway, the issue wasn’t whether urine was a good “motivator,” but whether it’s a good analogy. It obviously isn’t, which undercuts its rational value as a motivator.

    On the positive side, he does happen to be right on the mask issue itself.

    Speaking of distrust in science, this book comes highly recommended on a related topic:


    • As to Krugman’s response that “people think” urination is a serious hazard: What people?
      Getting close to others while not masked does pose a serious hazard, but lots of “people think” it doesn’t, as is self-evident over a year into the pandemic.
      A lot of what got us here was true facts and good intentions badly argued and explained.
      It’s hard to believe a point as obvious as that was lost on a guy as smart as Krugman.


  4. said by faux intellectual narcissists that would cry bloody murder if public urination actually entered their spotless elite-sphere. command of the english language doesn’t de facto make your smart, or right. exhibit a, above.


    • How the fuck would you know where I live, or or have lived, and under what circumstances? I’m a hospital janitor. You really think an operating room is a spotless environment, or that Environmental Services is an elite position? Stupid.


    • Like most people, I’ve been subjected to public urination by others. Maybe I don’t live in the ‘hood, with Stewart Frankel, where the piss of the gangstas flows through the mean streets in foaming amber rapids. To your regular suburban faux-intellectual narcissist-type guy like me, public urination is, like I’ve said, just unpleasant and usually bad manners. Generally I’m too busy doing things (e.g., yachting, truffle tastings) in the other sectors of my spotless elite-sphere to cry bloody murder. But don’t get me wrong – manners do matter – whether it’s gratuitous and indiscreet public urination, or the similarly noxious stimulus of some dipshit loser trolling the comment thread you’re in. I don’t believe there should be laws criminalizing either one; I wrote some actual reasons why in “exhibit a,” and I continue to be open to substantive, cogent rebuttal. Command of the English language, or even being able to correctly use Latin phrases like “de facto,” may not make one exceptionally smart per se. But when I have an actual point to make, I find that I accomplish more by laying my Chateau Lafite Rothschild down on a coaster of 24-karat gold, and writing a grammatically correct sentence or two, than with the kind of useless, inarticulate dumbfuckery seen in exhibit b, above.

      Liked by 1 person

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