Wednesday, August 22, 2012

just the facts, ma'am

“NOW, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life." Thus spoke the schoolteacher in Charles Dickens' novel Hard Times.

But, as the mischevous anarchist philosopher Paul Feyerabend noted more than a century later, "'Facts' come from negotiation between different parties."

As this KTVU news report documents, many San Francisco residents see street recyclers as a nuisance--a growing army of scavengers who strew garbage on the sidewalks. They also blame the waste pickers for higher garbage fees. That's because the city privatized its recycling program. The recyclables are picked up by a company called Recology, and, the argument goes, when the amount of material Recology can pick up and resell goes down, the rates residents pay go up. Indeed, the bins of cardboard, plastic and metal that residents set out are considered Recology's property once they're placed at the curb--so in a technical way, scavengers and bulk dealers are committing a crime (the police officer KTVU interviewed notes it's a public health violation, which gets upped to a misdemeanor for repeat offenders.)

Others, the web site suggests, see these desperate and hard-working scavengers as small-scale entrepreneurs.

Street scavenging is not a small business in San Francisco, as KTVU notes: "Estimates on recycling bin theft range from $5 million to $10 million, though it's impossible to tell how much actual material is stolen from blue bins."

The scavengers are reminiscent of medieval merchants who engaged in forestalling--essentially setting up just beyond the boundaries of the market, selling what was available in the market for a lower price. Markets throughout the UK tried to outlaw forestalling--but the practice continued because the money to be made was enticing.

What say you? Are these folks who are combing the streets for a couple of bucks a big social problem? Are they an indication of a market created by the monopoly the city granted to the private contractor? Are they just folks trying to survive in tough times? What the facts are probably depends on where you stand--whether you're a homeowner and ratepayer, or work for the company that has the recycling contract, or if you're one of the people involved in the underground trade.

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