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Why stop at merely fining litterbugs?

Updated: July 11, 2013 6:12AM

People are nasty.

Smelly, dirty, sloppy, in their natural state anyway. They do clean up well, though someone has to teach them how. What we accept as natural daily routines — bathing, combing our hair, brushing our teeth, using deodorant — are not inborn acts, but the result of social pressure. Sometimes from our parents or peers, sometimes from advertisers, hot to sell us toothpaste, mouthwash, razor blades and other products nobody truly needs.

Another group telling us how to act is — not surprisingly — politicians, perhaps because they despair (and rightly so) of ever cleaning up their own acts, so turn their attention to cleaning up ours. Chicago has a long tradition of enforced sanitation; it was the first city in the United States to create a department of street cleaning (in advance of the 1893 World’s Fair when Chicago, like a nervous hostess right before a party, fretted that the guests would find the place a mess).

Actually, that’s the bright spin. Chicago was a pioneer in government sanitation (it also was the first U.S. city with an anti-smoke ordinance, in 1881) because it was so filthy. Perhaps the smelliest city in the country, between the stockyards, glue and fertilizer factories, garbage-strewn alleys and the reeking open sewer of the Chicago River.

All corrected largely by government action, and the latest effort is from Ald. Howard Brookins (21st), who last week proposed an ordinance that would boost the fine for littering 900 percent — from up to $150 to up to $1,500. Actually more, because any vehicle litter is thrown from can be impounded too.

“They’re throwing diapers,” Brookins said, of the messy miscreants in his crosshairs. “They are throwing McDonald’s wrappers, paper and all types of food condiments out of the window. They are actually even throwing used condoms out of the window.”

A sociology grad student could write a dissertation on that comment alone, touching as it does upon the long-standing link between physical and moral uncleanliness.

Fifteen hundred bucks is a lot of money, and the immediate temptation is to view Brookins’ effort as another city cash grab, like red-light cameras. Though give him credit for sincerity; no politician utters “used condoms” unless he speaks from the heart.

What worries me is what, if any, effect this will have, other than ruining the day for any number of Chicagoans. Littering is a thoughtless act, and for a severe penalty to have any effect, it has to dwell somewhere in the potato brain of the sort of person who flings trash in the street. As shocking as it is to be pulled over by Chicago’s finest and fined $1,500 — not to mention the ransom of a car — scaring the city into clean habits one citizen at a time is not smart policy, nor a good use of our overstretched police. If the law isn’t vigorously enforced, the rare times it’s used will be seen as arbitrary. And if it is enforced, how long until the city-wide chant is raised that while too few murders get solved, we sure can round up those litterers.

Murder is banned in the Bible, but littering is a relatively new sin — about 60 years old, when Keep America Beautiful was created, tasked with getting Americans to care about litter (ignoring the far left conspiracy theory that paints Keep America Beautiful as a corporate plot to off-load responsibility for pollution from businesses to individuals).

“Few Americans under the age of 35 remember the casual abandon with which many of their fellow citizens threw garbage from car windows as they drove,” garbologist William Rathke wrote 20 years ago.

It being new, we all have our littering Achilles’ heels. I’d sooner toss my wallet than a soda can, but cigar butts are OK (dried leaves) and I have been known to flip a toothpick into the gutter (wood and very small).

Should the proposal become law, I guess I’ll start letting that toothpick grow soggy on my lip while driving. Fifteen hundred bucks seems fair for a bag of garbage, but you just know some will get fined over a stray peanut.

As much as I’d like to say the huge fine increase — 10 times — is another insult heaped upon the backs of the poor, it does have a certain appealing “Horse thieves are hanged not because horse thievery is so bad, but so that horses will not be stolen” quality.

We are missing an opportunity, though. Fines are not the only punishment. Look at Singapore, and all the publicity it got caning people over chewing gum — maybe not hot for tourism but wonderful for attracting businesses, which enjoy a well-run city. We could be more creative. Comedian Rick Reynolds had a bit where he suggests that whatever a person is caught littering should be shoved up, umm, the perpetrator’s nether regions.

“Cops should carry rubber gloves and Vaseline at all times,” he said. That would make flipping a cigarette the minor offense [and discomfort] it should be, while “it would really cut down on people littering those big two-liter plastic bottles.” Now that’s a plan!

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