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Bathroomnomics

March 5, 2011

Bryan Caplan recently posted his impressions about Italy’s real GDP, as opposed to the official figures. He thinks Italy is overvalued and cites “pit toilets” that he has witnessed while traveling through Italy as a tourist.

Also a while back Don Boudreaux collected various visuals illustrating how things are continually getting better and included some nice pictures of bathroom innovation and progress.

Adding to this, last summer we took a family trip out West and drove to Montana. Having traveled along similar highways in the 90’s I was truly surprised by the cleanliness and efficiency that can now be found in simple gas-station or truck-stop bathrooms.

This got me thinking: how important are bathrooms in shaping our understanding of economic growth? Take my personal story for instance. I grew up in Milan, but we used to rent a summer “house” on lake Como that had a dirt floor and yes, the bathroom was outside under a plastic cover and a bay leaf tree and was just a hole in the ground. Sure the hole was a beautifully hand-chiseled sheet of granite, but it was still just a hole in the ground. Worse, from there we would hike up to Frasnedo, a village that was inhabited by 100+ souls in the summer, where there was a beautiful centuries-old church, several dozens houses, but no toilets whatsoever, anywhere. People would scamper off into the woods all the time. In fact, my mother went on record once, proclaiming that it would have been better if instead of building so many (beautiful) chapels in honor of this or that saint some energy had been spent to build some bathrooms, to the horror of the locals that were present.

Most of my teen years were thus spent in the 80s helping my best friend’s Grandpa build new toilets in his vegetable garden up in Frasnedo. We hauled many a wheelbarrow of sand, rock, cement etc… up the steep slopes of Frasnedo, Sergio pushing the wheelbarrow and me pulling it with a rope up-ahead. We even had to dig a hole that was then beautifully walled with hand-crafted granite bricks and would serve as septic tank. Ours was one of the first toilets to go up in Frasnedo, and of course it had “Turkish style” toilets inside (no seat). Nowadays, almost everyone has restrooms in Frasnedo, including showers, even though the water can run dry in the whole village at times.

Let’s zip ahead now to 2011. Here I am, middle-aged, with a growing family, and what is the main topic of conversation in our household? Should we move or add a new bathroom to the house! Can we borrow from the bank? Get equity out of what we paid so far and start adding some plumbing?

In other words, bathrooms seem to be a normal good, like health-care, the wealthier one gets the more bathrooms are wanted. It’s just a very important economic indicator and it seems to me a lot more serious research should be dedicated to this topic. Seriously.

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From → Economics, Italy

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