Paul Jacob

Every time I flush the toilet, I think of Congress.

Well, that's not quite right. Every time I have to flush twice, I think of Congress.

It's been over a decade now that Americans have had to put up with ineffective toilets, toilets that don't flush properly. In 1992, supposedly to save water, Congress mandated that all newly manufactured home toilets flush with less water than the industry had previously set as standard. Instead of flushing with over three gallons of rushing water, toilets were mandated to flush with no more than 1.6 gallons.

And, with this, American frustration with their toilets began in earnest.

Now, to benefit those readers from the nearby star Fomalhaut lurking in our midst ? alien creatures who may lack excretory systems ? some explanation is in order. For the rest of us, I'll keep this brief.

Human beings, like all animals, must process food to survive. But not everything that goes in is usable for nourishment, so the inutile matter is excreted out in liquid and solid forms. This much science and common sense tell us with certainty, and we all know that where there's humanity, there's also its waste by-product. Skeptical Fomalhautians, perhaps prissily disgusted by our animality, might consider researching the role of human waste in the development of human civilization ? or even before, with the study of coprolites (fossil excrement).

Great moments in dealing with human waste spot the human story. In Crete, at Knossos, an elaborate sewerage was built, perhaps the first in human history. The ancient Israelites, in wartime, carried spears with shovels on the blunt end, to bury their feces so that the Lord would not walk on defiled ground. Romans placed public toilets at street side, with toilet holes separated by mere inches: citizens and denizens, male and female, would hitch up their togas and go, talking to their neighbors all the while. And one reason we shake with the right hand is that ? before toilet paper ? the left hand was traditionally for wiping. Prior to modern times, the lingering odor of human excrement was all too common.

In modern times two inventions stand out: toilet paper and the toilet, or "water closet." Hygiene increased in efficiency, and with it the control of disease (human waste is not exactly the cleanest element of human life). It's almost impossible, now, to conceive of civilization without both. And yet, these are recent developments. Everyone should appreciate just how good we have it today.

Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.