Stossel's "Myths, Lies and Nasty Behavior"

Here's my latest list of things you may have been led to believe are true -- but aren't. I'm also including some nasty behaviors that are more than just annoying, they cost us all money.

I hope this will give you a different perspective about your money, your neighbors and your politicians.

No. 10 -- NASTY BEHAVIOR -- Littering

People don't like what littering does to their neighborhoods, but they keep doing it. And it's not only annoying. It costs taxpayers money.

One county put hidden cameras in the woods to capture litterers. We looked at some of the tape and saw people dumping all sorts of trash -- an old television, a VCR, a kid's bike, a lawnmower.

One man threw out what looked like a bag of garbage. It turned out to be a bag filled with puppies. We don't know what happened to the puppies. The surveillance camera never captured that.

The camera's purpose, of course, is to catch the litterers. If the camera records the license plate, prosecutors summon them to court. The man who abandoned the puppies pleaded guilty to animal neglect and littering -- his sentence? Just probation, because he's ill.

A dad and daughter who dumped garbage more than 20 times at a creek were ordered to pay $500 and pick up six tons of garbage. But lots of other litterers are never identified and go unpunished.

The prosecutions are a small step in the endless battle against these inconsiderate people. One look at the beautiful Saluda River in Columbia, S.C, will give you an idea of how many battles remain to be fought.

The river is used by fishermen, kayakers and swimmers. But litter is everywhere.

"It drives me crazy 'cause this is a beautiful place, and these are class four and five rapids. And it's just gorgeous," said Dudlen Britt of the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.

Sometimes the officers watch and catch people. They caught jerks throwing beer cans toward their friends on an island in the river. Once it's clear they've left the beer cans behind and swum back to meet their friends, the officers move in.

Britt told them to go back and pick up the cans and appear in court.

In court, they told the judge they were going to go back and pick up everything that they had left behind.

Sure they were. They were amateurs. But there are professional litterers too. People who dump for a living -- for businesses looking to cut their disposal costs.

It costs real money to dump commercial garbage at a licensed dump. And you need permits to dispose of tires and other hazardous stuff. So, some people just pour sewage into ravines or dump carpet cleaning fluid into storm sewers.

In Columbus, Ohio, cops ran a sting to catch some professional dumpers. They advertised for haulers to take away a pile of garbage. Two men agreed to cart it off for $80.

Instead of driving to the local landfill, the litterers just stopped at a low-income apartment complex and put the garbage in and around the project's trash bin. "The illegal dumpers, they're here constantly, almost everyday," said James Youngblood an apartment manager at the complex.

This time, however, the sheriffs were watching. They made the dumpers load all the garbage back into their truck, and take it to a licensed landfill. One of the men was fined $360 and sentenced to community service. They're still searching for his partner.

So watch out, you might be caught. But the sad truth is that most people get away with it.

No. 9 -- NASTY BEHAVIOR: Extra Cell Phone Fees

The cost of a phone call has actually been coming down. Through the miracle of new technology and heated competition, a three-minute cross-country call that once cost two bucks now costs 20 cents. But what's all that other stuff on your bill -- surcharges, regulatory fees, state gross receipts tax? A lot of people are upset about these extra charges.

But Steve Largent, president of CTIA -- The Wireless Association, says it's not the cell phone companies' fault.

Most of the charges are fees that government, not the phone company, adds to your bill.

It's a way to raise taxes without people seeing it because phone bills are so long and contain so many extra charges. Also, putting more taxes on your phone bill is not as politically painful as, say, raising income or property taxes. In Baltimore, where phone users were already paying heavy state and federal taxes, the city decided it wanted some of the action.

"They were charging every resident who used wireless services in the city of Baltimore $3.50. They said, 'Hey, this is a good thing. Let's double it,' " Largent said.

With the new "Baltimore City Surcharge" of $3.50, the average cell phone user there must now pay about $7 extra in taxes per phone line. Taxes on cell phone service nationwide now average 14.5 percent -- more than double an average sales tax.

It would be nice if the wireless providers who advertise a plan for $39.99 a month said you'll really have to pay closer to $50. But the companies are just passing on taxes and surcharges that government mandates. So instead of screaming at the guy behind the counter, maybe you should scream at city hall.

No. 8 -- NASTY BEHAVIOR -- Noise

People don't just foul public places with litter. They pollute it with noise. And we just tolerate it.

We asked actors to stage loud phone conversations and found that people are so used to being intruded upon, they just take it. Only one woman reacted -- and she only got mad because the actor kicked her bag.

The intrusions are everywhere. Try to enjoy a quiet lake and the jet skis show up. Want to take a winter's walk in the woods? You'll get an earful of snowmobile motors.

And the noise isn't just annoying, it can hurt us. It can damage hearing, cause high blood pressure and fatigue.

That's why sometimes, at least, police enforce noise rules. Cops sometimes give tickets, but that doesn't stop the intrusions.

And how about car alarms? They make so much noise and yet almost no one pays any attention. Neighbors don't call the police when the alarms are set off. They just ignore them. Drivers could save money and do their neighbors a favor if they bought less expensive, silent, antitheft devices like kill switches or computerized smart keys. Some come as standard equipment on cars.

They say New York's the city that never sleeps. Well, how could you sleep if you live near one of its nightclubs? We met people on a Saturday night who were being made miserable because of the street noise outside a club on their street.

"It is like something out of the Day of the Locusts. There is noise, there is cars, there are people screaming," one woman who lived near the club said. What did the clubgoers have to say?

They were unapologetic. "You gotta expect it. You live in the city, deal with this," one man said.

No. 7 -- MYTH -- Gas Prices Are Higher Than Ever

"Record high gas prices," has been the refrain of many in the media this past year while talking about the price at the pump. Jay Leno even said, "They don't even put the price on the sign anymore -- it just says, 'If you have to ask, you can't afford it.'"

Drivers I talked to at a New York gas station agreed. "Too high, it's scary," said one man. "It's going up and up and up and it's the most expensive it's ever been," said another woman.

But the reality is that the "record high gas prices" are a myth. The U.S. Department of Energy records show that when you adjust for inflation the price of gas is now lower than it's been for most of the twentieth century. Prices are lower now than they were 25 years ago. Yes, they price is up from the 1998 all time low of $1.19, but they are a dollar lower than they were in the early 1980s.

When I told this to people at the gas station they didn't believe me. And why should they? The media keep telling us about the record high prices -- they're just not adjusting for inflation!

I asked people to compare the price of gas to bottled water or ice cream you can buy inside the gas station. Most people were sure the gas was more expensive. But they're wrong.

If you took the average price of a bottle of water, a gallon would cost nearly $7. A gallon of Haagen Dazs ice cream would set you back nearly $30 -- 15 times the price of gas.

And think about how much harder it is to produce gasoline.

First, oil has to be sucked out of the ground ... sometimes from deep beneath an ocean or underneath ice or from the Middle East where workers risk their lives. And just to get to the oil often means the drill may have to bend and dig sideways through as many five miles of earth. What oil companies find then has to be delivered through long pipelines or shipped in monstrously expensive ships, then converted into three different formulas of gasoline, trucked in trucks that cost more than $100,000 and then your local gas station has to spend a fortune on safety devices to make sure you don't blow yourself up.

Gas is actually a bargain, not that you'll hear that from most of the media.

No. 6 -- NASTY BEHAVIOR -- Congress' Pork Barrel Spending

Whether Democrats or Republicans control Congress, one thing never changes. Politicians love to spend your money.

Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, is a good example. Years ago Congress gave money to the little tourist town of Ketchikan, with only 14,000 residents, for an airport on a nearby island. Ketchikan International has six to eight flights a day, and people get there by taking a short ferry ride -- which they love. The scenic ride takes 500 air travelers a day to or from the airport in just seven minutes

Alaska resident Mike Sallee likes the ferry ride. He said, "I think our existing ferry system is just dandy and it doesn't cost $200 million."

The $200 million refers to the fact that Young recently persuaded legislators that Ketchikan needs a bridge to the airport. And Young doesn't want just any bridge. He wants a $200 million bridge -- one higher than the Brooklyn Bridge and almost as long as the Golden Gate. Some people here say, why not. They say the ferry schedule's inconvenient, so why not spend everyone else's tax dollars on us?

"Whether it's a bridge here or a new interstate connection in Dallas, it's gonna be spent somewhere," said one resident.

Young used to complain when the Democrats wasted your money. But now that his party is in power, he's pretty good at spending it too.

"Don Young has turned into a tax-and-spend Republican. He wants you and me to pay for his bridges to nowhere," said Keith Ashdown of Taxpayers for Common Sense. His group even gave Young its Golden Fleece Award for wasteful spending.

Young says the bridge is worth it because it would create jobs here. But that's just politicians' folly. Political spending doesn't create jobs. It just robs Peter to pay Paul -- takes jobs that would have been created by taxpayers if their money hadn't been taken from them -- and moves that money to where the politically connected live. In any case, a study paid for by Alaska found that once the construction jobs are gone, the bridge would create only 40 permanent jobs.

"It would be cheaper just to write each person a check for $100,000 a year than to build this bridge to nowhere," Ashdown said.

Young wouldn't talk to me about this. Maybe he's too busy bringing home even more money for Alaskans. His state is one of the least populated in America, but he has helped get it more pork dollars than 49 other states, including pork like the Ketchikan bridge that even some of the locals don't want.

No. 5 -- NASTY BEHAVIOR -- Welfare for Farmers

President Bush gave away $83 billion of your money to farmers when he signed the 2002 Farm Security and Rural Investment Act, and Congress applauded him for it. Americans like the idea of supporting family farms, but you'd be surprised to learn where that money goes.

Hundreds of those farmers who benefited from our generosity live in New York City. Some of those farmers who are collecting farm subsidies are pretty well-off. Mike Sonnenfeldt, for example, lives in a building where Steven Spielberg and Steve Martin have apartments.

Sonnenfeldt gets a cotton subsidy from the government. "I bought a piece of property, that got traded for a piece of property ... And I'm not sure exactly even why I get it," he said.

Most of the money goes to real farms big agribusiness, actually. But politicians talk about family farms.

Some subsidies do go to family farms, like one run by Fred and Larry Starrh. But does that entitle them to $3.5 million of your money? That's what they've received over seven years.

I called them welfare queens -- and they objected. "Change it to king," Larry Starrh joked, "Welfare kings. Because 'queens' is bad in California, believe me."

The Starrhs grow mostly cotton on their 12,000-acre spread in California. It's hard to think of them as needy with all that land, but costs have increased faster than prices. Subsidies, they say, are just a small part of their income, but they and their 100 employees depend on them. Without them, they say, they can't make a profit.

Now most businesses that can't make a profit go out of business. Woolworth closed. So did TWA. So do 20,000 restaurants every year. It's that freedom to fail that's helped make America as prosperous as she is, because it frees people to do more productive things.

But subsidized farms get different treatment. When Fred and Larry can't make a profit, taxpayers give them a handout.

"I don't look at it as a handout whatsoever. I absolutely refuse to accept that," Fred Starrh said.

But it is. It's welfare.

Fred Starrh said he looks at it as "a way to maintain a viable agriculture in this country."

That's the myth. Subsidies don't maintain a viable agriculture. Lettuce isn't subsidized. In fact, most crops are not. Not peas or potatoes or tomatoes. Not plums, peaches, broccoli, green beans. There's no shortage of any of these. Yet Fred and Larry say farming can't survive without subsidies.

"If I can't grow my 6,000 acres of cotton because the subsidy's gone …Where am I gonna go with that acreage? Do I just idle it?" Larry Starrh asked.

I don't know. Where do I go if "20/20's" ratings go down? That's life.

Subsidies are a like a heroin fix. They feel good, but they lead to more subsidies. The first subsidy makes cotton more expensive. That causes a problem for manufacturers, so we give them another subsidy. That subsidy hurts poor farmers worldwide, so we send them more money in foreign aid. But that's not enough for our cotton farmers. We give them another subsidy for the water they use and another subsidy to advertise their cotton overseas.

If they can't make a profit, I don't think they deserve a gift from taxpayers just so they can keep farming.

"Well I totally disagree with you John, and the legislature is with us at this point, so we're winning, and you're losing," Fred Starrh said.

He's right. And you're paying for it.

No. 4 -- MYTH: Outsourcing Is Bad for American Workers

We've been hearing a lot lately about how American workers are suffering because companies are "outsourcing" their jobs to other countries. During the presidential campaign, both President Bush and Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., told voters they were concerned about keeping jobs here at home. And CNN anchor Lou Dobbs has made complaints about outsourcing a running theme of his nightly news program.

Dobbs' new book, "Exporting America," says the government should limit free trade and immediately outlaw outsourcing of government contracts.

"Just because of cheap labor, we're destroying our middle class. That is just stupid," Dobbs said, adding, "Being stupid is un-American."

Wait a second. It's restricting outsourcing that would be un-American and stupid.

You may not like it that someone in India takes your customer service call, but outsourcing helps the middle class by bringing lower prices and faster service. Take E-Loan, for example. It gives customers a choice of whether to get their loan paperwork processed in America in 12 days or in India in 10 days. An incredible 87 percent of customers in the United States choose the faster loan processing offered by sending their paperwork to India.

And look at clothing -- lots of it is made abroad these days -- and Lou Dobbs sees that as a terrible thing. "This country cannot even clothe itself. Ninety-six percent of our apparel is imported," he said.

But that's OK. We have more choices for less money. The Labor Department's price index for clothing has been going down and down over the past decade.

But still, what about all those American workers who lose their jobs to people overseas? We asked the AFL-CIO labor federation for some of their best examples of outsourcing and the first people they referred us to were Shirley and Ronnie Barnard. They both lost their jobs when a Levi's plant in Powell, Tenn., closed down two years ago and moved production to Mexico.

The Barnards say keeping their heads above water has been a struggle. Shirley told us about her frustrations, saying, "You've done something for 20 years, got up, went to work every day, and then all of a sudden you don't have any place to go and nobody needs you anymore."

Tough Business Realities

Bill Portelli, who runs the California-based company Collabnet, says outsourcing has helped him keep his company alive in the United States. He has hired programmers in India who are paid less than half what he would have to pay American programmers. "It doesn't cheat Americans out of jobs. If I hadn't hired the people in India, I would have had to lay people off," he said.

He didn't end up laying any Americans off as a result of outsourcing, because outsourcing saved Collabnet so much money the company was able to expand in America. "Basically I've created jobs in America. I built better products, created jobs, been able to raise salaries," Portelli said.

A Dartmouth study found that outsourcers actually create jobs in America at a faster rate than companies that don't outsource. The same study found that companies that outsourced abroad ended up hiring twice as many workers at home.

Allowing outsourcing creates opportunity. It's easy to see the pain of the workers who are laid off; it's harder to see the benefits of free trade, because those benefits aren't news.

It's true that in the last four years, America has lost more than 1 million jobs, but those were years when we had a recession. Look at the big picture. Since 1992, America has lost 361 million jobs, but during that same time we also gained 380 million jobs. Millions more than we lost.

That should be hopeful for people like Shirley and Ronnie Barnard. While it's true that they had to dig into savings and still worry about their long-term security, last year Shirley Barnard eventually found a new job as a secretary. The new position pays more than her old job at Levi's, and the Levi's work was harder -- hot, noisy and physically difficult. She says that her new job is much easier.

Her husband and some other former co-workers are still looking for work, but she told us some of her former Levi's colleagues are now working in better jobs than they had before. "Some of them have got, really got excellent jobs that they would never have even left Levi's for if the plant hadn't closed," she said.

And what happened to that Levi's plant? It's now being converted to a college. There will be new jobs for faculty and administrative staff, and right now there are construction jobs for workers building the new campus. This won't be talked about on the evening news, but these jobs are a product of outsourcing too.

Still, people like Lou Dobbs talk about the outsourcing crisis. However, in reality outsourcing is not a crisis. The crisis will only come if we try to stop it.

No. 3 -- MYTH: Public Schools for Poor Kids, Not Politicians' Kids

Sadly, it's also a myth that the people who fight for public schools always send their own kids to those public schools. You'd think they would. They're so passionate about the public schools. But, no.

This is one of those do as I say, not as I do things. Politicans who promote public schools don't always send their kids to them.

Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., has called public education the "cornerstone of our democracy." But when she and her husband lived in the White House, they sent their daughter, Chelsea, to the elite Sidwell Friends private school.

When asked about it, President Clinton told ABC News, "We had to make the decision just for our daughter."

Well, sure he did. All of us want to do that, but not everyone can afford a private school. So what do you do if you're poor and live where the public schools are bad?

Are your kids just trapped?

Last month a student at an Ohio school videotaped his friend beating up a classmate. The teacher didn't notice because she was helping other students.

Sylvia Lopez lives in one of the most dangerous cities in America: Camden, N.J., where her kids heard scary things about public school.

So, Lopez scrapes together what little money she has to pay for a private school. But Ivan Foster can't afford to do that for his two kids.

"Something needs to be done now. You cannot take my tax dollars and tell me you're not going to help me help my children," Foster said.

He wishes he could take his tax dollars and use them to send his kids to a private school.

It's not that the Camden schools are starved for money. The district spends almost $15,000 per pupil. Even assuming as few as 20 kids per class, that's almost $300,000 per classroom. Think about that -- $300,000! Think what you could do with that money for one classroom. Hire five good teachers? Where does the government-run school money go? I don't know. But, if parents aren't happy with how that money's being spent, shouldn't they be allowed to take that money somewhere else? Say, a private school.

That's an idea many politicians oppose. President Clinton, for example, said, "I'm unalterably opposed to a voucher system to give people public money to take to private schools." But that didn't stop him from sending his own daughter to a private school. In fact, nearly half of members in Congress with children send or have sent at least one of their kids to a private school.

Sens. Lincoln Chaffee, R-R.I., and Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., for example, sent their children to private schools yet they opposed proposals to let money follow the student to whatever school they choose.

The senators and most of the congressmen would not agree to be interviewed about this, but Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Ill., would. His father, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, sent him to high school at the exclusive St. Alban's school in Washington, D.C. -- that's the same place that former Vice President Al Gore sent his son. Tuition there is now more than $23,000.

But even though Jackson enjoyed the benefits of a private education, he votes against vouchers that would allow parents with less money have what he had. He says we should focus on fixing the public school system.

"When I went to high school, my parents did not have access to a voucher," he said.

But his parents had the money to afford it. Lots of other parents don't. So, why won't he vote to let them have the choice his parents had? "No one is keeping them locked in now. They can make decisions for themselves," he said.

The parent without money is stuck, stuck in the prison of the government monopoly.

"I wouldn't call it necessarily a prison," he said. But, he added, "It's not the best possible education system that's available."

Where will Jackson send his kids?

"They will probably do a combination of both public, private, parochial, secular. I want them to have the best possible education that I can provide for them," he said.

So, shouldn't Sylvia Lopez and Ivan Foster have the same options?

Lopez calls politicians hypocrites. "The legislators that send their kids to private schools, but don't think that we should have the power to do that, they're hypocrites.

And would the politicians ever send one of their kids to the public school in her Camden neighborhood? Lopez said, "No way. They would never send their children, their distant cousins. I doubt they would even send their dogs to get training from one of these public schools."

No. 2 -- MYTH -- Urban Sprawl Is Ruining America

Suburban sprawl is evil. The unplanned growth, cookie cutter developments is gobbling up all the space and ruining America. Right?

Wrong.

But in town after town, civic leaders talk about going to war! They want "smart growth." They say sprawl has wrecked lives.

So-called experts on TV say all sorts of nasty things about the changing suburban landscape.

James Kunstler, author of "The Geography of Nowhere," said, "Most of the country really is living in these mutilated and defective environments."

Kunstler and others say suburbs are despicable places. He calls them, "uniformly, low-grade miserably designed environments that make people feel bad." Even ABC News' "Nightline" ran a program called "America the Ugly."

What upsets many critics most is the loss of open space.

But is open space disappearing in America? No, that's a total myth. More than 95 percent of the country is still undeveloped.

You see it if you cross this country. Only a small percentage is developed. Yes, in some places, like some suburbs, there are often huge traffic jams.

But lots of people, while they don't like the traffic or the long commute to work, like where they live.

"I like that I have a nice piece of property, and I have privacy," one woman said.

Another said, "Even with all the congestion, it's a wonderful lifestyle."

The anti-sprawl activists say more Americans should live the way I do. I live in an apartment, and most days I walk or ride my bike to work. But should everyone have to live the way I do?

I like my lifestyle, but I chose it, voluntarily. Other people want to make different choices the critics don't call "ideal."

Some of the critics want to force my lifestyle onto others by limiting where they can build. Portland, Ore., for example. It's widely hailed for its so-called smart growth plan. A central bureaucracy approves all new development. A highway marks the boundary beyond which no new homes are permitted.

But of course that means the other side of the road is dense. The planners hoped the density would get people out of their cars, but it hasn't. And the price of land has skyrocketed.

Portland's great if you're rich. But if you're not, you may be squeezed out. Land prices went way up after land where building is permitted was limited. That's why smart growth is dumb.

I told Kunstler "smart growth" is destroying the lives of poor people, that he's basically telling low-income people who want back yards that they can't have one.

"Well, you can't have everything," Kunstler said.

They can't have back yards? Please! Remember, more than 95 percent of the country is undeveloped.

And even places that may look like soulless subdivisions to him are places where many people want to live. They have playgrounds, parks and back yards. What the busybodies call sprawl, others call homes they can afford.

MYTH No. 1 Sharing Would Make the World a Better Place

We learn in childhood that sharing is a good thing. And it's true -- in families and small groups.

But would the world be better off if we shared everything? No.

Think about shared public property, like public toilets. They're often gross. Public streets tend to get trashed. Earlier I mentioned how people litter on public lands, and think about what you share at work. The refrigerator where I work is disgusting -- filled with food that's rotten. I found cottage cheese that was more than a year old. It's because it's shared property.

Russell Roberts, professor of economics at George Mason University, points out that private property rarely gets abused or degraded.

And there's an explanation for this. "When something belongs to everyone, it belongs to no one. No one owns it. There's no incentive to take care of it. It gets abused and degraded," Roberts said.

Private property sounds selfish. We think of rich people taking advantage of other people. But it works a lot better, Roberts said.

Compare dirty public toilets to privately run toilets. They're common in Europe, and cleaner, because their owners -- selfishly seeking a profit -- work at keeping them clean.

Why do we have so many catastrophic forest fires? Did you know that most of them are on government land -- land we share? The feds own only a third of the forests, but they have most of the forest fires. Private forests are less likely to burn, because the livelihood of "greedy" timber companies depends on having healthy trees. But the government, managing land we all share, is less careful.

Here's another example. I can throw my trash on the floor at a pro basketball game. The home team leases this space, and they're fine with people littering, because they clean it up. The price of the cleanup is included in the ticket price, and they clean it up well. At stadiums, they don't even call this litter, it's just part of the game.

Compare that to public parks or fields -- the litter tends to stay here. It's the same reason people overfish the sea. The ocean is public property, shared property. So for years, fishermen took all they could. They had little incentive to make sure enough fish were left to reproduce, and the supply of fish has dropped drastically.

But good things happen when this public property is privatized. For example, private fishing quotas helped restore fisheries in the United States and New Zealand. In the 1980s, New Zealand's government gave fishermen individual fishing quotas, setting a total allowable catch for different species of fish. Then it granted each fisherman the right to take a certain percentage of that. Because the fishermen own those rights, it's private property. The government can't take it away from them. The fisherman are free to buy or sell those fishing rights, just like private property. The result: Fish populations went up.

Communal farming is similar. The Pilgrims tried shared farming when they first arrived in America. But, rather than working shared property, they faked illness. Some of them said the kids were too young to go out in the fields. The Pilgrims nearly starved to death, and ended up eating rats, dogs, horses and cats. When each was given his own land on which to grow crops, food was abundant. I wish they taught the kids that at Thanksgiving. Likewise, when Stalin and Mao collectivized their farms, their people nearly starved to death.

High school teacher Tori Haidinger runs an experiment to show her students that this is just the way people act.

Each group of students gets a covered beaker of candies they must share. She tells the kids, take as many as you want and then pass them on to the next kid. Any left over will reproduce, just like fish, because the teacher will double them. What happens?

The beakers were emptied completely, because nobody shared. Bad news if the candies were fish.

Economists call this the "Tragedy of the Commons."

When Haidinger changed the rules and gave each student, rather than a group of students, his or her own private beaker, things worked out better.

She's privatizating the beakers. People sneer at the term privatization, but this time no one overfishes. Kids are careful to leave enough in their ponds and new generations of chocolate candies are born.

One of the students understands the lesson. "If it's ours, we will care more about it," she said.

The same principle is saving elephants in Africa. In many African countries, the elephants belong to everyone. Governments have outlawed killing them, but the vast plains are too big to police. So greedy poachers kill elephants and steal their tusks.

Roberts said, "It's a nice idea to say it's wrong to kill elephants. But that method has not worked."

In Zambia, Uganda and Kenya, where elephant hunting is banned, the number of elephants has actually dropped dramatically -- from 180,000 to 44,000 -- in the past four decades.

But in Zimbabwe, South Africa, Namibia and Botswana, local villagers have a form of ownership rights. They have the right to sell hunting licenses for about $10,000 per elephant.

And this permission to kill elephants is actually saving elephants.

"Oh, it's disgusting. But it works," Roberts said.

It works, because the villagers now say, these are our elephants. Even a former poacher now works to protect the elephants.

"The villagers have a profit motive to make sure that elephants don't get poached and killed. As a result, they take care of them. They don't want to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs," Roberts explained.

In these countries where villagers virtually own the elephants, elephant numbers have almost tripled -- from 80,000 in 1960 to about 230,000 in 2000.

So while sharing may feel warm and fuzzy, it often makes things worse.

By contrast, private ownership -- whether it's public toilets or hunting and fishing licenses -- makes the world better.

This story was originally reported Jan. 28, 2005.

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