WASHINGTON -- Everyone makes mistakes. Some are perfectly understandable and deliver important life lessons, such as that it is a bad idea to bend over a toilet with a cellphone in your shirt pocket. Some mistakes, though, are mystifying, even in hindsight, such as letting Clint Eastwood, 82, ad-lib a prime-time political speech featuring an imaginary friend with a potty mouth. But in the category of "What were they thinking?" not much beats the mistake recently made by the government of Shaoyang, China.
As a city, Shaoyang isn't exactly Beijing or Shanghai: Its greatest claim to fame is sharing a name with a medical condition that combines migraine headaches with constipation. Chinese tourist websites do the best they can trying to make Shaoyang sound enticing, but they are limited by available facts: We learn, for example, that the region produces high-quality nonferrous metals and that the city center is a mere 69-hour walk to Mount Yunshan, which is "one of the 72 national places of perfect happiness."
But Shaoyang remains proud and ambitious. In the absence of great scenic beauty or urban charm, its leaders aspire to a sort of bureaucratic immortality. So, they set out to solve their many civic problems in a creative, holistic way.
Problem 1 was an epidemic of littering, spitting and illegal parking by flagrant scofflaws, who are brazen because of Problem 2, which is an insufficiently large police force, owing to Problem 3, which is not enough money in the city treasury, a condition aggravated by Problem 4, which is too many geezers: financially unproductive retirees.
You may see where this is going, especially if you live in Washington, D.C., home of the grandly inane bureaucratic gesture.
Shaoyang pols decided it would be a swell idea to deputize a thousand oldsters as law enforcement agents, with the power to issue tickets.
It turned out that "get-off-my-lawn" curmudgeons with too much time on their hands might not be the best individuals to put in charge of harassing people. It was an obvious mistake, kind of like the Republicans sending Clint on stage. But then Shaoyang made a massive compounding error.
It let the seniors keep 80 percent of the fees on the tickets they gave out. That's as if the Republicans had first gotten Clint drunk.
The results were predictable, according to an excellent article in The New York Times: "A climate of apprehension has gripped the city," as vindictive senior citizens with incentives descended on the populace in flip-flops and red armbands, competing against each other to issue the most spitting, parking and littering tickets. They're out there now, a fierce contingent of dentured servants, randomly demanding license and registration at stoplights. They're issuing tickets for two-inch-over-the-line traffic infractions. The story wasn't specific on how they were cracking down on spitting, possibly for good reason.
So, clearly, a mistake -- but perhaps one we all can profit from. Harnessed correctly and directed productively, vindictive geezers can be a force for good. I, for example, am nearing retirement age, and have more than the requisite amount of gall and righteous indignation. Give me and other like-minded senior-citizen tyrants a ticket book, an armband and some discretion, and there is no end to the civic good we can do.
I'm not just talking about tickets for littering and spitting, or for the obvious infractions such as adults riding bicycles on the sidewalk, with those little kindergarten bells on the handlebar. I am talking about waiters who keep asking "How is everything?"; people with big bellies but too-short shirts; people who allow their trembly little dogs out in public; any shopkeeper who charges more than $3 for a cupcake; anyone who has used some preciously misspelled variant to name a child, such as "Kaitlynne" or "Alexzander" or "Jordyn."
Give us the ticket books. We can make a difference.
Gene Weingarten can be reached at email@example.com. Chat with him online on Tuesday, September 25, at noon Eastern at www.washingtonpost.com.Copyright 2012 Washington Post Writers Group