Posts Tagged 'noise pollution'

Mid-election afterthoughts.

Rushing to get my Trump reflections on the record before tonight’s U.S. election result made them redundant, I declined to pursue a number of digressions as they occurred to me. But I have nothing else going on today, so I guess I’ll work them up into their own post.


Not long ago I was reminiscing to a friend about the time Howard Stern ran for governor of New York. Stern promised to unsnarl New York City’s traffic jams by moving all road construction work to the middle of the night. That was it. Once he’d accomplished that, he said, he would resign.

My friend and I had been talking about how politics doesn’t really offer a mechanism for solving ubiquitous but small irritants. She mentioned crosswalk signals that count down the seconds until the light turns amber – you scurry to get across, the countdown reaches zero – and the light doesn’t turn amber! What is the purpose of those misleading timers? Or of those crosswalk signals that are activated by a button, but if the light is already green when you push it, you’re confronted with a steady red hand. You wait, thinking maybe the light is about to change…and wait…and wait…while there was plenty of time for you to have crossed safely, if the signal had been more intelligently designed. But how do you democratically register your vexation over poor crosswalk signals?

What would be my platform, my friend asked, if I ran a single-issue Stern-style campaign? I said it would probably have something to do with noise pollution. Banning leaf blowers, for instance, which aggravate whole city blocks while barely improving on the efficiency of rakes and brooms. Or getting rid of truck backup beepers, which avert a knowable number of deaths per year at the cost of an unknowable amount of life-shortening stress from the cumulative effect of urban noisiness.


Having confessed in the previous post to my deplorable lack of outrage over the offenses of Donald Trump, maybe I ought to spell out, for the benefit of bemused readers, what issues I am passionate about.

It’s a pretty short list. It looks something like this:

1) Free speech (pro).
2) Suburban sprawl, auto dependency (anti), public transit (pro).
3) Democracy (pro).

I’m not saying those are the most important issues. Clearly nuclear proliferation, environmental degradation, third world overpopulation – threats that, badly managed, could actually end all life on earth – are far more important. But I have no ready answer for those existential threats, let alone for more parochial questions like how integrated the United Kingdom should be with the European Union, or how the United States should tweak its health insurance system, or whether the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal is on balance good for Canada.

Whereas I am strongly, and probably unalterably, in favour of a more expansive definition of free speech. Not because speech is in itself wonderful – the freer it is, the more of it will consist of horrible hateful ranting, which is unfortunate given the ease with which horrible hateful rants can now reach an audience. But giving governments and institutions the power to suppress “wrong” speech presumes that “wrongness” can be definitively known, and that the powerful can be trusted not to skew the definition to cow their political enemies and perpetuate their own rule. Horrible hateful rants can be endured.

But no party is all that vocal about the free speech issue – besides the Libertarians, whose positions on almost everything else I find dubious. There just aren’t many voters who care.

My concerns about sprawl and auto dependency are generally shared by parties on the left – but those same parties are usually hostile to dense urban development, while being committed to ever-greater levels of immigration – making it impossible for them to devise policies that effectively contain exurban growth. So this issue, like free speech, tends not to drive my voting that much.

Democracy, as I define it, rarely comes up. I know the Democratic Party in the States thinks Republican “voter suppression” tactics are anti-small-“d”-democratic, but as I’ve argued before, there is no God-given system under which elections would be perfectly fair. The Democratic coalition takes in the young, the transient, the frequently-incarcerated – it makes sense for Democrats to oppose rules that create barriers to voting, such as having to show your ID, or not be a felon. The Republican coalition, meanwhile, is older, more suburban, more likely to be married and settled. Barriers are easier for them to overcome. The most Democrat-friendly rules would permit anyone to show up at any polling station and vote with no questions asked. Republican-friendly rules would demand that you bring along two pieces of photo ID, plus proof you’ve resided in the district for ten years, and also the poll supervisor recognizes you from his bowling league.

That reminds me of something I came across on Mark Steyn’s website today. (I love and revere Steyn, largely for his corny and erudite celebrations of old-fashioned American songcraft – but he is of course a highly partisan conservative, so skepticism must be calibrated accordingly.) In his election eve post he embeds a video of President Obama being interviewed by the website Mitú – the self-proclaimed “Voice of Young Latinos”. In response to a somewhat muddled question from Gina Rodriguez, the president – well, to quote the title of the video, he seemingly “encourages illegal aliens to vote.” As Steyn parses the exchange:

[T]he question is perfectly clear – the interviewer is brazenly advocating mass lawbreaking of the defining act of representative government – and the principal representative of that government is most certainly not clear in slapping such a provocation down.

Is the question really that clear? For a less adversarial take, Steyn sportingly links to the writer and legal expert Jonathan Turley, who says:

[T]he President clearly states that “when you vote, you are a citizen yourself.” The confusion is over the use [by Rodriguez] of “undocumented citizen” to refer to illegal immigrants.

This flap seems pretty characteristic of the current U.S. political scene. Each side attributes the worst intentions to the other, leaping to the least forgiving reading of any ambiguous or unpolished comment. Republicans, fearful of cheating Democrats bussing in illegal ringers to tip the election, push for stricter voting requirements. Democrats, assuming Republican fears are a put-on, accuse Republicans of racistly disenfranchising minorities. Speaking as an outsider, it all just makes me sort of tired.


I put “democracy” on my issues list because it actually influenced my decision in the last Canadian federal election. My ideal outcome for that contest was a minority government for either the Conservatives or NDP, with the Liberals humiliatingly crushed and Justin Trudeau chased out of politics forever. Not because I have anything particularly against Trudeau, who seems like a nice enough guy, in that grating progressive confident-he’s-on-the-right-side-of-history way. But the monarchical principle should be resisted in democracy whenever it arises. (I excuse actual constitutional monarchs as harmless tourist attractions.) The point of democracy isn’t that it provides good government, but that it guarantees regular, non-violent opportunities for self-correction. Dashing looks and famous names throw off the electorate’s judgement and delay necessary electoral corrections – so that the reaction, when it finally comes, is more extreme than it need have been. Which is why Peripheral Bushes and Lesser Kennedys and, yes, Distaff Clintons should be held to a stricter standard, not a laxer one, than those who rose to prominence under unstoried names.

Not that anyone really cares what I think. Happy Election Night, America. Try to stay chill.



Noise pollution and negative externalities.

On a train journey across Austria this spring, seated in the “quiet car”, I found myself across from what I can only describe as the world’s gayest Chinese boy. Dressed in pink capris, with shiny waxed legs, he occupied a four-seater with his mother and sister and began unwinding an endless soliloquy in high-pitched Mandarin. His family sat nodding and smiling in an encouraging way as he piped his spiel throughout the carriage. After a few minutes I moved a few seats away, but his sing-songing voice continued to irritate me. I put in earplugs but they still didn’t muffle him. Finally I removed myself to the far end of the carriage where, with earplugs in, his chatter was muted enough that I could almost forget he was there.

It got me thinking about negative externalities. That’s the name economists have given to the costs of activities that are borne not by the people engaging in them, but by innocent bystanders.

The classic example is pollution. A guy builds a factory that pumps acrid smoke into the air. He enjoys the profits from the factory, but the costs of living with the pollution are borne by the people living downwind.

Another example occurred in the years running up to the 2008 financial meltdown, in which investment bankers trading in risky and poorly-understood securities enjoyed huge profits, while the costs of the resulting economic crisis were borne by taxpayers.

The thing about these kinds of negative externalities – pollution and financial risk – is that they are not entirely external. They’re shared, at least to some degree, by the people who generate them. Those people are therefore sensitive to suasion by moral or governmental authority.

The guy with the factory might not care about the people downwind from him, but he’s not enthusiastic about toxic clouds per se. They’re an unfortunate side effect of the profit he seeks. He might be convinced to sacrifice a part of his profit in order to create a cleaner atmosphere which he and his family can breathe along with everyone else.

Nor is the banker with his profitable but risky securities keen on destabilizing the whole economy. He doesn’t want vagrants throwing rocks at his BMW as he drives to work through streets lined with derelict shops. Nor does he desire the higher taxes that must eventually be implemented to pay for the bank bailouts his actions necessitated. He might be convinced to give up some profit now in order that in the future he and his children can walk the streets without fear of being mugged.

But then there’s the negative externality of noise pollution, as exemplified by that Chinese kid on the train.

The thing about noisy people is that they don’t regard noise as an unpleasant but unavoidable side effect of doing something else they enjoy. The noise is what they enjoy. They’re not just unsympathetic to the argument that their noise makes bystanders unhappy, but uncomprehending. To them it seems paradoxical. If the sound of my chattering voice is so pleasant to me, that Chinese boy would argue, how can it be unpleasant to everyone else?

If the sound of my motorcycle engine echoing down a city street gives me such a thrill, thinks the biker, mustn’t it give a similar thrill to that lady sipping tea on her balcony?

If the sound of my shrieking children fills my breast with maternal contentment, thinks the mother, mustn’t it have an equivalently heartwarming effect on everyone else in the restaurant?

If the sound of Blink 182’s Greatest Hits help me to concentrate on my homework, thinks the college student, mustn’t my stereo’s muffled reverberations be just as soothing to the folks in the apartment downstairs?

We can’t suggest, “Let’s all enjoy the silence together,” because silence is not something they would enjoy.

In the absence of arguments that appeal to their sense of rational self-interest, our only options are to wheedle or threaten the noisemakers. Naturally they’re resentful, and ignore or flout the rules whenever they can.

It’s therefore not surprising that in the last hundred years, while we’ve enjoyed considerable success at reducing pollution, and moderate success at regulating finance, the world has gotten noisier and noisier. I see no prospect of reversing the trend. As so often happens, the loudest voice wins.