The “Great Opportunity Party”

Yesterday's GOP.

I could spare you the niceties of yesterday’s GOP convention and just say that the Republican agenda is very much aligned with the preservation of The American Dream. But besides missing out on some fine and rather compelling rhetoric, you’d also miss out on attempts to humanise flip-flop Mitt, if only by proxy.

Some of the finer points of the Republican plan to revitalise “what America has always offered in abundance – opportunity” (John Boeven, Senator for North Dakota) include “unshackling (…) assets” that will lead “to real energy independence” (John Sununu, Governer of New Hampshire). Here Hoeven and co. are referring to the “Obama red tape” that is allegedly blocking the extension of the Keystone Pipeline. However, as FactCheck notes, these claims are largely untrue and overstate the positive impact of the Keystone XL (the much touted rise in employment would be as negligible as the impact on fuel prices).

The point is, the whole evening was carefully orchestrated to signal that Republicans stand for the shift from “an entitlement society to an opportunity society” (Bob McDonall, Governer of Virginia), and that Mitt Romney – a hard-hitting business man that crawled his way up from the gritty Detroit suburbs - best embodies these values. Obama, on the other hand, was repeatedly caricatured as a dirty European Socialist who would rather drown in Obamacare debt than embrace “free enterprise” or recognise American Exceptionalism. (This may or may not be my biased abridged version of it.) But the theme of American Exceptionalism, I promise, was as prevalent country music intervals.

In addition to fitting Romney squarely into the “Great Opportunity Party” (coined by Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn) ethos, Steven King (National Committeeman) and Ann Romney (Potential First Lady) attempted to make the man that kept his dog on the roof his car a bit more personable.

King did so the only way he knew how - by talking about Paul Ryan. Paul Ryan, apparently, “even at the age of 27, (…) was a man with big ideas and the courage of his convictions”. This bodes nicely for Romney, mainly because it’s a well-known fact that integrity is osmotic. Paul Ryan is also a “genuinely good man from the Midwest” who “can be found at church on any given Sunday” before retiring to watch a Packers game and exchanging stories with neighbours about fishing (I’m not making this up).  It’s good that Paul Ryan likes sports, like the rest of us, because Mitt Romney probably has “some great friends who are football team owners”.

Ann Romney would later address her husband’s social awkwardness head-on by acknowledging that he was the funny, shy type that girls liked for his vulnerability. In all seriousness though, Ann did a good job of making Mitt seem less robotic. In particular, she stressed his willingness to help others, both in the private and public sphere. This proved a good opportunity to rebut Mitt's reputation as an opportunist:

“Mitt doesn’t like to talk about how he’s helped others because he sees it as a privilege, not a political talking point.”

Ann then strengthens the Mitt-as-the-embodiment-of-the-Land-of-Opportunity theme by concluding,

“This is the genius of America – dreams fulfilled help others launch new dreams.”

The land of opportunity Photograph: Ghetty Images
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The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.