Goodbye and good riddance

Andrew Sentance's comments on interest rates are without any basis. Thank goodness he is leaving the

There were two big stories today relating to external members of the MPC. The first was by Andrew Sentance who, in an interview with the Flintshire Leader, argued that, "If you have interest rates too low for too long, the problem we have is it becomes more difficult to raise interest rates more sharply in the future." There is no basis for such claims. Why would it be harder to raise rates in the future because you had lower rates in the past?

Sentance's presence on the committee has apparently made it much harder for others to get their views across. He has been a damaging influence on the MPC. He failed to see the recession in the first place and has repeatedly suggested that it was all over when it wasn't. He seems to have little concern for unemployment and is hung up with some economic theory of the past that nobody takes seriously any longer, according to which all that matters is inflation. The main economic problem is not inflation and what happens in manufacturing isn't a good guideline to what happens in the rest of the economy. Even his boss, Mervyn King, thinks that, with the fiscal contraction going on, raising rates now would be a "futile gesture" that would have to be quickly reversed. Thank goodness that Sentance has only two more meetings left.

The second story was by my good friend Adam Posen, who has been voting for more QE because of his fears that inflation will be below the target in 2012. He is a Japan expert and knows about these things and needs to be taken seriously. Just because he is in a minority of one, it doesn't mean he isn't right; in all likelihood he is. In a Guardian story, he reports having had sleepless nights over his decision to break with the consensus. "I would take it deeply and personally, which is why I have laid awake at night thinking about it." My own experience at the MPC suggests that it is really hard to plough a different furrow from the tyranny of the consensus.

He has even gone as far as to say that he would not seek a second term if it turns out that he isn't right. I don't think there is much chance of that.

"If I have made the wrong call, not only will I switch my vote, I would not pursue a second term. They should have somebody who gets it right and not me. I am accountable for my performance. I'm holding my nerve because it is the right thing to do."

Posen was also sceptical about the suggestion that the government's deficit reduction plan could help growth by boosting confidence in financial markets, leading to a fall in long-term interest rates and higher investment. That hasn't happened, as consumer confidence has collapsed, UK growth has slowed and unemployment and inflation have risen. Adam is a man worth listening to. I suspect that, in a year or so, we will find his comments to be prophetic.

David Blanchflower is economics editor of the New Statesman and professor of economics at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire

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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.