Monetary stimulus is much more fun when it buys you a holiday

Why not use QE to give holiday vouchers to northern Europe? No, really, why not?

It's always nice to read a proposal that could simultaneously ease the euro crisis and get you a free holiday to Barcelona. It's even more fun seeing the idea gestate from a slightly boozy tweet to a full-blown plan, set in motion by the disability blogger and campaigner Sue Marsh:

After a while, I had a thought. All of the countries in trouble were holiday destinations - Greece, Spain, Italy, Portugal even Ireland. The ones weathering the storm were the colder, northern countries. Would it not make sense to encourage and incentivise holidays? [...] Hell, was fun automatically not an option just because it was fun?

A few weeks ago, there were rumours of another 700 billion bailout for Eurozone banks. I had just watched Spanish banks get a bailout of more billions and the markets ate the extra money mercilessly in about 48 hours. With the press of a few buttons, the banks or markets appeared to have eaten the very money they had just created! [...]

I asked more seriously on twitter if any economists could explain to me why my holiday idea wouldn't be a better stimulus to the Eurozone than another bank bailout.

Marsh's idea was picked up by NIESR's Jonathan Portes, who wrote it up with Declan Gaffney, another prolific blogger on disability and welfare issues. Their plan sounds a lot like it would work, cost no more than a bank bailout, and as Sue says, be fun:

Our proposal is that they should issue vouchers to their citizens, redeemable only on spending in goods and services in those countries suffering financing difficulties (Spain, Ireland, Portugal, Greece, Cyprus and Italy). Holiday vouchers, in other words. So German holidaymakers could pay for their drinks in Cretan bars (and their flights, hotel bills, souvenirs, ferry tickets and the like) with "money" created by the ECB and distributed to them by their own government. The Greek businesses would in turn be able to trade in the vouchers for euros from the German government (via the banking system and the ECB).

This solves a number of problems. It would loosen monetary policy across the eurozone and ease the financing problems of the periphery countries. But most importantly, as Martin Wolf has long argued, the fundamental problem of the eurozone is not fiscal profligacy in periphery countries, but internal current account imbalances. Consumers in the periphery countries have been spending on goods and services from Germany and the Northern countries, but not vice versa, financed directly or indirectly by capital flows from those same countries. Now those flows have dried up; so one way or another, the current account balances must be corrected.

Both posts are well worth a read, and serve to drive home an important point: there are far more options to deal with crises than those that most policy makers think they actually have. When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail; but European governments have far more than just hammers in their toolbox.

Greeks sunbathe on a beach in Athens. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Getty
Show Hide image

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.