Noise Pollution and Negative Externalities

1930s Noise Pollution

by Elaine Schwartz    •    Feb 5, 2014    •    2367 Views

In 1932, the NYC Noise Abatement Commission received a letter from Mr. N. Schmuck of 137 Milton Street in Brooklyn about the noise from a nearby pickle factory. Other 1930s noise complaints included early morning ice deliveries, “ear splitting shrieks of whistles” from boats on the East River, car horns, the loudspeaker outside the Century Talking Machine Company and newsboys on city streets crying out the headlines.

Described by Princeton history professor Emily Thompson in the WNYC Brian Lehrer Show podcast that I heard today during my daily walk, NYC noise from the 1920s and 1930s is about technology, economic activity, and annoyed individuals. Just through its noise, we can picture a city.

In a truly amazing website where I just spent the last hour and could have continued for much longer, Dr. Thompson created a picture of NYC life through its noise. I saw a vintage newsreel of a Noise Abatement Commission technician measuring sound and then proclaiming, “”The noise in Times Square deprives us of 45% of our hearing.” I read letters about noise complaints and excerpts from NY Times editorials on noise. I heard car horns and the riveting from Chrysler Building construction crews.

Several NY Times excerpts:

From: Emily Thompson Noise Pollution NYC and Negative Externalities

From: Emily Thompson Negative Externalities NYC Noise Pollution

From: Emily Thompson Negative Externalities NYC Noise Pollution

So yes, noise has been annoying for a long time. But it was not until the 1970s that we began to perceive it as an environmental threat.

Hearing about NYC noise, as with all pollution, an economist would say that we have a negative externality. All that she means is an “innocent” third party is bearing some cost from someone else’s productive activity. At this point, economists like to point out that if that producer had to pay a higher cost for whatever he is making, then his output would decrease and that third party would suffer less.

On the graph you can see that equilibrium quantity is higher than where it would be if the market accounted for the extra cost. As with any supply curve, when production cost increases, supply diminishes.

Negative Externality Church Bell Chimes

What to do?  Nobel Laureate (actually Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences) Elinor Ostrom (1933-2012) might have believed that NYC communities could formulate their own solutions. In a wonderful 2009 Planet Money podcast, she explained why.

Sources and Resources: I recommend heading straight to Emily Thompson’s website. Also, you can hear her interviewed towards the end of the WNYC Brian Lehrer podcast on noise and described in this NY Times blog. And, when econlife looked at a church bell chiming dispute, we discussed more recent noise pollution.

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