We knew the euro was a bad idea in 1961. What went wrong?

The eurozone is emphatically not an optimal currency area.

Everyone knows this action-movie story: a heroic, war-scarred veteran is promoted to a prestigious desk job, reluctantly hanging up his rifle in the process. But then the state finds itself under threat and his superiors in the bureaucracy turn out to be grossly inept. Eventually, our hero, fearing for the lives of his men and the good of the country, tells them where they can stuff their desk job, picks up his rifle and leads the troops to an epic victory.

The start of this tale is similar to what has been playing out in the Eurozone over the past decade. Countries, hoping to join the safety, prosperity and exclusivity of the Eurozone, readily hung up their weapons of monetary policy, fiscal flexibility and money-printing. But now they need them again, and they're nowhere to be found.

The dangers of currency unions are not only now emerging: they have been a central part of international macroeconomics literature for over half a century, since Robert Mundell’s seminal paper (£) on "Optimal Currency Areas" (OCAs) in 1961.

What seems to have shocked the Eurogenitors is that this longstanding theory was actually right.

OCA theory highlights the costs and benefits of common currency zones and suggests criteria that all states should satisfy before considering their formation. Benefits include increased intra-zone trade, lowered transaction/conversion costs and increased competition through price transparency, while Costs are mainly concerned with lost flexibility. Countries in the zone no longer have the ability to adjust to asymmetric shocks, whether by externally devaluing via currency pr internally devaluing via inflation.

So, could we use OCA theory to retrospectively solve the Eurozone’s problems?

Sadly not. First, many of the criteria which Europe does not meet – hence the original incompatibility – can never be met by it. And second, the Eurozone has created new problems that OCA theory never envisaged. What started as asymmetric shocks – a banking crisis and property bubble bust – have become a massive symmetric attack across the whole region as unarmed sovereigns are left with no policies to defend themselves whilst their very solvency is called into question.

A good example of the Eurozone’s economic incompatibility can be found in Mundell’s first classic OCA criterion: labour mobility. This represents one of the most marked differences between US states and Eurozone countries. If unemployment rises in Detroit – say, because demand for cars falls – workers can move to a state where there is more demand for work, easing Detroit’s unemployment. And Americans do move, frequently. The same is not true of Europe, partly because of the heterogeneity of labour markets but mainly due to culture and, most importantly, language.

So, would a solution to the Euro crisis be to teach everyone, say, German? Despite the obvious historical faux pas of imposing Deutsche Uber Alles, this would raise employment in the short run for Germans (as teachers) – the opposite of what is needed. Teaching English is out for the same reason, and besides, anything that promotes the meddling Brits would be shot down by the Europeans at the helm.

So, how about Spanish? Great idea. Youth unemployment in Spain is a whopping 52 per cent, and teaching your native language requires only a short course that the indignados could pick up in a few weeks. Eurozone-backed free Spanish lessons would ease unemployment (and the associated social benefits) in Spain, whilst the increased skills would further knowledge transfer across the continent and allow for better trade and business links with the fast-growing economies of South America as well as the US (over 10 per cent of the population are Hispanophones).

But of course this is folly. The Italians/Greek/Portuguese would ask, "why not us"? The French would be furieux; to many French diplomats, the very raison d’être of the European project was to spread the French language in defiance of English. They are not about to sponsor an attack on their langue maternelle from over the Pyrenees or anywhere else.

In fact, try though we might to come up with ingenious solutions, microeconomic reforms will not save the Eurozone. No matter what language you put it in, investors can see the current crisis for what it really is: a vote of no confidence in the currency itself.

But OCA theory may have one last bullet in the chamber. Another founding father of OCA theory, Peter Kenen, highlighted in a 1969 paper the need for fiscal integration.

For example, a demand shock in Detroit would not cause a fundamental questioning of the dollar. Instead, Washington would increase transfers to Motor City to allow it to rebalance without cutting state-level consumption and the Treasury would continue to borrow at low rates reflecting the might of the US economy as a whole.

Joining the Euro for many countries has meant surrendering their economic self-determination even while the bazooka-holding Germans have ignored the pressing need for action in the on-going war of attrition against their shared currency.

The Banking Union agreed to on June 27th may sever the link between insolvent banks and insolvent governments but the risk to the currency remains, and thus the unsustainable borrowing costs for peripheral countries will continue.

Everyone can see what Germany’s role in this tale is: either agree to fiscal integration, debt mutualisation and a genuine guarantee of the currency (the markets will know otherwise) or unlock the arsenal, give the Eurozone countries back their self-determination and bring the project to its conclusion.

The story of the European project has been one of peace, prosperity and co-operation for decades, but it is time the next chapter was written.

Robert Mundell, who knew the euro was a bad idea fifty years ago. Photograph: Getty Images

Dom Boyle is a British economist.

Getty
Show Hide image

Inside Big Ben: why the world’s most famous clock will soon lose its bong

Every now and then, even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care.

London is soon going to lose one of its most familiar sounds when the world-famous Big Ben falls silent for repairs. The “bonging” chimes that have marked the passing of time for Londoners since 1859 will fall silent for months beginning in 2017 as part of a three-year £29m conservation project.

Of course, “Big Ben” is the nickname of the Great Bell and the bell itself is not in bad shape – even though it does have a huge crack in it.

The bell weighs nearly 14 tonnes and it cracked in 1859 when it was first bonged with a hammer that was way too heavy.

The crack was never repaired. Instead the bell was rotated one eighth of a turn and a lighter (200kg) hammer was installed. The cracked bell has a characteristic sound which we have all grown to love.

Big Ben strikes. UK Parliament.

Instead, it is the Elizabeth Tower (1859) and the clock mechanism (1854), designed by Denison and Airy, that need attention.

Any building or machine needs regular maintenance – we paint our doors and windows when they need it and we repair or replace our cars quite routinely. It is convenient to choose a day when we’re out of the house to paint the doors, or when we don’t need the car to repair the brakes. But a clock just doesn’t stop – especially not a clock as iconic as the Great Clock at the Palace of Westminster.

Repairs to the tower are long overdue. There is corrosion damage to the cast iron roof and to the belfry structure which keeps the bells in place. There is water damage to the masonry and condensation problems will be addressed, too. There are plumbing and electrical works to be done for a lift to be installed in one of the ventilation shafts, toilet facilities and the fitting of low-energy lighting.

Marvel of engineering

The clock mechanism itself is remarkable. In its 162-year history it has only had one major breakdown. In 1976 the speed regulator for the chimes broke and the mechanism sped up to destruction. The resulting damage took months to repair.

The weights that drive the clock are, like the bells and hammers, unimaginably huge. The “drive train” that keeps the pendulum swinging and that turns the hands is driven by a weight of about 100kg. Two other weights that ring the bells are each over a tonne. If any of these weights falls out of control (as in the 1976 incident), they could do a lot of damage.

The pendulum suspension spring is especially critical because it holds up the huge pendulum bob which weighs 321kg. The swinging pendulum releases the “escapement” every two seconds which then turns the hands on the clock’s four faces. If you look very closely, you will see that the minute hand doesn’t move smoothly but it sits still most of the time, only moving on each tick by 1.5cm.

The pendulum swings back and forth 21,600 times a day. That’s nearly 8m times a year, bending the pendulum spring. Like any metal, it has the potential to suffer from fatigue. The pendulum needs to be lifted out of the clock so that the spring can be closely inspected.

The clock derives its remarkable accuracy in part from the temperature compensation which is built into the construction of the pendulum. This was yet another of John Harrison’s genius ideas (you probably know him from longitude fame). He came up with the solution of using metals of differing temperature expansion coefficient so that the pendulum doesn’t change in length as the temperature changes with the seasons.

In the Westminster clock, the pendulum shaft is made of concentric tubes of steel and zinc. A similar construction is described for the clock in Trinity College Cambridge and near perfect temperature compensation can be achieved. But zinc is a ductile metal and the tube deforms with time under the heavy load of the 321kg pendulum bob. This “creeping” will cause the temperature compensation to jam up and become less effective.

So stopping the clock will also be a good opportunity to dismantle the pendulum completely and to check that the zinc tube is sliding freely. This in itself is a few days' work.

What makes it tick

But the truly clever bit of this clock is the escapement. All clocks have one - it’s what makes the clock tick, quite literally. Denison developed his new gravity escapement especially for the Westminster clock. It decouples the driving force of the falling weight from the periodic force that maintains the motion of the pendulum. To this day, the best tower clocks in England use the gravity escapement leading to remarkable accuracy – better even than that of your quartz crystal wrist watch.

In Denison’s gravity escapement, the “tick” is the impact of the “legs” of the escapement colliding with hardened steel seats. Each collision causes microscopic damage which, accumulated over millions of collisions per year, causes wear and tear affecting the accuracy of the clock. It is impossible to inspect the escapement without stopping the clock. Part of the maintenance proposed during this stoppage is a thorough overhaul of the escapement and the other workings of the clock.

The Westminster clock is a remarkable icon for London and for England. For more than 150 years it has reminded us of each hour, tirelessly. That’s what I love about clocks – they seem to carry on without a fuss. But every now and then even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care. After this period of pampering, “Big Ben” ought to be set for another 100 or so years of trouble-free running.

The Conversation

Hugh Hunt is a Reader in Engineering Dynamics and Vibration at the University of Cambridge.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.