Ryan's spending cuts aren't just big, they are impossible

What would you cut?

Yesterday, we touched on why Paul Ryan's budget will inevitably lead to skyrocketing deficits. But one part of that in particular deserves unpacking: Ryan wants to cut almost all of the discretionary federal budget down to just 0.75 per cent of GDP. That is, bluntly, impossible.

The (simplified) argument against Ryan's "fiscal credibility" is that he wants to cut taxes and spending. But while no-one ever argues with tax cuts, the spending cuts he has laid out are implausible. As a result, his plan would result in lower taxes but the same spending, creating a budgetary black hole which will rapidly increase the deficit.

The claim about spending cuts, however, deserves some unpacking. Leaving aside for the moment Ryan's plans for Medicare, Medicaid and social security, he wants to reduce spending on everything else to 3.75 per cent of GDP by 2050.

That "everything else" includes defence spending, which Mitt Romney has separately promised to guarantee receives 4 per cent of GDP, and which has in fact never fallen below 3 per cent of GDP. Given even Ryan doesn't plan to fund federal services with negative money, lets assume that his plan calls for 3 per cent of GDP to be spent on defence, leaving 0.75 per cent of GDP to be spent on everything in the federal budget which is not Medicare, Medicaid, social security or defence.

America's GDP for 2011 was $15.09trn, which means Ryan's discretionary budget has a little over $113bn to allocate. What costs $113bn?

The administration for children and families is a centralised agency under the aegis of the Department of Health & Human Services which provides most welfare services aimed at children and families. It takes up $16.2bn of federal funding.

Food and nutrition assistance distributed by the Department of Agriculture stops people starving. It costs $7.8bn.

The National Science Foundation spends $1.4bn on Maths and Physics research, its largest single spending area (largely due to the fact that health research is given to the National Institutes of Health instead).

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – NOAA – is roughly the equivalent of the Met Office. It costs $5.5bn a year.

The Department of Energy spends $0.5bn on advanced computing research, $0.8bn on High Energy Physics, and $2.0bn on basic energy research, all of which ensure that American energy supplies are fit for the future.

NASA cost $18.7bn in 2012, and managed to land a rover on Mars this year, which has got to count towards some value for money.

The Internal Revenue Service – although mostly concerned with bringing money in, rather than spending it – required a budget of $13.3bn to do just that.

$2.4bn was spent on HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment domestically and $5.6bn on the same overseas. $2bn was spent on public health responses and dealing with infectious diseases, and $4.6bn was spent on the Indian Health Service, which provides healthcare to Native Americans.

The Postal Service cost $5.9bn and the Federal Aviation Administration spent $13.1bn. Proving, yet again, that trains rule and planes drool, the Federal Railroad Administration cost just $3bn.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives – which, yes, sounds less like a government department and more like the best party shop ever – had a budget of $1.1bn in 2012.

The two highest resourced Institutes of Health were the Cancer Institute, and Allergy and Infectious Diseases. They got $5.2bn and $5.0bn respectively.

Those programs alone – some big, some small - spend, between them, $114.1bn a year. That is $900m more than what Paul Ryan wants to spend on the entire non-defence discretionary budget.

Or, to put it another way, we have used up the US budget on projects which are entirely valuable, and which would cause real pain if cut, without even touching on:

The FBI ($8.1bn), Elementary and Secondary Education ($41.4bn), Financial Aid to university students ($31.4bn), the entire legislative, judicial and presidential branches ($12.3bn), public housing and housing assistance ($35bn), the FDA ($2.7bn), the EPA ($9.0bn) and FEMA ($6.8), the highway administration ($43.6bn) and the entire department of the interior ($12.0bn).

(Those departments, by the way, have a budget totalling $202bn. So even if everything else in the entire discretionary budget didn't exist, they would still have to lose almost half their budgets to stay within Ryan's spending limits)

Oh, and that's not even mentioning the smaller agencies, which would likely come under the knife in an attempt to squeeze out every last cent. Agencies like the FTC, Holocaust Memorial Museum, FCC, Smithsonian Institution, SEC and the entire District of Columbia may have budgets which amount to little more than rounding errors in the grand scheme of things, but you can be sure some of them will go as well.

But all of this assumes that Paul Ryan will be able to get defence spending down to its historic minimum of 3 per cent of GDP. Right now, the National Security budget is $754bn, and the Department of Defense alone commands $671bn. That is 5.0 per cent, and 4.4 per cent, of GDP, which Ryan would need to slash.

The spending cuts he desires are impossible. They will not materialise, and never could be expected to. And so Ryan will either have to abandon his plan entirely, or pass unfunded tax cuts. If he really is a deficit hawk, that has got to qualify him as one of the most incompetent ever

See an infographic on Ryan's budget here

Paul Ryan speaks during a campagin stop in Des Moines, Iowa. 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.

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.