The Times' bizarre economics

Straight outta 2010.

The Times has an economics leader (£) today calling for the cutting of public spending to continue. It's a remarkably sloppy piece, straight out of the 2010 election campaign, and ignoring everything we have learned in the two and a half years since then.

The piece starts by pointing out that the Chancellor will have failed to cut debt as a proportion of GDP by the end of this parliament, something he initially staked his reputation on. It then, accurately, points out the the principal risks to Britain's economic health come from anaemic growth, not a collapse of "confidence".

The leader then runs through the failure, even after the third-quarter growth, of anything resembling the recovery, and comes tot he relatively sensible conclusion that Osborne ought to delay his fiscal targets.

Then it all goes off the rails:

The IMF has argued that increased borrowing should be tolerated rather than tackled with tax rises or further spending cuts. That does not mean that the Government has been wrong to seek a rapid reduction in the budget deficit. Cutting spending does not simply take demand out of the economy. It reduces sovereign risk and the premium that the Government has to pay on its borrowing. As sterling is not a reserve currency, maintaining fiscal credibility is an especially important task in economic management.

The low market interest rates that the UK needs to pay should be counted a success. They are a precondition of recovery.

Where to start. Cutting spending reduces sovereign risk? Are we still having this conversation? The UK controls its own currency, and exclusively issues bonds denominated in that currency. Sovereign risk is infinitesimal. We cannot go bust like Greece; we cannot default like Argentina. The worst thing that Britain could do is attempt to inflate its way out of debt; but that hasn't happened, and isn't going to happen, because spending is manageable, inflation is low, and interest rates are lower.

The leader also claims that cutting spending lowers "the premium that the Government has to pay on its borrowing". Which is again nonsense. As I wrote just two weeks ago, when Conservative MP Jesse Norman launched a bizarre attack on NIESR's Jonathan Portes:

Sovereign debt yields can be low either because investors think there is little chance of the nation going bankrupt, or because there is scant competition from other potential investments pushing up the yield. Since the crash, the chance of Britain defaulting hasn't changed from basically-zero, but the growth rate – and thus the average return on investment from putting your money in the "real" economy – has plummeted.

The status of Sterling as a reserve currency is also weird, inaccurate and slightly irrelevant. Sterling is a reserve currency – it is the world's third most held, after the euro and dollar. It is no longer the reserve currency, true – the dollar took that title after World War II – but that also has little to do with the importance of fiscal credibility.

And while the low market interest rates the UK needs to pay are helpful, they should not be considered a success. If anything, they are a sign of Osborne's economic failure. If the market truly expected a recovery, the first thing that would happen is interest rates would rise, as investors finally priced in the fact that they could expect real returns if they put their money elsewhere in the economy. As it is, returns on investment in government bonds remain close to zero, as investors flee to a safe haven.

Osborne needs, first and foremost, a plan to end this depression. Cutting spending acts against that goal. Market interest rates, and the risk of sovereign defaults, are irrelevancies to that question.

Money. 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.

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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.