Cypriot counterintution part one: "It was a good thing"

Should we be cheering one of the first wealth taxes of this millennium?

As the Cyprus saga continues, the interesting counterintuitive takes are starting to bubble up. Obviously there's a tendency, when so many people agree on the broad strokes of the news – that Cyprus is in a crap position, that the tax is pretty stupid, and that there's not a whole amount of other options – to go against the grain for the sake of it, but each of these arguments have merit to them.

First up is Philip Inman in the Guardian, who argues that we should ignore the "hysterical reaction" to the tax, because "it is a wealth tax – and about time too." Inman writes:

A wealth tax on bank deposits, where most wealth is held, is consequently a practical solution that also fulfils a basic economic need, which is to shift taxes away from income to wealth. Poorer citizens need to feed themselves, and a tax on incomes, especially for those with no savings, is the worst outcome.

It mimics an argument that was going around Twitter yesterday, pointing out that "a 1 [percentage point] rise in Sales Tax would be way more regressive and not even raise an eyebrow." Of course, it's questionable whether that increase increase in sales tax could raise quite as much as the tax on deposits, but that's even more of an argument in favour of the deposit tax.

The real hope for all of this, in fact, is that the Cypriot government will struggle through the negotiations and come out the other side with a deposit tax which applies entirely to deposits over €100,000. As Ben Hammersley tweeted:

 

 

Given that many of the wealthier depositors in Cypriot banks are engaged in questionable financial practices – and even outright money laundering, it seems – it's not a terrible thing to ask that the entire weight of the bailout be put on their shoulders. Of course, even if they weren't, it still wouldn't be that bad an idea, because putting the greatest burden on the broadest shoulders is almost the definition of a progressive tax system.

Except, of course, for the fact that the Cypriot economy benefits from its status as a financial haven. A rebalancing of the economy may still be a good thing for poorer Cypriots, but it's not clear that the hit the country is taking to pay off the ECB is bigger than the hit it would take if it scared away its questionably legal golden goose.

Interestingly, it seems that Cyprus agrees. France has confirmed, and credible reports indicate Germany and Finland back it up, that the negotiations with the Cypriot government only required it to implement a tax on deposits over the insurance threshold of €100,000. Insured deposits were considered sacrosanct to the Troika, but not to the Cypriot government, which needed to "spread the pain".

But the big reason why Inman's counterintuitive take is likely to remain counterintuitive is that a bank run for deposits above €100,000 – or even a bank stroll – is still a bank run. Deposit insurance lessens the chance of people trying to take all their money out, but it still happens, and it does nothing for the money you have above that value.

The chance of contagion is looking slim – although it is still the case that if you're a Portuguese depositor you're likely to be sitting markedly less comfortably than you were last week – but the situation in Cyprus itself is by no means solved yet. If the trust in the country's banks and politicians isn't restored, there will be worse ahead.

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.