Splitting America three-ways

If you refounded North America, how many currencies would you go for?

If you refounded North America, how many currencies would you go for? Whatever the answer, you probably wouldn't insist on Vancuver and Seattle being different.

The whole thing is reminicisent of the debate around Europe. In May, a JP Morgan research note revealed that the Eurozone was more diverse than pretty much every other possible monetary union:

The x-axis is a measure of similarity between countries. It measures over 100 economic, social and political characteristics. Michael Cembalest, the report's author, then applied this measure to 11 hypothetical monetary unions, as well as to the major countries of the Eurozone (he excluded smaller countries like Cyprus and Malta, but the results aren't that different if they are included; nor does the inclusion of Greece affect the results all that much).

What he finds is that many monetary unions that came close to existing exhibit far more similarity than the Eurozone. This includes Latin America, the Gulf states, and Central America. He then pushed it further: reconstituting several former empires, including the USSR, Ottoman Empire, and the British Empire in Africa, would also result in unions with more similarity than the EU.

Now, three academics from the Democritus University of Thrace have performed a similar analysis on the US and Canada, and found that – economically, at least – the present borders make little sense. E. Chrysanthidou, P. Gogas, and T. Papadimitrioy apply Robert Mundell's theory of Optimal Currency Areas (OCA) to the hypothetical issue of a north American currency union.

An OCA is an area where the macroeconomic conditions between two or more regions are suitable for creating a monetary union. All such unions have potential benefits – eliminating currency risk means that conditions are much more favourable for trade within the union – but they also have potential downsides, as the eurozone is demonstrating presently. If the various involved regions are similar enough, the benefits are likely to outweigh the risks.

The theory, which stems from the 1960s, was originally based on an examination by Mundell of the US and Canada, but it took on a more practical bent with proposition of the European Monetary Area. Since then, it has been largely applied to Europe and similar cases of actually-existing, or at least widely proposed, currency unions.

The authors return to the source, and attempt to work out, using two different methods (Correspondence Analysis and Hierarchical Cluster Analysis), what the groupings between the fifty US states and ten Canadian provinces ought to be.

The conclusion is not two, but three different countries, one on each coast and one in the middle:

The authors describe the differences:

The first one includes regions mainly from the East that are industrialized, and characterized by high levels of economic activity as this is measured by the macroeconomic variables used in our analysis.

The second part includes regions mainly from western US and Canada with diverse levels of economic activity and prosperity.

Finally, a third group of regions can be identified. This group includes a geographically diverse set of regions as it spans from east to west. The common factor though that links these regions is the relatively low level of economic prosperity as it is measured in our study in terms of income, growth, imports, exports, etc.

It would be rather awkward, to be sure – but no less awkward than the current arbitrary line drawn along the 49th parallel.

The US-Canada border. 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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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide