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.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.