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
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UnHerd's rejection of the new isn't as groundbreaking as it seems to think

Tim Montgomerie's new venture has some promise, but it's trying to solve an old problem.

Information overload is oft-cited as one of the main drawbacks of the modern age. There is simply too much to take in, especially when it comes to news. Hourly radio bulletins, rolling news channels and the constant stream of updates available from the internet – there is just more than any one person can consume. 

Luckily Tim Montgomerie, the founder of ConservativeHome and former Times comment editor, is here to help. Montgomerie is launching UnHerd, a new media venture that promises to pull back and focus on "the important things rather than the latest things". 

According to Montgomerie the site has a "package of investment", at least some of which comes from Paul Marshall. He is co-founder of one of Europe's largest hedge funds, Marshall Wace, formerly a longstanding Lib Dem, and also one of the main backers and chair of Ark Schools, an academy chain. The money behind the project is on display in UnHerd's swish (if slightly overwhelming) site, Google ads promoting the homepage, and article commissions worth up to $5,000. The selection of articles at launch includes an entertaining piece by Lionel Shriver on being a "news-aholic", though currently most of the bylines belong to Montgomerie himself. 

Guidelines for contributors, also meant to reflect the site's "values", contain some sensible advice. This includes breaking down ideas into bullet points, thinking about who is likely to read and promote articles, and footnoting facts. 

The guidelines also suggest focusing on what people will "still want to read in six, 12 or 24 months" and that will "be of interest to someone in Cincinnati or Perth as well as Vancouver or St Petersburg and Cape Town and Edinburgh" – though it's not quite clear how one of Montgomerie's early contributions, a defence of George Osborne's editorship of the Evening Standard, quite fits that global criteria. I'm sure it has nothing to do with the full page comment piece Montgomerie got in Osborne's paper to bemoan the deficiencies of modern media on the day UnHerd launched. 

UnHerd's mascot  – a cow – has also created some confusion, compounded by another line in the writing tips describing it as "a cow, who like our target readers, tends to avoid herds and behave in unmissable ways as a result". At least Montgomerie only picked the second-most famous poster animal for herding behaviour. It could have been a sheep. In any case, the line has since disappeared from the post – suggesting the zoological inadequacy of the metaphor may have been recognised. 

There is one way in which UnHerd perfectly embodies its stated aim of avoiding the new – the idea that we need to address the frenetic nature of modern news has been around for years.

"Slow news" – a more considered approach to what's going on in the world that takes in the bigger picture – has been talked about since at least the beginning of this decade.

In fact, it's been around so long that it has become positively mainstream. That pusher of rolling coverage the BBC has been talking about using slow news to counteract fake news, and Montgomerie's old employers, the Times decided last year to move to publishing digital editions at set points during the day, rather than constantly updating as stories break. Even the Guardian – which has most enthusiastically embraced the crack-cocaine of rolling web coverage, the live blog – also publishes regular long reads taking a deep dive into a weighty subject. 

UnHerd may well find an audience particularly attuned to its approach and values. It intends to introduce paid services – an especially good idea given the perverse incentives to chase traffic that come with relying on digital advertising. The ethos it is pitching may well help persuade people to pay, and I don't doubt Montgomerie will be able to find good writers who will deal with big ideas in interesting ways. 

But the idea UnHerd is offering a groundbreaking solution to information overload is faintly ludicrous. There are plenty of ways for people to disengage from the news cycle – and plenty of sources of information and good writing that allow people to do it while staying informed. It's just that given so many opportunities to stay up to date with what has just happened, few people decide they would rather not know.