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
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There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR