Ronan Lyons | Personal Website
Ronan Lyons | Personal Website

Flu economics, climate change and Google Squared

Mexico sneezes and the rest of the world…
As if the world economy weren’t in enough trouble, swine flu is now officially a pandemic, the world’s first since the late 1960s. What implications does this have for the world economy? Robert Barro and Jose Ursua of Harvard University have been investigating ‘consumption disasters’ for some time and have analysed 158 national depressions since the 1870s.

After the two World Wars and the Great Depression, the world’s fourth most devastating event was the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-1920. The economic effects of the Great Influenza Epidemic were typically in 1920 or 1921. While not all of the 36 countries they analysed went into depression at that time, the flu was associated with an average fall in real per capita GDP of 6.6%.

The threat for asset markets is the dreaded double-dip. A solid 2009 so far for stock markets has led to widespread talk of green shoots. I’m in Scotland today, talking at a Future Focus event, and this morning’s news was full of talk that the UK has seen economic activity expand since April. A widespread flu pandemic could hit stock markets, if the Spanish flu is anything to go by. Of the 18 countries for which stock market data exists for the period, 11 had stock-market crashes – i.e. falls of 25% or more.

Those interested in looking at the data underpinning Ursua and Barro’s paper can get all the figures on Prof. Barro’s website.

How climate change may unwittingly bring about full globalization

This era of globalization has been at least as pervasive across the different aspects of integration, e.g. technology, trade and finance, than any that’s gone before. Except, that is, for one aspect: migration. In relative terms, migration is much less of a phenomenon now than in the mid-19th Century, when Germans, Italians, Irish and many other nationalities moved across oceans in their droves. This is, of course, due to the introduction of the social welfare state and more directly the introduction of passports, visas, quotas, and a whole host of other methods that essentially prevent wage levels from equalizing across boundaries.

While many people would argue that stopping migration is necessary for social order, stable growth patterns and so on, we may not have as much choice in the future. Earlier this week, Columbia University’s Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN) released a new report on the potential effects on human movement brought about by climate change. Some unsettling highlights:

  • By 2050, droughts, rising seas, floods and other effects of the changing climate could result in migrations that could exceed the scope of anything before.
  • For exampe, expected rises in sea level – in a business-as-usual scenario – directly threaten the existence of some 40 countries, as well as countless low-lying coastal cities.
  • Those living away from the coasts may not be spared either. Asia’s glacier basins – including the Ganges, Brahmaputra, Irawaddy and Yellow rivers – provide water to over 1.4 billion people… but these glaciers are melting and may not exist by the end of the century.
  • The report does not put numbers to those potentially uprooted, estimates from other reports it cites range from 25 million to 50 million by 2010, to almost 700 million by 2050.

Yet another Google tool…

Google keeps bringing out new tools and new ways of slicing and dicing information. The latest one – and one that should interest anyone who uses data – is Google Squared. As the Google blog explains, a Google Squared search will give you results in tabular format, i.e. something you can cut and paste into a spreadsheet. For example, a search for African countries gives you a table of countries, with their capitals, currencies, presidents, etc., while one of Arctic explorers will give you all the details about names, photos, dates of birth and death, etc.

Everything is very customisable, and you can add columns – i.e. new data suggestions which Google will then look up – or new rows – i.e. new countries or explorers or whatver. I’ve started to build some squares for Irish counties, for example. The more this gets used, the better it will become. Ideally, one would be able to click and download or convert to a Google Doc spreadsheet. Also, one could specify where to search data – so for example if I have unemployment data by Irish county up on Manyeyes, I could point it there and, knowing that for the future, it could have a column that people could use (or not) for unemployment.

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