In Box

Location, Location, Location

The curse of distance isn’t going anywhere.

In 1966, Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey coined the phrase "the death of distance" to describe how modern technology was undermining the importance of geography. But though shoppers in New York can now easily buy fruit from Guatemala or furniture from China, new research suggests that far-flung countries are still doomed, to a large extent, by their location.

Two economists at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Alain de Serres and Hervé Boulhol, measured how distance from centers of economic activity and natural resources affected the GDP of industrialized countries between 1970 and 2004, using data for trade and shipping costs. The researchers found that, at least for OECD countries, economic growth is still significantly affected by remoteness from major economies.

In the most extreme cases of Australia and New Zealand, distance has reduced annual GDP per capita by more than 10 percent relative to the OECD average, according to their study, published this year in the Journal of Economic Geography. In centrally located Belgium, by comparison, proximity to European markets is responsible for a nearly 7 percent higher GDP per capita.

Strikingly, these figures were largely unchanged between 1970 and 2004. For other countries the distance effect also remains in place, though it is much less severe. The United States takes about a 0.3 percent hit for its distance from Europe and Asia, while Canada gets a 2.1 percent bump from its proximity to the United States.

Even China's economic rise hasn't much helped geographically challenged Australia and New Zealand. Whether Australian goods are traveling 5,500 miles to Beijing or 7,500 miles to Los Angeles, it doesn't alter the fundamental fact that these goods have to travel a long, long way to reach customers.

The authors don't see this condition changing anytime soon. "We've had quite a bit of technical progress in transportation, but distance still matters," says de Serres -- and it will, until there's a way to email steel.

In Box

Where Left Means Right

What happens when political parties trend in the other direction?

Ever since rival factions arranged themselves on opposite sides of a meeting hall during the French Revolution, the political meanings of the terms "left" and "right" have been pretty constant. Left-wingers everywhere like high taxes, big government, and social change. Right-wingers prefer low taxes, small government, and free markets.

Except when they don't.

Margit Tavits of Washington University and Natalia Letki of the University of Warsaw studied political parties in post-communist Eastern Europe for a recent article in the American Political Science Review and discovered a peculiar reversal. They argue that, across 13 of these countries, leftists have gone right, establishing their democratic and capitalist bona fides by pursuing pro-market policies, while right-wing parties have done the opposite, bulking up spending to win over swing voters.

For instance, Hungary's first post-communist government increased government spending. It fell to the Socialists to implement austerity measures and revive the country's economy in the early 1990s. In Poland, Social Democrats were firm supporters of controversial "shock therapy" privatization policies that fast-tracked economic liberalization. In both cases, voters didn't seem to feel betrayed by the change in direction, reelecting the flip-flopping parties multiple times over the following years.

Is this just an Eastern European thing? It's unclear, but the research certainly suggests that left and right may simply no longer be useful. Do Arkansas evangelical Mike Huckabee and Berlin eurocrat Angela Merkel really represent the same strain of political thought? Are Nepal's Maoists just further along the ideological spectrum from Britain's New Labour? Perhaps we need to start looking in more than two directions.

Clockwise from left: Ron Sachs-Pool/Getty Images; Michael Gottschalk/AFP/Getty Images; Alex Wong/Getty Images; Matt Cardy/Getty Images; Mark Wilson/Getty Images; Toru Yamanaka/Getty Images