Today is Wednesday and as usual I feel as though I can roam a bit freer than usual. Today I have some great music but also my latest views on sustainable urban development and the hot topic in Australia at the moment of whether or not the Australian government should reintroduce mask mandates in certain settings given that Covid is rapidly accelerating and our death rate is now at unacceptably high levels and rising. There is a lot of guff on Twitter etc about the oppression of these sorts of restrictions. But wearing a mask is a simple way to protect oneself and those around us. It is hardly a symbol of authoritarianism and conspiracy to destroy our freedom. I see it as basically a civic responsibility. I am in a very small minority though. As usual. Tomorrow I will get back to economics.
Australia is in the last week of a federal election campaign, which has been marked by a disturbing absence of any policy vision by either main party which might address the most important issues confronting society and our land. Hopefully, the conservatives will get their marching orders this coming weekend (I have scheduled a rare glass of champagne around 22:00 on Saturday, when the result should be known) and the worst government in my lifetime will be gone. The problem is the Labor opposition is also short of policy mission. They have been too scared to enunciate anything much worth thinking about on climate, housing, education, health care, urban planning etc because, as the main narrative goes, they feared being wedged by the conservative government who lacks any remotely acceptable. The rival explanation for Labor’s timidity is that they are not committed to root-and-branch reform because they are inherently neoliberal themselves – a light version of the conservatives – without the extreme right tendencies on gender and those sorts of issues that dominate conservative politics. So, for whatever reason, the main challenges ahead are not being prosecuted by the major parties, which means our society will just be compounding the unsustainable evolution under the neoliberals and the price we will increasingly pay is rising.
I keep reading reports of the rising risk of food riots as food prices soar around the world and vulnerable nations and communities are faced with increased food insecurity, which is a technical term that international agencies use, that actually means risk of starvation. At the same time, governments allow hedge funds to take speculative positions on food as a traded commodity which has been shown to not only increase food prices but also divert supply into storage (long positions) while the ‘investors’ create artificial supply shortages and market instability – while people are being denied their staple food products (for example, corn speculation). There are many things that governments must do in this regard – including investing in sustainable agricultural systems to create local supply certainty, improving the quality of diets (banning high sugar and salt levels), and more. But one of the most significant things that governments could do to keep food prices down and increase food security for vulnerable nations is to cooperate on a global scale to outlaw any food speculation by hedge funds and the big investment banks. It is not only economically destructive to have large proportions of populations living with the constant threat of starvation. It is also unethical.
According to the International Coffee Organization (ICO), the price of coffee has risen for 17 consecutive months and the sector is being hit with sequential shocks, the latest being the Ukrainian conflict, which is having impacts on both the demand and supply sides. I was talking with a friend over the weekend just gone and they were complaining that a cup of coffee had risen to $A7 or thereabouts, which was really squeezing people’s incomes. As a disclaimer, I have never had a cup of coffee in my life – just the aroma is enough to turn my stomach. But I was thinking about coffee over the last few weeks for another reason. I am currently doing some research on Timor Leste in anticipation of a change in the Presidency. The first round of the elections were held last weekend and it looks like Ramos-Horta will win the second round run-off in April. One of the things I am working on is a plan to diversify the nation’s exports as the inevitable decline in oil revenue starts to impact. I am also in developing models of fair trade that allow for sustainable agriculture (that is, not cash crop mania that wrecks subsistence farming and ends in farmers being locked up in international debt) but also allow the nation to diversify their export portfolio. Fairness and sustainability are good ideals to have. There is an opportunity here for a nation such as Australia to reform its ways and break out of the dog-eat-dog ‘free trade’ mantra and actually start doing some good in our region. That is what this blog post is about.
Some years ago, I did some work for the Asian Development Bank on Pakistan and Central Asia. It was a really interesting experience because it taught me a lot about the challenges facing poorer regions who have dependencies on imported energy and food and limited export opportunities. Since then I have been studying a number of countries and am convinced that development strategies have to fundamentally change if the poorer nations are to achieve any hope of sustainable development. At present, I am working on the development of such a framework, which will incorporate the best-practices proposed by scholars who similarly reject the traditional IMF/World Bank development model. Specifically, I am focusing on Timor-Leste, which is about to stage a presidential election (March 19, 2022). Xanana Gusmão’s party – National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT) – has backed former president Jose Ramos-Horta against the incumbent Fretilin President, Francisco Guterres and the third candidate Martinho Gusmão (United Party for Development and Democracy – PUDD). It appears that if Jose Ramos-Horta is elected, there will be a dissolution of parliament and early elections will be held after a period of political turbulence following the 2017 election. Early indications are that Ramos-Horta is well placed after the conduct of Guterres in recent years. The new government must consider a new development strategy and so I am working to provide some structure to that goal from a Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) perspective.
The Australian government announced that as a result of the rising unemployment it would cut the skilled migrant intake by nearly 20,000 to 115,000 this financial year. It also removed some key industries (construction and manufacturing) from the critical skills list which will prevent firms from sourcing tradepersons from abroad unless they can prove local labour is not available. The announcement while seemingly a sensible statement of the jobs equation – less jobs require less workers – once again raises the question of how population policy should be formulated.
Its that time of the year … so a nice day for me today. Among the gifts I received … a hose that will never kink. Essential for an urban farmer.
The global recession is presenting a new dilemma for the first world which will have significant impacts long after growth has returned. We saw in recent years that the price of oil rose sharply as the demand of energy from emerging nations skyrocketed. While we clearly have a short-term incentive at least for China to redirect its economic energies into domestic growth to give our export sectors a boost there will be implications of this that we might not have bargained for. Do we really want an extra 1 billion or more people to be as rich as us? It is a case of being careful what you wish for …
Yesterday, the Living Garden section of the Newcastle Herald published an interview with me on their Profile page. After requesting (and publishing) a short bio they asked me a series of questions. Here is the transcript of my answers and note the whole profile was restricted to 800 words.