The most amusing outcome of the 2020 summit has undoubtedly been the spectacle of Alexander Downer, grandson of Sir John Downer, son of Sir Alexander Downer, old boy of Geelong Grammar, former Director of the Australian Chamber of Commerce, former Foreign minister, now enjoying retirement on full salary at the expense of the Australian taxpayer, denouncing the participants as “elites”.

Of course, Downer has been backed up by his leading rival in the “anti-elitist” toffee-nosed snob stakes, Professor David Flint.
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The 2020 summit kept me too busy to blog. Looking back on the weekend I have a range of impressions.

* Rudd’s opening speech was inspiring, one of the best I’ve heard from him. The same was true of the opening ceremony as a whole.

* As numerous speakers said, the sense of new possibilities and a new openness to ideas has been one of the striking outcomes of the change of government, to an extent that has certainly surprised me.

* In many areas, including the water and climate change sessions, the real message was not so much the need for new ideas (though there were some good ones) but the need to act much more urgently on what we already know

* From the government’s point of view, the Summit had a couple of effects. One was to shake up the policy agenda, giving Rudd the chance to pick up a lot of ideas that are broadly consistent with Labor’s policy platform but got crowded out of discussion in the course of me-too election campaigning. The other is to raise expectations that the government will actually achieve things in areas like climate change and indigenous policy, rather than putting a better spin on marginal changes to the policies inherited from Howard.

* It was already obvious that, with Howard gone, and Labor in office, the Republic issue would return to the agenda. It’s something we have to come to anyway, and is just awaiting the right mood of national optimism. To sustain what is bound to be a fairly lengthy debate, we need more than the natural optimism of an electoral honeymoon. For that reason, I hope, and expect, that concrete moves towards a Republic will be deferred for a while, until the government has some concrete achievements to celebrate.

Guest post from John Mashey

I got a very long comment from John Mashey caught in moderation, so I’ve decided to put it up as a guest post. John makes a number of important points, but doesn’t convince me that oil is essential to economic activity, for reasons I hope to spell out in a reply. In the meantime, readers are invited to chew on this. As always, but particularly for guest posts, civilised and courteous discussion please.
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The big increase in food prices over the last six months or so raises lots of issues, of which I’ll try to cover a few.

The first arises from the fact that prices for commodities, including oil as well as most ag commodities, are typically quoted in $US. In a situation where, for obvious reasons, the value of the $US is declining against all major currencies, this can be quite misleading. Measured against the euro, the currency of the world’s largest unified economy, the increase looks a lot less steep. The declining usefulness of the $US as a unit of account is another step in the process of transition away from a world in which the $US is a reserve currency. More on what will replace it soon, I hope.

In substantive terms, the increase in $US commodity prices is a big problem for the many Asian economies that have pursued some kind of peg to the $US as a means of maintaining export competitiveness. The adverse impact on domestic consumers is now becoming obvious, and the only solution is to abandon the dollar peg and allow an appreciation. China is already moving in this direction.

A second important point is the impact of demand from the biofuel sector, particularly for corn in the US. The idea of making biofuels from food crops was always problematic and the subsidy regime in the US makes it more so. The current food crisis should make subsidies for food-based biofuels politically and economically untenable, pushing the industry away from this easy short term solution and in the direction of sources such as switch grass, grown on marginal or non-arable land.

Finally, the biggest increases have been in wheat prices, reflecting the drought in Australia and in some other wheat producing countries (Kazakstan?). It seems likely, though it’s still impossible to prove, that human-induced climate change is increasing the frequency and severity of drought. So, it’s important not to regard climate change as a problem for the future. In all probability, adverse effects are already here.


I’ve become much less tolerant of trolls lately and have banned several, here and at Crooked Timber. Simply put, after blogging for six years, I’m no longer interested in, and no longer have time for, dealing with people who are rude and insulting, particularly if they are rude and insulting to me (biased I know, but I do the work to produce this blog and it comes with my biases). I’ve given such people lots of warnings, but in most cases it hasn’t worked. So, from now on, trolls will get one warning if I’m feeling generous and none if I’m not.

Anyone who would like to whine about censorship is welcome to do so, but not here. There are many services offering free, and easily established, blogs where your complaints about being silenced can be published. This is my blog, and I publish what I feel like publishing.

I am interested in serious discussion from all reasonable points of view, from classical liberal to radical socialist in economic terms, all kinds of different positions regarding environmentalism, and so on. However, I no longer have the patience to deal with recirculated talking points from the rightwing parallel universe on the Iraq war, climate change and so on. If people sincerely want answers to such points, I’ll try to set them straight, but I’m not going to engage in prolonged debate on this kind of thing, or encourage it in comments threads.

Iraqi interpreters coming to Australia

I only saw this item flashing briefly across the TV screen, but it’s an issue that has been vigorously debated in the UK and over at Crooked Timber. The new Australian government, which is withdrawing combat troops (though not some troops guarding our embassy) from Iraq, has announced that Iraqis who have worked with Australian forces in Iraq will be offered resettlement in Australia. The estimated number of Iraqis to receive visas, including family members, is 600. Australia had only about 500 troops on average, so that gives an idea of the scale of commitment that might be expected from the UK and US if they met their obligations in a comparable fashion.

The decision to accept the interpreters ahead of other refugees has been criticised, but I think this is justified. The essential point should be to treat this intake as additional to, rather than part of, our general obligation to accept refugees.

On the same point, this Times story indicates that the first three workers to be accepted under the much more restrictive British program have finally arrived in the UK, and that the program has so far delivered visas to a total of 12 Iraqis and their families. The total estimated intake is 2000.