There is an old story about the original creator of the game of chess, a wily mathematician who submits his invention to the ruler of the country. Asked by the delighted queen what he would require by way of reward, the mathematician requests to be paid in gold. He proposes the queen place one single coin on the first square of the chessboard, two on the second square, four on the next, eight on the next, doubling the number of coins on each successive square up to the sixty fourth.
The queen, perplexed that the mathematician would ask such a meagre reward for his inventiveness, nonetheless orders her chancellor to total up the number of coins. In disbelief, the chancellor calculates that this simple sequence of 63 doublings has the queen owing the mathematician 18,446,744,073,709,551,615 coins. Arranged neatly on the queen’s chessboard, the stack on the 64th square would reach 300 million kilometres past the orbit of Jupiter.[i]
Something has gone badly wrong in the housing affordability debate in Australia, even as our cities continue to break new records for extreme housing stress. The conventional wisdom has the definition of ‘affordable’ resting on cheap land at the far periphery of our great cities. Even if this wasn’t wiping out extensive tracts of urban bushland and peri-urban farming country at an accelerating rate, the fact that sandlots far over the horizon are the only places that even vaguely fit the definition of ‘affordable’ show how dysfunctional the Australian housing market has become.
It’s been a long time since there has been much of a focus on affordable housing by the Federal Government. For many years, Government policy has been skewed toward housing as just another investment instrument, with tax concessions encouraging a speculative bubble which was great for many of those who got into the market and a disaster for those left behind. At the same time, State Governments have cut budgets and run down public housing stock, creating the situation today of interminable waiting lists and the spectre of homelessness alongside some of the wealthiest communities on the planet.
For most of the country the mining boom is a good news story of mining royalties and economic resilience that has carried us – so far – through the turbulence on world financial markets. However from close-up in the coastal Pilbara, the resources boom has distorted the local economy beyond recognition. Some are making and taking a great deal of money out of the region; others are struggling to survive.