Eslake reads voraciously.
The property has two other smaller homes on the grounds, one currently leased and another for overflow guest accommodation – not that there’s been many of those lately.
COVID has disrupted life in the idyllic household, effectively grounding Eslake and dealing a blow to his career as a travelling economic expert and public speaker.
Eslake is good at talking.
As Linda stirs chicken and mushroom risotto, Eslake embarks on a detailed account of the post-World War II wranglings at the famous Bretton Woods conference.
It’s sparked by my mentioning I once visited the Mount Washington Hotel where the conference was held (again on my holidays – I really must examine my use of holiday time) and embarrassingly inquired of the desk clerk if I could visit the exact room where Keynes stayed (I could not).
Keen to correct my fandom, however, Eslake explains the real winner of the battle at Bretton Woods was, in fact, Harry Dexter White, the American government representative who turned out to be a Russian spy – key to ensuring American policies were so inflammatory towards the Japanese, they were provoked into attacking US troops at Pearl Harbour.
Linda urges us to sit down as we talk. We opt instead for a home tour, visiting Eslake’s home office in the old kitchen of the homestead where he is nowadays ‘forced’ to do zoom conferences.
One wall is lined entirely with economics text books. I play a game of ‘ooh I’ve got that one too’ in a vain – and vein – attempt to keep up. One shelf houses seven separate biographies of Keynes; another a collection of the works of Milton Friedman whom, Eslake remarks, has never been the subject of a biography. It occurs to me to suggest he should write one, but I can’t quite get a word in.
In a sunken library off the opposite side of the old home, Eslake shows me the family library, which boasts at least a book case each for China and the US (where Linda is from). One shelf is reserved exclusively for the history of Newfoundland, which Eslake informs me is a particular passion of his.
Australia must get its energy policy in order soon before other countries with more aggressive carbon emissions reduction targets start slapping us with carbon tariffs.
Did he ever consider studying history? No, he tells me, he’s not much for writing.
If he ever did write a book, however, it would be titled “My Four Parents”, he later tells me.
As we sit down to lunch, he explains Linda is the only Eslake household member who was not adopted. Their two children, Caroline and Jonathan, ages 19 and 13, were adopted from China. Beatrice the dog and their four cats are strays.
Over lunch, Eslake explains in thrilling detail that he is the result of a transient encounter in a modest flat in Staines, on the western outskirts of London, between a trainee British pilot and a woman two years his senior who had not long before left her husband and returned to live with her parents in the flat immediately above that occupied by the trainee pilot and three of his mates.
This casual meeting was to later become headline news, thanks to an acrimonious divorce between Eslake’s biological mother and her former husband.
“‘Come to orgy’, wife says to friend” reads the headline of the tabloid news article which Eslake later shows me and explains was his first ever media mention. There have been plenty more since, albeit decidedly less salacious.
Eslake has tried to contact his biological mother, but she is not interested in meeting. He has, however, met with four of his eight biological half-siblings, and been in contact with two others.
It’s hard to discern if Eslake is emotionally scarred by such a history. The story is told with a journalist’s relish for a good yarn, rather than as any matter of great personal distress. As it turns out, his childhood was a happy one. His adoptive parents – two Aussies – moved from England back to Hobart when Eslake was 8. He went on to study Economics at the University of Tasmania.
A cadetship at federal Treasury took him to Canberra during the “Stone age”, so named for the former Treasury Secretary John Stone. The private sector beckoned however, where Eslake ended up spending 14 years as ANZ’s chief economist and four years at BOML.
Eslake is a favourite among economics journalists, known for his long memory and ability to deliver an opinion on almost any topic. Over a relaxed lunch in his sun-drenched courtyard, he holds forth on tax reform (axe stamp duty and lower the tax rate for new businesses), inflation and energy policy.
Australia must get its energy policy in order pretty soon – in the next year or two, Eslake warns – before other countries with more aggressive carbon emissions reduction targets start slapping us with “carbon tariffs”.
Reserve Bank of Australia governor Philip Lowe is brave to say he won’t have to raise interest rates in three years, he opines, identifying possible parallels between our post-COVID economy and the “stagflation” era of the early 1970s. Back then, when oil prices spiked, a vast chunk of the economy’s energy-intense capital stock, like Concorde aircraft, was suddenly rendered useless, too expensive to run in a high energy cost era.
Today, COVID-19 has also rendered a large chunk of our capital stock, like retail stores, office spaces and transport routes, potentially redundant amid new trends towards online shopping and working from home.
Why does that matter? Because, with our borders shut to international labour and our economy perhaps operating at closer to its full capacity than we might think, inflation pressures may also be closer than we think. Interest rate rises could be closer than we think.
Linda brings coffee and petit fours – Ricardian principles having yielded a delightful lunch.
My phone is nearly out of battery so I plug it in to charge while Eslake and I retire to the main sitting room.
I rudely ask how old Eslake is. Sixty three, he replies – a fact, he adds, which I could have deduced from his earlier mention of his birthdate. Eslake does not seem to realise not all of us can keep up with his prodigious memory and instant recall of pertinent facts.
As we settle into the settees, I’m trying to figure out why Eslake is still operating at such a frantic intellectual pace, and not enjoying the relaxed pace of life more befitting a Hobart resident. Is the mortgage very large? No, no mortgage, he replies. There is, it would seem, no financial impediment to a cosy retirement; only the irrepressible energy of a formidable intellect unready to turn fallow.
Eslake is in talks with a London-based economist about establishing a loose ‘federation’ of independent economists.
My phone is recharged and I discover to my embarrassment I’ve lingered for three hours; time chewed up effortlessly by Eslake’s fascinating and good humoured – if relentless – chatter.
I leave him rearranging the sprinkler in the front yard – and presumably about to wash the lunch dishes – and conclude it’s only a matter of time before his previous frequent flyer status is regained.
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Jessica Irvine is a senior economics writer with The Sydney Morning Herald.