Cover Story

A new collection of essays explores the issues facing Hawai‘i


Cover image for Jul 28, 2010

The Value of Hawaii, a new volume edited by the University of Hawaii’s Craig Howes (Center for Biological Research) and Jonathan Osorio (Center for Hawaiian Studies), presents essays on more than two dozen distinct challenges facing Hawaii, each prepared by a noted figure in her or his field. The book is, in a sense, a reimagining and an update of The Price of Paradise, Randall W. Roth’s seminal, somewhat angry 1992 look at Hawaii issues. The tone here is very different. Honolulu Weekly explored these essays in advance of the book’s wide release next month and found them as hopeful as they are critical, as fresh as they are valuable. We recommend the book to readers, especially in this election year, and present excerpts this week from four of The Value of Hawaii’s most engaging selections.

Reinventing Hawaii

Tom Coffman

As we in Hawaii start the next “X” number of years of U.S. statehood, most will agree the original invention is in trouble. We hear cries of pain throughout the state of Hawaii, but we hear no real discussion of how we got to this pass or how we might find our way to better times.

Perhaps that is a possibility of this book–to get a group talking about the reinvention of Hawaii. I’m not pretending to have the answers, but let me take my turn at the conversation.

As a marker in time, let us try to imagine the State’s 2009 observance of the 50th year of statehood. For all who missed it–that would be almost everyone–the observance was held in that cold glass temple, the Hawaii Convention Center. Most of the participants were under the gun to be there (literally, because the majority were National Guard personnel). The program was forced, the energy low. Audience participation in the breakout sessions was almost nonexistent.

Among the Hawaiians protesting outside, the venerable Dr. Kekuni Blaisdell was accidentally injured, surfacing inside the Convention Center with a painful black eye. That this thoughtful, gentle man would become an emblem of the statehood observance lights up the arc of the 50-year subject.

In 1959, when the sociologist Lawrence Fuchs was interviewing people for his book, Hawaii Pono, he said the only person who questioned statehood was Kekuni Blaisdell. Kekuni says that actually he was still brainwashed by American propaganda at the time, so Fuchs did not begin to get the full force of his dissent. Either way, you get the idea. Originally celebrated enthusiastically, statehood at year 50 was observed awkwardly.

While Native Hawaiians have a way of illuminating and intensifying the public discussion, the need for a reinvention arises not only from their issues but our myriad of cascading problems: fiscal, educational, economic, etc. We have a resource management crisis, an energy crisis and a crisis of leadership so pervasive in all sectors that it goes unremarked. (Quick. Name today’s three great leaders of business. Name two great leaders of unions. Name one great leader of the legislature.)

Since we are arguably as well-intentioned as the statehood generation, how do we account for the present state of our State?

The economy

Sumner La Croix

Why has Hawaii’s growth rate been so low for two decades? There are two competing but potentially overlapping explanations. The first focuses on those factors that determine current output–physical and human capital, available production technologies and the rules governing individuals, firms and markets. Economic growth occurs over time when (1) firms provide their workers with more physical capital; (2) students enrolled in private and public schools receive an education that provides them with more human capital–i.e., health, skills, knowledge and motivations than previous generations; (3) firms use new lower-cost production technologies and introduce new products; (4) rules governing firms and markets change to provide more effective incentives to conduct business in Hawaii efficiently; and (5) State and County governments provide more public infrastructure that increases the productivity of business firms. Slow growth or stagnation of any of these factors slows overall economic growth, but effective public policies that increase the growth rate of a slow-growing factor can increase overall economic growth.

The second explanation focuses on the difficulties an economy faces when its leading industry is in decline and other industries are not emerging fast enough to take its place. Various factors may be restraining growth in new industries: (1) public infrastructure that is inadequate or complements the declining industry rather than emerging industries; (2) a shortage of labor with the skills needed for emerging industries; (3) outdated, incomplete or burdensome laws and regulations for emerging markets and firms; (4) imperfections in regional capital markets that increase the cost for firms in emerging industries; and (5) the small size of Hawaii’s domestic market.

The Hawaii economy is seriously deficient in a number of the basic building blocks of economic growth, including (but not limited to) human capital formation by Hawaii’s youth, public infrastructure provision and the legal and regulatory frameworks that support markets.

The services provided to students by well-functioning K-12 private and public schools (and by their parents and other involved community members) complement students’ own efforts to learn, and allow them to attain a level of understanding and achievement that facilitates future learning as well as investment in highly specialized skills valued by the job market.

Unfortunately, Hawaii’s public schools have not been providing average students with a good high school education. In a widely publicized joint statement issued on Jan. 31, 2010, three former Hawaii governors observed that Hawaii’s public school students rank near the bottom of the states in standardized test scores; they fail apprenticeship exams administered by construction unions; private employers and the U.S. military find them deficient in the basic skills required for entry-level jobs; and the University of Hawaii requires many public high school graduates to do remedial work in math and writing. The three governors argue that the public school system is plagued by a lack of accountability for poor student performance. To remedy this, they join many other politicians and analysts in proposing a Governor-appointed rather than an elected Hawaii Board of Education. Whether this will be the key ingredient in reforming Hawaii’s public schools remains to be seen, but clearly, a mechanism is required that either provides students in poorly performing schools with more educational choices, and/or triggers rapid changes in the quality of education offered by those schools.


Ramsay Remigius
Mahealani Taum

In the five decades since statehood, tourism has grown to become Hawaii’s primary industry. It generates billions of dollars for the state economy each year. However, declining visitor counts and expenditures in 2008 and 2009 produced numerous negative economic impacts, including reduced tax revenues, mass layoffs and workforce reductions, business closures, bankruptcies and home foreclosures, as well as losses and reductions in critical social, community, health and education services.

Are these recent economic challenges signs that Hawaii’s current corporate-driven tourism may be in trouble, and like the banking and auto industries is in need of an overhaul? Despite signs that the economic slide is slowing and that a return to better days may be near, the long-term future remains uncertain.

Advances in air and sea travel have made the world smaller, and destinations like Hawaii easier to get to. What took days or weeks can now be achieved in hours. As a result, tourism has become a source of economic prosperity on the one hand, and a threat to cultural and community identity on the other. This phenomenon is not exclusive to Hawaii, but is part of a global experience being felt worldwide.

The full impacts of global tourism may not be fully understood, but what is evident is that Hawaii continues to be heavily dependent on the industry for its economic wellbeing. According to the Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA), in 2008 visitor expenditures made up 19.5 percent of the State’s tax revenue, and contribute significantly to the State Gross Product (16.8 percent) and overall employment (17.5 percent), which until recently has been taken for granted by many.

With the losses experienced in the sugar and pineapple industries still fresh on our minds, we must acknowledge that our eggs are clearly in one basket. Can we afford to ignore the reality that as we import tourist dollars we also import more than 85 percent of our food and more than 90 percent of our fuel?

We should be seriously concerned about our sustainability and survivability “when” not “if” we experience another natural disaster or shock to the market like H1N1 in 2009, influenza-A “bird flu” in 2006, SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) circa 2002 and 2003, and the 9/11 terror attacks on New York City before that.

We should be more mindful about adopting policies that enhance our self-sufficiency while resisting the practice of relying too heavily on an industry whose success is tied to global economic forces we have little influence over. Additionally, we need to reverse policies and practices that allow the fruit of our labor to leave the economy to be returned to offshore foreign interests that own, manage or control our travel infrastructure.

Arguably, much of the success the tourism industry enjoys can be attributed to Hawaii’s natural beauty, moderate climate and temperature, white sandy beaches, and inviting blue oceans. The industry also owes some of that success to the history, traditions, practices and presence of Native Hawaiians (kanaka maoli) and their rich island culture, a culture that continues to host others despite challenges to its own existence. While Hawaii’s physical and natural attributes continue to draw and attract visitors to her shores, it is the culture of Hawaii’s native people that defines its essence.

The prevailing mass tourism business model is contributing to the bimodal distribution of wealth that is creating an ever-widening gap between the rich and poor. Despite the wealth generated from the integration and use of Maoli culture in the promotion and marketing of the Islands as a premier destination, very little of that wealth directly reaches host communities or their cultural practitioners. In short, the mass tourism approach is responsible in part for creating a “disconnect” between the host and the visitor, and for experiences that are artificial, contrived and inauthentic, which benefit neither host nor guest.

Race & Ethnicity

John P. Rosa

Ethnicity–one’s cultural background, ancestry and traditions–is a more

important marker of difference than race because it is the category that has been most often used as the basis for decisions regarding social interactions in the Islands. People here more commonly identify as “Hawaiian,” “Chinese,” “Filipino,” “Samoan,” or even “haole,” for example, rather than as one of the race designations found in Census 2000: white, black or African American, American Indian and Alaska Native, Asian, and Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander.

“Ethnicity” more commonly relates to ancestry, cultural background or country of origin. “Race” is usually understood as a larger category related to perceived physical or biological attributes of skin color, hair type, facial features and so on.

In Hawaii, people commonly accept and understand an individual’s ethnic self-identification–recognizing a light-skinned girl with blond hair, blue eyes and the last name of Kamaka, for example, as “Native Hawaiian.” People in the Islands do not automatically decide what a person’s racial group might be on the basis of physical characteristics alone, as for example mistakenly assuming that an athletic, dark-skinned man is almost certainly a Pacific Islander. In our island society, residents are more likely to recognize–and act upon–a person’s self-declared ethnicity than they are his or her perceived race.

We also need to recognize that interpersonal relationships (face-to-face interactions among people we often know or see routinely) are different from ethnic group relations (in which different groups might consistently, but unknowingly, treat other groups in prejudicial ways). Many of us can rightfully claim that we treat our neighbors-of-a-different-ethnic-group well, and that our families are indeed intermarried among a few or even several groups.

These good interpersonal relationships, however, can obscure forms of institutional discrimination, in which different ethnic groups consistently receive unequal access to education, job opportunities, adequate housing and avenues toward financial success.

Hawaii has its own social and cultural values as an island society in the middle of the Pacific. Newcomers must realize that Hawaii is a unique place that does not have to–and does not necessarily want to–be like where they came from. Whether newly arrived immigrants, military personnel or folks from “the States,” new residents must be open to adopting island ways. As many newcomers’ guides point out, the best way to make waves here is to expect and talk about how “things are done better on the Mainland.” But local born–whether kanaka maoli, older generation Asians or kama‘äina haoles–must be open to change as well. We must not do things a certain way just because that’s the way they have always been done.

One guiding principle must be that both newcomers and local-born need to be willing to discuss, negotiate and forge a new future in keeping with the values of our island society. Newcomers need to commit to changing to the ways of Hawaii; kama‘äina (those experienced in the ways of the land) must be open to suggestions for change. We must all think critically about our unique island society and act differently from the rest of the world.

An official launch party for The Value of Hawaii is scheduled at Native Books/Na Mea Hawaii, Ward Warehouse, Sun., 8/22, 3–5pm,
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