Saturday, July 10, 2010


Creating a new island economy should be our priority

by Larry Geller

Hawaii is suffering from the nationwide economic meltdown but is not one of the hardest-hit states. Nevertheless, since we are dependent on tourism first and only (plus services to the military), we would be wise to continue looking for ways to diversify. It will be necessary for our survival, should something happen to tourism. We have the luxury of a bit of time to figure things out.

Tourism is fragile. A single terrorist bomb going off in Waikiki could put us in a long-term hole. An oil shortage would do the same. While tourism produces mainly low-wage jobs, at least there are jobs now.

I’ve mentioned that there is no alternative model I’m aware of. Imagining that Hawaii will become the center of the Pacific for high-tech was a massive delusion. Sure, anything can happen, and it would be strange if we did not have some high-tech. Nothing is in view that will support our population, particularly since our schools are more suited to producing hospitality workers than rocket scientists.

So what do we do? There aren’t many economic models for islands. Mostly, islands are simply exploited. Whether it’s guano or tourism, outsiders come in to exploit the resources. They mine the guano. They take advantage of depressed wages to profit from tourism. They pave over island land to turn it into developer’s profits. Then they take their profits and leave. With no more guano, islanders live in poverty.

Sometimes islands are used for atomic testing, or shelled for military practice. Saving island economies is not on anyone’s priority list.

I don’t have an alternative model, and there may not be one, though we should continue to explore possibilities. There are a few things we can do, though, to protect ourselves. I’m no economist, which in this case is probably an advantage, nor do I have clear ideas how to move forward, but I do have this blog to suggest a couple of things.

And a couple is all I have in mind. First and foremost, we can take care of ourselves by replacing the exploiters with our own investment. Why should Mainland hotel operators reap the profits while residents slave in low-paying jobs? One boost to the economy (our economy) would be if we owned our own hotels. Yes, cooperative ownership so that the person sweeping the floors not only earns a wage, but earns a dividend. How to get there? We need to invent a way. An intermediate step is to encourage small family vacation rentals in designated areas leading to small family-owned vacation villas, etc. The trick, though, is to keep those investments local when outside interests come to take them over in exchange for wads of cash.

The second is that we need to take back our government. Our legislature could be working hard to put more land into agriculture and provide tax incentives for working the land that will be effective in blocking development. Our legislature could stop supporting oil and energy companies and get clean energy projects moving. We take only baby steps when giant steps are needed. We have the sun, waves and wind that should have made us almost energy independent by now.

Finally, we need to work at the meaning of Hawaiian sovereignty instead of pushing the issue off into an indefinite future. How this is done is not for me (or the Akaka Bill) to say, but we need to realize that better use of our land and resources will result when it is not possible for outside developers and others to exploit the land.

Whatever sharing or other arrangement takes place, the portion of the state that is removed from the economy of exploitation has the opportunity, at least, to develop an economy to benefit island people of any origin. Some form of sovereignty should bring more jobs for everyone, the prospect of more local food, local ownership of tourist facilities, and better management of the limited natural resources of a bunch of islands ‘way out in the middle of the Pacific.


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