Thursday, January 10, 2013
I have lived in Hawaii, on Oahu, for five years: two and a half years in the early 1980s and two and a half years in the early 1990s. I’m now on my third visit to the Aloha state since I last lived here.
Tourism has changed significantly in the almost twenty year interval between the present and my last residency here. First, Waikiki has more Asian tourists. Second, the Caucasian tourists I overhear now speak a wider variety of languages, noticeably Australian English and various European ones including Russian. Third, chain restaurants from the mainland U.S. have pushed aside some of the local establishments. Fourth, luxury shopping (think Bulgari, Hermes, Tiffany, etc.) has become a mainstay activity. The Ala Moana Center, once a prominent shopping mall that catered primarily to residents, now features luxury boutiques filled with tourists.
Prior stops during this trip on Guam and Saipan found absolutely full hotels and dozens of luxury shops filled with tourists from China, Japan, Korea, and Russia. The Guam I remembered from visits in the early 1980s is no more. The sleepy backwater with just a couple of hotels has become a major tourist destination; the airport that I though overbuilt on brief transits to Saipan was a bustling hub when I arrived there for my morning flight to Honolulu.
Observing the changes has prompted some musings:
1. The global economy is slowly reviving. Conversations with businesspeople on Guam, Saipan, Tinian, and Oahu provide consistent anecdotal confirmation for this observation. This is good news for most people.
2. Global warming has touched Hawaii, causing slightly higher tides that shift more sand on Waikiki beach. This is a warning sign. Unless we promote economic activity and growth in ways that respect the environment, we are sowing the seeds of our own destruction and dishonoring God’s creation.
3. A global economic elite is rapidly emerging. Members of this elite happily spend a thousand or more dollars on a brand name, designer luxury purse and other items whose price and recognizable design elements are primarily intended to announce status rather than to meet functional requirements. When I watch who shops in these stores, not just in the Pacific but also in Europe and elsewhere, I see few Americans – very few Americans. Part of the explanation may be that Americans value prominent displays of wealth and status less than some others do. But part of the explanation is that Americans are losing the global competition for economic dominance.
4. The United States enjoys many advantages. Among those are our freedoms, our independence, our natural resources, and a heretofore broadly shared wealth with a very small semi-permanent elite. The U.S. economy is changing, veering toward the emergence of a permanent upper class, the wealthy 1-2%, who wields sufficient economic and political power that they are able not only to preserve but to increase their wealth and power from one generation to the next. This bodes ill for the social mobility of future generations (i.e., many fewer Horatio Algers), the health of democratic governance (no more government of, by, and for the people), and creative self-reliance (entitlements – remember the Roman grain dole – to pacify the masses rather than engaging people in constructive, creative wealth production).