Friday, September 11, 2015

Some initial observations about Hawaii

Returning to Honolulu to live here after an absence, except for several relatively brief visits, of twenty years has been interesting. The feeling sometimes approximates a sense of déjà vu, with much having remained the same and much having changed.

Some good things have remained constant, e.g., a widespread sense of aloha experienced in friendliness and helpfulness. Other things, such as traffic congestion for example, have predictably changed for the worse because Oahu's population has grown.

However, several things are remarkably different from when I first lived in Hawaii thirty-five years ago and highlight broader changes.

First, multiculturalism has increased. Menus in Waikiki are now often printed in English and Japanese, sometimes also in Chinese and Korean. Many people in the service industries now speak at least a limited amount of one or more Asian languages. In short, Waikiki tourism has become much more customer centric, similar to tourism in Europe and developed portions of Asia.

Second, the world is more interconnected. The numbers of tourists from Australia, China, and Russia have significantly increased. Thirty-five years ago, the US and Soviet Union were engaged in the Cold War. Anyone speaking Russian, or Russian accented English, would have aroused immediate suspicion. Today, I hear Russian and Russian accented English in Waikiki more often than I hear any other European language or accent (in over two weeks, I've heard Spanish spoken only once or twice).

Similarly, thirty-five years ago, few if any citizens of the People's Republic of China (PRC) would have dared to flaunt the wealth required to visit Hawaii nor would the US have welcomed tourists from the PRC. Today, China owns a substantial portion of the US national debt, US imports of Chinese goods far exceed Chinese imports of US goods, and Chinese tourists help to reverse that negative balance of payments problem. The world, in Thomas Friedman's memorable words, is becoming flat.

Third, the weather has changed. Thirty-five years ago, few people in Hawaii gave much thought to the annual hurricane season. Now, 2015 appears on track to set a record for the number of named storms in the Pacific. Locals frequently comment that the extended period of high humidity, high temperatures, and low winds is atypical. Climate change is real.

Fourth, economic inequality has increased. On the one hand, over a dozen new condominium buildings are under construction, each with hundreds of units. In some of the buildings, the lowest priced studio sells for nearly $1 million. In the buildings touted as affordable housing, one-bedroom units (these buildings don't include studios) start at a price upwards of $250,000. On the other hand, the number of people living rough on the streets has visibly increased. In one park, through which I occasionally biked twenty years ago, I might have then seen four or five people living rough but now there are, by the City's count, upwards of two hundred people squatting there. Only two of the service industry people with whom I have chatted live in Waikiki: one owns a restaurant; the other is part of a two-income family with multiple income sources. The wealthy are getting wealthier, leaving the poor behind.

Incidentally, the tax plans that the Republican candidates for president have advanced are ethically troubling. All but one of these plans calls for cutting tax rates on the highest earning Americans, expecting that this will generate economic benefits for all Americans. That expectation, known as supply side economics and practiced by both Reagan and George W. Bush, reduced federal tax revenues, resulted in larger federal deficits, and expanded economic inequality. No reason exists to think that future tax cuts will achieve a different result. (This reminds me of the popular definition of stupid, i.e., repeating an action while expecting a different result.) The exception to my generalization about GOP tax plans is Donald Trump's plan. I like very little about the idea of a Trump presidency, but do agree with Trump that the wealthy should pay a higher percentage of their income in taxes than the middle-class or poor pay.

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