What Hawaii has going for it between now and 2050 is a multicultural population and a geopolitical location in the most important region in the world.
And, in the Internet Age, a global business can be run from practically anywhere, including the islands.
What Hawaii has against it, however, is a growing gap between rich and poor that has resulted in a large, struggling middle class. There are not enough quality private sector jobs, and the government isn’t doing enough to stimulate economic growth.
One more thing: Hawaii should have gone with a bus rapid-transit system rather than heavy rail.
A Visionary Look
That snapshot of the challenges, and opportunities, that Hawaii faces over the next 40 years comes from Calif.-based demographer Joel Kotkin.
Kotkin, who has been described as a futurist and visionary social thinker — he is the author of “The Next Hundred Million: American in 2050,” which envisions the country with 400 million people — shared his views Tuesday with lawmakers attending a Council of State Governments-WEST conference in Waikiki.
The conference, which rotates among the 13 western-most states and includes associate members in Canada, Guam, American Samoa and the Northern Marianas, was hosted this year by the Hawaii Legislature.
Kotkin’s talk was broadly about the socio-politico-economic trends in the West, and not specifically Hawaii. But many of the trends apply directly to Hawaii, and Kotkin cited the islands frequently.
What he had to say was sobering: That the West used to epitomize America and a forward-looking trajectory but that it has since lost its way and fallen short of its potential.
“The key thing is, Will it adapt to its challenges?” Kotkin asked. “We will have to step up. The world is changing.”
The Best of the West
The most important technology and social media companies in the world are all found in the West, including Google, Apple, Twitter and Facebook. Silicon Valley is the leading tech center, but cities like Denver, Seattle and Los Angeles are also important.
The West, especially Southern California, is a fashion leader, and Asian countries with burgeoning middle classes will continue to be attracted to western commodities. Food production will be critical as well, and California and other western states are leaders in that regard, too.
“They want many of the things we produce,” said Kotkin, adding, “The future is in serving East Asia — that’s where the future clearly is going to be.”
The West has also led the environmental movement and been an engineering giant when it comes to energy production. And, it has produced many of the most important political leaders, including Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Pat and Jerry Brown.
Barack Obama, Kotkin observed, might be considered on that list as well — except that the president calls Chicago home.
Now for the bad news.
The political centers of today largely center around Democrats in the East and Republicans in the South.
The West has been among the hardest hit by the recession, especially regarding high unemployment and the mortgage crisis.
The West used to benefit from population migration from the East and abroad, but today most migration in the West is from California itself. (“We are cannibalizing ourselves,” Kotkin says.)
While India, China and North America (the United States and Canada are “joined at the hip) will be the primary power centers of the future, trade routes will shift from ports along the West Coast to what Kotkin calls “the Third Coast” — the U.S. Gulf states. When the Panama Canal is widened to accommodate larger ships by 2014, as much as 25 percent of Pacific Ocean transport could shift to the region.
The big winner in all this? Texas.
“We have lost our boldness, our moxie,” says Kotkin. “There is a poverty of ambition”
What to Do?
To reclaim the West’s destiny, Kotkin calls for a focus on three things: the environment, population diversity and class inequality.
His recommendations include expanding telecommunicating to cut down on energy consumption and protect the environment, implementing bus rapid-transit systems instead of light or heavy rail, continued devolvement of government power to the states and lower levels and starting government-sponsored work opportunities as Franklin Roosevelt did with the Works Progress Administration.
One other suggestion: Ignore what the media says and research your own facts.
“Don’t believe the papers,” Kotkin said, somewhat tongue in cheek. “Journalists are human beings, despite appearances, and they are easily swayed by their own prejudices. Many of them today are inexperienced because the old guys have lost their jobs.”
What did Hawaii lawmakers think about Kotkin’s talk?
An informal survey showed that House Finance Chair Marcus Oshiro was impressed with the big picture, House Majority Whip Pono Chong agreed that the rich-poor gap was paramount, Rep. Tom Brower was pleased to know that Hawaii’s military would have a central role in the future, Sen. Will Espero thought the talk was provocative (if a wee bit long) and House Minority Whip Aaron Ling Johanson appreciates that Hawaii is finally recognizing the need for a sustainable energy supply.
When Kotkin criticized heavy rail, Senate Minority Leader Sam Slom nodded in agreement.