This is about first impressions and lasting impressions of Hawaii. The first impressions point out some specific things that need to change. The lasting impressions explain why change in Hawaii is generally so hard to accomplish.

The first impressions are Bob Ortega’s, Civil Beat’s brand new managing editor. The lasting impressions are mine.

Ortega has been in Hawaii for about as long as it takes to drive to Kapolei during afternoon rush hour.

Myself, I’ve lived in Hawaii for so long that in the year I arrived, 1972, Wayne Newton’s “Daddy Don’t You Walk So Fast” was a top 10 hit.

Wayne Newton.

Wayne Newton performing "Daddy Don't You Walk So Fast" in 1972.
Wayne Newton performing “Daddy Don’t You Walk So Fast” in 1972. Screen Shot/

Ortega, calling himself “the least local person on Oahu” because of his recent arrival, wasted no time writing about his first critical impressions of this place.

Ortega’s piece is right on. It is a reminder of how well an acutely observant outsider can spot things that insiders have learned to take for granted, like bad traffic and uncooperative government employees.

He is, as he says, baffled because he can’t imagine why things work this way.

I have been here too long to be baffled. So my more lasting impressions center on why things here work the way they do.

My perspective is very broad, and focuses on the stable, longstanding, hard to change forces that impact Hawaii in more powerful ways than people realize or are willing to admit.

These forces include the distrust of critics; the unchanging basics of Hawaii’s economy; the destruction of the state’s Republican Party; and state government agencies’ consistently toxic organizational cultures.

Let’s look at each one of these and see how they stymie change.

Distrusting Critics

During my time here, Hawaii has never been a place comfortable with political critics. In fact you can still see such discomfort in the readers’ comments about Ortega’s recent piece.

The very first comment, from someone like myself, a haole who has lived here for about 40 years, cautions Ortega to be humble and to be careful about berating people. Another says that Hawaii does not need more outside investigators.

Other comments are more encouraging: “I like your style already!”

Overall, the comments were ambivalent about critics. This ambivalence has a powerful history.

In 1972 when I first began to work in Honolulu, there were three pieces of received wisdom — call them folklore — that dampened criticism.

One piece, as people used to tell me all the time, was not to be critical if I wanted to continue working in this town.

“Talking stink” was a marker between insiders and outsiders in politics as well as in everyday life.

The second bit of folklore — “no talk stink” — was on the surface more cultural than political but in fact also had important political implications. “Talking stink” was a marker between insiders and outsiders in politics as well as in everyday life.

It made critics into outsiders, and then into outcasts.

The third piece of folklore was that Hawaii is so different from anywhere else that you need to be here longer than most places in order to truly understand it.

All of these were especially powerful in the 1970s when Hawaii was more of a friends-and-neighbors place and relatively more isolated from the rest of the world. So its politics, including political corruption, revolved around friends and neighbors.

That is not as true today. Nevertheless, the legacy of this folklore continues to be a force. The folklore remains part of the everyday political culture, maybe not as blatantly as before but still present in key ways.

Politicians, and for that matter members of the public, still use the folklore to outcast others.

Not surprisingly, then, during my time here there has been an enormous deficit of good, fact-based political analysis about Hawaii. The folklore about specialness and good manners, backstopped by the threat of bad consequences, is a key reason why this is so.

Economic Basics Severely Limit Change

Hawaii’s economic base has changed very little in the past 40 years. It is still an economy driven by tourism and government employment. Wages for most sectors remain comparatively low compared to the cost of living.

Economically, Hawaii is as hard a place to live and work as it was when I arrived. Your children’s future here is very much as it would have been in 1972.

In fact, globalization has made things even tougher.

Remember all that talk about Hawaii becoming the key player in Asia because of our location? That hasn’t worked out so well because new forms of global communication made proximity less necessary.

Remember all the talk about this state becoming a tech hub? That also has not worked out so well — and not because our business people or politicians are incompetent. It’s because Hawaii does not have the educational infrastructure to compete.

Certainly things can get better. The tech industry can grow.  Our educational system can improve. Both of these are happening. But these are changes at the margins.

Hawaii will never be a tech hub. The University of Hawaii will never be Stanford. And overall the economy will change in pretty small ways.

Hawaii will never be a tech hub. The University of Hawaii will never be Stanford. And overall the economy will change in pretty small ways.

Let’s take a quick look at one issue that never goes away — affordable housing — to get a better sense of what all this means.

Hawaii does not have anywhere close to enough affordable housing. It hasn’t during my years here. And it won’t in the future. The disparity between the amount of affordable housing and the number who need it is simply too daunting.

Certainly the state can do a better job with affordable housing. Some good things are happening, but the difference between what we need and what we get is not likely to change much.

Hawaii will not come anywhere close to solving its housing problem because politics can only do so much to overcome market forces.

Politicians often pretend otherwise because it’s not good politics to admit that the problem is too large.

But in fact it is.

The Death of Hawaii’s Two-Party System

Death is not too strong a word to use here. Influence-wise, the Republicans here are gone, and there is no resurrection on the horizon.

This continuing downward trend is not suddenly going to reverse. All kinds of research show that in any election the percentage of voters likely to switch parties is small.  That percentage in Hawaii is almost always too small to elect a Republican.

So it is safe to see one-party control as a given.

Most of the time, we focus on the policy consequences of this — you know, like conservative versus liberal.

Instead, consider something else: the link between the lack of an effective Republican Party and the longstanding lack of transparency that is so common in Hawaii government.

The absence of Republicans makes it much harder to challenge this government murkiness. A strong opposition party is an important watchdog. Without that? Well, consider how the Legislature makes policies and how state agencies administer them.

Here is how the Legislature generally makes policy these days, and by these days, I mean every year at least since the 1980s:

Somehow during the dead of the legislative night a bill’s final wording gets worked out. Whatever the changes — good, bad, or bizarre — this process is handled with close to the same Pooh-Bah secrecy that the College of Cardinals maintains when it choose a pope.

After the session ends, the few Republican legislators make bold but pathetic claims that they had some influence over this outcome. Then Sam Slom, who really is the only regular, feisty, conservative voice in the Legislature, says the laws are a big mistake.

Then life goes on as Democratically planned.

If the Republicans were an actual force, state agencies would not treat a request from Republican legislators with the same passive-aggressive disdain that they show dealing with some average Joe …

What pressure is there on Democratic legislators to be more transparent if there is no Republican minority to call them out to the public? Answer: none that has anywhere near the heft of a strong minority party.

As I will show you in a minute, a lack of transparency is not an anomaly in state agencies. It’s the rule, an acceptable part of the organizational culture.

News organizations like Civil Beat regularly and often successfully challenge this lack of access. They have the resources to do so.

When the chips are down, organizations can afford lawyers.  The individual who comes to some agency off the street does not have this clout.

The Republican Party is a not a player in this controversy. If the Republicans were an actual force, state agencies would not treat a request from Republican legislators with the same passive-aggressive disdain that they show dealing with some average Joe wanting to take a look at a government contract.

To be absolutely clear, this is not about Republican sloth or selling out. The few Republicans in the Legislature are a conscientious and interestingly diverse bunch.

The point is that Republican powerlessness is the outcome of a long-term, stable trend that in all likelihood will color Hawaii’s politics indefinitely.

The Pathological Organizational Culture of State Agencies

Within state government, crucially bad behavior has become accepted as the natural order of things.

Anyone who has lived in Hawaii for even a short time has her own nightmare story about some state agency. Often we blame some grumpy, uncaring individual who was behind the counter or at the desk, but the issue is more comprehensive than that.

It’s not about a few bad apples. It’s about the agencies’ organizational culture. Changing an organizational culture is something else entirely.

During my time in Hawaii there have so many examples of inefficient, unjust, or just plain wrong agency behavior, that it is clear these actions are more the rule than the exception.

As state auditor’s reports show year after year, useless, illegal procurement polices, an IT system too primitive even to communicate between agencies, and inaccessible documents, are not one-offs.  They are déjà vu all over again.

If the same things happen in the same place all of the time, the wisest thing to assume is that the organizations’ norms allow for such behavior, or at least don’t try to change it.

Like any culture, organizational culture is quite stable and hard to change because bad behavior can become normalized. It becomes the way we do things, part of what you absorb as a member of the group. New employees learn it as old employees leave.

Think about it. Have you ever been part of a workplace that tried to change its organizational culture? How easy was that?

In fact, changing a culture is a slow, tedious, very problematic process requiring a long-term commitment, which is something that’s hard to sustain politically because it requires a long time horizon. There is no dramatic quick fix.

Conclusion: He’s a Prophet, He’s a Geezer

You are likely to have one of two responses to the pessimistic picture I paint. One is that I am wrong. The other is that I am realistic.

If you think I am wrong, become a critic. Show me why my pessimism is misguided.

If you think I am realistic, remember that my view still recognizes that some important political change can still take place, even within the difficult environment that I describe.

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