The economic anxiety has been profound during this time of crisis. Understandably, many people want things to go back to “normal.”

The governor’s own economic recovery plan as of now is to essentially rebuild the tourism industry and go from there. The governor’s own task force is composed mostly of corporate talking heads and some from academe. It did not represent a broader range of the community and basically underlined the message that we have to return to “normal.”

That’s is exactly where the problem lies. What we had prior to March was always not sustainable, particularly for the working class, women, and for Native Hawaiians. We had gotten so used to colonial clichés like “aloha spirit,” “Lucky you live Hawaii” and “the paradise tax” that too many accepted that “it is what it is.”

To be clear, what was left behind in March in terms of the economy and its social impact was one where:

  1. unemployment was low due to, among other reasons, the fact that people were working two or more jobs and the state was not keeping track of underemployment;
  2. the houseless population was among the highest in the U.S.;
  3. luxury condos were being built faster than public housing;
  4. a prison system so full that we were exporting inmates;
  5. over-tourism that wrecked the quality of life for local residents and caused serious environmental decay;
  6. a substantial brain drain of skilled people leaving due to the high cost of living;
  7. related to the above, a disproportionate number of people in their early 30s to 50s leaving Hawaii — a key age group as that is the age group that normally has finished school, has begun a stable career and puts in the most income tax revenue;
  8. Native Hawaiian issues, including Mauna Kea but also the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, largely being ignored or brushed aside in favor of settler development;
  9. a state-wide IT infrastructure built in 1983 (as many in the unemployment insurance system have found out);
  10. a state bureaucracy that had become so rigid and outdated that it could not be mobilized to help out other departments (again as many in the unemployment system have found out);
  11. reported domestic violence against women being higher than the national average; and
  12. reported suicide rates among Native Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders and LGBTQ youth, being significantly higher than the U.S. average.

Recently, however, due to the pandemic, more kipuka (tracts of land surrounded by recent lava flows) of life have merged.

Moving Hawaiian Flag atop the Kipuka Pu'u Huluhulu, Native Tree Sanctuary and Trail above the Maunakea Access road.
Thirty Meter Telescope demonstrators moved a Hawaiian flag atop the Kipuka Puu Huluhulu Native Tree Sanctuary and Nature Trail above the Maunakea Access road in July 2019. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

For the first time in years, local people were able to enjoy our own beaches, including Waikiki Beach, without having to compete with the swarms of tourists. Kids were able to play on the streets due to there being less traffic. Parents were learning Hawaiian in order to help their kids with their homework. People have now understood how awful and inhumane is the IT structure within the state.

People were shopping and giving food to kupuna. People were reconnecting with the aina, and the aina was regaining its splendor. Conversely, we saw more clearly the people in our neighborhoods who showed no concern for others, did not understand how rights during an epidemic was long ago decided in cases like Jacobson vs. Massachusetts, and who felt that their haircuts were more important than the lives of our kupuna.

Address Our Inequalities

What we need now is to transform the society. We have already seen some thinking along those lines in the “Building Bridges” feminist economic recovery plan from the Commission on the Status of Women. The plan outlines shifting Hawaii away from tourism and the U.S. military and focusing on green technology, more access for women and Native Hawaiians to capital to build up their own businesses, midwifery, and other initiatives.

It is a great start and shows us what can be done within the state bureaucracy when forward minded women are given space to think and speak.

We need to address our inequalities but also need a new way to look at our economy itself in terms of decolonization and sustainability. Rather than looking at stock markets, development and gross domestic products, we need to develop an economic measurement similarly to Bhutan’s gross national happiness — maybe a Gross Domestic Pono indicator.

With a “GDPo” we then can factor in quality of life for local residents, social justice, cost of living, stable career growth, aloha aina values, impact on Native Hawaiian culture, indigenous economic values, impact on women, the brain drain factor and sustainability.

Using that as a standard, we then can have a better idea if a proposed plan, project or economic activity would add to or remove pono from our community and we can also bring the GDPo down to a neighborhood level in order to assess how neighborhoods are fairing.

In looking at a pono economy and how decolonizing it could play out, I am also reminded of the richness of centuries of Native Hawaiian thought on wealth, resource management and economic planning. Rich people were those who had the most to share in a community. Wealth was not to be hoarded but shared.

Take, for example, the way Hamakua judged things on the micro-economic level: production was seen as not just the individual taro fields and fisheries but what could be cooked in the imu (underground oven) to be eaten by the entire community because a community cannot simply eat taro alone. Imu-nomics, if you will.

What we need now is to transform the society.

The question then comes to mind will we leave for the future an imu of rotten bananas because we have gotten used to it even though we know it’s unhealthy?

Or will we leave behind an imu of great varieties and tastes even if we may not enjoy it but for the next generation?

We need to build a better foundation for them, even if it is taking small steps like admitting we have an abusive relationship with over-tourism that we need to move beyond.

Plans such as the one put forward by the Commission on the Status of Women need to be considered seriously as well as redefining what constitutes economic output and deciding what type of imu we will be preparing. What we do in the coming months will help to determine what type of Hawaii will come into being.

Let us hope we will have the courage to demand a more pono society and that pono may be the new “normal.”

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