About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

What’s worse than government officials distorting the truth? Saying nothing at all.

As Christmas merch, the Miller Brewing Co. is selling a two-and-a-half-foot-tall green neon tabletop Christmas tree that’s inspired by — Oh come all ye faithful — dive bar décor.

The tree includes scent satchels infused with teakwood and sweet tobacco to, according to the Miller merch maven, make it smell like a typical dive bar.

The smell of teakwood in a down-and-out bar where old gents begin drinking their shots and beers minutes after 6 a.m.?  Come on. Teakwood is for yachts. It’s what the dining room table your corporate lawyer daughter-in-law almost never uses is made of.

A true dive bar infusion should smell like stale beer, urinal deodorizer blocks, cigar breath and dried vomit. 

So, Miller Brewery’s tiny, teak tree doesn’t pass the smell test.

The smell test of course is not just about down-and-out bars or even about your actual nose.

It’s an important political device, too, as an accountability test that we ordinary citizens use to assess what’s going on. “You know what that legislator just said about fixing the schools? Nope, it doesn’t pass the smell test.”

You can actually smell the brewery’s tree, but politics involves your metaphorical nose, which is the best we can do. And that’s pretty good. But not always.

So, let’s explore by giving the smell test the smell test.

Adam Lee Bronson Calpito pigs consume eat coconut rhinoceros beetle grubs North Shore Stables root mulch piles
Pigs have a keen sense of smell, but it takes a discerning human being to determine what passes a small test. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

To give you confidence, here is the easiest of smell tests. It does not get any stinkier than “Our thoughts and prayers are with you.” It’s all teakwood and sweet tobacco on the surface but way too often it’s as insincere, evasive, faithless and stinky as a con artist chatting up that old gent drinking Miller Lite while stealing his bar change.

Let’s stick to Hawaii now. Here are some easy-call smell-test alerts regarding Hawaii’s politics — a few apples from a big, big bushel.

Anything said about the Haiku Stairs. Destroy the stairs, revere them, repair them, make them into a giant escalator leading to a Starbucks at the crest.

Over the years the city has gone back and forth on this more times than a pickle ball at an AARP convention.

Who knows anymore? With those stairs to the sky, or to nowhere, depending on your point of view, nothing about them passes the smell test because the smells change so often. 

Nothing, though, is smellier than an agency that offers so little information that it’s impossible to use a smell test. Smell test forfeiters. “Nothing to see here.”

That’s the worst. When it comes to explaining something, a flawed or even insincere attempt is better than the arrogance and incompetence of making no attempt at all.

Fibbing is better than disdainfully blowing the public off. In a relationship, which is worse when your loved one asks you about something — lying to your partner or ignoring him or her? It’s no contest. You have at least some chance of getting away with exaggeration. You have no chance of getting away with saying nothing at all.

So, let’s fill in the blanks left by a couple of odorless agencies and give each of them a smell that fits.

The Department of Education: For background keep in mind the past debacle involving the DOE’s inexplicable failure to build the pedestrian overpass leading to Kihei’s new Kulanihakoi High School that they were contractually obligated to do.

Randy Tanaka, the DOE Assistant Superintendent for the Office of Facilities and Operations, addresses a press conference to update the status of the school bus system in the state.
The Department of Education said almost nothing about the departure of Randy Tanaka, the DOE assistant superintendent for the Office of Facilities and Operations. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

More recently, the DOE dealt with the schools’ huge and chronic maintenance problems by failing to spend close to a half a billion bucks allocated for that purpose.

Reason for this? Unavailable. Nothing to see here.

Consequences for Randy Tanaka, the assistant superintendent in charge? Explanations are murky and euphemistic. The word “responsibility” does not come up. Tanaka was not fired, so, you know, why bother to publicly hold him responsible? Or, for that matter, for him to defend himself?

No, he was “relieved” of his job, which was going to end soon anyway. Pesky details about how this happened? Slim to none, even for the legislators.

I, for one, wish Tanaka well in his new life. If he owns a tool belt, maybe he can repair a couple of things at the schools in his neighborhood.

Tell us something. Tell us the devil made the DOE do it. But don’t pretend that half a billion dollars is such a tiny drop in the bucket (used to catch the water from a leaking school roof) that we can all just move on.

To fill the DOE information gap, here is a default infusion, a go-to DOE smell for anything its spokespeople say or fail to say: Stale beer, urinal deodorizer blocks, cigar breath and dried vomit. 

A dive bar infusion for an agency’s failure to dive into an explanation. 

Next up, the state’s Child Welfare Services, which looks out for child welfare by ignoring and stonewalling information about a child’s death and abuse.

Dept of Human Services.
The Department of Human Services clammed up about the death of a child whose mother had an active child welfare case. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019)

Tell us why no one was prosecuted for killing the child. Tell us why you refuse to admit that a child is dead.

Trademark go-to CWS smell: The acrid, bitter, metallic, unsettling and ominous smell of fear — CWS’s fear that it might be found out and held responsible.

Smell tests are a crude way of knowing what’s what. They are best used as an introduction to an issue rather than a conclusion. “That seems pilau to me“ works best as an incentive for more investigation rather than as a foregone conclusion that leads nowhere.

“We’ll be cracking down on illegal fireworks this year.”

That will be our final chance to put a 2023 proclamation to a smell test. As a bonus, this one allows you actually to use your nose. 

And your nose will have a smokin’ good time.


Read this next:

Beth Fukumoto: Trump Eligibility Dispute Illustrates Why Hawaii Needs State-Run Presidential Primaries


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About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.


Latest Comments (0)

Great read, thanks Prof ! I'll say that 1) penalties for speaking truths are prohibitively high and immediate within bureaucracy nowadays, Feds included, and 2) the internal mechanisms to enforce this are enabled & rationalized by agency appointees reacting to the constant siren call for gov't "accountability."Need a study of just what is meant by accountability, compared with actual steps taken. No space to elaborate here, but it's a fount of unintended consequences at best.As upper managers & appointees set [bad] policy, they strictly enforce compliance among employees. When outcomes go bad, out comes "but I was not informed !" and anyone who did speak is punished for not telling Them first ("All this time you knew the Emperor had no clothes, and you never told your chain of command !"), and doubly for speaking "out of school" (even if you had tried to tell them).Even its "simplest" form, to increase budget accountability: first I had a timesheet, then coded it to activities (reflecting budget line items), then another sheet coding expenses (which often don't match timesheets)... meant lying (risky for me) or truthtelling (a timesink, and risky for proper task execution).

Kamanulai · 2 months ago

Sheer incompetence, corruption followed by whitewash or coverup. From building inspectors bribed by mere manapuas, to legislators on the take receiving cash in cars, to sweetheart no bid deals in capitol back rooms, to cops looking the other way with a former chief in jail with his prosecutor wife. Sure there are good people who work with honesty and integrity. Unfortunately, it's the stink of the others and the leaders that let them that permeates the whole. Like MIlner says, nothing to see here. It's Hawaii.

oldsurfa · 2 months ago

Great article. In politics there are two types of politicians. Leaders and followers. The problem is the leaders lead the followers down the wrong path. Plain and simple analogy.

Ken · 2 months ago

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