By Howard E. Daniel
Whenever we read, watch or listen to the news, we are bombarded with references to “the economy.” This is especially true in the current political season, after more than a decade of economic slump in Hawaii.
The funny thing is, “the economy” is an abstract concept that for most people calls up, at best, images of lines on graphs – nothing really connected with everyday life. But behind this pallid word lies a powerful reality.
To understand what “the economy” really signifies, it’s helpful to think back to our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Did they have an “economy?” Absolutely. In fact, they lived or died by it. The economy was good when the fish were running … when game was plentiful … when nuts and berries were in season. The economy was bad when something caused the fish to stay away … when game migrated elsewhere, or died off … when flood or drought caused a shortage of fruits and grains that could be gathered. When the economy was bad, people starved. Or they migrated, a perilous undertaking for early humans.
In pre-contact Hawaii, the economy was good when rain was plentiful and there was plenty of water to grow taro and other essential plants. The economy was bad when drought caused poor growing conditions.
Reduced to its essence, the economy is simply “the opportunity to earn a living.”
In the modern world, we enjoy material abundance that is possible only because of the complex division of labor we have developed, under which each of us is paid to do what our training, skills, experience and interests prepare us for.
Today, very few of us are personally engaged in food production – let alone hunting or fishing for a living – but we all still need the chance to work, so we can put food on the table and keep a roof over our heads. In other words, when opportunities for well-paid work are abundant, our modern economy is good. When opportunities to work are scarce – or poor – then the economy is bad.
That is why “the economy” is no mere abstraction. That is why a good economy is as vital to us in Hawaii today as it was to our ancestors, whose lives depended on conditions that would enable them to hunt and gather successfully.
That is why, when candidates for governor and the Legislature talk about the economy, we need to look past the platitudes and ask ourselves whether a candidate’s policies are likely to create more good jobs and increase entrepreneurial opportunities for the people of Hawaii.
Not all the causes of Hawaii’s economic problems – today’s counterparts of drought or scarce game – are susceptible to fixes we can make ourselves. But many of them are things we can certainly control:
- High, regressive state taxes that not only weigh heaviest on the poorest among us, but also discourage outside investment and expansion of existing businesses.
- Excessive red tape required for business permits.
- The widespread instinct in government to mistrust business – the source of most jobs – and to keep it on a short leash.
- Mediocre public schools that not only fail to prepare our children to compete in the global marketplace, but also discourage investors from locating operations here that would generate new jobs.
When we go to the polls on November 5, we will choose Hawaii’s course for the next four years. The economy we need means more and better jobs, growing incomes, fewer bankruptcies, fewer people obliged to work multiple jobs to make ends meet, a lower cost of living, and our kids staying in (or returning to) Hawaii to live and work.
If we want an economy like that, then we need to vote for candidates who won’t just pay lip service to change, but will make the policy fixes that will provide people more opportunities to earn a decent living.
Howard E. Daniel works as a writer and editor. He has a lot of first-hand experience with the economy. Copyright © Howard E. Daniel, 2002. May not be reproduced without the author’s express written permission. Click here to contact him.