How do you explain our inefficient government?

An anonymous comment on yesterday’s post raised a recurring issue.

I have some experience with life in both Hawaii and Oregon.

In my mind, Oregon is run like Germany, and I mean that in a complimentary way: In the public sphere, everything works, everything is clean, people are invariably polite, conscientious and efficient.

Hawaii, on the other hand … well, Hawaii is more like Bangladesh or Uzbekistan.

I think there’s a lot of truth to this observation. The big question is–Why?

My working theory is that we’ve inherited this inefficient, backward, unhappy bureaucracy from Hawaii’s plantation era, when the major interests ran their own fiefdoms and weren’t much interested in funding a vibrant and effective public sector. Major landowners and the interlocking power structure they were part of pressed to keep property taxes low because it was in their own interest. Better an underfunded government than an effective one, from their point of view.

It continues today because we accept it as the baseline condition, it’s “normal” and, perhaps, because we’re just too far in the hole to dig ourselves out. Look at the deferred maintenance in our schools and university. It’s unlikely we’ll ever catch up. Add in other government buildings, parks, streets, and the rest of public sector, and triage is the only strategy that seems realistic.

I’m trying not to rant, but really to come up with a theory that explains why this part of governing in Hawaii seems impossible to get onto the right track.

30 responses to “How do you explain our inefficient government?

  1. John- How can that be? Everyone knows that 60 years is in no way long enough to absolve the plantations. I’d say until we hit the 100 year mark they’ll still be the bogeyman.

    • in the interest of disbanding yet another emotional you-vs-me debate, i think John is merely saying that Both the Big Five and the unions are to blame, not just ONE or THE OTHER. Yes, the Big Five were control freaks and their descendants still have the wealth and land, but Hawaii’s unions have caused their own problems. Just ask Ian!!! One of his best stories was the takedown of Hawaii’s former government union god, Gary Rodrigues.

      • The Plantation legacy is more responsible for screwing up Hawaii generally, but the problems with government have a lot of union fingerprints on them. Offhand I can’t think of a government agency that doesn’t seem to be run for the convenience of its workers more than for the public.

  2. I think perhaps we focus only on the areas where Hawaii may be weakest. For example, we live in the Bay Area and have found nearly uniformly that health care in Hawaii is superior. It’s more organized. It’s less confusing. The hospitals in Hawaii are more likely to use electronic records. The doctors coordinate care better. Granted this is private sector but its a similarly government funded area (to a greater or lesser degree). And certain parts of Hawaii local and state government are excellent. Paying taxes online is just as easy if not easier than in other places. Lifeguard service is extremely good. Renewing our drivers license and registration in Hawaii was not terribly painful. I think where Ian is correct is the lack of upkeep and maintenance. And some of that may well be chalked up to the combination of tropical environment and comparatively weak economic situation (Singapore keeps itself up quite nicely but it has a far more diversified and richer economy).

  3. Props to Alex for pointing out that life guard service is excellent. Generally, service and efficiency suck everywhere else because we wish we were at the beach. The lifeguards ARE at the beach, so they are happy and do a good job.

  4. It starts getting embarrassing at some point, all this looking back to explain why the boogeymen of the past ruined it all for us. All the while people had the right to vote. I think many people were taught that you have to support the winning politician to survive. The same thing happens in lots of the larger cities. How long does it work as an excuse I don’t know, but it all gets used. People pay counselors to tell them to quit blaming everything else, take charge of their lives and move on, get over it, make today count, etc.

  5. It seems to me the political will is simply not there to make government more efficient. Take one small example of two systems we have for helping low-income people pay their real property taxes.

    On the one hand, we offer a credit. That is run by a staff of employees in one division (treasury as I recall). Then we have another program that increases the exemption amount, and that is run by another set of employees in another division (RPT assessment). Same goal, almost same application and lots of confusion among the taxpayers themselves, yet no change to the system. It’s very frustrating to see this system continue year after year.

  6. Today, Hawaii is inward looking, insular. Localism is used as a defense against change. “We don’t care how you do it outside, we refuse to raise our standards for anyone!” Few of our businesses are still locally owned, but you’d never know it for their “local facades”.

    In contrast, the Kingdom was outward looking, with the adoption of new technologies and an aggressive and nimble foreign policy and early acceptance of religious tolerance, albeit under the guns of a French frigate.

    What changed? Or did it?

    • excellent question. here is but one answer (not the only answer)


      THEN a pendulum-style over-reaction to develvopment.

      and the fight will continue. for example, Kapolei was built, but you can tell some people think Kapolei absolutely can now be UNBUILT. lol. Kapolei is certainly not a booming city, but it is not Detroit.
      address of the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands?????
      91-5420 Kapolei Parkway
      Kapolei, Hawaii, 96707

  7. compare and decide

    So, bureaucratically, we are to believe that Oregon is like Germany, whereas Hawaii is like Bangladesh.

    First, are the two state bureaucracies really that different?

    My sense is that they are both pretty average on the whole in that way. The grass is always greener on the other side.

    Second, how are the two states really that different from one another in terms of their economic and political history?

    My own impression is that Oregon has historically been just as much or even more of an economic and cultural colony than Hawaii has been, shipping out its timber and agricultural products and shipping in just about everything else (with the exception of beer). The people of Oregon seem very aware of that.

    Anecdotally, I once heard a story about a newly hired professor at Reed College in Portland who, in his first days on the job in the 1960s, was introduced to some wealthy Portland socialite who, with her peers, heavily funded the college. As he entered the room where she was waiting for him, he nervously thought of something to say, and blurted out the question “Madam, is there something that I should know about Oregon?” She immediately straightened up her back and thrust up her chin imperiously and said without hesitation “You should know that we are all from New York.” She did not mean the people of Oregon, who are generally from Oregon and the Pacific Northwest (and increasingly from California). She meant the people who OWN and RUN Oregon. She did not hide it; she actually asserted it. To some extent, Reed College itself is a kind of bansai-like micro recreation by the New York elite in Oregon of east-coast intellectual elitism in all its viciousness, megalomania and insularity.

    The kicker is that this very professor decades later visited Hawaii. He was himself from Boston and went to Harvard. When he visited Kawaiahao Church and Punahou School he was shocked. The names on the gravestones and the buildings were those of the elite families of Boston. In some respects, Punahou, like Reed College, is a recreation of the kind of hyper-competitive elite institutions that Boston is famous for (although Punahou men have always tended to prefer Yale). But where that implantation is done out in the open in Oregon, it’s more disguised in Hawaii. (Think of the old, low-key houses of the elite in Kahala that seemed to sprout organically from the earth like mushrooms, in stark contrast to the gross McMansions that are replacing them).

    Oregon and Hawaii differ in other ways that might be relevant. The weather, obviously. Related to the weather, the Pacific Northwest has the highest book readership rate, coffee consumption and depression in the US. Oregon is remarkably similar in population size (and climate) to Sweden, New Zealand, Finland and Ireland, countries that rank high in terms of creativity, democracy and education; ~4 million citizens might be a sweet spot for having a manageable population that is not too parochial.

    Importantly, Oregon and Hawaii differ in the way their similar radical labor history played out. Union radicals kept the mafia out of the Pacific Northwest; ironically, this helped to foster an better business climate. In contrast, Noel Kent points out at the end of “Islands Under the Influence” that as soon as unions ascended into power in Hawaii, they morphed into feudal fiefdoms. (Kent does not explain why this happened.)

    This leads us to Ian Lind’s efforts to “come up with a theory that explains why this part of governing in Hawaii seems impossible to get onto the right track.”

    Early histories of modern Hawaii like Lawrence Fuch’s “Hawaii Pono” were liberal celebrations of justice achieved through social integration in Hawaii coupled with societal integration of Hawaii with the American economy and political system. Later, Kent took a more critical neo-Marxist look at the underlying economic processes that would undermine the earlier optimism (‘dependent development’).

    But the notion that cultures and attitudes tend to recreate the institutions that originally fostered those values and perspectives is a more recent development in the social sciences.

    Habitus refers to lifestyle, the values, the dispositions and expectation of particular social groups that are acquired through the activities and experiences of everyday life. Perhaps in more basic terms, the habitus could be understood as a structure of the mind characterized by a set of acquired schemata, sensibilities, dispositions and taste. The particular contents of the habitus are the result of the objectification of social structure at the level of individual subjectivity. The habitus can be seen as counterpoint to the notions of rationality that is prevalent within other disciplines of social science research. It is perhaps best understood in relation to the notion of the ‘habitus’ and ‘field’, which describes the relationship between individual agents and the contextual environment.

    Bourdieu wrote habitus is composed of “Systems of durable, transposable dispositions, structured structures predisposed to function as structuring structures, that is, as principles which generate and organize practices and representations that can be objectively adapted to their outcomes without presupposing a conscious aiming at ends or an express mastery of the operations necessary in order to attain them.”

    Along these lines, Bourdieu famously compares the habitus to a train that runs forward without tracks in front of itself — but which throws out tracks in front of itself. That is, cultures far from home recreate material structures and institutions (e.g., Punahou). (This was also the concept behind the TV show “Gilligan’s Island”, in which Americans on a tropical isle recreate Hollywood, Wall Street, Big Science, the US Navy, Main Street, etc.).

    Bourdieu is perhaps the most cited social scientist today. This is now all very mainstream. Is that theory enough for you, Ian?

  8. It isn’t clear what period of time you are invoking.

    While it is true that missionary families came from New England (bringing heavy dresses and suits, airless houses, and other unsuitable parts of their “habitus”), this was a century ago and most such families have been long reduced to a simple desire to protect wealth (not exactly a missionary position, as it were) or land, not to run the place.

    “Re-creation by the New York elite in Oregon of east-coast intellectual elitism in all its viciousness, megalomania and insularity”. I take it you have not been to NY in a few decades. In NY, it’s more often how good you are, not who you know. Such meritocracy is not usually described at vicious and megalomania. Insularity? Most of the eastern elite now seems to come from North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Canada, and even Montana! Before that it was the Irish and the Jews and so on.

    I’d suggest, and others have hinted at it in previous comments, that Hawaii’s problem is that it is not a meritocracy. Meritocracies are rarely or never perfect and are inefficient (besides immoral) when they exclude groups. Given that, they are more likely to recognize and reward hard work and excellence. In Hawaii, rewards seem to be based more on who you know, not how well you do things. So why work hard? Why innovate? Why bring in novel ideas?

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