When I was a small kid, we had a way of dealing with scarcity. Let's say you brought a bag of White Rabbit candy to school. There're four left in the bag and 12 kids screaming at you "I like one!" You feel like you're inside a beehive, so you throw the candy in the air and yell "ROUGH TAKE!" and then get the sadistic pleasure of watching kids pummel each other to get their hands on just one yummy milky morsel. No matter what was thrown out there in the ROUGH TAKE-baseball cards, li hing mui, Nibb-its-three kinds of kids always got the stuff: 1) big kids, 2) fast kids, and 3) kids who were friends of the guy with the stuff. Tough times
Fast forward to today. We're in tough economic times. You heard about this, right? We're reminded everyday. Here in Hawaii, more people are at risk for homelessness
, unemployment has reached a high point
, tourism is in the tank
, and schools are facing major cuts
. And this economic crisis is a deep one-if it's not seriously affecting you yet, it is probably affecting someone you know.
Over the past month or so, I've found myself in meetings at the State Capitol including one with members of the Governor's cabinet and Hawaii's social service leaders
. I've also talked with business and union leaders, legislators, and people working on health issues, energy, education, economic development, and more. Everyone is concerned about the prospects of deep cuts in government spending.
And I don't blame them. Practically everyone has a legitimate cause and their fight for that cause is most often moral and just. Sure there's room for government to get more efficient, but many of the cuts being suggested now are much deeper than most of us realize, and they will cause public and private sector job losses, eliminate important services, and push social and economic problems to future generations.
I'll give you one example. Hawaii Healthy Start is a program to prevent abuse and enhance early childhood development through very early identification of at-risk new parents. I first heard of this program when it was a finalist for an "Innovations in American Government" award in 1997
. It was pretty impressive for a Hawaii program to be recognized in that way. In fact, Healthy Start became a model that inspired similar programs in other states and countries. Today, Healthy Start is slated for elimination in the proposed budget
. If this holds, it will have gone from state pride
in 10 years. That's a pretty alarming indicator of where we are at.
But what would you
cut in order to balance the budget? Healthy Start or homeless services or text books or environmental protection or public safety or what? Or would you raise taxes? How? Would you close some schools? Which ones? Would you layoff some state workers? Which ones?
These are tough, frustrating questions. Kind of makes you want to throw everything in the air and just see where things land.
Well guess what... that's kind of how we do things. After 230+ years of evolution, American democracy, especially in 21st Century Hawaii, looks like a ROUGH TAKE. There is one guiding principle. It is the same rule that applies in the playground ROUGH TAKE: every man for himself
. In this case, the loudest, the luckiest, and the most well-connected win. You can throw political elbows and low blows, you can ignore all issues other than your own. Eventually, all the money will be snatched up.
We are so accustomed to this that we think it's kind of funny. They say making laws is like making sausage
. But are we really satisfied with that? Because the ROUGH TAKE seems like the exact worst way to solve our problems, especially at a time like this.
It's a perfect storm right now. More people are being driven into hard times due to a sinking economy; just at a time when our government is planning deep cuts in social services; just at a time when charitable organizations are financially crippled; just at a time when we might neglect long term investments, like education, that could prevent future despair.
This is not a time for leaving things to chance or for political posturing; not a time for selfishness. These are extraordinarily
serious times… two wars (just counting the ones we're in), global financial crisis, global environmental crisis, and waves of young people going through their one and only chance to be children. There are no do-overs for our children.
Searching for guiding principles, common vision
The guiding principle of every man for himself
is entirely at odds with the core values of the "Aloha State
." It is at odds with how most of us live on a day-to-day basis. ROUGH TAKE seemed pretty logical in the playgrounds when I was seven. But it is an utterly ridiculous m.o. for grown-ups living together on isolated islands.
No single one of us has the answers for all of us, so we have to work together. If most of us could come together around our common values, a common vision, and some guiding principles-while we still wouldn't be happy with every decision-at least we might make more rational decisions, develop a better sense of unity, and be more at peace with the results. So where is that common vision?
[Related]If you've met as many people as I've been fortunate enough to meet, you would know that the vast majority of us want the same things. It doesn't matter who we are-young or old, rich or poor, laborers, lawmakers, executives, secretaries, executive secretaries, retirees, students, Hawaiian or Chinese or haole or Filipino or Micronesian or all-kine-mix-up, Christian or Buddhist or Muslim or Atheist, gay or straight, able-bodied or disabled, happy or sad or just-so-so. I could be talking to someone in Kalihi or Kaunakakai or Kapaa or Waimea or Kahala or Waimanalo or Bishop Street or California or wherevas. Most people want to do right by our island values. We want to honor past generations and do the right thing for future generations. And we want to do our part-our kuleana
In the coming weeks, the Kanu staff is going to spend a little time looking for some rhyme and reason in this economic crisis; thinking about some guiding principles to help us pursue a Hawaii that is more economically resilient, environmentally sustainable, and compassionate, even in these tough economic times. Because while we all want stabilization
, we also need progress
. We'll look for opportunities among the hard choices and welcome your own insights, feelings, and experiences to shed light on what we need from our government, public institutions, and businesses. If you have important things to share, form a group of Kanu island-style activists
and blog about your cause and how it unites with the values and vision.
We also want to explore how we as individuals can "be the change we seek," because any solution that demands nothing from the people is not a viable solution in a crisis. My kuleana... rejecting "me first"
As this recession goes on, we will all be bombarded with messages telling us how to best cover our own asses. True, sustaining ourselves and our families is an essential kuleana, but we can easily go overboard with that. I know I'm already starting to tune out the advice to look out for yourself
, take no risks
, fixate on dollars and cents
, and hoard what you can
. I think selfishness and individualism will only prolong the misery. Instead, this feels like a time to walk away from the ROUGH TAKE. This seems like the perfect time for me to reach out more generously and selflessly than ever before and with no expectation of getting anything in return. Now is also the time for me to ask for help when I need it, with humility and gratitude. And now is the time to build deeper levels of trust and kinship. It is time to cultivate aloha
It is our island intelligence
-consciously practiced and promoted by individuals and leaders, that will help turn this "crisis" into an opportunity. It is in these tough times that I am most thankful for my fellow islanders who "get" this. I see them everyday... a quiet majority. They understand that humans often find their better selves in times of struggle. They embrace their responsibilities.
I'll end with a quote from our President-Elect, who according to the New York Times
, embodies the Aloha Spirit. At his acceptance speech in Denver, he said:
That's the promise of America - the idea that we are responsible for ourselves, but that we also rise or fall as one nation; the fundamental belief that I am my brother's keeper; I am my sister's keeper.
Spoken like one true braddah.