August 2009

Wired Magazine’s September 17th issue makes a good case for why we seem to be settling for “good enough” when purchasing goods and services. Why pay for more quality than you need? But, what’s really driving this trend? Hmmm, could it be… wages?

Median Wages Since 1970

Median Wages Since 1970

The red line is adjusted for inflation. As a whole, US wage earners haven’t had a real raise since 2000. All of the growth has all been at the high end. That discussion is a post for another day.


Flag of Hawaii I don’t know if being ejected from her home was the cause of a Kihei woman’s correspondence regarding Hawaiian Sovereignty four months later, but I don’t imagine it improved her outlook on the US, State, or County legal apparatus. Regardless of her motivation, others sharing her viewpoint regarding the legal status of Hawai’i as a state within the United States frequently see print in letters to the Maui News. For those unfamiliar, the arguments wind down to these:

  • Hawai’i was an independent nation, with international recognition. (True)
  • In 1893, the monarch Lili’uokalani was illegally overthrown by a cabal lead by plantation owners of American lineage, assisted by the presence of 162 US sailors and Marines. (True)
  • The Republic of Hawai’i was illegal. (False. The staying power of a new government is a function of 1) exercising control over its claimed territory, and 2) recognition by major nations of the day. The Republic passed these tests.)
  • The US Annexation by Congressional resolution was illegal, and unConstitutional. (False. The Constitution doesn’t define how foreign territory is annexed. The Republic of Texas was also annexed by resolution.)
  • The US Annexation was illegal because indigenous Hawaiian people never consented through a plebiscite or referendum. (False. The point was immaterial, because the indigenous people had lost control of their country, arguably well before 1893.)
  • The 1940 and 1959 Statehood referendums were invalid, because they didn’t include independence as an option, as required by the UN Charter. (False. The UN was formed in 1945, and its Charter wasn’t amended to require ballots to include independence for dependent territory referendums until the early 1960’s.)
  • The 1940 and 1959 Statehood referendums were invalid, because newcomers and servicemen were allowed to vote. (False. Hawai’i was a self-governing territory within the US, therefore enjoyed the same voter eligibility rules as elsewhere in the country.)

My response, in a nutshell: One hundred six years ago, the U.S. did make possible the Republic of Hawaii. It was illegal (until it succeeded, by definition), it was treacherous, and two years later when the Republic’s own National Guard defeated the royalist insurgents at the Battle of Manoa, it was moot. The Kingdom was history, the Republic was free to negotiate their best deal with the U.S., and we find ourselves where we are today. There is no lawyering our way out of it. If someone wants sovereignty, limited or complete, they’re going to have to gain it through the US political system

A lady from Waiehu expressed a common misconception regarding why the Social Security Trust Fund is invested the way it is.

The Card

The Card

The Charge: As far as her letter goes, she’s right: FICA receipts in excess of Social Security expenses is loaned to the Treasury in the form of an interest-bearing bond. As far as she’s concerned, the money has been frittered away, and taxpayers left to cover the obligation. What she doesn’t understand is that this isn’t a bug, it’s a feature.

Investing 101: When we invest money, whether with a friend, IBM, or a Treasury note, most is soon “blown” to cover operating expenses or purchase capital equipment, with the intent that the borrower will add value to their enterprise. Some of that added value is repaid to the investor.

The same holds true for monies invested with the Federal Government. Some cover current expenses, while some fund new endeavors. If the funds are deployed successfully, it encourages economic growth, adding to tax receipts. Some is paid back to the investor, the Social Security Administration.

What Part Of Social Security Don’t You Understand?: Unlike private investments, the US Treasury has never welched on a Treasury note, by definition the safest investment. On the average, investments can’t sustain a growth rate greater than the growth rate of the national GDP. Some tank, others enjoy a short term advantage, while Treasuries track closely to the GDP. For a program as large and crucial as Social Security, with a fund as large as the Trust fund, it’s prudent to invest in the Federal Government which creates the environment for business to grow, and therefore future taxes to be paid.

There was nothing accidental about the anti-healthcare reform letters that started bombarding the paper this August. While the Democratic Party was busy working on legislation, the GOP was working on how best to lie about it. One guess as to which one was faster getting the word out to the troops (among them a former neighbor), who chimed in with inaccurate views of what’s been proposed. I pray that theirs were legitimate personal concerns, not just talking points from the various right wing mail lists.

I joined in with a letter to the editor of my own, and consider knocking out a few more. But, I set aside the ego for a moment, and wondered what I was hoping to accoplish. Hawaii’s Congressional Caucus is solidly behind healthcare reform with a public insurance option, and a few Republican activists aren’t going to change their minds. The point is to do my part to ensure there isn’t just one point of view being represented, and fortunately the overall tone of other letters late in the month is leaning pro-health reform.

A related thought: despite the videos distributed by the Maui Tea Party guy in Haiku, if Mazie Hirono organized a “town hall” meeting on Maui, I don’t think our local hell raisers in training would have the guts to pull off the shout-down-the-speaker bit. When there’s only one degree of separation from just about anyone you haven’t met, polite discourse is key (to avoid getting your okole verbally handed to you afterward).

A regular correspondent from Pukalani wrote in to suggest solutions to the perennial summer water shortages Upcountry and traffic congestion between the west side and the rest of the island. Neither are practical, or from my POV, desirable, the author either unaware of or unconcerned with issues of cost, geology, or ascetics.

Waikamoi Diversion Dam

Waikamoi Stream Diversion Dam (C. Holmberg)

Water: While most Maui residents get their drinking water from deep wells in Kahalewai (the West Maui Mountains), Upcountry Maui depends on rainfall on the northwest slopes of Haleakala, which is diverted by a system of ditches to water treatment plants. Rainfall and the collection system hasn’t kept up with the growing population, with the result that there is a long waiting list for new water meters, and calls for voluntary water conservation every summer.

The County Board of Water Supply is currently planning construction of a couple of new Upcountry water storage ponds totaling 300 million gallons, the $60 to $100 million cost to be shared by the County, State, and Federal Governments.

Kahakapao Reservoir

Kahakapao Reservoir, a 100mg water storage pond (C. Holmberg)

The correspondent, Mr. Vierra, suggested that the County should skip the reservoirs, and construct “some kind” of dam to catch the water currently running into the ocean.

Piiholo WTP

Piiholo Water Treatment Plant (C. Holmberg)

What he doesn’t realize is that very little surface water of the northwest water shed between Haiku and Nahiku reaches the ocean, because the East Maui Irrigation (EMI) and Maui County Waikamoi catchment systems intercept it. The problem is finding a place to store excess supply for use during the slack times. Attempting to dam one of the steep, narrow valleys carved into the northwest slopes of Haleakala for storage would result in a drawn out EIS fight, be at least as expensive as the proposed reservoirs, and leak like a sieve through the porous lava behind a dam.

Highway Tunnel: As the resident and visitor population of Maui has grown so has the volume of traffic on two lane Honoapiilani Highway linking west Maui with the rest of the island. Rush hour traffic is a daily chore, and forest fires or accidents along the Pali can leave the road closed for hours.

Mr. Vierra is also one of a number correspondents who have suggested creating a short cut by boring a tunnel through Kahalewai (West Maui Mountains). He suggests running one from Waikapu Valley to Olowalu. Others have suggested one from Iao Valley to Lahaina.

Tetsuo Harano Tunnels, H-3 freeway, Oahu, Hawai'i (Flickr, CC:)

Tetsuo Harano Tunnels, H-3 freeway, Oahu, Hawai'i (Flickr, CC:)

Regardless of the advances in tunnel boring technology over the last couple of decades, a tunnel from Central Maui to the west side would be a massive and hideously costly undertaking. It would require huge concrete viaducts at either end, almost certainly in the form of an H-3 Freeway-like, four-lane highway up a couple of valleys. It would be expensive to maintain, increase motor vehicle traffic on existing roads and spur added suburban sprawl.

H-3 Viaducts In Halawa Valley

H-3 Viaducts In Halawa Valley (Wikipedia)

Even if we to brush away those concerns, no one will be building tunnels much longer than the current Pali tunnel, unless someone has a lead on several billion dollars. To get the H-3 freeway through the Koolau Mountains on Oahu required two 5,000-foot-long, 50-foot-wide tunnels. To drill through Kahalewai would require at least double the length, in addition to massive raised viaducts at the approaches. The H-3 only needed to follow one valley. A similar effort on Maui would require a freeway along two narrow, undeveloped valleys, key parts of the West Maui watershed, ribbons of concrete which would contribute to spoiling the visual appeal of the island.

The H-3 cost about $160 million per mile in current dollars, excluding the tunnels, financed through Daniel Inouye’s power as a ranking U.S. senator, under the rationale of connecting a couple of major military installations. That kind of money could pay for six lanes around the pali – not that I’m pushing that idea – with money left to throw in a monorail.

I find myself rebutting this tunnel fantasy in letters to the editor every year, to the point where I think we need an FAQ. Anyone favoring the idea should start by informing themselves of the history and cost for the H-3, then decide if they want to proceed with the discussion.

There are a few correspondents whose opinions I object to, yet whose letters are so trite that I usually resist the temptation to do anything more than snort at the page. However, Ray Pezzoli, formerly of Kihei, but evidently now spending most of his time in Avila Beach, CA, was working his way right up to my threshold after series of recent letters that made it clear that with Ray, President Obama is damned whatever he does. Doesn’t Pismo Beach have a local rag he can write to? Why does he still bother the rest of us with his opinions?

I drafted a response, but stayed my hand from clicking the “send” button, least I use up my unstated quota of letters on something so manini. Fortunately, Alain Mei sent in a response that hit the nail on the head, while being much more civil than my unsent draft.

I’ve written a lot of letters to the Maui News over the last ten years, of which I believe only three haven’t been printed. One trashed a candidate for the County Council days before an election, another addressed a poorly thought out grading permit on an unstable hillside. The last took the State to task for actions which inadvertently promote meth-amphetamine abuse, and reprinted below.

Pure Méthamphétamine Crystals (US DoJ, via Wikipedia)

Pure Méthamphétamine Crystals (US DoJ, via Wikipedia)

The somewhat sarcastic tone probably didn’t help, but the primary problem was that it was much too long, more the length of a Guest Opinion piece. However, the News only runs guest opinions from those who are recognized as having professional expertise on the topic. To ever to see print, it would need to be edited and submitted by the retired police officer and police commissioner whose thoughts on the subject I paraphrased:

Last September [2007], the Kihei Community Association hosted a presentation regarding what Batu (methamphetamine) is doing to the community, and how to identify the dealers. So far, so good, but does the State prefer the known Batu problem to the alternative? Let’s consider the evidence.

Getting Here: The vast majority of our methamphetamine is imported by couriers on scheduled flights from the mainland, or shipped by package delivery services. In 1996, the State Supreme Court’s interpretation of our search and seizure laws kicked the police out of the airports, off the cruise ship, and ferry gangways. No drug dogs sniff the suitcases
or passengers, nor the Fedex, DHL, or UPS packages.

Dealers: Once the product is on island, a considerable amount of coordination is needed to distribute it. Again, the State provides assistance via its wiretap process. When the police go to a State judge to authorize a wiretap, the judge appoints a criminal defense attorney to review a case file where only the suspect’s name is redacted. As the attorney starts calling the non-redacted names, the suspect’s guard goes up. Not infrequently, the suspect ends up defended by the same attorney, who has an easier case because of the fouled up wiretap. As a result, the State courts see few requests for them.

The Federal courts (and virtually all the other States) have a more rational wiretap review process, so most of the huge drug ring arrests in Hawaii are handled by Federal agencies. Periodically, the Feds are so overloaded with cases that they hand off some wiretap evidence to State and County district Attorneys. However, our D.A.s can’t use them, because the State courts consider such wiretaps tainted.

Addicted Thieves: Once the product addicts a new consumer, it’s usually not long until he or she has run through the family checking and savings account,lost their job, and is in need of additional income. This is where you and I contribute, as our cars, homes, and businesses are burglarized and shoplifted. Because of the volume of theft, the Maui PD is unable to do much more than file reports, with no followup. If a car is stolen, it’s only a Class C felony, and a (rarely imposed) maximum of five years in jail. Grand theft, automobile? It’s just a video game in Hawaii. If the thieves are under 18, the police just send the kids home, since holding juveniles overnight requires flying them to Oahu, a joy reserved only for particularly violent teen suspects.

If the meth consumer resorts to shoplifting, judges set a high bar for showing that there was an intent to steal. The police end up writing a series of “kickout tickets” to offenders who keep hitting the same store. The tickets have no teeth, because the judges consider them manini cases and throw them out. As a result, repeat offenders who are caught in the act are sometimes being dealt a beating by the staff out back, cutting the official justice system out of the loop.

In Court: Because of the volume of crime generated by Maui’s meth addicts, a few can’t help but end up facing criminal charges of some sort or another. Virtually all drug defendants end up in front of the Drug Court for starters. The Drug Court is a good idea hobbled by a poor implementation, as evidenced by 80% of the defendants falling off the wagon within a year. It’s possible the program is in even worse shape, if anecdotal evidence that case workers are falsifying some urine and blood test results are true and indicate a widespread practice.

Overwhelmed System: The State’s method for dealing with meth leans very heavily on education and treatment. Education *is* key, but how effective is “just say no” to something that is *so* cheap, addictive, and easy to buy? The treatment centers, the CPS, the Drug Court, the probation department,and many AA groups are overloaded with patients and cases, making it obvious that netting users after the party stopped being fun cannot by itself solve the problem.

What Is To Be Done? I believe the Legislature and the Judiciary need to realize that for education and treatment to have breathing room to work, Batu has to become hard to find. Being an island State with limited opportunities for local production makes interdiction a realistic option, without going medieval on our civil liberties. But, they have got to make the leap of faith and start – figuratively – cracking some heads. Otherwise, we should just give the feel good propaganda a rest, and admit the game is up.