Meet Grassroot Scholar Colin Grabow

The following interview was published originally in the Fall 2021 edition of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii’s donor newsletter.

The Cato Institute policy analyst has been an invaluable asset in our efforts to achieve Jones Act reform

Earlier this year, the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii welcomed Cato Institute policy analyst Colin Grabow onto its team of policy experts. 

Despite being located over 4,000 miles away in the nation’s capital, the institute’s newest Grassroot Scholar has been one of our closest allies in working for Jones Act reform. 

Interviewed in late August, Grabow said he was introduced to libertarian philosophy during his high school years as a result of reading materials sent to his father by the Cato Institute, which his father supported. 

He said he was attracted to libertarianism not only because he considers it morally correct — “freedom is a good thing in and of itself” — but also because “it seems to have the virtue of working and producing good outcomes.”

A graduate of L.C. Bird High School in Chesterfield, Virginia, Grabow went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in international affairs from James Madison University and a master’s degree in international trade and investment policy from George Washington University. 

Before joining the Cato Institute in 2017, he worked as an analyst for an international affairs consulting firm in Washington, D.C., and later for Itochu, a Japan-based trading company. 

As a senior policy analyst at the Cato Institute — which he calls his “dream job” — Grabow has been published in USA Today, The Hill, National Review, The Wall Street Journal and many other news outlets. 

In 2020, he co-edited with Inu Manak the book “The Case Against the Jones Act,” which includes an essay by Grassroot Institute President Keli‘i Akina, “Updating the Jones Act for the 21st Century.”

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Melissa Newsham: How did you get involved with the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii?

Colin Grabow: I’ve been familiar with the Grassroot Institute’s work for a while, but I got more closely involved with them through my work on the Jones Act. 

Earlier this year, I was asked to become a Grassroot Scholar, and of course I agreed: Anything I can do to help support the institute’s work on the Jones Act. 

Q: Have you ever visited Hawaii? 

A: I’ve been to Hawaii twice, when my family lived in California. When I was in the fourth or fifth grade, we took a trip to the Big Island and to Kauai. I remember telling people growing up that it was my favorite trip I ever had. 

Five years ago, my wife and I went to Kauai and fell in love with it. I think it’s paradise. I’d love to go back. The worst part of Hawaii is just how far away it is. 

Q: What has been your favorite part about working at the Cato Institute? 

A: One of the best things about working there is the caliber of the people you work with. Just incredibly smart, driven, knowledgeable people. I read Cato’s work before I came to work here, and I always had a high regard for them. For a person interested in public policy, it’s cool. It’s almost like you’re meeting all of these rock stars. 

Q: What sparked your interest in the Jones Act? 

A: I knew about the Jones Act before I came to work at Cato and it struck me as a dumb law.

One of the first or second things I ever had published with Cato was about the Jones Act. I started on September 25th in 2017, and I think on September 20th or 21st, Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico. And the Jones Act was very much in the news, and there was pressure on President Trump to waive it [the Jones Act] and help get relief supplies to the island, which he eventually did for 10 days. 

So I wrote a piece about that for USA Today, and then I started to get deeper into it because in 2018, Cato launched a Jones Act reform project. 

Then I started to really dig into the weeds, and the more you dig, the weirder things get. The less things make sense. You just realize how bad this law is — for so many different reasons. It’s so overlooked. But I think it has major consequences. 

Everyone thinks it’s a Hawaii problem or a Puerto Rico problem or an Alaska problem, but I think this is an American problem. Hawaii and the other noncontiguous parts, they have it the worst, and it’s the most visible because they’re dependent on shipping. The rest of the country has alternative forms of transportation. But this is a country with thousands of miles of coastlines, and some of our major cities are along the coast. The untapped potential for maritime commerce is enormous. 

I think it would be great for Hawaii if we got rid of the Jones Act, or at least reformed it, but I think Jones Act repeal or reform would also have tremendous benefits for the rest of the country. 

Q: What is it going to take to make some headway on the Jones Act issue? 

A: I think it would be very helpful if we had more people at the state level speaking out. That’s why I think that the work the Grassroot Institute is doing is very important. A lot of people think, “Well, it all comes down to D.C.” But the states can be very influential as well.

Fortunately U.S. Rep. Ed Case has spoken out about this, but the rest of the Hawaii delegation is all for the Jones Act. They’re not just neutral; they actively support it. It’s the same thing for the Alaska delegation. Unfortunately, so long as we don’t have politicians in Hawaii speaking out about this, it’s going to be hard for the issue to get traction.

Q: What factors have been most instrumental in shaping your worldview? 

A: It probably was reading Cato’s stuff in high school. Growing up, to the extent that I had a political consciousness, I was your stereotypical Republican. Which meant that I thought burning the flag was an awful thing and drugs should be prohibited because they’re bad. But then you get a little bit older and think, “Wait a minute, I also believe in freedom, and those positions conflict with my beliefs in freedom.” Then you look at the evidence, and the evidence suggests that those policies don’t work. 

Q: What are some of your favorite books or podcasts? 

A: One of my favorite podcasts is called “The Fifth Column.” It’s a media-criticism podcast. “Freakonomics Radio” has always been one I like, as well as “How I Built This.” Every now and then I listen to the “Cato Daily Podcast.” There’s also a new podcast which I think is pretty good, called “Honestly with Bari Weiss.” But my very favorite podcast is “Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History.”

One of my all-time favorites books is one written by a guy named William Lewis and it’s called “The Power of Productivity.” It’s basically how all the good things come from making people more productive. It was really eye-opening. 

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