Akina shares news and views with sister institute in West Virginia

Photo by Charley Myers

Hawaii and West Virginia are at opposite ends of the country, but they share many of the same problems when it comes to overbearing government.

“I will admit that the high cost of living isn’t necessarily the same concern that you all [in Hawaii] are facing,” said Jessi Troyan to Keli‘i Akina on the March 2 episode of the “Forgotten America,” a podcast produced by the Cardinal Institute for West Virginia Policy. “But a lot of these same struggles [that Hawaii suffers] exist in West Virginia. It’s this lack of good opportunities.

Troyan, Cardinal Institute development director and host of the podcast, was responding to comments by Akina, president of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, who was invited onto the program to talk about how two years of coronavirus lockdown restrictions have affected Hawaii’s economic and healthcare status.

Akina noted that many people view Hawaii as a paradise, yet the state has been losing population for five years in a row — mainly due to its high cost of housing and lack of economic opportunities. He said the state’s COVID-19 lockdowns exacerbated the problems caused by already-existing policies, such as high taxes, excessive regulations and the federal Jones Act, which restricts shipping competition to the islands.

He also talked about how taxes and regulations such as Hawaii’s certificate-of-need laws have contributed to Hawaii’s doctor shortage and critically diminished the state’s healthcare capacity.

Near the end of the interview, Troyan asked what Akina he would recommend for West Virginians seeking their “ultimate one-week vacation” in Hawaii.

Akina responded that it depends what you’re looking for: “Do you want to get away from it all, or do you want to have a hub of activity and excitement?”

After describing the opportunities in the islands to accommodate both reasons, he concluded: “There’s something for everyone. Just know what you want and go after it.” Said Troyan with a laugh: “That sounds like a perfect tourism pitch for your state. I love it.”

To hear the entire 57-minute interview, go here. A complete transcript is provided.

3-2-22 Keil‘i Akina with Jessi Troyan of Cardinal Institute on “Forgotten America” podcast

Jessi Troyan: Hello, and welcome to “Forgotten America,” a podcast about the many places that get flown over, driven past or just plain forgotten, and the people who call these places home. In each episode, we will diagnose the unique challenges faced by rural America and unpack and explore the solutions to those challenges. We’ll also share the culture, stories and perspectives of forgotten Americans from the hilltop to the “holler” and the desert to the delta.

Anonymous: This week’s episode is hosted by Cardinal Institute’s development director, Jessi Troyan. Jessi is joined by Keliʻi Akina, president and CEO of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii. The Grassroot Institute is a nonprofit policy research organization focusing on the values of individual liberty, economic freedom and accountable government. 

In this episode, Jessi and Keliʻi discuss the Jones Act, and how the pandemic lockdowns affected Hawaii’s economy and health-care system in creating practical change and a better society in the spirit of “E hana kākou.”

Jessi Troyan: All right. Welcome, everyone, to another episode of “Forgotten America.”  This week we are joined by Keliʻi Akina of the Grassroots Institute of Hawaii. Welcome.

Keliʻi Akina: Jessi, delighted to be here with you at the Cardinal Institute. Although we’re across the nation as far away as we possibly could be, I feel very close because at the Grassroot Institute — and that’s Grassroot without an “s” at the end — we share the same commitment to defending liberty and the free market that you do as well. So we have a lot in common.

Troyan: For sure, for sure, and we both live in very beautiful states, although the beauty both of us get to enjoy is a little bit different.

Akina: That’s right. We have different features. A lot of people from Charleston, [West Virginia] dream of having their honeymoon in Hawaii. I don’t hear a lot of people from Hawaii say they’re going to get married in Charleston. But I do know you have a beautiful, beautiful land and people. It’s just great over there. Thanks for all you do.

Troyan: Thank you as well. Let’s kick this off a little bit and share with our audience here a little bit of your background, the work that you do with the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii and the rest of the work that you’ve been involved with throughout your career.

Akina: Well, I have a varied background. I began in Christian ministry with the Youth for Christ movement for 30 years. Eventually, I went into academia and taught as a college professor, and then I got a bug for trying to transform our country through good policies, and for the last, almost, 10 years I have been with the Grassroot Institute in the areas of trying to build a better economy, a more accountable government, a more empowered society. 

This is a wonderful time in my life to be able to do things that are really going to help people in my homeland of Hawaii.

Troyan: That’s wonderful. So, let’s kick things off with something kind of fun here. I feel like you alluded to it in West Virginians wanting to come to Hawaii for a honeymoon, but the opposite isn’t necessarily true. When you think about what the rest of the country thinks about your home state, what would you say is the biggest misconception that mainlanders have? 

I can give you a softball to go off of. Middle school-aged me loved the movie “Blue Crush,” and for whatever reason, that has stuck with me. But I’m sure that that is a vast, vast oversimplification of just all of the wonder that you guys have to offer.

Akina: Thanks for asking that question. I think that Hawaii has a magical place in the minds of many people across the country and across the world, because we yearn for a paradise where there’s beautiful weather throughout the year, loving people, just a place to escape to, and it’s been in our imaginations for generations. 

But there is another side to Hawaii, however, that people don’t know. Sometimes we refer to it as the other side of paradise. If it is such a beautiful place and a wonderful set of islands to live in, why then are so many people leaving? We have one of the highest rates of exodus of residents of any state in the nation.

If you’ve got beautiful weather, lovely scenery, happy people, why are they leaving? Why are they leaving in droves? The answer to that question helps us to understand some of the real struggles that Hawaii is facing today. 

We’ve actually got a project called “Why we left Hawaii,” which we put on our website at grassrootinstitute.org. [It features] the stories of so many people who’ve left the state. That’s a very good question that you’re asking, Jessi. In fact, I can elaborate on that more if you’d like.

Troyan: I was just about to lead into that. Like you said, it’s so beautiful, but I imagine, too, for lack of a better description, the remoteness of your location. I imagine that that is a huge struggle, but that’s just a very easy guess. I’m sure that you and your team have so much more to offer on the challenges in Hawaii and why individuals make that choice to leave.

Akina: Well, you’re raising an important question 32,237 people left the state since 2016, and that’s a net figure. They’re fleeing the state because of the high cost of living and the poor economy. A recent survey found that Hawaii’s high cost of living was the primary factor for people leaving. The survey showed that residents considered moving away from Hawaii, first of all, because of the cost of living; 47% of them said that. Fifteen percent said more job opportunities, and 10% said housing is too expensive.

What we’re observing is the shrinking of our labor pool. At the same time, that’s not good for government, because it results in the reduction of our tax base. And that, as you know, causes politicians to look at raising taxes all the time. There is a set of stories we’ve put on our website called “Why we left Hawaii.” And let me just quote one guy for you and you’ll get a sense of what’s going on. 

His name is Nate Hara. He said, “I was born in Waimea on the island of Kauai and raised in Hilo {on the Big Island in Hawaii). I lived in Hawaii until I was 26.” 

He goes on and says, “The cost of living, continuous raising of taxes and fees and the state’s need to control everything led to me and my family moving to Texas. In order for my family and I to move back, we would need to see change that benefits the hardworking local people. Reward the people for their hard work.” 

Now, you see, we get stories like that all the time, and it’s becoming evident that it’s not just young people who are moving away, but middle-aged workers are moving away and the elderly are moving away, because for all of these segments, Hawaii is just becoming far too expensive.

Troyan: That’s tough to hear, although it’s a story that I can relate to here in West Virginia. 

Now, I will admit that the high cost of living isn’t necessarily the same concern that you all are facing, but a lot of these same struggles exist in West Virginia. It’s this lack of good opportunities. 

Up until very recently, West Virginia has also shared a government that was fond of controlling things and continually raising taxes, and like Hawaii, we have struggled with net outmigration and declining population and all of those same challenges from the political and the policy side. Unfortunately, it’s a story we’re all too familiar with.

Akina: Absolutely. Now, at the Grassroot Institute, in a fashion probably similar to the way you do your work at the Cardinal Institute, we’ve done research to get to the causes of the problem, and what we have discovered through our research is why Hawaii is so expensive, and the No. 1 reason is the cost of housing. 

Housing is expensive, not because there isn’t enough land for homes in Hawaii. It’s not a shortage of space, although people are under that impression often. It’s because of the zoning and land-use restrictions, which, in other words, means because of government regulation. As a result, did you know that the median home price on Oahu, the main island, is now $1 million?

Troyan: Ouch.

Akina: That’s not a mansion. That’s something you could get in West Virginia for $250,000, perhaps, or even less. That’s a standard, small, 1,000-square-foot single-family, single-story home, and very possibly one that has been aging for quite a while. 

Now, the reason for this is because, in Hawaii, only 5% of the land is zoned for residential development. Can you imagine that 5%? That means 95% of the land we can’t develop on at all. 

Half of that land happens to be for agriculture, but the reality is the majority of the agricultural land is sitting fallow it’s not even being used and the other half is for watershed preserve.

We’re not planning or proposing to go in and build in the watershed reserve, but we could easily shift up from 5% and develop on 6% or 7%, and solve the scarcity problems. But the problem is that regulations in Hawaii ultimately mean that we can only develop on 5%. 

What I call that is an artificial scarcity. It’s not one that’s actually there naturally. It’s the result of government imposing a high level of regulation.

Troyan: Definitely so. When I hear a figure like, “You can only build on 5% of the land,” even when I think about just the general land area of your state being relatively small, 5% is still just staggering, that that’s only what you’re able to use. 

And like you said, yeah, upping it to 6%, up to 7%, that’s a huge increase, just relative to what’s already permitted to be built on. So I can see how just that little bit of a loosening up would alleviate so much pressure in the housing market.

Akina: Right. It makes us ask a question that we ask all the time with regard to other costs as well: Who really benefits from this artificial scarcity? That leads us to political answers, of course, and I’m sure that’s a struggle you’re familiar with as well.

 I would say that the cost of housing is the leading cost in living in Hawaii, and why so many people leave Hawaii and discover that they can afford to own a home away from Hawaii.

Troyan: It certainly sounds like it. Now, in addition to just the cost of living, housing in particular, $1 million for a single-family home, that just absolutely blows my mind in every way possible. 

What are some of the other constraints that add to the high cost of living, and some of the challenges that folks in your state face?

Akina: Well, one, in particular, has to deal with the fact that we are the most isolated island archipelago in the world. We’re out there in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and the vast majority of everything that we consume, from building supplies to automobiles to food, has to be shipped into Hawaii. That means it must conform to a law that a lot of people haven’t heard about in this country, called the Jones Act.

The Jones Act is the informal way of referring to the 1920 Merchant Marine Act. It’s a law that governs the transport of cargo between any two United States ports; for example, between Honolulu and Los Angeles or between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

If you’re going to take cargo between any two U.S. ports, the Jones Act says there are four rules that have to apply. 

The biggest rule is that it must be done on a ship built in the United States. That’s No. 1. No. 2, it must be on a ship that is crewed by an American crew, for the most part. No. 3, a ship that is a flagged U.S. ship. And No. 4, a ship that is owned by a U.S. company. 

Now, the most impactful of those rules is that the ship must be built in the United States. The reason that that is so impactful is that that rule is a form of protectionism. It’s tried to protect the American shipbuilding industry for 100 years. And when you have that kind of protectionism and don’t allow foreign competition, our industries tend to fail. And that’s what’s happened in the shipbuilding industry.

In terms today of deep-bottom cargo ships that could be used in the Jones Act trade, the United States produces less than 1% of those ships annually, compared to other nations, when we used to be the leader in shipbuilding. So what we’ve seen is that with this law in place for a hundred years, we’ve seen the demise of the shipbuilding industry. What that does is, it translates into a scarcity of these U.S. ships that have to be used, and it drives their price through the roof.

For example, if a shipping company wants to use ships for domestic trade, they have to be bought from a United States company; they’ll cost at least five times the price of buying them from one of our allies like Japan or South Korea or Norway; and they’ll be less technologically advanced they’ll be old clunkers and that’s pretty much what makes up the American shipping fleet. 

So this is one thing that contributes significantly to cost, not only for Hawaii, but for Puerto Rico and other coastal regions on the West Coast and East Coast, and also inland, because so much of the cargo that gets to, let’s say, Missouri or Iowa, first gets to the American coast through ships, and then has to make its way on land. 

We did a study of the Jones Act cost on the Hawaii economy and found that it adds a price tag of about $1.2 billion annually to the consumers of Hawaii. If we compare Hawaiians and their costs to people who live, let’s say, in West Virginia, right off the bat, we’re paying $1,800 more per family every year just for the surcharge of using Jones Act ships. And that’s pretty heavy. 

I could go on with a lot more about the Jones Act, but it’s pretty technical stuff. Anyone who’s interested in this can find our studies on our website, grassrootinstitute.org.

Troyan: That’s really fascinating to me. Well, like you said, being a landlocked state like West Virginia is, I’ve heard of the Jones Act before, but have never really engaged with it, and certainly not at the level that you and your team have. 

It’s, once again, hitting us with those low percentages, only 1% of the cargo ships in the world fleet are built in the U.S. An then, on top of that, you were talking about how it’s a lower-quality ship than what is produced by our allies. 

So again, that blows me away, and when I hear you sit here and talk about a figure like $1,800 per family, that is not chump change. That makes a significant difference to a family’s bottom line.

Akina: One of the things that people think often is that the only places affected by the Jones Act are states and territories surrounded by water. That would be basically Hawaii and Puerto Rico and Alaska as well. Most of Alaska has to be reached by ship. 

As I mentioned earlier, even West Virginia or anywhere that’s landlocked is also affected, because a huge amount of everything that we consume does come from overseas. It gets to us by ocean first, and we bear the costs of that before it goes to rail and truck.

We’re hoping that we can generate some interest on the part of other states so that they’ll talk to their congressional delegations, because this is a federal law and there’s nothing that can be done about it from Hawaii. It would require the action of Congress to update the Jones Act and bring it into the 21st century, so it doesn’t cost Americans as much as it does.

Troyan: Yes, and that’s definitely a larger lift to make those sorts of changes on the federal level, because I know both of us, I’m sure, are familiar with, I would call it, the relative ease of engaging on state-level policy. These are the people that you live among. Your representation is closer to you. Then once again, the geography notwithstanding from where you all are out literally in the middle of the Pacific Ocean to D.C., is no small distance.

So when you’re thinking about the Jones Act and the way that federal law — reforms in that or even possibly an outright repeal — what are the different sorts of solutions that you see or the feasible reforms that could be done, that would be a huge help to, in particular Hawaii, but all the rest of the country?

Akina: Well, that’s a great question because we want to be solution-oriented. Many people have seen the problems of the Jones Act and have concluded that the solution would be to repeal it. We’re a little cautious with regard to that, because in trying to repeal the Jones Act, which has been around for 100 years, and has spawned tentacles into numerous government agencies and has produced multiple regulations and laws, it would be very difficult to have a clean break from all of that, because so much in the way we do our transport is somewhat connected in some way back to the Jones Act.

Trying to extricate the Jones Act from the United States would also run into the problem of unions, shipbuilding companies and shippers who have built their industry on the Jones Act and protected it. So coming out with a frontal attack that says, “We’re going to get rid of the Jones Act,” might raise so much opposition that it wouldn’t be a feasible path, if you understand what I mean. 

So we have looked at the best solution in terms of reforming or updating the Jones Act, and we have found that you can leave certain elements of the Jones Act in place without any further harm to our economy. There’s no harm to our economy by continuing to ensure that American union workers are on our ships. There’s no real harm to our economy that comes from guaranteeing that under an American flag, OSHA regulations are enforced on our ships. These are not things that we need to attack.

We’ve whittled it down and found that there’s one major change that could be made that would be beneficial to most parties, and that’s simply this: Allow our shippers to buy their ships from our allies. It’s that simple. If we did that, we could introduce greater competition back into the market.

 Do you remember back in the days when we had huge protections on Detroit and American automobile building?

Troyan: Oh, certainly.

Akina: We almost destroyed the city of Detroit. In fact, we sunk it really, financially, as a symbol of what happens when you try to protect an industry from competition. And Americans didn’t benefit from it. American cars were never up to the standard then of a foreign-built car. 

But now today, that we’ve lifted the protectionism, and have done so for several decades, American car manufacturing is experiencing a real renaissance and you don’t have to dream about having a Toyota made in Japan. You can actually buy a General Motors car that is just as competitive and attractive. So we think the same thing would happen in the shipping industry. That’s what our studies show.

If we could simply allow American shippers to buy their ships from our allies, it would generate a level of competition between shipbuilders, amongst our allies and American shipyards, that would ultimately result in a better product in America, a lower-cost product in America. We would allow the market to do the work that it does. 

That’s why we think that it would be a great reform to the Jones Act, simply to deal with the first plank of the requirement that ships be bought from American companies., Broaden that a bit, open it to competition and allow our shippers to buy their ships from our allies as well.

Troyan: That to me sounds like a perfectly reasonable reform. As an economist by training, introducing competition and letting the market do its work, that’s music to my ears, always.

Akina: And it’s so interrelated to freedom, and our economic freedom determines in many ways our civil liberties as well. The economy gives us the empowerment to drive our ability to make choices.

Troyan: Definitely so. Definitely so. 

Now that we’ve talked about some of the rougher parts, if you will, of living in Hawaii, and again kind of coming back to your opening salvo about people thinking about Hawaii as this paradise that we’re all searching for on this side of life: tourism, by and large, that’s what first comes to my mind when I think about the state. What is the impact that that has had on the state and the labor force, the residents and just the general way of living in Hawaii?

Akina: This is where it’s very easy to romanticize our thinking about Hawaii and not think realistically in terms of the market. Tourism, if you are a purist, is something some people might object to because they have a romantic view of Hawaii that goes back to an idyllic past where we had a very small population, a native population, pristine beaches, untouched interior and so forth.

But the reality is that the coming of the world to Hawaii has resulted in the opportunity for its people to participate in a global economy. For the majority of people who have lived here over the last couple of centuries, especially in the last century, tourism has meant that the world has come to Hawaii in a way that has provided a tremendous economic engine. If you are not talking about government itself, tourism is the leading industry in Hawaii today. 

Unfortunately, that industry, which has resulted in so much opportunity and growth in Hawaii, has been stymied a great deal by the emergency responses to the COVID pandemic.

I’m wondering if you mind if I share a little bit about how that has impacted tourism and our economy.

Troyan: No, please, please go on, because that was about to be my follow-up, because I was thinking to myself that if tourism is a huge part of the economy in Hawaii and travel has been restricted, it has been so difficult for people to do everyday things, let alone travel for business or pleasure, that I’m sure that that response and the impact of the pandemic, has, I imagine, been pretty harsh. I’d love to hear your firsthand knowledge.

Akina: Well, in 2020, when the pandemic broke, Hawaii, in the month of March, went into a state of emergency. By law, that was to last for 60 days in terms of our emergency powers law. The governor had that power. 

But it was supposed to be temporary and end in 60 days. The governor has reinstated that at the end of every 60-day period, so we are now in the 25th consecutive emergency period. It has been two years that we have been under a state of emergency, and this has hit our economy terribly — although it’s loosening up now. Throughout most of 2020 and 2021, we had the worst unemployment rates in the nation. We are still a long way from a healthy economy. The impact is still upon us in a very big way. 

One of the concerns for the Grassroot Institute is to help our government restore its balance of powers. So we’re trying to educate legislators now, especially as they go into an election year, to restore the balance of powers by putting a check on the governor’s ability to unilaterally impose states of emergency. That’s absolutely essential that businesses can get back into the business of growing, and rely on the ability to remain open and invite back the tourist industry.

Troyan: I would say so, and I know that just talking to our fellow state colleagues throughout the country, that that has been a huge initiative in the last two years, is to rein that power back in and put it back in its proper place within the legislature, and get it out of the hands of a single-man rule, in the case of gubernatorial emergency declarations.

Akina: Yes, indeed.

Troyan: So I will definitely be keeping an eye out for how all your efforts progress on that front in the coming months. 

Now, in addition to the economy being really hard hit in the pandemic, how, in your estimation,did the healthcare system fare in dealing with this unprecedented threat and event?

Akina: Oh, we were impacted terribly by this. Not because the pandemic itself caused our healthcare system to experience shortages and failures, but because even prior to the pandemic, we had a healthcare shortage. 

We might not have realized that fully until the stress of the pandemic hit, but Hawaii’s healthcare system simply wasn’t prepared for an emergency of that magnitude. When COVID hit, Hawaii had amongst the fewest hospital beds per capita in the nation.

In fact, we had this very nefarious distinction. We had the longest emergency room wait time in the country and a severe shortage of doctors and nurses. We were short going into the pandemic already for us a big number:  732 doctors — and the problem simply got worse very quickly. 

Basically, Hawaii has a tax system that puts tremendous financial pressure on physicians. One doctor testified that he left the state and, as a result, he saves over $100,000 a year, because of the reduced taxation and the lower cost of living. And there are other laws that limit Hawaii’s healthcare system. 

We have the most burdensome certificate-of-need laws in the nation. I was looking at your website and saw that you’ve done some really great work out there at the Cardinal Institute on certificate of need, which is basically a requirement that if some people want to start a hospital, they have to go before a committee and get permission for it, called a certificate of need, but the problem is that the people who sit on that committee often constitute their competition.

 It’s kind of like a Denny’s going before a committee of McDonald’s and Burger King in order to get a certificate that says, “You have our permission to enter the market here.” There’s a huge conflict of interest, and that’s been a problem.

Case in point: On the island of Maui, the government denied the building of the Malulani Hospital that could have provided 150 acute [care] beds and $119 million to a private healthcare investment. This was just before the pandemic. So we had a massive shortage there in terms of being able to treat the COVID situation, and [now] have one of the worst situations on that island. 

Now, 15 other states have no certificate-of-need laws at all. But even if Hawaii didn’t want to go down that route, it could, at the very least, lighten some of our regulations. That’s something that we’re trying to promote.

For example, we’re asking the question, “Do we really need to have permission to move hospital beds from one hospital to another?” You need a certificate of need to do that. Did you realize that? Or to start a dialysis center or a rehab center. We don’t believe we should force hospitals to go before certificate-of-need committees for these kind of simple changes in their structure and in their practice. That’s something that is very burdensome. 

And there were other regulations that impacted the healthcare capacity during the pandemic. We had that shortage of doctors and healthcare practitioners, largely because Hawaii doesn’t have reciprocal licensing laws. And as a result, we didn’t have telemedicine, because a resident of Hawaii wouldn’t be free to engage a doctor in another state through telemedicine.

Fortunately, the telemedicine rule was suspended. What we’re saying is, government realized that you had to suspend that to meet the shortage during the pandemic, so just continue suspending it. You know, allow Hawaii residents to be able to access telehealth across the nation. That should be done year-round, whether there’s a pandemic or not.

Troyan: Could not agree with you more on that front. I know West Virginia, we were lucky enough that telehealth restrictions were loosened up. I believe it was last year, in 2021.

Now the certificate-of-need fight will be ongoing in our state. Definitely so. When the chips are down, when catastrophe strikes, it should be very commonsensical, you would think, to suspend these kinds of regulations. 

Like you said, you saw that on the telehealth margin, but then on the other forms of getting care to people that need it when they need it, when everything is going haywire, when everything is in chaos — to be a little bit dramatic about it.

Akina: Right. I think there are wonderful lessons that can be learned, and I hope our government will learn them from the way that they’ve had to accommodate for the pandemic.

For example, a huge amount of FEMA money, as well as state dollars, is being used to bring in temporary hospital workers, from doctors to nurses, to other technical people. We should just stop and say, “What a shame that our regulations prevent the long-term residency of such people here in Hawaii.”

We shouldn’t have such a shortage. It’s a beautiful place to live, it’s a beautiful place to practice medicine. We need to get the government out of the way of the kind of regulatory practice that makes it too expensive in Hawaii for medical people to live and practice.

Troyan: For sure. I hope on behalf of both your state and mine that the continued use of telehealth becomes just normal practice, and that for both of our states that we’re able to see this rolling back off the regulations around certificate of need, because like you said, it shouldn’t be this massive bureaucratic endeavor to move some hospital beds or do a little bit of an expansion. 

On top of that, too, I would think there’s a pretty good argument. if you’ve got the buy-in from investors, or whatever other folks that you need to have to get all the pieces in place, to expand whatever the services in question are, whether it’s an outpatient surgery center or a full-blown, all the medica-bells-and-whistles hospital.

If you’ve got people that are willing to put their skin in the game, pony up, make the investments, bring the people in to do this really vital work, that to me sounds like, “Hey, let’s move forward with that.” Why do we need to have the government coming in and saying, “Well, let’s wait a minute and see.”

Akina: Right. I couldn’t agree with you more.

Troyan: Now that we have bummed everyone out just a little bit here, let’s go back to the good stuff. 

With your long and just super-engaged lifetime in Hawaii, if you were going to describe the ultimate week-long vacation to Hawaii, what are your top recommendations for people to see? Whether it’s just much more a touristy hub or a little bit more of a hidden gem, what are your top recommendations?

Akina: Well, I would say, ask a simple question before you come to Hawaii, and you won’t go wrong either way, really. But do you want to get away from it all, or do you want to have a hub of activity and excitement? 

You know, there are different times in our lives. Sometimes we want to get away from it all and just be off in nature. If that’s the case, go to one of the neighbor islands. The beautiful island of Kauai was used to film “Jurassic Park.” So you’re going to go back into the prehistoric past with some of the most majestic mountains that you could possibly imagine. Cliffsides and so forth; lush greenery, small little shops and restaurants; a great way to get away from it all. 

On the other hand, maybe you don’t need to get away from it all. You want some excitement, you want the activity, and that would be the main Island — the island of Oahu, the town of Honolulu, which is pretty much on the whole island. 

There’s some beautiful places to visit nature there, but at the same time, we’ve got Waikiki, a tremendous entertainment center. There’s restaurants, music, nightlife and so forth. There are cultural attractions, there are museums and on and on. 

Now, maybe you can’t decide; maybe you want both, and so a lot of people, they come to Waikiki and stay there for a few days. They spend most of the week on the island of Oahu, but will take a day or two to fly to a neighbor island and stay in a small little motel. Can’t go wrong either way.

Troyan: Yes, that sounds perfect. I think the scenario that you just described there at the end depends on what your vacationing needs are, doing a little bit of a split between some buzz and some excitement, and also just enjoy nature, see the beautiful things and just take that deep breath from all the rest of the hustle and bustle in life.

Akina: There’s something for everyone. Just know what you want and go after it.

Troyan: That sounds like a perfect tourism pitch for your state. (Laughter) I love it. 

To build off of that, if you know what you want, when you think of food, because I like to think of myself as a foodie. I probably underwhelm in a huge way on that. But if someone comes to visit, what is your top food recommendation?

Akina: Definitely you’re going to want to sample some native Hawaiian food, and there are two ways to do that. One way is to go to a fancy banquet luau — it’s called a luau — at a hotel and [you’d] pay maybe a couple of hundred dollars for the show and the meal. 

Or (laughter) ask any of the locals, “Where’s the local Hawaiian food shop, a restaurant?” and go there.

I don’t want to in any way denigrate what the hotel experience is, but I can tell you this: If you want the authentic Hawaiian experience, go to one of these little inconspicuous, Hawaiian restaurants. It’ll cost a lot less and it’ll be extremely authentic and you’ll get to meet the locals up close. That’s one form of dining. 

Beyond that, Hawaii is just a great place for restaurants. You’ve got some of the finest Asian food in the world in Hawaii, whether it’s in Chinatown or throughout all of Honolulu, and you can taste and enjoy that. 

Most of the traditions of Asia have great restaurants in Hawaii And you can find steakhouses and other Western restaurants in Waikiki and Honolulu as well. 

So eating in Hawaii is a big deal and nobody will fail to find some kind of restaurant that they’ll enjoy.

Troyan: That sounds perfect, and seeing as how it’s approaching dinner time here, you’re just whetting my appetite. Now I feel like I want to go look something up and imbue a little bit of that spirit into my weekend meals here.

Akina: Sounds great. In West Virginia, I love good old Southern food. [Laughs]

Troyan: Can’t go wrong, for sure. One more cultural thing, when you think about depictions of Hawaii or the culture, and just the outward representation to the rest of the world, is there anybody that you think does just the most magnificent job that you’d like to share with the rest of us?

Akina: Let me say this: The best person to understand and describe Hawaii might be you or any of your listeners when you decide to come to Hawaii. There’s nothing that can replace firsthand experience of the people, the places, the culture, the land, the beauty and everything that’s here. 

I don’t think we necessarily need someone to tell us about that. But of course, there are books that have been written great literature — that describes Hawaii that’s worth looking at.

Here are a couple of books. They’re different from each other, but they’ll give you a great introduction and backdrop. 

One book is by James Michener, called “Hawaii” — probably the most-read book about Hawaii. It has introduced us to our vision of Hawaii. I would read it with caution, but enjoyment.

It’s a fictitious book and it introduces the reader to the different cultures and the cultural mix in Hawaii in a beautiful way. But it’s also written from one point of view in the 1950s, the more romantic view of Hawaii. But still worth reading. It introduces you to the magic of how people perceive Hawaii. 

Then along with it, read something that may be a little bit more culturally accurate to balance it. There’s a book called “Ku Kanaka,” written by a man named George Kanahele. It’s one of the best books that talks about the authentic value systems and the virtues and practices of the Hawaiian people. 

I’d say those two books would be a great introduction, if you want to do a little bit of reading before you come.

Troyan: That sounds like a couple of really great recommendations. I’ll be adding those to my Amazon wishlist here shortly. So I will be excited to dig into a little bit more of that, and I hope that our audience does as well. 

Now, the final question that I have: So, in West Virginia, we have our state motto, it’s Montani semper liberi — Mountaineers are always free. And at the Cardinal Institute, we use that as just a kind of a guiding ethos of just the spirit of freedom and liberty just go your own way, create your own vision of what it is to live the good life, whatever form it is. 

To my understanding here, you have a similar motto and a guiding ethos, really, and I hope I pronounce this right. I tried to do the research and I feel OK about it, but we’ll see. It’s “E hana kākou.”

Akina: Very good, Jessi. Very good. E hana kākou. Literally, it means “Let’s work together,” but in a deeper sense, there’s a grammatical structure here in the Hawaiian language that emphasizes, in the word “kākou,” that we want to be creating an inclusiveness. 

That means a lot to us here at the Grassroot Institute, because we’re really a minority in the way we think. We really are challenging to the dominant thinking and political process here in the state. It’s very easy to fall into the trap of thinking of “We versus them.” It’s very easy for us to think that we are at odds with others and need to confront them, defeat them and win them over to the truth. 

Now, in no way do we compromise what we are for. We believe absolutely [in], and we promote, the principles of, individual liberty, economic freedom and limited accountable government. But we want to do so in a way that doesn’t divide people from each other into the right and the left, or the red and the blue, or in any way that separates us. 

We constantly look for the inclusive common ground as our starting point, whatever the issue may be whether it’s taxation, housing, the Jones Act and so forth. We’re looking for the starting point to be something that all sides can work together on, and we grow that area. 

So by seeking out that inclusiveness and proceeding with great respect for even those who disagree with us, we truly believe that we can make a bigger difference in the long run. 

Sometimes it means making our policy safe for the quote unquote “other side” to come on board. Sometimes it means helping them to look good. 

For example, with regard to politicians, we’re very glad to help somebody who is very different from us in their political ideology [to] succeed and win on a bill, if that answers the greater good. So that spirit of inclusiveness,I think, is very important as we go forward and try to bring the truth to the broadest number of people.

Troyan: That’s really beautiful, and I think that’s a really smart way to think about the work that we’re all in the business of here. In the broadest sense, it’s just trying to make the world a better place, and for the Grassroot Institute, for the Cardinal Institute and for other groups like us, to just make our states, make where we live a better place, and often that’s on the expressly policy front in dealing with state government, but really finding that common ground and trying to build the tent, so to speak, and have more people involved and bought in, and working towards this better vision of things. 

It’s a really smart strategy and the way you explained it was really beautiful. I love that. I love that spirit.

Akina: Well, thank you, Jessi. It’s just been wonderful to spend some time with you. I just want to say that I appreciate the work of the Cardinal Institute. We are sister institutes in terms of public policy think tanks. I’m proud of what you do out there, and look forward to seeing you as we travel and go to various conferences.

Troyan: Absolutely. Well, as the final send off here, do you have any last words and to once more give folks the direction on how to best find the work that you and the Grassroot Institute are doing?

Akina: Well, thank you for this opportunity. Please feel free to visit our website at grassrootinstitute.org. You’ll find something that may relate quite well to you, whether you’re in West Virginia or any other part of the country. We all grow by seeing how we have similar challenges and can find similar solutions and best practices. 

Thank you, Jessi, so much, for interviewing me today.

Troyan: Thank you so much for joining us.


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