Deane Neubauer:
UH's role in the future

This article appeared in the Honolulu Advertiser, Friday, March 13, 1998, in the "Island Voices" column. Dean Neubauer is a professor of political science at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

When asked how the university can serve as a catalyst for economic development, the majority of responders will begin by listing ways to increase economic growth. This is an insufficient and in many ways the wrong answer.

We need to begin with another kind of question, namely, what kind of economic development do we want for Hawaii, and what role shoudl the University of Hawaii, a land-grant public university, play in producing it?

The land-grant universities have a unique role in American history. They were established at at time when the United States was primarily an agricultural nation, as an alternative to private universities that predominately educated the children of the well-to-do.

These public state universities had four missions: to develop science of benefit to their states and transfer that into technological applications; to create an educated labor force; to develop an educated citizenry who could sustain a democratic society; and through its extension services and home economic departments, to teach the norms of modern consumption.

These were universities created for the mass of the populous in distinction from elite private universities, and their fees were historically scaled to invite admission by the qualified of lesser means.

The University of Hawaii is uniquely positioned in this society to raise questions about the kind of economic developments that should be pursued in the state, questions about what resources should be created, how they should be employed and how they should be distributed.

Throughout much of Hawaii's history, these kinds of questions have not been given a central place in public discourse; rather, decisions about economic development have primarily been made by a combination of a highly centralized government and the largest economic players, often the agents of plantation agriculture, the military or tourism.

In seeking economic development, we need to do more than merely increase economic grouwth; we need also be concerned with the things that are done to develop the economy and how the results of this development are distributed. We need to think in terms of development that will sustain these fragile Islands as well as nourish their population.

The Mainland is currently enjoying an unprecedented economic boom, with unemployment at its lowest levels in over a dozen years. However, we are also experiencing a growth in income inequality, reversing the gains of the past 30 years. The society is becoming richer, but the gap between the well-off and the poor is increasing.

In relative terms the middle class is numerically smaller and possesses a smaller proportion of national income. Increasing income inequality is related to many of the bads of social life: for example, higher levels of crime, poor health and a withdrawal from public participation in public institutions (such as voting) by those who see the system as rigged.

Nationally we are enjoying economic growth while creating a crisis of income distribution.

Ours is a nation proud of its capitalist principles and the wealth created through their application. But the operation of these principles has privileged large-scale capital and its holders over all others.

UH as a land-grant university in pursuit of all four elements of its mission can lead the way toward the development of alternatives to the domination of economic life by the agenda of the largest holders and operators of capital. It can begin by fostering conversations about how more members of society can become holders of capital, users of capital and beneficiaries of its successful employment.

The broader the base of capital holding and use, the less we can anticipate income inequality to grow, and the more we can expect individuals to be committed to the society and its purposes.

Perhaps the significant test for our society --- one to which our university very much needs to contribute --- is to discover ways in which the collective needs of society can be brought into alignment with individual goals.

Individuals can gain from economic development in three important ways:

  • Have more income. by expanding the numbers of individuals who are capital holders, we affect both the creation and distribution of income. The greater the number of capital holders, the greater the number of individuals who have self-conscious stakes in the outcomes and purposes of society.
  • Reduce the costs for the things we consume. By working to develop sustainable modes of consumption and localized applications of capital, we can moderate the charges we pay to external capital in the form of profits that leave our community.
  • Restructure spending and consumption to gain greater benefits from individual incomes.

The University can be a leader and contributor to the community in its efforts to develop ways to accomplish these ends, a search for alternatives that requires independence of judgment and a willingness to explore outside the context of existing economic arrangements.

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