Honolulu Advertiser

Cliff Slater’s Second Opinion

October 1, 2002



Shoppers could rescue us

When it comes to shopping, Hawaii’s consumers are merciless. They search around for their preferences in design, quality and price, buying or rejecting items without an iota of concern for the poor merchant who, in effect, grovels at their feet for their business.

Let them shop for years at one supermarket, then let a new one open with slightly better prices and shoppers leave the old one with no more thoughts of loyalty than the proverbial alley cat would have.

And shoppers may wax poetically about women’s rights, or downtrodden Mexicans or poverty stricken Bangladeshis but it won’t extend to how they shop. No products marked “Made by women,” “Made by Mexicans” or “Made by Bagladeshis” have ever survived in the market place; these folks may have grown or made some of the items sold, but that never entered into shoppers’ calculations of what to buy.

No, when it comes to shopping with their own money, Hawaii shoppers are pitiless.

But when these same shoppers hand over their tax money to be spent on their behalf by public officials, they turn into wild spendthrifts—ones who would make sailors on shore leave appear frugal.

The shopper who will sweat half the day to save a few dollars buying groceries does not question a $100 million subsidy for TheBus—$400 annually for their family of four.

The shopper who spends half the day finding a pair of shoes $20 cheaper than anywhere else does not think twice about spending $100 million on a new prison to replace OCCC—a prison that is only 20 years old and was held up as a model prison at the time.

The shopper who will spend weeks agonizing over getting a good deal on a used car blithely ignores $13 million spent on Hanauma Bay, $20 million on a soccer complex or, to get really serious, $1.5 billion on H-3. 

Why do shoppers act so mercilessly spending their money individually, and so recklessly when spending their money collectively?

If we can solve this problem we would virtually end all problems with government overnight. Let the housewife be as vigilant about deficit spending on TheBus as she is over the price of tomatoes and that $100 million subsidy would disappear overnight. Let one iota of the diligence shown by the used car shopper be applied to reducing the cost of prisons and that part of the budget could be slashed. In fact, just let a minor part of the frugality applied to shoppers’ household spending be applied to all the costs of government services and Hawaii would see a government downsizing the envy of the land.

Dream on.

The problem is that once the government takes their tax money, these shoppers demand more services; they want their money’s worth. It does not occur to them to ask for public frugality to get some of their tax money back.

Nothing epitomizes this more than Mayor Fasi’s takeover of the city’s privately run and profitable bus system. He told us the new service, TheBus, would also be profitable. An absurd promise because, once politicized, unrestrained constituent pressure for expanded money-losing services ensures that any government operation loses money.

Of course, we could make these services competitive so that our merciless shoppers could shred the waste out of them. But, again, dream on.

Cliff Slater is a regular columnist whose footnoted columns are at  www.lava.net/cslater