A case for army downsizing in Hawaii

Why the Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii and our Congressional delegates have it wrong.

Bart Dame

As the discussion continues over whether the U.S. military will downsize its Hawaii-based personnel, Hawaii’s Congressional delegation maintains that defense is a critical economic sector for Hawaii. In a recent article from Washington, D.C.-based outlet The Hill, members of the delegation talk about their strategy for regaining the defense and national security influence the Hawaii delegation once enjoyed under the leadership of Senator Daniel Inouye.

Senator Brian Schatz was recently awarded a spot on the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, once chaired by Inouye, while Senator Mazie Hirono was named the ranking member on the Senate Armed Service Committee’s Seapower subpanel last week. In the House, U.S. Reps. Tulsi Gabbard and Mark Takai, have both been named to the “influential” Armed Services Committee and both are Iraq War veterans.

The Hill reports that Sen. Schatz said the members of the delegation are pleased with the opportunities they have to shape Pentagon policy, including the “pivot” in U.S. military forces toward the Pacific.

Rep. Takai, meanwhile, is reported to have said, “I think it’s very strategic to have all of our members focused on what matters most to the state of Hawaii and one of the things that matter is, definitely, defense.”

I recognize that the delegation feels compelled to try to keep a strong military presence in Hawaii. But I hope they fail in that effort.

If we adopt any perspective other than that of the small businesses who directly profit from Hawaii’s substantial military presence, maintaining that presence does not make sense. Accordingly, the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) is advocating the transfer of 19,800 personnel out of the state.

From a national perspective—even from a national perspective which emphasizes having a strong military—Hawaii is a very costly place to station troops. Compared to other bases on the North American continent, the training possibilities in Hawaii are substantially limited. There was a time when having ships and materiel assembled halfway across the Pacific meant a significant advantage for projecting our military force onto Asia. But today, that advantage has been greatly reduced.

From a State of Hawaii perspective, we can begin with the taxpayer costs associated with the military presence.

According to the Hawaii Department of Education (DOE) website, “The average cost to educate a student in Hawaii is approximately $13,000. The average reimbursement for a federally impacted student is about $2,000, or 15 percent of the total cost. Hawaii taxpayers and the state government fund the remaining $11,000 balance.”

The website goes on to say that, “During the 2013–14 school year, the state accounted for more than 28,000 federally connected students…”

$11,000 multiplied by 28,000 students gives us a current annual cost of $308 million, and that’s after receiving the limited “Federal Impact Aid.” Conversely, if Hawaii taxpayers no longer had to pay $11,000 per military dependent in our schools we would suddenly be looking at a $308 million taxpayer subsidy. That is considerable!

The officially approved point of view, which is pushed by our political and civic leaders, is that the military presence here is good for the economy. Rarely is it pointed out that every economic transaction has its costs and its benefits. And those costs and benefits are not borne evenly across the population.

It is difficult to find an honest cost-benefit analysis of the military presence here. The Military Affairs Council of the Chamber of Commerce serves as a semiofficial public relations operation for cheer-leading the military presence. But they represent that sector of business which benefits directly and, therefore, they have little incentive to provide a balanced perspective which fairly reflects the costs and who bears them.

Those of us who rent, especially near a military base, are aware how military housing allowances drive up the cost of rentals dramatically. While that may be a plus for landlords, that advantage is negated by the huge disadvantage for renters. If the bases are downsized, the vacancies created in military housing will provide a significant boost in the supply of affordable housing for civilian renters. That would definitely be a plus.

If the military decides to close down bases as part of the downsize, that will free up land for other purposes. The U.S. military controls over 20 percent of the land on Oahu. That land can be put to productive uses which can provide jobs, housing, recreation for our people and tax revenue for our county and state governments. Though many base sites are contaminated with chemicals and ordinances—and the military will need to answer for clean-up costs before much of it could be re-purposed—that is yet another reason to reduce the military presence and begin that process of reclamation.

So while I do wish our delegation to congress had more “clout”—as Star-Advertiser “Political Radar” blogger BJ Reyes calls it—in this case, it may be better for Hawaii and its people that they don’t. In the past, when the DOD wanted to downsize the military here, Sen. Inouye had enough clout to block those efforts, thwarting a decision which would have, in fact, been more cost-effective for the U.S.’s overall military posture.

There are businesses located near bases which benefit from the presence of military families: bars, restaurants and certain shops that offer things which are not available for sale on-base. And there are contractors, and their employees, who benefit from military contracts. But, increasingly, those contracts are being controlled by large national corporations that bring in their own crews from the mainland. The opportunity to diversify our economy so that we are not so dependent on the military will, in the long run, be worth reducing its presence.

The businesses who benefit from the military presence, and the Chamber of Commerce which represents them, have raised a slogan: “Keep Hawaii’s Heroes: Save Our Bases, Our Communities Depend on It.”

This slogan blends together an appeal to patriotism along with a barely disguised appeal to pecuniary self-interest. The slogan suggests that we are being disloyal, either to the nation or to our neighbors, if we question the net value of the military presence, or see this as an opportunity to plan for an orderly transition from military dependence. Because we are very likely to lose those 19,800 army personnel.

Perhaps it would be more prudent to draw up some contingency plans instead of insisting all loyal people should stick their hands in the sand and pray this “threat” just goes away?