Over the last few months, Hilo attorney and bookstore owner Robert Marx has visited hundreds of small businesses and talked with more than 100 merchants.
The message the 63-year-old Democratic U.S. House candidate hears is that their business is sluggish because people still don’t have any money to spend.
Customers “are up to their nose in debt,” Marx said.
That revelation keeps the economy and the lack of jobs at the top of Marx’s list of concerns facing the state in the upcoming election.
“We cannot cut capital construction on roads and bridges until this economy improves,” he said. “It’s softening again.”
Related to that, he said, is a need for continuing education for older workers, anyone in their 30s up to people in their 60s. People who have lost their jobs should be able to collect unemployment while going back to school to learn new skills, he said.
“The economy of the future will have a lot of different entrepreneurs,” Marx said. Those will be people who “have learned to balance their budgets, do marketing, choose products and services needed in the community.”
In Hawaii, Marx said he’s seen growth in the area of value-added food products — cookies, jams and jellies.
To stimulate the West Hawaii economy, and the market in other parts of the 2nd Congressional District, the seat for which he’s seeking the Democratic nomination in the Aug. 11 primary, Marx said he supports a visa waiver program for Chinese and Korean visitors.
“They would be coming by the tens of thousands,” he said. “It’s our job to convince other legislators these people are stable and trustworthy. They have low crime rates. These are a tremendous source of growth for the United States.”
Allowing more Chinese tourists in particular will go a long way to “recycle” the money the U.S. spends in China, adding that money back into the global — and local — economy, he said. And a better tourism-based relationship between the U.S. and China will lead to more more trust and understanding the two countries, he added.
Marx described himself as strongly pro-labor, and said he would consider working with labor unions and businesses on potential modifications to the Jones Act, which requires ships sailing between domestic U.S. ports to be American-owned, flagged and crewed.
He noted declining labor union power and, during the same decades, an increase in productivity but not a correlating increase in wages. That’s one reasons workers cannot afford to buy the same amount of things they used to be able to purchase, he said.
Marx said he sees several areas to cut and shift federal spending. Defense spending can be cut, possibly by closing some foreign military bases.
“We have some 800 military bases around the world,” Marx said. “We could close a couple of dozen.”
Despite the large military presence in Hawaii, such cuts would likely not impact the state.
“Honolulu and Pearl Harbor is like the linchpin of the Pacific,” he said, adding that even if the military ended operations in Okinawa, Hawaii’s bases would not be adversely affected.
The military focus also needs to return to defense, not offense, he said, adding that doing so isn’t just as simple as saying the country should no longer be “the world police.”
Commodity prices are now good enough that Marx would support moving Farm Bill subsidies to just smaller farms, possibly organic farms. He’d also like to shift Department of Energy subsidies — up to $4.4 billion annually, from oil companies to alternative energy providers.
“At $10 a barrel, subsidies made sense,” Marx said. “At $80, $90, $100 a barrel, they really don’t need a subsidy to drill or sell oil.”
Some of the problems facing Social Security will resolve themselves, he said, in another 20 to 30 years, when the Baby Boomer generation population “bulge” passes. Eventually, the payroll tax for Social Security will also need to be increased slightly, as will the retirement age, he said.