Robert M. Kamins
Professor, UH-Manoa Economics, 1947 - 1977
How It Was: Reflections on an Early Time
Born (1918) and raised in Chicago, in 1937 I went off to UCLA, then building a new campus in Westwood, to start college. Studied there for a year until, tired of hitch-hiking back to Chicago to remain connected with my high-school sweetheart, I transferred to the University of Chicago.
A job assignment under the National Youth Administration-- a New Deal agency which funded the campus employment of students-- proved decisive in my choice of career paths. As student research assistant to a member of the Economics Department, I was assigned the task of seeking out in the enormous campus library statistics on the tax revenues and public debt of several European nations, an exercise which I found interesting. Consequently, as I advanced towards a B.A. in Economics, it was with a major in Public Finance.
I continued at Chicago in 1940 as a graduate student in Econ., but on a part-time basis. To cover costs not provided for in a scholarship, as well as my share of the household budget created when high-school sweetheart and I married, I took on the job of researcher/reporter/editor with the Federation of Tax Administrators, an agency with offices near the UofC campus. There I was responsible for writing, editing, and seeing to the printing of a monthly newsletter subscribed to by state and local tax collection agencies across the country.
The attack on Pearl Harbor changed all this. I applied for service in the Navy, but failed the eye test. That left unsatisfied my strong desire to join the "war effort", a compulsion which my wife understood and helped me satisfy. We moved to Washington to see what opportunities were in the nation's capital. The wartime agencies were not hiring half-trained young economists, but one with the promising title of Board of Investigation & Research, newly created by Congress, was recruiting-- and I needed a job. Work at the Board on state and local financing, particularly of post-war transportation systems, added to what I had learned at the Federation of Tax Administrators, but had nothing to do with the war effort.
Once more I applied to the Navy and this time passed the eye test. I was accepted as an Ensign and sent to officer training programs at Dartmouth and Princeton universities, then training as a gunnery officer at Virginia Beach, the Navy Yards at Boston and Brooklyn. I served aboard ships, first in the Atlantic and then in the Pacific, ending up at Okinawa when the war ended in 1945.
After discharge from the Navy I returned to Chicago and graduate work in Econ. at UofC. A paying job was necessary and I found one as an Instructor in Economics at the new Chicago branch of the University of Illinois. There, north of the Loop, I taught four classes: two in Economic Principles, one in Money & Banking, the fourth in Labor Problems. On the UofC campus ten miles to the south I was studying to take Ph.D. preliminary exams in Econ. Theory, Public Finance, Money & Banking.
At the end of an exhausting academic year on the two campuses I was getting ready for more of the same when unexpectedly came relief in 1947 with a job offer from the University of Hawaii. It was an unusual offer-- to work half-time in teaching Economics and half-time as a researcher with an agency then within UH called the Legislative Reference Bureau (LRB). That division of labor seemed awkward but the salary-- $4,800 for 11-month service-- topped that of the Illinois position and I would only have to teach two courses.
One of those courses, on the public finance of the Territory and its counties, proved pivotal. It turned out that tax reform was high on the agenda of the Hawaii legislature, and virtually no research had yet been done to provide background. So Hawaii's taxation became my area of concentration--the structure, administration, incidence, economic impact of each levy and of the entire system. The relevant theory I had learned at the University of Chicago and the knowledge of local finance gained at the Federation of Tax Administrators came together here to aid in answering the research requests of legislators and in drafting legislative bills to amend the territorial tax laws. From this came my Ph.D. dissertation, "The Tax System of Hawaii", accepted by the Uof C Econ. Department in 1949 and then published by the UH Press.
Focus abruptly changed in 1950 when I was appointed director of the LRB. The creation of a territorial convention to draft a constitution for Hawaii in anticipation of gaining statehood took the Bureau downtown to serve the convention delegates, so once more I was commuting between classroom and workplace.
Statehood did not come until 1959, and then I was asked by Oren Long, one of Hawaii's first U.S. Senators, to serve him in Washington as chief-of-staff. That I did, returning to Manoa and the Economics Dept.-- now teaching full-time-- in 1961. That period of academic normality did not last long, for in 1963, when Thomas Hamilton became President of UH, I joined his staff in Bachman Hall as Dean for Academic Development, a post from which I resigned in 1971 when Hamilton had been succeeded by another and different president.
Once again it was part-time teaching for me in Economics, for I was appointed as co-principal Investigator on a federally financed project in aid of developing geothermal energy on the Island of Hawaii as an alternative to oil, which had become extremely expensive. My task was to report on the economic consequences of geothermal development and the changes in the laws of Hawai'i required for that development to occur.
In the course of this research I discovered that the law made no provision for the ownership of the steam power that was coming out of an experimental geothermal well drilled on the Big lsland. Indeed, there was no law concerning access to the sun, wind or any other natural energy source, even though solar panels were being installed on the rooftops of homes around Oahu and an array of windmills had arisen on a hillside neighboring the town of Kahuku. Awareness of the need to establish a legal regime for alternative energy sources, essential if these alternatives were to replace oil, evermore expensive, awakened an ambition.
That ambition was to write the laws essential to natural energy development in Hawaii. But to qualify for that role I needed recognized training in the law. By that time-- 1976-- I had been working at UH for about 30 years and retirement seemed timely. So I retired from employment by the University to enroll in the law school then recently established on campus and set about becoming a lawyer.
Three years later I passed the bar exam and was appointed as a special assistant in the Office of the Hawaii Attorney General to work on legislation to clarify the legal status of geothermal energy. However, the price of oil had declined to a fraction of its level in the 1970's and the drive to develop alternative energy sources lost its steam -- as did interest in establishing their place in the law.
Following a year of private practice, centered on cases before the Family Court in Honolulu, in 1983 I accepted appointment to the Washington staff of Congressman Cecil Heftel as his legislative counsel. Work centered around the Ways & Means Committee, of which Rep. Heftel was a member, so once again Public Finance was my field of work.
After returning home to Honolulu in 1984, aged 66, I decided against any further employment to leave time to write. Already, working largely from the research of Jacob Adler-- another retiree from the UH-Manoa faculty-- I had started the draft of a biography, that of a notorious politician who was central to the regime of King Kalakaua. By 1986 it was completed, entitled "The Fantastic Life of Walter Murray Gibson: Hawaii's Minister of Everything", and printed by the UH Press.
Soon after came a request from the Bank of Hawaii which bridged the gap between "writing" and "employment". This was to revise the manuscript of an economic history of Hawaii written, but not completed by a recently deceased friend, Thomas Hitch, an economist on the staff of the Bank. "Islands in Transition: the Past, Present, & Future of Hawaii's Economy" was printed in 1992.
By that time Robert Potter, also retired from the UH-Manoa faculty, and I were working on a volume we entitled "Malamalama: A History of the University of Hawai'i." It was published by the UH Press in 1998. A smaller book, "History of Hawai'i Hall", we wrote in 2003 at the request of the committee planning the rededication of the first major building on the Manoa campus.
In 1989 I was trained as a mediator by the Neighborhood Justice Center, now called the Mediation Center of the Pacific, and for the next 16 years, as a volunteer, conducted some 200 mediations. Once more Potter and I wrote a local history, this one about and at the request of the Mediation Center, which was printed in 2005. Over the course of a long residence in Hawaii I've had my share of work on organizational committees. On campus this included chairmanship of the Faculty Senate, of the Council of Deans, and of the local chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP); serving on the board of the UH faculty union and of FRAUM (the organization of retired UH faculty), of the Hawaii board advisory to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, of the Queen Liliu'okalani Children's Center, of the Hawai'i chapter of ACLU, and of the Hawai'i Job Corps. I also served a term on the national board of the AAUP.
Robert M. Kamins
February 1, 2007