This Hawaiian Lawmaker Fought Mark Zuckerberg Off Native Land. Now He’s Running for Congress.

DSA member Kaniela Ing is calling for 100 percent renewable energy, universal basic income and a jobs guarantee.

Kate Aronoff

(Kaniela Ing / Facebook)

Kaniela Ing knows a little something about Facebook, and not just because he’s a millennial. At 22, Ing (now 29) was elected in 2012 to the Hawaii state house, where he currently serves as Majority Policy Leader for the Democrats. In 2014, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg purchased 700 acres of beachfront property on land Native Hawaiians have gathering rights to. Then he built a wall around it, and sued local families to keep them out. Ing helped lead the charge from the state legislature for Native Hawaiians to reclaim their rights to that land, and Zuckerberg eventually dropped the lawsuits.

We know what it’s like to be up against oligarchy in Hawaii. We’ve lived in a feudal society and a really unequal capitalist society throughout history.

Now, Ing, a Native Hawaiian, is running to represent Hawaii’s first congressional district, with a critique of Facebook and other corporations that extends well beyond their CEOs’ real estate investments. In Washington, Ing hopes to curtail corporate power, and regulate Facebook and other major tech firms like utilities.

In These Times spoke with Ing by phone about Zuckerberg, the legacy of colonialism in Hawaii, democratic socialism and how to change the way Democrats think about economics.

Kate Aronoff: Tell me a bit about HI-01.

Kaniela Ing: This district that we live in is the urban core of Hawaii. It’s the city, and the rest of that island and everything else is in the second district. This district has a lot of high rises and a lot of visible poverty. The inequality is really stark. We have luxury condominiums popping up all the time — $20 million glass buildings going up to the sky, right next to Native Hawaiians and veterans living on the streets. We have the highest cost of living in the nation, but the lowest wages, adjusted for cost of living. Our salaries have been inadequate for years. We have a low unemployment rate that politicians like to brag about, at 2.5 percent. But that’s only because people are working two or three jobs. It’s a real struggle out here, especially for young people.

Myself, I pay $2000 a month for daycare and $700 a month for student loans. Between that and rent and milk costing $7 per half gallon, everything comes down to economics right now. It’s not that scarcity is a problem. Clearly the resources are here. It’s that working people just aren’t getting their just desserts. That’s what’s concerning to most folks. 70 percent of my classmates have moved away to the mainland to look for housing and opportunities. Now that I have a two year old, I want to ensure that he has a shot to make it here in Hawaii.

Kate: Facebook and its CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, have been in the news a lot recently following the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Could you explain how you came into contact with the him in your work as a state legislator?

Kaniela: In 2014, Mark Zuckerberg purchased 700 acres on Kauai. That’s the island where they filmed Jurassic Park and Avatar. It’s beautiful, and his property was right on the shoreline. It turns out that on 17 acres of that land, Native Hawaiians had gathering rights that had been passed down from generation to generation. Rather than sitting down and negotiating how they can solve this conundrum, he went and sued these Hawaiian families who were of little means. Even if they were to win some kind of cash settlement, it would probably be less than what they would incur in legal costs. These lawsuits are the same mechanisms that sugar barons used to displace Native Hawaiians centuries ago. It created this huge uproar among Native Hawaiians and environmentalists.

So I went to the media and spoke my mind on the issue. I called Mark Zuckerberg a modern-day colonizer, and it made some international news. After a couple of weeks of these headlines and the two sides going back and forth, he dropped the lawsuit. We did win that battle. It’s still ongoing. There are no lawsuits anymore but they still haven’t gotten the land back, and Zuckerberg still has a wall built around his property. These Hawaiians are just looking to fish, or get to the beach. This issue has really brought some of the injustices we’ve been facing for years to the attention of the world.

Kate: Could you say more about that, and the historic relationship between corporations and native Hawaiians?

Kaniela: The first Western contact in Hawaii was Captain Cook. But shortly thereafter, a bunch of missionary families came to the island. Five families controlled our government and our economy — we call them the Big Five. They dealt in whaling and sandalwood and sugar and pineapple, and, now, tourism. Their face has changed — it’s not the same Big Five that it was 200 years ago — but it still exists. Alexander & Baldwin, two of the families of the Big Five, are a corporation now, a real estate investment trust. They’re the second largest landholders in Hawaii. They’re also the largest campaign contributors. They can make and break elections, so in some ways these families still do have economic and governmental control of Hawaii.

We know what it’s like to be up against oligarchy in Hawaii. We’ve lived in a feudal society and a really unequal capitalist society throughout history. Now we’re seeing that repeat. We have three men in American who hold more wealth than the bottom half — than 50 percent of the entire nation. And 82 percent of new wealth generated in 2017 went to the top 1 percent. It’s more stark than ever. Mark Zuckerberg is one of today’s oligarchs, just like on the mainland with Standard Oil and some of the other oligarchs in the past. Except now these guys have control over commerce, like Amazon, and communications, like Facebook. And that’s where it gets really dangerous for a democracy. It’s important that Congress act now and not rely on self-regulation by these monopolists.

Kate: What do you think qualifies Facebook as a monopoly, and how would you hope to regulate it?

Kaniela: Mark Zuckerberg calls Facebook a social utility. And if he’s admitting it’s a utility he should agree that it should be treated like one. The same goes for the internet in general, not just social networks but broadband connection. It’s a necessity now in the modern world, the way electricity was almost a century ago. There was way too much control by a few corporations that actually didn’t benefit the majority of the public. So the government took over lines and — at the very least — heavily regulated these monopolies to make sure that everybody had equal access to electricity. We’re going to have to do that for broadband generally, and we’re going to have to do that for social networks. Right now there’s nothing stopping someone like Zuckerberg from adjusting their algorithms to punish people with certain political views or certain companies. Arguably it’s already happening. A lot of independent news sources don’t have the same ability to reach their own followers that more corporate news sources do. That’s unfair.

Kate: You’re calling for both a federal job guarantee and a universal basic income. Could you talk about what both of those policies mean to you?

Kaniela: The job guarantee isn’t just employment in low-wage jobs. These would be living-wage jobs, building on the idea that people having liveable jobs is a human right. Today there’s more than enough work for every citizen: There are bridges to be built, roads to be repaired, children to teach, trees to plan. But the market just doesn’t meet the demand. It’s not just important for places that have high unemployment. Here in Hawaii we don’t have that problem. But we do have an issue with workers being exploited regularly. For every job opening there are four people looking. So if you’re a boss you have a lot of leverage, because you know your employee doesn’t have many options. But if you were to reverse that — so there are four jobs for every person looking — then the worker is really empowered. And employers are going to have to treat their workers a lot better if they want them to stay. You’ll see a lot of fairer scheduling. You’ll see less wage theft. That’s the idea behind a job guarantee: It’s a public option for jobs. It would turn unemployment offices into employment offices.

The other proposal is a universal basic income. Now that automation and globalization are really disrupting our economy, we have to act quickly and explore innovative solutions if we want to build a future economy that leaves no one behind. There is a study that pilots a universal basic income that — if every citizen is given $1000 a month — then the American economy would grow by $2.5 trillion. Our economy runs on spending, and the middle class is shrinking. If the middle class don’t have enough money in their wallets the economy is going to stall. So this is one way to really jump start the economy, and prepare for automation.

I think we can do both.

Kate: Both of these sound like they’d be expensive. Do you think Congress needs a new way of thinking about deficits and budgets in order to make these kinds of proposals a reality? 

Kaniela: Congress has shown through trillions of dollars in tax cuts and military spending and bailing out big banks that we have the money. Republicans never have to justify where it’s coming from, so I don’t think we have to either. They only want to talk about balanced budgets when it’s programs that we care about and that actually help working families. We’ve got to make sure we don’t fall into the trap, of getting caught up in discussions of how to pay for things.

If you really want to dive into it, you’ve got to learn modern money theory: what money really is, where our money really goes, and demand-side economics more generally. History shows that people on the ground — demand side — need to have money to spend in the economy if we want it to continue growing. It can’t continue to get hoarded by the top 1 percent, who don’t really spend the money on normal things like haircuts and dinners and groceries. Instead they like to do stock buybacks, which should be illegal by the way. Or they hide their money in the Cayman Islands. That doesn’t keep the economy going. Gasoline needs to be revving the engine. It can’t just be sitting in the tank.

Kate: The progressive answer to pay for” questions has been to say we’re going to tax something bad to spend money on something good. You’re saying that doesn’t have to be the case.

Kaniela: It’s really easy to say, for instance, How are you going to fund tuition-free college?” Cut the military by 0.5 percent. That makes sense to people so I understand why some politicians want to engage that way. But it also feeds into the other side’s trap, and the way they exploit a framework they’ve never followed it themselves. They’ve been complete hypocrites about it throughout modern political history. I do think it’s important to tackle the other side of inequality, and actually tax huge capital gains and inheritances — not just to fund programs but because it’s the moral thing to do. They don’t even have to be said in the same breath, but we can still do both. One doesn’t have to justify the other. You don’t have to tax in order to spend. You can spend and tax on their own merits.

Kate: What other kinds of changes do you think need to be made in the Democratic Party?

Kaniela: Number one, stop being hypocrites. Understand where we went wrong and admit those faults and learn from them. The Obama administration deported a record number of undocumented immigrants, but no one wants to talk about that because Trump’s the big bad deporter. Trump is terrible on these issues! And the way he talks and thinks about undocumented immigrants is grotesque. Obama was a lot more thoughtful, don’t get me wrong. But we need to understand where we lost a lot of our support over the years. It’s whenever we decide to compromise with the uncompromising. We’ve really got to stand strong in our values. The Affordable Care Act, there were 40 Republican amendments made for zero Republican votes. We had an opportunity to go for a public option or even a single payer proposal then but we didn’t take it because we were afraid of the healthcare and insurance lobby. That’s why it’s important that we shift the conversation away from one of compromising. We know that Republicans — at least not recently — will never compromise in good faith.

Kate: You’re a member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and are running as a Democrat. Do you see space for socialists within the Democratic Party?

Kaniela: As you alluded to, DSA isn’t its own party. It can work within the Democratic party, and the way our system is and the way our constitution is that is the best route to go about achieving the things we want to achieve. I know the isms” tend to scare a lot of people in the general public. But if you poll people across parties, they support the ideas that democratic socialists support: the idea that things aren’t going to be means tested or market based; that everybody chips in what they can and everybody gets back the benefit. That’s something that’s supported even in red states. That’s why Medicare and social security are so popular. If we can expand that paradigm to policies like education or housing, I think that’s really the direction that the Democratic Party and America should be headed.

The thing I love about DSA is that there’s less focus on just bills. We understand that while it’s important to be able to work with colleagues to move things with compromise — which I’ve done in the state legislature — it’s often more important to understand that we’re just the last piece of the puzzle. You’ve got to reach critical mass if you want to achieve change. That’s the only way it’s really ever happened, from suffrage to voting rights to marriage equality to environmental protections. So how can I as an elected official facilitate and build those movements? It’s going to happen be engaging in and including activists as part of my core team.

Kate: What do you think the relationship should be between social movements and people who hold elected office?

Kaniela: I like to see myself as a movement candidate. Elected officials like to take credit for policies that they know only came about by reacting to where the public was. My view as elected leaders is that we’re just a vessel for ideas. The wind blows through us like a whistle. We just make the noise. But the wind is the people. So that’s how I try to operate.

When Elizabeth Warren took such a strong stance against Wall Street and proved that she could win, more and more Democrats are starting to follow her lead. We’ve got to show the same bravery in different sectors, like the military industrial complex or Big Oil. That’s why in this campaign we don’t take any corporate money. That’s the only way we’re going to see change.

Kate: Speaking of Big Oil, Hawaii is having a more advanced conversation about climate change than the one happening at the national level. You call for 100 percent renewable energy by 2035 in your platform. What kind of conversation do you think Congress should be having about climate change?

Kaniela: There hasn’t been any real action on climate. It’s extremely irresponsible for the next generation. Within my son’s lifetime, Waikiki could be underwater. That’s the lifeblood of Hawaii’s economy. The neighborhood I grew up in could be underwater. Hawaii may become the climate refugee capital of the Pacific, from all the people living on these atolls needing a place to come. We’ve got to make sure we have the resources to account for that.

Between Trump pulling out of the Paris Accord and there being no real action done at the Congressional level, it’s scary for us here in Hawaii.

We were the first state to pass a 100 percent renewable energy goal. I was also the first legislator to come out in opposition to the return of natural gas in Hawaii. We stopped that from happening. Our utility was going to get bought out by an anti-solar company called Nextera, which owns Florida Power and Light. We stopped that despite Nextera maxing out all the Democrats. We are setting the example for the rest of the nation.

I think a job guarantee would work very well for a lot of green initiatives: to retrofit buildings and build advanced energy infrastructure like wind and solar. If we have these jobs our economy will grow and our tax revenue will grow as well. It’s going to be a lot of up-front initial costs, but it will pay for itself down the line.

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Kate Aronoff is a staff writer at The New Republic and author of Overheated: How Capitalism Broke the Planet — And How We Fight Back. She is co-author of A Planet To Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal and co-editor of We Own the Future: Democratic Socialism—American Style. Follow her on Twitter @katearonoff.

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