Under the Big Top


Images by John Hook

A century ago, the disparity of wealth inequality inspired populist revolutions around the world, led to violence, and, in America, altered systems of taxation and programs for the poor. The present gulf of inequality between the highest earners and the rest of the planet has never been greater in human history and has been the topic du jour of world leaders; President Obama, the pope, and progressive politicians on all continents continue to make the widening gap a target of discussion and policy. In Hawai‘i, this vast inequality can be masked by shared beaches and gorgeous vistas, day hikes and weekends at the carnival.

What one consumes in Hawai‘i in terms of culture, food, consumer goods, housing, and travel is almost wholly dependent on wealth and income. The price of paradise is not solely the result of shipping, transport, and isolation. In 2012, the state was rated by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy as the fourth-worst in the nation in its taxation of the poor. Lawmakers are aware of how this looks. That same year, several advocacy groups worked to amend the earned income tax credit for some 230,000 residents that live in poverty, essentially eliminating state income tax for those whose income falls below the federal poverty level (currently $11,490 for an individual and $23,550 for a family of four). Debated for years, as of the drafting of this article, the state legislature has passed a measure that gradually increases the state minimum wage from the present $7.25 per hour to $10.10 by 2018.

For advocates, debates over statistics and pennies mask the human drama that follows poverty. From Alexis de Tocqueville’s 1835 Democracy in America to Barbara Ehrenreich’s 2001 Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America, the subject of being broke and the ethics of hard work remain favorite free-form American subjects. The countless documentaries and articles that followed note the obvious news flash: It’s impossible to live on minimum wage. In art, film, and the myriad forms of literature, creative nonfiction remains a powerful look at inequality, a way to humanize stories that go unreported in statistical analysis.

In a not so rigorous application of participant observational methodology, and in order to articulate Hawai‘i’s conditions of minimum wage employment, I took a job at the annual Punahou Carnival. The carnival is the primary public relations event of Punahou School, founded in 1841 as a bastion of Christian learning for missionary children and touted as the finest education in the state, with a history of educating monarchy and the sitting U.S. president. Annual tuition for grades K–12 is presently listed at $19,950. The carnival proceeds, it is often mentioned, go to the school’s financial aid program. As the rides and games contractor since the 1930s, E.K. Fernandez and its numerous employees occupy the vast Chamberlain Field at the entrance of the campus. Punahou students and alumni volunteers man the games, art show, food booths, and plant and white elephant sales on the perimeter of the field.



I sense that my new employer is constantly taking applications as insurance against workers who quit mid-shift. During a phone interview, the aunty in charge of hiring is interested in whether or not I will show up and whether I am willing to take a urine test to work the rides. As I would rather not brave the crowds and elements (the carnival usually coincides with rain), I opt for the big top games section. Upon arriving to Punahou, Aunty has us gather into a circle and introduce ourselves with flair. Most are recent public high school graduates.

A 20-year-old breaks the upbeat introductions: “Also, if I have anything to tell you, don’t have kids too young, girls,” she says, nearly in tears. When the young woman to my left stays silent, staring at her feet despite constant encouragement from the circle, Aunty puts a hand on her shoulder. “It’s OK sweetie, we have some openings in concessions,” she consoles. My employee regulations include few perks: “(#13) You may not give away trials, free games and prizes. It will be considered a theft against the company and we will prosecute THEFT…” and “(#14) You may not use your cell phone and music players during work hours otherwise your supervisor will confiscate it. You may get it at the end of your shift.”

Gratefully, I am not suffered the further indignity of being called a carney, the mainland term used to discriminate the sometimes transient edge-of-society folks who work in the industry. While loitering around a makeshift office, I speak with an 18-year-old from ‘Ewa Beach wearing fitted pants and Converse sneakers. “I went to work the Maui Fair couple months ago. Brah, hard work dat,” he says with a gap-toothed smile. “I’d rather not work this weekend, but I need the money.” When he starts shuffling to the surprisingly killer house remix blasting from Punahou’s sound system, I find myself trading slide techniques on the creaky floor boards floating over the muddy grass. “Here, hide in the corner until Aunty puts the girls in the darts. You don’t want to be seen when she’s figuring out who’s gonna fill balloons.” The young women are assigned the more talkative games: wiffle ball, bastketball game, roll-a-ball. A cohort of tutus work darts; the remaining ball-retrieval games go to the fellas. “’Nother day, ’nother dollar,” my new friend says on the way to the milk cans.

My initial assignment is the most rancorous game under the big top: Shoot Out The Star. Every game’s objective is in its title, which helps when irritated. As I am asked for the umpteenth time how to win the remote-control helicopter, I tap the sign and go back to shaking BBs into a line of loosely tethered air guns attached to an ominously rattling air compressor. While distracted by one of the innumerable complainers, a boy picks up a gun behind my back and blasts. “My kid was just shot in the face!” his irate father tells me after a BB pops off the target’s metal frame, speckling his kid’s forehead. I stop myself from saying, “his fault,” hunch my shoulders like Curly from the Three Stooges, and tug on my manager’s sleeve while motioning for a water break. As I flee, my manager hands the kid some scrips while the dad’s voice rises. At the carnival, as in life, we are never inherently safe.

The only positives of the work are in fantasies of the mind. I am Herman Melville at sea, George Plimpton playing football, Joan Didion in Manhattan, a wordsmith touristing with the proletariat while composing the opus of the working man. Alas, not the case. On being outed as a writer among my compatriots: Who the hell cares? Everybody knows someone who writes for enjoyment or pay. “Brah, my cousin wrote the sickest sci-fi comic book you ever read. But then he had a baby and now he does construction,” my coworker says, shaking pellets into a misfiring gun. The din of gunfire makes him yell: “I should send you his book. Maybe you can find someone to publish it!” Our manager beams us a back-to-work smile. Writing about being poor makes zero sense to most of the people I meet. For those whose family members know it too well, absolute poverty feels far too close.


In the recent debates over the inevitable rise of the state minimum wage, Dwight Takamine, a former legislator who now heads the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations under Governor Abercrombie, noted that 85 percent of minimum-wage workers in Hawai‘i are above 21 years of age, dispelling notions that most low-wage jobs are entry-level positions held by teenagers. “More than 14,000 people, or 2.2 percent of the total workforce, are paid no more than minimum wage. More than half of those employees work full time,” he told lawmakers. My coworkers throughout the carnival, even as temporary workers, support the statement.

Working games on the field while earning $7.25 an hour puts me in the category of low-wage earners who represent the majority of workers of the world. Reminiscent of de Tocqueville, another Frenchman has applied the European theories of political morality to American economic reality, arguing that surging inequality is endemic to capitalism. A 700-page tome that has become the number-one book on Amazon and earned its author meetings at the White House, Capital in the Twenty-First Century by French economist Thomas Piketty reframes the widely known income distribution gap at the beginning of the 20th century, which rose sharply and led to global depression, and became more equitable during and after the century’s second great war.

That inequality has soared since the 1980s, due in part to lax taxes on the supremely wealthy, attacks on organized labor, and the cruel mathematics of interests. The top 1 percent of households now garner 22.5 percent of total income. Chief executives have never been paid more. Several corporations pay their CEOs exorbitant sums in stock options, thereby earning capital from dividends, capital gains, interest, and rents. The 85 richest people in the world have as much money combined as 3.5 billion of the poorest, which is half the population of the planet. By simply defining income as any asset that generates a monetary return, Piketty assesses how an appropriate tax system could work.

In the years prior to the war, New Deal policies raised income tax rates across the board, (especially for the wealthy who owned land), set minimum wages in several industries, and encouraged the growth of trade unions. It was through policy, not the largesse of industry, that America prospered, Piketty argues. “Economic and political changes are inextricably intertwined and must be studied together,” he writes.

The book suggests a tax rate similar to New Deal policies: a wealth tax that would look like a property tax, applicable to 21st century versions of wealth. As the level of income inequality in the United States reaches heights reminiscent of Europe prior to socialist revolutions, “higher than in any other society at any time in the past, anywhere in the world,” according to Piketty, “the consequences for the long-term dynamics of the wealth distribution are potentially terrifying.” Unfortunately, with the state of current corporate political lobbying and a lack of political will, the outlook for advancing this tax system has the same prospects as organizing the labor of my fellow carnies: a snowball’s chance in Halawa.



The economy has been excellent in Hawai‘i, in part the result of a reinvestment in war, increasing tourism from new markets, and the gorgeous repurposing of local agriculture. The islands have also become a playground for the rich. The south shores of Maui and Kaua‘i, the Kona Coast of Hawai‘i Island, and portions of O‘ahu have been transformed in the last generation.

At the outset of Hawai‘i statehood in the 1950s, some New Deal policies meshed with organized labor to provide at least the promise of economic equality. But over decades, ownership of capital in the islands now mimics parts of America, where supremely wealthy locals and foreigners outmatch the populace for housing. At the carnival, there’s no way to tell who’s better off than the next by looking at the social signifiers of fashion. If Hawai‘i’s modern economics mirror the 19th century, its fashion is its inverse. A few recognizable professionals look like beach hobos in white tube socks and black loafers, while west-side teenagers strut in the freshest threads. The world almost feels egalitarian under the big top, and the conspicuous consumption is limited to fried food and neon plush animals.

After a break spent with a saimin and a nap, I am grateful for reassignment out of the infantry. Next station is Tip ’Em Over, the centuries-old game of embarrassing pitches of a pudgy softball at three concrete bowling pins. The trick, I tell anybody who will listen, is an accurate throw to the baseboard that ricochets to the pins’ connecting points: more accuracy than power; easier said than done.

The next few hours are 30-second caricatures of disappointment and hilarity. Teen boys are the biggest suckers, followed by aggressive dads; dolled-up teen girls use their wind-ups to shed clothing while their mothers usually give half-hearted throws and return to their funnel cakes. There is a feeling of fairness in blowing the weekend’s scrips on a game that involves equal parts skill and luck to win a Doberman-sized plush tiger, and I am not the first to observe that joy comes easier when the world feels equal.

As for skilled labor, my job ranks low. Another teen steps up to the mound, and I hand her a ball while stuffing my apron with more scrips. The tedium must be breached. I juggle softballs and impersonate Vin Scully calling a play-by-play: “Madame in the blue knickers and askew floral cap takes the mound. Full count and the tension is palpable. Here’s the wind-up. Aaand here’s the pitch. … NEXT!” When a small crowd of bemused teenagers forms, I stop. More entertaining equates more ball retrieving. I shut my trap and attempt some metaphysical flow as the carnival lights whirr overhead, using legs instead of back to avoid the sickening pop of an overused tendon. It is impossible to “pretend” to be a carney. All I do differently is use a phone to jot one-word notes, hiding behind the tarp from my manager.


As golden solstice sunlight glints off the rides, competing for brightness with the waving lights, the difference between lives of the young adults working on the field compared to the alumni volunteering the booths on the perimeter is illuminated. If the carnival is a metaphor for the local economy, according to economic statistics, most of us are somewhere in the muddy grass with the rides and games, where the journey to the sidewalk might as well require navigating a poisoned moat. This is not to say the divide remains impossible to traverse, at least generationally, anyway. When I pick up my meager paycheck two weeks later, I pass three new Mercedes in the parking lot of the main office. Most workers retrieve their pay within hours of its issuance.

There is some guilt in writing about minimum-wage employment as some exercise in journalism rather than necessity. Most do not have the luxury. What is usually missed in exclusive discussions of tax and income policy is why economic equality is so important: because every human is valuable; because talent, intelligence, and capacity (and their opposites) are equally distributed through the gene pool not dictated by race, gender, or place of birth. Because a more equitable society means we consume more appropriately, giving according to purpose, taking according to need. It means valuing ourselves.

The upcoming increase in the minimum wage will help with economic inequality, but not by much, and certainly not to the capacity achieved by the utopian ideals of equality in education, healthcare, labor, and criminal justice. Most of us have taken god-awful jobs on our way to better ones, and most minimum wage jobs don’t have the benefit of watching thousands of people laugh at their own physical failure. Admittedly, I didn’t spend enough time retrieving softballs to truly appreciate the opportunities for advancement. I quit well before the bone-grabbing aches set in, the ones that shoot up the legs straight to the heart. It is easy to stay too long at the fair. Economic inequality is the defining characteristic of our era; one that we can only hope our democracy starts to fix before the lights in the tent go out.

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