Paul Brewbaker, Bank of Hawaii’s Chief Economist, talked with me for an April 2007 What I’m Reading.

Fun Facts:

  • Attended Kailua High/ BA from Stanford / PhD Economics, UH
  • Became Bancoh’s chief economist in 1995
  • Known for his insightful and interesting perspectives & humor, exemplified in this quote: “My guess is that population is really ramping up at the moment, judging from the traffic.”
  • Thoughts on the war, as of 2006: “It’s like a dead weight that prevents Hawaii from getting fulfillment of some of the expectations of military-related spending that we’ve had in prior forecasts.”
  • On homelessness: “The story is this: Shame on us, it’s happened again and we wake up like Rip Van Winkle and find that the number of people at risk has gone up.”

What I’m Reading | Paul Brewbaker
Chief Economist, Bank of Hawaii

Q&A with Christine Thomas

–What are you reading, apart from finance and asset allocation materials?

Lately, that would include The Good Earth (which I finished) and The Sound and the Fury (which I didn’t). I’ve been reading Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain since 1978 (that would be like a page a year, I’m guessing), and the second volume of Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities (Der Mann Ohne Eigenschaften, but not auf Deutsch, I just like saying it) for about as long. … The point is I enjoy novels, especially the classic ones. I mean, Robert Musil never actually finished his novel, so how bad is it not to have finished reading what he wrote? I own a bunch of novels that I plan to read and plan to finish but never will. I buy them a lot.

I was just reading Jack Kerouac’s On the Road for the first time … and got as far as, I don’t know, Central Valley somewhere. He was hooked up with some Latina. I bought Tropic of Cancer, but haven’t started reading it. I was reading some inter-war (1930s) Paris intellectual history and, you know, connections. So maybe I’ll try Tropic of Cancer. But mostly I never get to read novels, I just think I might.

Lately I’ve been reading a lot of French history. I re-read Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August last year just because I was tripping on President Bush, after I read this great book by Alistair Horne called Seven Ages of Paris. So now my beach book is Horne’s La Belle France: A Short History. I’m up to Henry IV (you know, Pont Neuf). … French history, that’s just a phase, though, I figure.

–How did you find out about Horne’s books?

Sort of the random search at Borders followed by Google and Amazon. I was a history major in college but then had to get serous about life and got into economics. But it’s been an ongoing interest of mine. I was mostly a student of the dramatic Slavic studies. It was only in the last four or five years I got back to the whole France thing. I guess it began with a trip back to Europe for the first time in many years and took off from there. The main thing I started reading was inter-war French intellectual history. There was a book called Apris (sp) in the ’50s and then another one on the literary and artistic movements.

–What do you like about Horne’s books?

Well, they’re readable—it’s the synthesis of historical fact and I guess I have a tendency to enjoy cultural history more than which battle cam before or that kind of thing. He has a literary style. Seven Ages of Paris was the first one I read…and then I found the other one. So I’m not a serious student of French history by any means…but you know how it is–you read one thing and then another. I don’t actually know the historical detail because I didn’t study it; French history was always on the outside.

Something I’m still intrigued by, as I understand contemporary France, is it has this post-colonial piece to it. What fascinated me about studying Slavic civilizations when I was a history major in college is this idea of multi-ethnic societies sustaining themselves over time. In autocratic rule there really isn’t a template. When you grow up in Hawai`i you see the world from the lens where that actually works out, but even today—take Barack Obama or Tiger Woods. The national dialogue is framed as he’s the first black candidate or golfer, but Tiger’s Vietnamese. It’s not being black or white but being black and white—it’s about being hapa. They [France] pulled it off for two centuries but only because they had the iron rule of an autocratic colonial system. ….

France is interesting to me because when you do go back into history and realize that there are all these, basically these barbarians, some of whom came from the steps of Asia minor, some from the northern countries…they passed through and didn’t stay. But some who did, the French—this idea of national identity, which is a 19th century invention, because it’s not France today. …

It seems as if history has moved beyond this idea of prominent individuals that reshaped countries, so Horne puts individuals–say Henry the 4th–in the context that he had to convert to Catholicism for everyone to be cool with him being king. . . .He’s remembered for a lot of things…but it’s more the time and the environment that people inhabit.

–Does reading about France’s multi-cultural history give you any ideas about what shapes Hawai`i’s economy long-term?

Not so much directly but I’ve thought a lot about it. Even in terms of the arc of my adult life, which starts with the Hawaiian renaissance, and in between that and the present you have the emergence of the sovereignty movement and efforts to implement that. Some have raised consistent questions and a lot of that is still being sorted out. That’s the kind of the thing that fascinates me about history. ….When you’re a kid, none of that comes to mind; then as an adult you see that things are a result of the way things happen and then historians go back and revisit that.

The whole sovereignty thing is partly–some of the sovereigntists advocate a kind of response that’s framed by the need to go back conceptually to the way things were and would have been. You see that a lot in history. You don’t really ever get to do that, but it frames the way you do things going forward. …. In my case I see things in real-politic terms, the pragmatic versus–I spend a lot of time circulating around the fringes….but a lot of what happens will have to be revisited in future generations. …

I’m always thinking in terms of the economics, because that’s something that tends to be missing. Economics now is different. You can go back in history and apply today’s economic principles and see what was going on, in the same way you can see what’s happening today.