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Michael Hiltzik: Utopia Unlimited

June 26, 2010 |  7:54 pm

The California gubernatorial election of 1934 referred to in my Sunday column, pitting the muckraking author Upton Sinclair against the world, is instructive as a prefigurement of what was to come.

The economic backdrop was not much different from today's. The Depression had, by technical measures, run its course, but the pain and suffering of the long downturn permeated the country. The Franklin D. Roosevelt administration struggled with how to balance measures for recovery with measures for reform of the financial system. Sound familiar? Among others, no less a personage than John Maynard Keynes, in an open letter published Dec. 31, 1933, urged him to focus on the former and leave the latter for another day.

Sinclair's EPIC program was one of many utopian proposals in the wind. California also gave birth to the Townsend movement, founded by a Long Beach physician who proposed that every American over 60 be given a $200 monthly stipend on condition that they retire, thus opening up jobs for younger workers, and spend the money within 30 days. Even though the cost of these pensions would have bankrupted the country, Townsend clubs sprung up across the US, presenting a genuine electoral threat in 1934.

Huey Long and the Rev. Charles Coughlin were also strong on the wing with programs to dramatically redistribute wealth from rich to poor.

George Creel, a journalist and politician, provided some of the most interesting commentary on the Sinclair race -- from the standpoint of a Democratic candidate. His 1934 piece for the Saturday Evening Post is here.

The column begins below.

The state of California is mired in what may be its most dire fiscal crisis ever. The budget deficit is rising, political extremism in Sacramento is growing more extreme, and unemployment is barely budging on the local or national levels.

So I turned to the latest campaign materials from our newly anointed candidates for governor and U.S. senator expecting to find some hard truths for the voters to chew over as they look ahead to the Nov. 2 election.

Perhaps there would be policy papers vowing to correct the flaws of the initiative process, which allow citizens simultaneously to vote themselves new spending programs and new tax cuts. Or maybe the candidates would be taking on the inanity of term limits that have turned the Legislature into a nursery.

What did I find instead?

Brochures and websites featuring glossy photographs of sandy beaches and purple mountain majesties. Paeans to California's indomitable spirit, which will see us through. Pledges of millions of new "green jobs," thousands of fixed schools, the luster of the University of California restored, waste rooted out. Oh, and no new taxes.

In other words, Utopia.

Read the whole column.

-Michael Hiltzik