California’s New Deal

California never had a New Deal. While California voted for FDR in 1932 (and for each of his three reelection bids), state politics were dominated by right-wing factions in both the Republican and Democratic parties for much of the era. In 1934, when Upton Sinclair won the Democratic nomination on a socialist platform called End Poverty In California, or EPIC, he was unable to overcome a sophisticated campaign machine built by conservative Republican Frank Merriam, which included political ads created by movie studios and shown in cinemas statewide before the election. (A centrist Democrat, Raymond Haight, also ran in the 3-way contest, costing Sinclair anti-conservative votes.)

In 1938 progressive Democrat Culbert Olson finally broke through. An atheist and friend of labor unions, his term in office was marked by battles with conservative Democrats and Republicans in the legislature, frustrating his plans to bring the New Deal to California, beyond the few dams and bridges that had been initiated earlier in the decade. Moderate Republican Earl Warren beat Olson in the 1942 election, and a true New Deal for California would have to wait until 1958, when Pat Brown got elected governor.

As California sinks deeper into a similar economic crisis some 75 years later, we risk making the same mistake – being unable to overcome a legacy of Hooverism and provide the state with the government-led economic recovery program we so desperately need. So argue California scholars Richard Walker and Gray Brechin in a SF Chronicle op-ed today:

Meanwhile, what is California doing? The governor and Legislature are applying the same tactics as Hoover, the state’s onetime favorite son. They are balancing the budget by cutting spending. It is a formula for disaster.

The results are the same as they were in Hoover’s time: making the Great Recession worse. Cities, counties, schools and universities are laying off workers, cutting expenditures and charging more, thereby raising unemployment and reducing consumer spending….

Now is the time for Californians to remember the lesson of what a great, public-spirited generation did for us. Instead of leaving our children a ruined public sector, we should be crying out for a new New Deal.

One thing Walker and Brechin don’t tackle in their op-ed is how California can bring that about, given our difficult budget mess. And yet Walker and Brechin seem to understand that in order to solve that intractable crisis, we have to approach it with the right vision in mind.

Californians WANT a new New Deal. They don’t want to see their educational opportunities obliterated. They don’t want to suffer in long-term unemployment. They don’t want to see their health care options taken away from them (even with federal reform, the state’s role will remain important).

They’re also willing to pay for it. Tom Elias notes in an op-ed today the same thing I pointed out right after this month’s election, that Californians ARE willing to tax themselves for services:

For there are signs aplenty that Californians are willing to work at putting things back on the right track – and even pay to do it.

Perhaps the best evidence for this appears in the results of the early November off-year election, where dozens of cities and school districts placed proposed new taxes before local voters. The vast majority of those proposals passed easily, even some parcel taxes aimed at helping school districts (Long Beach was a notable exception.)…

There are other signs of potential for improvement. One is the fact that even though some businesses have relocated outside California to take advantage of cheap land and special tax breaks, more businesses continue to start up here than in any other state. Far more, in fact, than are leaving.

What California needs, then, is a legislature unwilling to accept Hooverism as the default response to the budget crisis. Instead we need a legislature willing to embrace a New Deal for California, willing to articulate the need for it to the public, and willing to fight to properly fund it with progressive revenue solutions.

The fight, the vision, the leadership is what will enable us to overcome the structural problems this state faces. It’s time we stopped using those impediments as an excuse for failing to show Californians the way out of the abyss.

7 thoughts on “California’s New Deal”

  1. Californian’s need at least a new deal. We need to redefine the compact between government and the citizens. See my comments on Brian’s Desparation thread.  

  2. Great post and analysis Robert!  As you point out, we must spend more much more on job creation, infrastructure, and humane welfare programs.  One thing I would add is that progressive legislators can demonstrate that they, unlike conservatives, are fiscally responsible by pushing for progressive income and estate taxes that target the wealthiest Californians as well as a stiff carbon tax.

  3. Oh there’s this …

    “One thing Walker and Brechin don’t tackle in their op-ed is how California can bring that about, given our difficult budget mess.”

    Yeah, that minor detail — how to pay for it.

    Hey, I dont like it either, but there’s no evidence Californians favor increase in statewide taxes. The local info you point out is, well, local, where taxpayers believe they can touch and feel the services they get for their tax dollars.

    Until Democrats do a better job of connecting the state services with the need for increased revenue and a 2/3 majority, we’re going to be stuck in this fiscal mud.

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