EPIC Failure

    As I drive into one of the many slum villages that have plagued California for close to 65 years, I feel the hostile stares coming off the porches of the tightly packed houses. At first, I believe they may be directed towards my car (I notice few of the residents seem to own one), but then I slowly begin to realize they are for me. These locals can spot a member of the media as though it was a sixth sense. Their hostility is understandable, as in recent years the rest of the United States has grown interested in their weird cousin, California. The media interest, unfortunately, led to sneering hit pieces being done on the residents and their way of life, leaving them to be ridiculed by the rest of the country.

            I was sent today by The New York Times to paint a fair picture of Californians and figure out where it went so terribly wrong for them. As I look around I can instantly see that they have been portrayed falsely for years. The term slum is over exaggeration; a failed vision would be more correct. These villages were initially envisioned to be self-sustained Utopian communities. They were put into place by disgraced former governor Upton Sinclair. Sinclair is described today as a Socialist, but back in 1934 when he was first elected governor he shied away from this label (Harris 296) and ran as a Democrat.

            Sinclair introduced a bold program called EPIC (End Poverty In California) meant to halt the growing unemployment and poverty in California. In one of the last books he wrote before he dedicated his life to politics, I, Governor of California and How I Ended Poverty: A True Story of the Future, the governor laid out the twelve principles the EPIC was founded upon:

1.      God created the natural wealth of the earth for the use of all men, not the few

2.      God created men to seek their own welfare, not those of their masters

3.      Private ownership of tools, a basic of freedom when tools are simple, becomes a basis of enslavement when tools become complex

4.      Autocracy in industry cannot exist alongside democracy in government

5.      When some men live without working, other men are working without lving

6.      The existence of luxury in the presence of poverty and destitution is contrary to good morals and sound public policy

7.      The present depression is one of abundance, not scarcity

8.      The cause of the trouble is that a small class has the wealth, while the rest has the debts

9.      It is contrary to common sense that men should starve because they have raised too much food

10.   The destruction of food or other wealth, or the limitation of production is economic insanity

11.   The remedy is to give the workers access to the means of production, and let them produce for themselves, not for others.

12.   This change can be brought by action of a majority of the people, and that is the American way (Harris 299)

    There were other aspects to EPIC as well. Sinclair repealed the sales tax and raised the income tax to 50% on those making over $50,000 a year (Schrag) (a large sum in those days). However, as we and our politicians have begun to learn over the years, punishing success is rarely the solution.

    California’s top earners left the state almost instantly after Sinclair’s election, taking their considerable amount of what could have been tax revenue with them. This was an early big blow to the newly elected governor, as now he had a much less tax dollars to pour into his proposed social programs. An even bigger blow to California’s economy came when the movie industry packed up and moved to Florida.

    While it is hard to imagine the movie industry anywhere other than Hollywood, FL, it was once based in southern California. Though, Sinclair never publicly admitted that it was a mistake to not take the movie executives threats to move to Florida seriously, it was rumored for years to have haunted him; the loss of jobs was enormous as at its height the industry employed nearly a third of all Californians (Rawls Bean).

    Many historians and economists have speculated in recent years that the movie industries big move was the beginning of California’s downfall. I find, however, that getting the insiders perspective is often times much more insightful. I locate Chuck Townsend, 103, living in a rural, failed community, willing to tell me about the original Hollywood’s golden days and life after they moved.

    “Back in those days (1920’s), there was plenty of work, no one was starving, those engineers were figurin’ out our water problem; I thought we had it good. The movies were the best place you could get a job-good money-and sometimes you got to see one of them girls acting in the picture. But then, the Depression hit-and yeah it was bad, real bad-BUT it was bound to get better, no one had any faith. Maybe the government needed some changing up, but to elect a SOCIALIST was plain stupid.” He pauses for a moment, while frail, you can see the anger these memories bring. “After he was elected, the studios barely gave us notice-2,3 weeks maybe, I guess they figured we knew what would happen if he was elected-and then we were all unemployed. Just like that. So many of us had no other choice but to go live on the “self-sustaining communities”.

    After our talk, I feel saddened as I am starting to piece together California’s demise. It seems as though many of the unemployed were forced to live on the planned communities, but they did not believe in them or want to stay there, so the communities ultimately failed. Yet, by the time the communities failed, there were no jobs left. It’s almost as if this was all planned as a way to control people, a theory that has been brought up many times and has helped tarnish Sinclair’s name.

    There is one factor, though, that is missing and that is the vagrants and out of state unemployed. While Sinclair claimed loudly for years that the newsreels showing the mass migration of “hobos” ready to take advantage of California’s generous system (Mitchell 3) had been faked, it has since been discovered that they were, in fact, real. These vagrants were violent people who caused havoc wherever they went. They moved into the planned communities, and while they were not wanted, no one could stop them. The out of state unemployed were not viewed kindly. They moved to California to find work, yet, Californians saw them as taking jobs away from them. However, they were just a small part in a bad situation.

            Ultimately, Sinclair’s worst idea was the self sustaining communities. In his mind, the idle (unemployed) would all live together in a community that governed itself. The goal was to create with use in mind, not profit, with self-sustainability as the eventual outcome (Harris 300). After he was elected, two thousand of these communities were constructed all over California. People flocked to them; they were so happy to have a stable place to live.

    The first five years were the most successful, therefore, more communities created and more houses added to the existing communities. This was a mistake, though, as cramming people into so much space is never a good idea. About eight years in, things had started to deteriorate. Problems arose that should have been thought out before these communities were constructed; problems that had they been thought out would have caused them to never have been built.

    The major problem was that not everyone put in the same amount of effort into the community. Residents started to get lazy, or they were not skilled as farmers. Other inhabitants, however, were very skilled and had prosperous harvests. This is where the conflict arose. The lazy/unskilled wanted to live off of the prosperous, but this was not possible as they were greatly outnumbered by the lazy. Therefore, they kept their crops for themselves and were labeled greedy, just as the capitalists before them were.

    Eventually, the skilled farmers left California, leaving the others to their own devices. Over time, the residents left living in these communities managed to carve out an unenviable existence that has sustained them to this day, though caused them to be subjects of great ridicule.

    Is there hope for California? It’s possible, but the chances are slim. California has managed to drive out many desirable citizens and business owners, causing the population to dwindle to a mere one million people. As I leave California for home I can only hope that they do make a comeback. The people living there deserve so much better than what they have become accustomed to.

 

 

 

           

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Works Cited

Harris, Leon A. Upton Sinclair, American rebel. New York: Crowell, 1975. Print.

Mitchell, Greg. "Upton Sinclair's EPIC Campaign." Nation 239.3 (04 Aug. 1984): 75-78. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. [Library name], [City], [State abbreviation]. 30 July 2009 <http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=14019648&site=ehost-live>.

Rawls, James J. California An Interpretive History. New York: Mcgraw-Hill College, 2006. Print.

Schrag, P. "A California Epic." Nation 254.20 (25 May 1992): 726-728. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. [Library name], [City], [State abbreviation]. 30 July 2009 <http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=9206081675&site=ehost-live>.


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An alternative history essay I enjoyed writing for a California history class.
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