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Thread: Huey Long, Upton Sinclair, Ham and Eggs… What Almost Was

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    Default Huey Long, Upton Sinclair, Ham and Eggs… What Almost Was

    Huey Long, Upton Sinclair, Ham and Eggs… What Almost Was

    By Mark Sengel (iTulip)

    With Eric Janszen quoting Mussolini and Stalin to warn readers that aspiring autocrats have in the past used political opportunities created by financial and economic crises to take a nation left or right, the bailout debates on iTulip sent me back to school to find a colorful history of populist near misses here in the United States.

    Fake "Ham and Eggs" currency distributed in the campaign to defeat a 1938 ballot initiative in California.

    "Every man a king, but no one wears a crown." - Huey Long

    Huey Long was elected governor of Louisiana at 35 in 1928. He had dropped out of high school, but had passed the bar exam at 21. At 25 he was elected railroad commissioner. In that position he began to win concessions from utility companies. He secured refunds from the phone company after successfully arguing the appeal in front of the US Supreme Court. As governor he proposed a 5-cent tax on a barrel of crude. When Standard Oil mocked the idea, he threatened to take over its refineries and kick the company out of the state. A deal was struck.

    At the start of his term as governor, Louisiana had just 300 miles of paved roads and the highest illiteracy rate in the country. Long's massive program of road and bridge construction created thousands of jobs, presaging the WPA. He made good on a campaign promise of free textbooks for all, increasing enrollment dramatically. He cajoled stronger banks in the East into saving local banks in Louisiana. Bank failures in the state were much lower than the national average.

    As Lance Hill writes, "Long placed increasing importance on the role of the state in salvaging capitalism from its apocalyptic crisis. Similar to Mussolini (of whom Huey genuinely knew little), Long had arrived at the conclusion that the solution to economic crisis was the intervention of the state as a reconciling force detached from the interests of labor or capital." After being elected to the U.S. senate, he retained control of the governorship through a handpicked successor and a massive patronage system. Long campaigned for Roosevelt and supported New Deal proposals, but once in the senate, began proposing more radical ideas. Most famous was his Share Our Wealth Society. It promised an income of 2,000 dollars for every household, a 30 hour workweek, retirement pensions, and free college tuition. It was to be paid for by taxing the rich. A rich man's eighth million of income was taxed at 100%, 7th million at 64%, 6th million at 32%. By 1935 there were 27,000 Share Our Wealth clubs in every state with seven million members. Some days Long received more than 30,000 pieces of mail in his senate office.

    Hill writes, "Huey Long was convinced he would be in the White House by 1940. His plan was to field a third party candidate in 1936, stealing the Southern Dixiecrat and left vote from Roosevelt and throwing the election to the Republicans. After four years of conservative and devastating Republican rule, the country would be on the verge of economic collapse, and Huey would sally forth to sweep the country off its feet. It was a shrewd strategy, and at all points realizable." Long was assassinated on September 8th, 1935.

    Upton Sinclair wrote more than 90 books, won a Pulitzer, and is most remembered for The Jungle which led to regulation of the food industry. He also won 879,000 votes in an unsuccessful bid for the governorship of California in 1934. He was defeated by Frank Merriam who rallied conservatives into a "Stop Sinclair" movement. Merriam's backers included Louis B. Mayer and William Randolph Hearst. During the campaign, Mayer turned studios in Los Angeles into propaganda machines, producing fake newsreels to run before feature films in theaters across the state. One newsreel showed Soviets arriving in California to vote for Lewis. Another showed bums hopping off trains, flocking to California for handouts.

    Months before the vote, Upton Sinclair wrote:
    “Such is the trap prepared for me next January. The banks will be demanding their money, and refusing to lend any more to an ex-Socialist Governor--unless, of course, he promises to be "good." We have to make it plain that efforts at sabotage will not frighten us, and that if we cannot find anybody else to tax, we will tax the banks. If the people of California elect Upton Sinclair their next Governor, it will be because they want somebody who means to end poverty, and would prefer to die rather than fail.

    "To meet the situation we shall need cash, and a great deal of cash, immediately. The people will have to pass an emergency measure which will bring in this cash. We shall assuredly not take it from the poor, nor shall we leave ourselves in the position where we have to take orders from the financial oligarchy which has brought us to our present plight.

    "Let me make clear that I am not proposing a program of confiscation, nor have I any secret desire to destroy private business under the guise of taxation. As Governor, I shall confront a deficit for which I have no responsibility; a breakdown of private business caused by its own blind greed. This emergency can only be met by taxation, or by increase of debt, which is taxation put onto our children. We can follow one of two courses: the old method, of taxing the poor, or a new method, of taxing those who have so much money that they do not know what to do with it.”
    "Ham and Eggs" was a 1938 California ballot initiative. It proposed to give everyone over the age of 50 thirty dollars every Thursday. The money was scrip to be issued by the state. One unit = one dollar. To encourage recipients to spend the money and stimulate the economy, the scrip could expire. To prevent it from expiring, owners would be required to buy revenue stamps and affix them to the bills. FDR called it a fantasy. The movement took off when Archie Price committed suicide by swallowing rat poisoning. Price had written a local newspaper two years earlier, explaining that he had no family, could not work, and would end his life when his savings ran out. He was true to his word. Price was set to be buried in a pauper's grave, but Roger Coffin, a Ham and Eggs organizer, convinced a San Diego funeral home to bury Price in Glen Abbey Cemetery. Thousands attended the funeral including prominent politicians. The "Ham and Eggs" initiative was narrowly defeated, 1,398,999 to 1,143,670.

    Editor's note: I appreciate the contributions iTulipers like Mark Sengel make to our understanding of history. I have argued here since 1999 that a political economy characterized by wide disparities of wealth, income, and debt is, in an economic catastrophe, a petri dish perfectly prepared to grow the ugliest and least constructive economic solutions ever conceived by man. You will see me continue to pursue my mission to offer alternatives–Harper's Magazine, Forbes Magazine, and others and in my book–during the difficult period that is coming. - Eric Janszen

    Further reading

    Huey Long:
    (The first documentary Ken Burns made is one of his best.)

    Upton Sinclair:

    Ham and Eggs:

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    Last edited by FRED; 02-22-09 at 07:55 PM.

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