I was digging around in some old files for a story and came upon something I wasn’t looking for. A small file of Gov. Earl Warren’s papers from 1949, during a year-long national recession that saw a big spike in California unemployment.
I started reading a speech he gave in Los Angeles on August 29 of that year to a gathering of the California Federation of Labor. The speech identified two problems in the state – the persistently high jobless rate, and the failure of the state to rebuild its infrastructure, after the disinvestment of the war years, to keep up with its population.
What to do? Warren’s prescription was: “Our natural resources must be developed and conserved so as to create permanent jobs. Public works, national, state and local, must be constructed according to well conceived and systematic programs. New basic industry must be attracted her to take advantage of our superior opportunities. We must develop a skilled work force capable of manning any kind of venture. We must maintain working conditions and social standards that rank favorably with any in the nation. And we must prove to the world that we are learning how to solve the problems of labor and management around the conference table.”
All good goals today. But how to accomplish them?
Warren had one thing on his side. The state budget had been running small surpluses. And he emphasized that spending this surplus in the most productive way possible was crucial.
“In order to assist in making productive jobs for skilled labor and to remedy our building deficiencies accumulated during depression and war years, we have set aside every surplus tax dollar collected in recent years for construction purposes. We now have under way one of the most active and comprehensive public works programs every undertaken by this or any other state. You will soon see the benefits of this program in every part of California.”
And we did. California now has another surplus. But in the argument over how to spend it, no one is making the argument for repeating the success of Warren’s surplus principle. Why not? It worked before.