VIDEO: Is the U.S. Broke?

While many of the movies coming out of California feature product placement and glitzy movie stars, some innovators are using the film medium to teach us the realities of our present and the possibilities of our future.

The Story of Stuff Project came out with its first video in 2007, describing the process by which the creation and disposal of “stuff” in our lives affects communities at home and abroad. (In the same year the first Transformers movie banked over $700 million in the box office.) Though founder Annie Leonard and team at Free Range Studios only expected 50,000 hits for a “20 minute cartoon about trash,” the video has now enjoyed 15 million views—extraordinary popularity for any product in the environmental awareness genre.

In the years since, while the Transformers franchise was busy grossing another eight hundred million and then billion dollars in the box office, the Story of Stuff has transformed from a popular web video to a national brand, producing a video series on how we can make things better. Their latest video, entitled The Story of Broke, reveals that the U.S. is not broke, but rather home to a broken economy. We should have plenty of money to build a better system, Leonard says—if only we would invest our resources right.

As the Super Committee prepares to release its suggestions for addressing our debt, The Story of Broke offers its own ideas. To start, Leonard wonders aloud what happens to her tax dollars. 

“I send in my hard earned cash every month, and so do you! If everyone did, we’d have plenty of money. Now, what we’ve got to work with shrinks a lot thanks to corporate tax loopholes and unprecedented tax breaks for the richest among us. But even after those we’ve got over a trillion dollars. If we’re broke, what’s happening to all that money?”

A lot of us scratch our heads at this question, but Leonard helps to cast light on the answers. First, she points out the elephant in the budget—the military. At $726 billion, military spending accounted for over half of the discretionary budget in 2011. Next, she discusses the “dinosaur economy,” or the linear system of overproduction and quick disposal described in The Story of Stuff, which we prop up through “life-support” subsidies and bailouts.

These facts echo calls that anyone near financial districts in major cities has heard in the past few months. The Occupy movement popularly decries the fact that “Banks got bailed out, we got sold out.” Calls to cut off support to Bank of America and other monolithic corporations have been loud and clear. Hearing them, one might wonder: How did we get here? How did our budget priorities get so skewed?

“These guys know how to ask for it,” Leonard answers as buff cartoon characters punch fists menacingly into their palms. “Their lobbyists and giant campaign contributions let our government know what they want, and what they’ll do if they don’t get it.”

While the Story of Broke demonstrates that the legislative branch has acted at the behest of these corporate interests, we the power to change those fiscal choices. Using our votes and our voices as leverage, we can redirect the billions of dollars channeled into “dinosaur subsidies” toward a better future. For instance, Leonard says, of the $10 billion spent on oil and gas subsidies (even in times of record profits), half could provide solar energy to 2 million households, and the rest “could retrofit half a million homes, creating jobs and saving energy year after year.”

In the fight for economic justice, UFE ensures that corporate lobbyists aren’t the only voices in the policymaking arena. Occupiers pitching tents across the country are exercising their freedom of speech rights as well, and in this moment of economic crisis it is more important than ever to do so. At a recent UFE board meeting, we discussed the concept of “precarity,” naming situations of uncertainty, such as economic crises, as instances where corporate interests capitalize on instability to sway the government in their favor. But these precarious moments also provide opportunities for the other 99% to take back power, she said. That’s where we come in.

Between now and November 23rd, you can help to urge the Super Committee and others in congress to structure the budget around the needs of the 99%. We need a federal budget that will make a better future possible—one that becomes so vividly clear within the green lines in the Story of Broke. This is the kind of action the Story of Stuff has been calling for since…well, since Transformers first came out.     

“See? We can rebuild the American dream,” Leonard says brightly in The Story of Broke. It will take a unified movement for tax fairness to fund a people’s budget and a government that is accountable to all of us, not just the rich. 

“We can afford to have a healthy environment, good jobs and a top notch public education, but not if we continue subsidizing the dinosaur economy. So the next time you have an idea for a better future and someone tells you, ‘That’s nice, but we don’t have money for that,’ you tell them—‘We are not broke. There is money, it’s ours, and it’s time to invest it right.”

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