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The Story of Broke

Why There's Still Plenty of Money To Build a Better Future

by Annie Leonard 

These last few years, I’ve had to get a lot more careful about how I spend my paycheck. Everyone has. Like I’m eating out less often, holding back on expenses I don’t really need, saving for my kid’s college.  I’m getting more responsible, taking control of how I spend. But one thing I can’t control is that every month a big chunk of my paycheck goes off to the government.

It’s not the most fun part of my budget, but I believe in paying taxes. Not just because it’s the law but because that’s how I invest in a better future that I can’t afford to build on my own.

You know that future we all want and nearly every candidate promises us — great schools, a healthy environment, clean energy, good jobs.  But a funny thing happens to our money on its way to that better future. It seems to disappear. And by the time we get around to investing in it, all we hear is, “sorry, not this year, we’re broke.”  In fact, we’re so broke, they say, that we have no choice but to slide backwards, cutting things that made this country great — like schools and, maybe even Social Security and Medicare.

Wait a minute. Broke? I’m sending in my share of hard-earned cash every month and so are you!  And even after corporate tax loopholes and unprecedented tax breaks for the richest 1%, we’ve still got over a trillion dollars.  So if we’re broke, what’s happening to all that money?  I decided to look into it and it turns out this whole “broke” story hides a much bigger story — a story of some really dumb choices being made for us — but that actually work against us. The good news is that these are choices, and we can make different ones. So, where is all that money going?

Well first the military takes a big chunk – $726 billion in 2011. Wow! We could build a lot better of future with that kind of money. Spending billions on fighter planes we don’t need or wars with no end, and then saying we’re broke, just isn’t honest. It’s like calling your kid from your billion-dollar yacht to say you can’t afford her lunch money.

Then hundreds of billions more go to propping up the dinosaur economy. You know, the obsolete system, talked about in The Story of Stuff (www.storyofstuff.org) —  the one that produces more pollution, greenhouse gasses and garbage than any other on Earth — and doesn’t even make us happy. In so many ways, it’s just not working, but we’re keeping it on life support instead of building something better.  A lot of that life support comes in the form of subsidies.

A subsidy is a giveaway that gives some companies a lift over others. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — we should help companies that are building a better future. The problem is the government keeps lifting up companies that are actually dragging us down. Everywhere you look along the dinosaur economy, you’ll find these subsidies.

There’s spending subsidies: where the government just gives our money away — like payments that benefit big agribusiness, while helping drive family farms off a cliff.  Or the less obvious version where the government foots the bill for things corporations should pay for themselves like cleaning up toxic chemical spills or giant livestock manure ponds.  Or building roads that go to only one place — a new Walmart.  Or paying for polluting and wasteful garbage incinerators that would never make financial sense to build on their own.

Then there’s tax subsidies: which excuse big corporations from contributing their fair share — like the enormous tax breaks granted to oil and gas companies even in times of record profits. These subsidies amount to billions of dollars we should be collecting and putting to good use.

And there’s risk transfer subsidies: where the government acts as an investment bank and even an insurance company for corporations doing risky things, like building nuclear reactors. If anything goes wrong, we have to cover for them.

[/column] [column width="48%" padding="0"]There’s freebie subsidies: where the government gives stuff that belongs to all of us to corporations for cheap or even free. That’s billions more we should be collecting but never see! Like permits to mine public lands, granted at prices set in the Mining Law of 1872. Really. 1872. President Grant signed this law to encourage settlement of the West. News flash: it’s settled.

By the time we’ve handed out all these subsidies, there isn’t even enough money to pay our bills — forget about building the better future.  So why is there always enough money for the dinosaur economy, from big oil to bailouts for big banks, but when it comes to building a better future we’re supposedly broke? Maybe it’s because these guys know how to ask for it.  Their lobbyists and giant campaign contributions let the government know what they want, and what they’ll do if they don’t get it. And it works.And all this doesn’t even count externalized costs. They don’t show up on any spreadsheet and could amount to trillions of dollars — they include the damage to the environment, public health and the climate that this dinosaur economy causes. Without laws that make the polluters pay, we all pay with the loss of clean water and air, or increased asthma and cancer.

US Senators who voted to keep big oil subsidies in 2011 had received 5 times more in Big Oil campaign cash than those who voted to end them.  So, while subsidies should be a tool for government to help companies that are helping all of us, instead, they’ve become a prize for those with the most power to get on the handout list.

But you know who has the real power? We do!  What if we got as protective of our tax dollars as we are with the rest of our money?  What if we told the government what we want and what we’ll do if we don’t get it – starting with voting them out!

We could re-direct these dinosaur subsidies, freeing up hundreds of billions of dollars. Forget broke, we could build a better future right now!  We could start by reinvesting the $10 billion in oil and gas subsidies to renewable energy and energy efficiency projects. With just half of that amount, we could put solar systems on over two million rooftops. Then use the rest to retrofit half a million homes, creating jobs and saving energy year after year.

The average cost of cleaning up a toxic site on the Superfund list is $140 million. Let’s make the polluters pay and instead invest our money in developing safer materials so we don’t have to worry about them spilling in the first place.  Most chemicals today are made from oil — that’s why they are called petro-chemicals. Switching just 20% of them to bio-based materials would create over 100,000 new jobs.

Instead of subsidizing garbage incinerators, let’s subsidize real solutions, like zero waste.  Raising the US recycling rate to 75% would create one and a half million new jobs — with less pollution, less waste, less pressure to harvest and mine new stuff. What’s not to like?

That would still leave hundreds of billions of dollars for improving education — the best investment for a healthy economy.  With $100 billion, we could increase the number of elementary school teachers by over 40% and give college scholarships to over 6 million students. See, we can rebuild the American Dream; we can afford to have a healthy environment, good jobs, and top-notch public education. But not if we continue subsidizing the dinosaur economy.

So next time you have an idea for a better future and someone tells you, “that’s nice, but there’s no money for that,” you tell them we’re not broke. There is money, it’s ours, and it’s time to invest it right.

MORE ONLINE: Watch the film version of "Broke" and download a free, annotated version of the script, with live hyperlinks at www.storyofstuff.org [/column][end_columns]


  1. Spartacus 20 May, 2012 at 05:06 Reply

    All “we the people” want from government is liberty and freedom — nothing more!!!  Each of us deserve the freedom to make our own choices, provide for ourselves and be responsible to and for ourselves.  NOBODY needs any freebie paid for by our neighbors and friends.  If you want it then you are free to earn the money to buy it but you are not free to take it from me. 

  2. GZ 26 July, 2012 at 13:57 Reply

    I’m sure that all of us have learned that in life, we have only ourselves to depend on. having all these expectations on others like the government usually ends in disappointment. 

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