The Story of Broke

Annie Leonard waves her hands around far too much for my liking. But what I do like in her latest presentation is that she’s not just mirroring my own chief grievance (ie: our society is seriously broken and needs fixing) — she has identified a specific problem, and, moreover, has suggested a solution (and one that has a dash of hope on the side).

Unfortunately, I’m more cynical than Annie. For my money, her suggested solution — that we can vote out politicians who don’t do our bidding (is it just me that sees that as a tad negative?) until we end up voting in ones who do — simply cannot work, because there ain’t no such beast as a ‘successful honest politician’. The system we have corrupts even the most sincere aspiring do-gooder such that by the time she or he is in a position to (in theory) actually change the system, all those good intentions have been perverted on the journey to the heights of power, as I wibbled about in my last post (a call for immediate discussion).

Another problem is the wasteful continual ‘change for change’s sake’ we get when [political group of colour A] is replaced by [political group of colour B]. I’m sick to death of the perpetual whining about ‘problems inherited by those losers we successfully persuaded you to replace with us’. These people sound like whingeing kids who need to grow up (and we voted actual power into the hands of such? More fool us!).

My own idea for a solution is more radical than Annie’s. It promotes the idea of us taking control of our tax funds, as Annie rightly suggests we should. We urgently need to get out of the mindset of ‘the State pays for’ this and that, and take responsibility for the fact that the tax money that is spent is our money — and, moreover, it is spent in our names, not by some faceless ‘State’ that can be conveniently blamed for getting it all wrong. We also need to get away from blaming the ineffectuality of the State as an argument against paying taxes in the first place, a stance taken all too often by those who are against all environmental taxes.

My solution comes in two parts.

First, we (through the State) should employ people with a knack for getting things done without excuses. Give this group of people a name: something like, oh, I don’t know, maybe ‘the civil service’, perhaps. These people would need to be fully accountable to us the peeps for decisions they make, so all their activities would need to be open to public scrutiny. This would be a good change from the system we have now where we gift power to people who promise us something — and not only deliver none of it, what they do deliver doesn’t look anything like it.

Second: change the voting system so that we don’t vote for people, we vote for how we want our tax money to be spent. A voting form in this system wouldn’t list people, it would list budget sectors, such as health, education, energy generation (split into coal, oil, solar, tidal, geothermal, and so on) — and, yes, it would also include sectors such as military weaponry and defense, because some warmongers will actually want to vote for such things. The form would have lots of ‘fill in your own budget sector’ blanks, too. And against each of these areas, you would be able to allocate a percentage value. (There’s a bit of a problem here in that some people don’t understand percentages: however, I visualise a whole new education sector dedicated to training people — even older ones — how to do stuff they should have learnt in skool but didn’t; stuff like basic arithmetic, for instance. Or maybe an organisation that does nothing but promote Khan Academy.)

If, for example, you think that ‘space exploration’ is a worthy pursuit, you could write that in and put, say, ‘10%’ against it. If you have young children, you might value spending on primary school education; if you’re childless, you possibly won’t. If you’re homeless, you’d probably be tempted to vote for more homeless assistance… and so on.

Vote counting would entail compiling all these percentages so that we end up with a budget allocation for the next period (month, year, decade, whatever — clearly this would need fine-tuning).

If, as a result, we the people collectively agree that 25% of our tax money should be spent on, say, education, then that would become the budget allocation for that sector. No more overeducated economics experts (who are, incidentally, so clever that they’re totally unable to spot potential global financial meltdowns looming on the horizon) waving tattered leather briefcases around in front of Number Ten Downing Street for the ‘news’ cameras.

And if we, collectively, are foolish enough to agree that, say, 40% of our money should be spent on turning the East Midlands into one massive turnip farm, or 95% of our hard-earned cash should be directed towards a military takeover of the whole planet, well, we’ll soon learn from our mistake…

This, I submit, might have a chance of resulting in a system of government in which the will of the people is actually carried out, instead of the current system where almost nobody is happy with the decisions that are made for us by our ‘leadership’.

A government of the people, by the people, for the people: such an admirable aim. With all our alleged smarts, it really is a travesty that our aim is so poor that we can’t hit this target.

The Story of Broke: Why there’s still plenty of money to build a better future
by The Story of Stuff Project.

Transcript (Original courtesy of TruthOut: typos and omissions corrected by me).

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, and 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 our 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 it’s how I invest in the better future that I can’t afford to build on my own. You know; that future that 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 that future all I 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 the EPA, maybe even Social Security and Medicare… wait a minute. ‘Broke’? I’m sending in my fair share of hard-earned cash every month  — and so are 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 1%. But even after those, 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, choices 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 the biggest chunk – $726 billion in 2011. Wow! We could build a lot of better future with that kind of money! Spending billions on fighter planes that 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 tell her you can’t afford her school lunch money!

Then, hundreds of billions more go to propping up the dinosaur economy. You know, the obsolete system we talked about in The Story of Stuff: the one that produces more pollution, greenhouse gases 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 in 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 our 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 only go to one place (like 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 we should be collecting and putting to good use.

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

There’s freebie subsidies, where our government gives stuff that belongs to all of us to corporations for cheap — or even free! That’s billions more that 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. Newsflash: it’s settled.

And all this doesn’t even count externalized costs. They don’t show up on any spreadsheet and could amount to trillions of dollars including all of the damage to the environment, public health and the climate that this dinosaur economy causes. Without laws that make these polluters pay, we all pay with the loss of clean air and water, of increased asthma and cancer.

By the time we’ve handed out all of 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 our government know what they want, and what they’ll do if they don’t get it. And it works. US senators who voted to keep big oil subsidies in 2011 had received five times more in Big Oil campaign cash than those who voted to end them!

So, while subsidies should be a tool to help companies that are helping us all 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 our government what we want and what we’ll do if we don’t get it – starting with voting them out! We could redirect these dinosaur subsidies, freeing up hundreds of billions of dollars. Forget ‘broke’: we could start building a better future right now!

We could begin by reinvesting the ten billion dollars that we spend on oil and gas subsidies into renewable energy and energy efficiency projects. With just half of that amount, we could provide solar energy to about two million households, 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 Superfund site is 140 million dollars. Let’s make the polluters pay and instead invest our money in developing safer materials so we don’t have to worry about spills in the first place.

Most chemicals today are made from oil — that’s why they’re called petrochemicals — switching just 20% of them to safer bio-based materials would create over a hundred thousand new jobs. And instead of subsidizing garbage incinerators, let’s subsidize real solutions, like zero waste. Raising the US recycling rate to 75% would result in one and a half million new jobs — with less pollution, less waste, and less pressure to harvest and mine new stuff, what’s not to like?

That would still leave 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 six 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 the 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 are not broke. There is money, it’s ours, and it’s time to invest it right.

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About pendantry

Phlyarologist (part-time) and pendant. Campaigner for action against anthropogenic global warming (AGW) and injustice in all its forms. Humanist, atheist, notoftenpist. Wannabe poet, writer and astronaut.
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10 Responses to The Story of Broke

  1. witsendnj says:

    I put a link to that video in comments yesterday at DOTE because it seems so hopelessly…hopeful. Today, DOTE explains how elected officials actually behave:

    http://www.declineoftheempire.com/2011/11/the-idiots-guide-to-buying-a-congressman.html

    • pendantry says:

      Nice link, thanks, Gail. Highlights well that the problem is endemic on your side of the Pond — and, no, I don’t believe it’s any better on our side either. I especially appreciate:

      … all those other well-heeled, celebrity stiffs in the mainstream media taking our political system seriously everyday, reporting on it as if we live in a Democracy, pretending the system is legitimate, bamboozling the people…

  2. Donald says:

    I think the blog is way out there somewhere and makes not only no sense, it is in fact, ludicrous.

    Politicians do not deal with any single group of people, their job is to look after not only the country but also “future generations”; that is why it would be foolish for us to expect a politician to do “our” bidding … why should he/she? their job is not too look after individuals, yes, that is important ….. but if they have to kill all of us in order to ensure the survival of a nation and thus ensure the continuation of that nation for the sake of future generations then … they will and … they should.

    • pendantry says:

      Interesting point of view, Donald. I think most people would agree that a week is a long time in politics: you’re suggesting that politicians can actually see further than the ends of their noses, a suggestion that I think isn’t just ‘way out there somewhere,’ it’s off the planet entirely.

  3. leavergirl says:

    “there ain’t no such beast as a ‘successful honest politician’.”

    Exactly. Not only because the occasional honest person is corrupted on the way to power, but much more frequently, the system selects only the corrupt to elevate. In other words, its ruthless “systemic selection” weeds out the kind of people who actually do have the interest of the people (and future generations) in mind.

    I find what Donald says chilling. To think that just because someone is a successful power-accumulator, they are somehow better qualified than other people to decide what is best. That sounds pretty crazy to me, esp. in view of what is *actually* happening to America or Britain.

    You know, the elites of Babylon were savvy enough to know that if they didn’t lift the yoke of perpetual and accelerating indebtedness, they were toast. And the common people had enough wisdom to force a Jubilee. But now, in our oh so sophisticated days, we have people who believe the propaganda even as they are driven into the poorhouse, or see their neighbors driven there. Amazing, eh?

    • pendantry says:

      Personally, I think that anyone who craves power is the last person who should be trusted with it.

      I know it’s only fiction, but I’m reminded of the scene in the film Gladiator where the soon-to-be-murdered emperor is talking with Maximus:

      MARCUS AURELIUS
      There is one more duty…
      that I ask of you
      before you go home.

      MAXIMUS
      What would you
      have me do, Caesar?

      MARCUS AURELIUS
      I want you to become
      the protector of Rome after I die.
      I will empower you to one end alone–
      to give power back
      to the people of Rome…
      and end the corruption
      that has crippled it.
      Will you accept this great honor
      that I have offered you?

      MAXIMUS
      With all my heart, no.

      MARCUS AURELIUS
      Maximus…
      that is why it must be you.

  4. leavergirl says:

    But then, there is always the possibility that Donald is a paid troll. There are a lot of them out there nowadays, though they rarely infest small blogs.

    • pendantry says:

      I don’t know Donald very well, but I don’t think he’s a troll.

      Hey, wait a minute! ‘Small blog’? I represent that remark!
      😉

      • leavergirl says:

        Heh. This is a good place to hang out. Yeah… I guess Donald is not a troll. Had a moment of paranoia there.

        “anyone who craves power is the last person who should be trusted with it”

        I think I will turn that into a bumper sticker. Nah. Too long. Let’s write it all over the sidewalks…

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