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In Season One of The Story of Stuff, we looked at a system that creates way
too much stuff, and way too little of what we really want. Now we're going to start looking at
the stories behind the Story of Stuff.
That's where we'll find ways to turn this situation around.
Welcome to Season Two!
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 the EPA,
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!
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 —
truth is 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 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 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 we talked about in The Story of Stuff —
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 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 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 — 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 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.
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 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.
And all this doesn't even count externalized costs. They
don't show up on any spreadsheet and could amount to trillions of dollars —
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 air and water,
or increased asthma and cancer.
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.
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 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 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 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 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 safer 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 result in 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 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.
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The Story of Broke (2011)

5635 Folder Collection
Chao Chen Lu published on August 19, 2013    James translated    Sheng-Yuan Cheng reviewed
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