The Story of Broke: Where Do All Our Tax Dollars Go?

A great deal of discussion these days centers around change and how to achieve it. We need better schools, green technology, more public transportation, and more comprehensive health care, among other things. Meanwhile, state and federal budgets are stretched thin and it seems like finding money for these programs is a pipe dream. Annie Leonard, creator of The Story of Stuff, begs to differ. She has a brand-new video out called The Story of Broke that shines a spotlight on subsidies and the outdated, wasteful, inequitable way our tax dollars are being allocated.

Leonard has spent more than twenty years traveling the world investigating where our stuff comes from and where it goes. She has visited factories and dumps and observed the consumption of goods in societies around the globe. For years she gave talks about what she’d seen and what she’d learned. She finally filmed an animated short of one speech 2007 and called it The Story of Stuff. She posted it online, hoping for 50,000 people to view it, discuss it and initiate change. The video garnered 50,000 hits in one day. Leonard went on to create The Story of Stuff Project and several more videos about bottled water, cosmetics, electronics, and cap and trade, that have collectively amassed more than 15 million views. The Story of Broke is the latest in that series.

When I asked her how she decided on what topics to cover, she explained that she got a lot of requests from viewers, but she and the team at The Story of Stuff Project also focused on big issues that they felt that people needed to be talking about, like, “things that tend to be wonky or technical or there’s just not a lot of discussion about it, like manufactured demand or planned obsolescence or corporate hijacking of our democracy.”

Leonard has been heavily involved with many environmental organizations and causes including the Funders Workgroup for Sustainable Production and Consumption, Health Care Without Harm, and Greenpeace International. She has given hundreds of speeches about consumption and environmentalism and has been met with skepticism about her optimistic hope for a better future.

“I would give these talks all over and talk about how it is absolutely possible to build a safe, healthy, fair society – I am absolutely convinced of it. The technology exists, the research exists, we absolutely could do it, and people would raise their hands and say, yes, but we can’t because we are butting up against the coal industry and the oil industry and corporations have too much control of Congress and we can’t get good laws passed because corporations get mad, and so we made a film about corporate power and some steps we can take to reign in corporate power in our democracy so we can take our democracy back.

The Story of Broke is about when I talk about how we can make a safe, healthy, fair and fun society, people write back and say, ‘There’s no money for that. It’s a nice idea: safe products and clean energy – but there’s no money for that.’

But the truth is – there IS money for it. There’s a lot of money for it. It’s our money, and we’re giving that money right now to nuclear reactors, loan guarantees, and enormous subsidies for incredibly profitable oil and gas companies. There is money – don’t accept this when you are out there in the world trying to make something better and the government says there is no money for that. There is money and we should get involved with what’s happening to it. Right now it’s being used to prop up the dinosaur economy and what we should use it for instead is to build a healthy, fair future.”

The Story of Broke defines the different types of subsidies, who gets them and what happens to our tax dollars using clean, black and white animation and easy-to-understand narration by Leonard herself that is the hallmark of all of The Story of Stuff videos. In a time when the economy is foremost in people’s minds, will it spur viewers to call for the funds to be reallocated to issues like education and the environment?

“We have to really encourage people we know to get involved in making our voices heard. It is absolutely true that these super-rich, big companies are controlling the dialogue right now, but there are more of us, than of them. So every day that we do not voice our opinions, we’re actually voting for the status quo to continue. We need to be writing letters to the editors of newspapers, we need to be writing to our congress members – we’ve simply got to engage. This country is way too incredible and wonderful and valuable to just hand off to people who don’t actually care about it. So we need to take our country back. We can make our products safe and our schools good and our environment clean. But we’ve got to get the power so our government is working for us, instead of the big companies.”

Elections are looming and it remains to be seen if dialogue will translate into action.

Andrea Newell has more than ten years of experience designing, developing and writing ERP e-learning materials for large corporations in several industries. She was a consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers and a contract consultant for companies like IBM, BP, Marathon Oil, Pfizer, and Steelcase, among others. She is a writer and former editor at TriplePundit and a social media blog fellow at The Story of Stuff Project. She has contributed to In Good Company (Vault's CSR blog), Evolved Employer, The Glass Hammer, EcoLocalizer and CSRwire. She is a volunteer at the West Michigan Environmental Action Council and lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan. You can reach her at and @anewell3p on Twitter.

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