Communicating Arcane Subsidies to a General Audience: Look at the "Story of Broke"

Written by dkoplow Posted: 11/8/2011 11:8 AM EST

Like implant dentists or utility accountants, subsidy wonks can go to trade meetings (yes, meetings on natural resource subsidies do exist) to find people who talk our language.  In that "safe" space, we can be met with a knowing nod as we wax poetic on the difference between revenue loss and outlay equivalents, or what is missing from a price gap estimate. 

Go into the normal world though, and not only does this talk make no sense, but it drives people out of the room fast -- really fast.  Sure, they care about the effects of massive subsidies to natural resource extraction: dwindling forests and aquifers, mountain top removal to tap into coal deposits, pollution, and degraded land.  But if you can't make the link between the policy and the impact, it is hard to leverage the political support needed to change the policies.

This is an issue that most of us subsidy wonks have grappled with over the years, unfortunately, I think, with limited success.  One person who has done this extremely well is Annie Leonard, who debuted with a very well received animated web documentary "The Story of Stuff" that explored the links between what we buy and the environmental damage caused by its production.

Today brings her newest release: the "The Story of Broke" which looks at how governments seem to find the money to give subsidies to powerful and often polluting industries, but then claim empty wallets when it is time to fund social programs.  In full disclosure, I provided a fair bit of input to them on subsidy types and impacts.  That said, I provide information on subsidies to a wide variety of people and organizations, from home-schooled high school debaters (their topic a few years back was on ethanol and ethanol subsidies) to reporters, educators and government staff.  I never know what will come from it. 

In this particular case, I am quite impressed with how "The Story of Broke," well, tells its story.  Annie and her team have captured some of the core issues I've struggled to convey, and they've done so in catchy and readily accessible ways: 

  • That subsidies aren't just about cash transfers, but often involve extremely valuable shifting of risks from private investors onto taxpayers;
  • That power matters a great deal (and more than merit) in who ends up with the biggest subsidy trough;
  • That all of these policies involve trade-offs, but beneficiary industries try to define trade-offs quite narrowly in an effort to argue that their subsidies are benefiting all of us, or that the costs of reform are too high;
  • And that patterns of support over a period of years or decades accumulate to produce dramatically different outcomes with respect to industrial structure and market options than what would have occurred without government subsidies or with a different pattern of support.

Here's hoping her ability to capture and convey this information so widely will help alleviate the bottlenecks to sensible policy reform.

Watch the video: