Back in February 2011, I started reporting on a movement called US Uncut that formed in opposition to the practice of tax-dodging. As it turns out, corporate tax avoidance is a huge, huge problem. In fact, the United States loses an estimated $100 billion in revenue every year as multinational corporations hoard their cash overseas in havens.
It’s true that no one movement or cause is solely responsible for the birth of Occupy Wall Street, and protesters list an impressive spectrum of issues and events that inspired them to get involved in OWS, ranging from the Arab Spring to tuition debt to the corrupt political system. However, US Uncut was definitely at the forefront of framing the “99 percent” narrative seized upon by Occupy. Except, back then, US Uncut referred to America’s woes as being “The Corporations versus Everyone Else.”
Quite simply, major companies (GE, Apple, FedEx) were robbing the country blind during a time when the 99 percent were being asked to sacrifice their already meager means. As teachers were fired, and firefighters laid off, US Uncut tried to alert the public to the presense of one percenters shovelling buckets of cash offshore. For example, General Electric paid no federal income taxes in 2010, even though it raked in $14.2 billion in profits (and another $3.2 billion in tax benefits.)
Nearly a year after the birth of Uncut, the movement is chronicled in We’re Not Broke, a documentary (and official Sundance Film Festival selection) about the meteoric rise of the group. Filmmakers Karin Hayes and Victoria Bruce are the recipients of the duPont–Columbia University Award for excellence in broadcast journalist for their first film, The Kidnapping of Ingrid Betancourt, and also produced and directed Held Hostage in Colombia, a documentary about three American contractors captured and held hostage by FARC guerillas in Colombia.
We’re Not Broke, which follows a group of activists from the start of US Uncut in February 2011, piqued my interest. I was curious as to why the issue of tax-dodging appealed to directors who previously dealt with the considerably sexier issues of hostages and guerillas.
“Neither one of us had any experience in this type of high finance prior, so we thought it was a great challenge to dive into,” says Hayes.
Bruce had some early reservations. “I was totally unconvinced. I usually end up finding a good story, but this was a very hard one, and I felt totally unprepared to go into this world. Fortunately, the story tells itself,” she says. “At first, we thought we’d make it about the Swiss whistleblower, and individuals who dodged taxes, but every time we sat down with an expert, they’d say, ‘Oh, no. The big problem is what corporations do offshore.’”
And as it turns out, the problem is not a small one. Every time Bruce would ask experts to name some of the major corporations that steal tax revenue, the experts would reply, “All of them!”
“And then your world closes in on you, and you realize everything you do: your phone bill, and your electricity, and the gas for your car, everything is owned by one of these multinational corporations that’s actually screwing you all the time,” says Bruce. “That was the hook of the film, because it hit me in my gut. Once people know this, then maybe things can change.”