In an election year, we hear endless promises of what our politicians will do to help the people. But are the ideas we’re hearing from Bernie Sanders and others — like Medicare for all, free college tuition, paid family leave — just slogans to pander to voters suffering under stagnating wages and burdensome debt? Could those ideas ever actually take hold?
If you want to see what a people-first agenda looks like in action, check out Michael Moore’s latest movie Where to Invade Next. Moore plants a flag in one country after another to “claim their good ideas.” In the process we meet a lot of people who are truly enjoying life.
In France, Moore joins children in a public grade school who are eating in the cafeteria. Their lunch that day is lamb kabobs over couscous, with a choice of cheeses on the side. And when the child of one of Moore’s crew emails pictures of her school lunch that day in the United States, the French kids peer at the photos, and exclaim in disgust. Moore says the sumptuous French lunches cost no more than the average school lunch in the United States.
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In Italy, Moore asks a couple, who think they might like to live in America, if they know how many days of paid vacation the government requires. They refuse to believe that it is zero. And even when he explains that the typical paid vacation in the United States is two weeks, they are aghast. They get eight weeks.
When he asks college students in Slovenia about their student debt, they don’t quite understand the question. Debt? What debt? College is, of course, free. And by the way, it’s free for foreigners too.
At a German pencil factory, Moore asks the workers how many have a second job. They fall silent, looking puzzled. No one raises a hand. In a Norwegian prison, Moore asks an inmate if he’s ever been raped in the shower. The prisoner says that couldn’t happen, and shows Moore the private shower in his well-appointed cell.
The film is full of cringe-worthy moments for a patriotic American like myself. Most painful were the scenes of American prison guards mercilessly beating prisoners. These are difficult to watch under any circumstances, but especially when interspersed with clips of smiling Norwegian guards who see their job as rehabilitation, not punishment. I cringed too when a CEO in Iceland says you couldn’t pay her to live in America. She wouldn’t live in a place where so many people are left to go hungry or homeless. (And I doubt Iceland’s latest financial scandals will change her mind.)
I sighed in despair when a Portuguese policeman warns Moore that if Americans want to “claim” the idea of decriminalizing all (yes all) drug possession, we better first have universal health care. The Portuguese government hasn’t sent a single person to jail for drug use in 15 years, yet drug use in the country has gone down. That’s because users get treatment through Portugal’s universal health care system.
The countries Moore visits, of course, have their problems. As Moore says, he went to “pick the flowers, not the weeds.” Regardless, none of these countries is economically richer than the United States, yet their people have benefits that we seem to think we can’t afford. We see people savoring their food. Relaxing with their newborns. Relishing their vacations. Enjoying college. All without the underlying financial anxiety that afflicts so many Americans.
Where to Invade Next shows us that what may seem like far-out promises we hear at election time can be real. But we need a Congress that will work with a president on a people-first agenda. To get there we must rid ourselves of the idea that the government is something “other” than ourselves. Something to be feared and shrunk. The government is us. It doesn’t have to work for big corporations and billionaires. Moore’s film shows it can work to help us all have healthier, more fulfilling lives.