Priceless, The Movie

By Steve Cowan of Portland, Oregon. Steve is the executive director of Habitat Media and the director and producer of Priceless. (Free sneak-preview movie premiere tonight, October 19, 7pm at Ecotrust -- 721 NW 9th Avenue in Portland (Pearl District). Snacks, beer and wine provided.)

Why did I make Priceless, a new non-partisan film about America’s electoral system?

In short, I wanted to follow the money. My crew and I followed the money in the American political system from big industry campaign coffers to K Street to Capitol Hill, through two major American policies (farm & energy), and right back into the pockets of the same industries that planted the money in the first place. Along the way, we met citizens who feel the everyday impact of big-lobby policies, and who've decided to do something about it.

The idea for the film came after I realized that many of the environmental and social issues I typically makes films get their start in one place: the policy realm. My crew and I decided to travel to "the headwaters" of two policies, farm and energy, because policies in these areas seem to change little despite growing signs of serious issues. Each year, farm and energy policies direct billions of taxpayer dollars (as subsidies) to the industries that also happen to contribute generous campaign cash to lawmakers. To average citizens and even the third-grade civics students who are in the film, this business-as-usual approach to policymaking looks suspicious. The filmmakers set out to learn if the problem is one of perception-only or actually a case of institutionalized corruption.

In Salem, Oregon, we met with a group of Iraq war veterans on a cross-country bus tour to advocate a cleaner energy path, former soldiers who've come to believe that our nation's reliance on dwindling fossil fuel resources plays leads to climate changes and plays a strong role in shaping foreign policy. Along the way, those veterans meet a clean energy entrepreneur who explains that clean energy technology and infrastructure develop at a glacial pace because most government subsidies still go to oil, coal and gas.

We traveled to vast farmlands in California and Iowa where precious freshwater resources are being contaminated with pesticides and chemical fertilizer. We met farmers compelled to grow chemical-intensive commodity crops in order to receive direct subsidy payments from the government. Many of these farmers would like to switch to organic but feel, "trapped on a subsidy treadmill."

During filming, I was surprised go to Washington DC and hear the same talking points from both lobbyists and members of powerful Congressional committees. Those talking points include arguments that the world would starve without chemical agriculture, that wind and solar technologies are "way off in the future,” and that climate change is, after all, an unproven science. When we asked about the possible influence of campaign contributions in making these policies, most members of Congress said there is none, but they readily admit that they spend about a third of their time fundraising and that lobbyists and industry PACs help raise their money… and therefore get more of their time.

Want to see lawmakers explain how they hate fundraising, and discuss how they’d like the option of a public campaign fund similar to what is available in Arizona, Maine and Portland, Oregon? Please join us at tonight’s sneak-preview premiere at 7:00 p.m. at Ecotrust in the Billy Frank Room (721 NW 9th Avenue Portland in the Pearl District). I hope to see you there.

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    Common Cause Oregon is pleased to be a sponsor of tonight's screening of Pricele$$. Thanks to Steve for his work on this important film.

    Brian Rohter, co-founder of New Seasons Market and co-director of the Yes on 26-108 campaign to retain Voter-Owned Elections will also say a few words about the importance of Portland's reform in leading the way for what is needed in Salem and Washington, D.C.

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    Sorry I won't be there tonight due to being quite under the weather. But I hear this film makes a great case for why we need to vote Yes on 26-108!

    It's really a basic question - why do people make large campaign contributions? Because they expect something in return, even if it's just access. And then ask the next question - do the people making those large contributions have your best interest in mind?

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