July 13, 2009

This Week
In Review
By Sam Pizzigati, editor, Too Much

Be Gone Greed, Gluttony, Waste!

Why Kerala, Grampa? A film by Tom Chamberlin. 87 minutes. Online premiere at Movies for Progressives. $2.99.

kerelaCalifornia and the state of Kerala in India have a good bit in common. They each have about the same number of people, and people in both California and Kerala live about the same number of years. The two states have similar literacy rates. They even sit, geographically, in the same place: on their nation’s southwest coast.

But that’s where the similarities seem to end. In Kerala, few people ever go to bed hungry — or without a roof over their head. Students can attend college in Kerala for free. Voter turnouts run higher in Kerala and birth rates lower. Every person in Kerala has affordable health care.

One more difference: California’s economy generates 70 times more wealth than Kerala’s.

About a decade ago, statistics like these caught the attention of Tom Chamberlin, a veteran independent filmmaker based in Portland, Oregon.  

“How is it possible for Kerala to provide for the needs of all its citizens with so little money?” he wondered. “I was curious.”

And now we are enlightened. Over recent years, journalists and academics have written a great deal about the “Kerala model.” But Chamberlin’s new documentary gives us a much more vivid sense of what the people of Kerala have achieved — and how — than any article or book.

Why Kerala, Grampa? takes us on a month-long tour through countryside and cities with a street theater group that comes out of Kerala’s biggest grassroots community organizing initiative. Along the way, we pick up all the Kerala basics.

subplugWe learn about the land reform that broke up Kerala’s huge private estates in the 1960s, about the state’s broad network of worker-owned cooperatives and small businesses, about the “revenue sharing” that returns dollars to local villages where citizens, planning together, decide how those dollars get spent.

Most of all, we see what can happen when a society really does spread the wealth. Once spread, we see, even a tiny pile of wealth — like Kerala’s — can work wonders.

Chamberlin bookends his film with his granddaughter. We meet her as a toddler before he first set foot in Kerala and then again as a nine-year-old, at the end of the film’s production process.

“Though not perfect by any means,” Chamberlin as narrator counsels his grandchild, Kerala offers “a hint of what your life could be like.”

Chamberlin does all the film’s narration, and a fine narrator he is. His gentle tone and soft-spoken wisdom brings to mind Daniel Pinkwater, the National Public Radio commentator. No heavy lecturing here, just an eagerness to help us understand the remarkable things that average people can achieve, on their own, in a society that shares.

To watch this film on the Web, you’ll have to share, too. About three dollars. Chamberlin has truly taken Kerala to heart. In Kerala, he learned, the biggest citizen’s advocacy group doesn’t take any foundation grants. The group, to stay independent and build sustainability, raises its own funds.

Chamberlin doesn’t believe in sugar daddies either. He’s counting on his audience to sustain him. He’s worth sustaining.

kerelaToo Much  is published by the Council on International and Public Affairs, a nonprofit research and education group founded in 1954. Office: Suite 3C, 777 United Nations Plaza, New York, NY 10017. E-mail:
Labor journalist Sam Pizzigati has been editing Too Much, America's only newsletter devoted to challenging excessive income and wealth, ever since the publication first appeared in 1995. Currently an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C., Pizzigati has written widely on economic inequality, with op-eds and articles appearing in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and a host of other newspapers and periodicals.

Pizzigati has edited publications for four national unions and co-edited the primary text on trade union journalism, The New Labor Press (Cornell University ILR Press). He spent 20 years directing the publishing operations of America's largest union, the 3.2 million-member National Education Association.

Pizzigati's latest book, Greed and Good: Understanding and Overcoming the Inequality that Limits Our Lives (Apex Press, 2004), examines just how concentrated wealth is poisoning every aspect of our contemporary lives, from our economy and politics to our health and happiness.