Documentary offers programs that work

French workers receive paychecks with dozens of line items explaining how their taxes are spent.

French workers receive paychecks with dozens of line items explaining how their taxes are spent.

Give workers lots of time off and they still produce—but live longer.

Get rid of homework and student achievement goes up.

Repeal drug prohibition and drug problems go down.

These are some of the results of a filmmaker’s search for corporate and government policies and practices on the other side of the world that the United States might emulate—innovations in the U.S., SOP elsewhere. Michael Moore’s documentary, Where to Invade Next—the title is deceptive—is in current release and playing at one Reno theatre. It’s an intriguing movie, full of information that rarely appears in news coverage, and we asked some folks to watch it and comment.

State governments have long swapped techniques through associations like the National Conference of State Legislatures and the Council of State Governments, and corporations have traditionally learned from each other. But U.S. parochialism and xenophobia have limited how much was learned from other countries. One exception to this was the Reagan years, when a sort of let’s-be-like-Japan corporate ethos brought pressure for workaholism and greater productivity to U.S. corporations—and schools.

Moore traveled to Eastern Hemisphere nations to check out reports of successful policies, such as Germany’s practice of requiring that workers hold half the seats on corporate boards, making it more difficult to cover up corporate misconduct.

“The film is definitely right in showing more participation by workers in management,” said former Nevada casino executive Phil Bryan. “The German model is discussed a lot and used a lot, whether knowingly or not. Their overall educational systems aims at early placement on a track, but doesn’t inhibit growth within work to higher management either. It has been very effective there, and I personally see signs of that understanding growing here now, but also some resistance here from some educational-credentials-required quarters.”

Frequently, what Moore found was simple common sense—civility or a lack of punitive policies, for instance.

In France, Moore learned that workers receive paychecks with long line-item statements of where their deducted taxes go, making accountability of government much easier.

Italian workers are also treated well, receiving—by law—eight weeks of paid vacation a year, paid 14-day honeymoons following marriage, five months of paid family leave following a birth. Yet with all that time off, the productivity of Italian workers is comparable to that of U.S. workers, Moore reported, and in the top 15 among nations. Ducati Motorcycles CEO Claudio Domenicali told Moore, “There is no clash between the profit of the company and the well being of the people.”

And Italians live four years longer than people in the United States, which some figures in the film relate to the lack of workplace tension in Italy.

If workers are given a life outside work, why not do the same for their children?

Children in Finland have been regarded as among the best educated in the world for several years. “Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a standardized test given to 15-year-olds in more than 40 global venues, revealed Finnish youth to be the best young readers in the world,” Smithsonian magazine reports. “Three years later, they led in math. By 2006, Finland was first out of 57 countries (and a few cities) in science. In the 2009 PISAscores released last year, the nation came in second in science, third in reading and sixth in math among nearly half a million students worldwide.”

Paradoxically, one thing Finnish educators recommend against is standardized tests. Multiple choice questions are rare. Finland has also done away with most homework and shortened school hours.

“We’ve heard this,” Washoe School Board member Howard Rosenberg said. In fact, there have been plenty of home field warnings about U.S. homework.

“As I watch my daughter struggle through school days on too little sleep and feel almost guilty if she wants to watch an hour of television instead of advancing a few yards in the trench warfare of her weekly homework routine, I have my doubts,” author Karl Taro Greenfeld wrote in the Atlantic Monthly two years ago after he tried doing his daughter’s homework for a week. “When would she ever have time to, say, read a book for pleasure? Or write a story or paint a picture or play the guitar?”

No homework. Would the U.S. public stand still for this kind of thing? Rosenberg said the public is already convinced of one thing about existing education—“It doesn’t work,” he said.

“Reading, writing, arithmetic—what you’re talking about when you’re doing reading, writing and arithmetic is mechanics. It has nothing whatever to do with content. What we’ve got to do is start teaching our children using content that will make them think. Instead of doing some of the things that we do in the middle schools, why not Planet of the Apes? It poses some marvelous questions about who actually has the most intelligence—and how do they use it. If Finland can do what it’s doing, why the hell are we back in the Dark Ages? … The teacher knows what she’s doing. Let her do her job.”

“If you just constantly work, work, work, you stop learning,” one teacher told Moore.

This vending machine is at Sparks High School. The snacks, many of which are labeled “natural,” still have plenty of fat, carbs and salt.


While the U.S. chases fads like data-driven instruction, vouchers, incentive pay, Broad Academy superintendents, one-to-one initiatives and charter schools, Finland has leaped ahead with what it does not do.

For those who do succeed as schoolchildren, there is still paying for college—unless they live in one of the at least 22 countries where college is free. Moore went to Slovenia, which is educating its college students for free—and some of ours, too.

“I couldn’t even afford to finish community college,” said one U.S. student who is getting a free college education in Slovenia, a Zenda-like Alpine nation.

In many cases, Moore reports that the U.S. is an exception, as when he points out that family leave is standard worldwide—“except for the two countries too poor to afford it, Papua New Guinea and the United States of America.”

But in other ways as the movie progresses, the viewer realizes that many of the practices—and their results—were once common in the United States. More than once some European points this out, suggesting they are more familiar with our history than we are. The scenes of happy workers recall that in the 1950s, the nation enjoyed a decade of nearly unbroken prosperity, unions were strong, U.S. worker satisfaction surveys found workers largely content, households could thrive on a single breadwinner’s paycheck—and the top tax rate was 90-plus percent, making the burden on those at the bottom and in the middle light.

“Here’s a marginal example—remember the uproar about air controllers taking naps?” Reno’s Bryan asks. “Some high official said it would never happen on his watch. Well, Edison took naps. The best CPA I ever knew took naps. I took naps—very short, but so refreshing. Science has proved naps improve work and attention. But that old puritanical notion of work is still alive and well. In every company I managed, I compelled people to take their vacations because of that. But some companies—really their management—don’t see that necessity.”

In France, Moore found that children are treated like royalty in public school lunch rooms, served nutritious, well-prepared fine foods and shielded from soft drinks and vending machines, with the result that they prefer water over cola—Moore tried tempting some of the children. The lunch hour is treated as a class, when the children learn to eat. When they were shown what U.S. children eat at school, they tended to wrinkle their noses, if they recognized the food at all. One of their chefs said, “Frankly, that’s not food.” One of the students said, “That’s not healthy.”

Rosenberg said, “Why aren’t we using lunch hour as a time to learn?”

Though Moore did not touch on the long-term consequences, it was difficult not to think of the lifelong lack of obesity, illness and lost work hours in children who learn good eating habits.

Moore’s travels often turned up policies or practices that went against the grain of U.S. preconceptions.

In Norway, non-punitive prisons brought the repeat offender rate well below that of the U.S. A neo-Nazi terrorist’s bombing of the government quarter in Oslo and murder of children at an island camp prompted Norway to expand civil liberties, compared to the U.S. enactment of the PATRIOT Act following September 11.

In Tunisia, women helped overthrow a dictator and an Islamic parliamentary majority enacted equal rights for women in the national constitution. The head of the Islamist party told Moore homosexuality is a matter for families, not for government.

The only bank in Iceland that did not collapse in the 2008 meltdown was run by women. Before the meltdown, said an Icelandic chamber of commerce official, “I thought we had created a world that was on an empty pursuit for more.” A bank official said they would not invest in something they didn’t understand. (An Enron executive was unable to explain to Fortune magazine how Enron made its money.)

Bryan: “My own experience tells me that such women do demand deeper understanding before consenting to such complex decisions. I cannot tell you how many times brilliant women, in my experience, saved the day by asking the right questions—and providing the right answers in cooperative teamwork, including banking executives.”

In Portugal, where anti-drug laws were repealed 15 years ago, drug use has not dropped off as rapidly as a viewer of the movie might come away believing, but it is in a slow decline. Just as important, accompanying problems such as sexually transmitted diseases have been reduced and, according to the Washington Post, it is rare that anyone dies from drug abuse or overdose anymore. (Three Portugal police officers asked Moore to take a message back to U.S. police officers—end the death penalty.)

All these policies do come with costs, but they are not as expensive as might be thought. Moore said the French school lunches cost less than school lunches in the U.S. He also noted that while French taxes are slightly higher than U.S. taxes, the French do not pay for things U.S. families pay for out of pocket without government’s bargaining power—nursing care, prescriptions, day care, health care, college, and all those vacations.

Why doesn’t the U.S. have a tradition of learning from other nations? Nevada sociologist James Richardson said children are indoctrinated with the superiority and entitlement of our country.

“It’s something I grew up with in Texas,” he said. “If you’ve got the perfect society, you don’t see others as offering much. … Part of it is the Protestant ethic that fueled Manifest Destiny and what we did to Native Americans. I don’t want want to say it’s genetic, because I think it’s cultural and historical, and in a sense accidental.”

He said people here tend not to do a lot of traveling outside the country.

“We grow up with a lack of appreciation for other cultures and other points of view.”

Moore pointed out how many of the policies he found had originated in the United States: “We just needed to go to the American lost and found.”