03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The End of Poverty at Home? Part I

I recently blogged about Director Philippe Diaz' bold and often blistering documentary, The End of Poverty? The film premiered in theaters last Friday in New York City and opens in cities across the nation over the next few months (Denver's debut is slated for Dec. 30). An unflinching examination of today's global exploitation traced back to the European colonialists and conquistadors, The End of Poverty? is not without its critics, some of whom complain about the lopsided analysis and concentration on the sundry insults and outrages perpetuated on Third World nations by capitalism.

But the film's ambition is to inspire action rather than debate. By keeping the lens focused and mic trained on entrenched exploitation of impoverished populations by wealthy interests, Diaz attempts to explain and expose on film systemic mechanisms that grease the global economy. While the film's frames and narrative describe today's economic fiefdom as originating some 500 years ago with the exploits of Columbus and other European explorers, the imagery inspired in my mind reached past colonialists and conquistadors to Egyptian pharaohs and slaves. Metaphorical, mental flashbacks to college lectures on ancient history flashed across the screen as I watched The End of Poverty? As academicians shared the spotlight with impoverished natives, all attesting to capitalism's crimes, or at least testifying to its worst impulses, I envisioned ancient Egypt where the mighty were carried on the shoulders of the hapless and helpless whose sole purpose in life was to serve their masters. Sure, the economic domination the film describes is more sophisticated than ancient royalty kept afloat on litters. But the precept remains the same - the poor are still keeping the wealthy afloat.

Actually, there were many images and perceptions prompted by The End of Poverty? Closer to home, I was reminded of the economic principles and policies - demanding greater returns and less expenditures - that's created one of the most combustible controversies in American politics. The surge of immigrants residing and working in the United States without official documentation has engendered some of the most passionate responses by both their advocates and opponents since, well, the last immigration surge in the early 20th Century. But beyond the obvious social and immediate economic implications of this immigration upswing there is an underlying catalyst that is oft-ignored in the national uproar. Usually national discussions on illegal immigration bicker back and forth about these immigrants threatening American's safety, culture, tax revenues and jobs. Less often does the broad debate reflect on the economic impetus attracting people to abandon their homeland on a journey that is loaded with hostility, a word best describing the terrain many have to cross and much of the population they have to live among and work for in the age-old quest for a better paycheck and brighter opportunity.

Mentioned only intermittently are the businesses benefiting from these immigrants. Without legal papers or permission to work, these immigrants also lack legal recourse for workforce infringements and basic employee rights. The End of Poverty? documents capitalistic exploitation of impoverished workers in underdeveloped countries, but there is ample exploitation of this same class of people here. Does anyone really believe that a widespread concern and compassion motivated the immigration boom of the last decade-plus? Basically, economics spurred this tide of immigration, both legal and illegal. And the same motivation described in the film that spurs businesses to seek economic opportunity abroad is reflected at home. Whether exporting and outsourcing jobs or importing cheap labor, the bottom line is enhanced profit.

Even people who disagree on immigration reform (and nearly everything else) agree on the economic undercurrents. A few years ago, as editor of a Latino lifestyles magazine; in an attempt to report all opinions and angles, I interviewed Jim Gilchrist, founder of the Minutemen Project. While we disagreed on almost everything, including a resolution to the immigration stalemate, there came a brief moment of mutual accord. I summarized my interpretation of the economic impulses and circumstances driving immigration and asked Gilchrist if he thought it fair to state the reason and responsibility behind the immigration explosion - whether one believes it to be good or bad - as stemming from and belonging to businesses seeking cheap and pliant labor. He paused, stammered a second and then stated, "Wayne, you took the words out of my mouth."

Other instances portrayed in The End of Poverty? hit home. Governor Dick Lamm's recent post on this site reminded me how, in our global economy, the message central to the film isn't strictly defined, balanced or bordered by the historical North/South axiom.

The population growth issue in America is a matter of immigration. With our natural birthrate we will stabilize the population of the U.S., with current levels of mass immigration we will double and double again. Sustainability requires us to confront the painful issues of immigration and consumption.

The assorted burdens created by global economic disparity and disproportionate consumption of resources have arrived home. While Governor Lamm largely discussed immigration and sustainability within America as opposed to the film's broader view, he and Diaz both noted the impossibility of the planet supporting worldwide consumption at the rate and level Americans enjoy at present. However, the broader consequences that The End of Poverty? addresses go beyond one issue or nation. Limiting or curtailing immigration to the United States isn't going to solve the economic circumstances that surround it. Nor will containing immigration replenish or sustain the world's limited and vanishing resources. Much like with global warming, we all share one earth; many of our current problems can't be checked at the border. Governor Lamm wrote, "We are living on the shoulders of some awesome geometric curves." Diaz would claim that we are living on the shoulders of the impoverished. Or, to reference my earlier metaphorical image, the shoulders of Egyptian slaves - different people but same story.

Regardless of personal opinions or politics, an immutable fact confronts us. The old paradigm of power and privilege can't immunize or isolate people and nations from global problems and poverty. While I wrote a generally enthusiastic review of The End of Poverty?, perhaps the best line to summarize our national predicament comes from Lauren Wissot's review (not entirely favorable) of the film. "The chickens always come home to roost..."