Spectator becomes activist

Bend man promotes corporate tax with documentary 'We're Not Broke'

Central Oregon is known for physical athleticism, not political activism.

Stephen Schaffer happens to exhibit both traits.

Schaffer, 62, a personal trainer and former gym owner, can be found these days outside the downtown Bend library, passing out tiny scraps of paper that read: “You can help save the United States from this economic crisis,” followed by a URL for the trailer of a new documentary called “We’re Not Broke.”

For Schaffer, who retired in 2008, the movie nudged him out of what he calls the “Bend Bubble” and gave his days a sharp purpose.

He happened across the film on Netflix, the online streaming service. His wife, Paula Schaffer, says the couple loves documentaries but stopped watching them for a while.

“It was too depressing,” she says. “That’s what I liked about this one, it has kind of a happy ending, because there’s something you can do.”

“We’re Not Broke” explains how major U.S. corporations avoid paying income taxes, often by stashing money in offshore accounts. The movie reports, for example, that Bank of America — the recipient of about $1 trillion in the government bailout — made $4.4 billion in profits in 2010 but paid $0 in income taxes. It also examines the ties between lawmakers and corporate lobbyists.

The movie points out that the total amount of corporate taxes collected by the U.S. government has been slashed in half since 1961. But to balance the budget, lawmakers have recently laid off teachers and firefighters and cut welfare programs.

These facts are sprinkled throughout the stories of seven Americans who, fed up with this disparity, vow to change the nation’s tax structure.

The filmmakers hope to inspire more activists, too. The movie’s website contains links to contact politicians, and urge them to close corporate tax loopholes.

The film jolted Schaffer into action. He contacted the filmmakers for permission to screen the movie at local library branches this month.

Schaffer says he has always followed politics. He belonged to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 48, for about 25 years, and remembers his disappointment when Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter.

“It had a genuine effect on my livelihood,” he says of that election and the subsequent de-unionization of companies in Portland.

But he didn’t spring into action.

“Instead, I kind of sagged back and was negligent,” he says.

He met Sue Bastian, a longtime activist, in passing at his gym. One Thanksgiving at a mutual friend’s house, they discovered their shared politics. Bastian, a retired physical education teacher, was — and still is — an unabashed activist.

Schaffer says he is inspired by Bastian.

She often travels the country to protest with groups or, at times, alone.

“I can be arrested and be shot at and be thrown in jail, because nobody depends on me,” she says. “I’m very privileged.”

Paula Schaffer takes a different approach.

“I can’t go to jail,” she says with a laugh, “I have 11 grandchildren.”

But she has written letters. And she occasionally joins her husband in promoting the film, although she opts to carry an apolitical sign: “Free movie! Learn how you can change America for the better.”

Stephen Schaffer only half-jokingly describes his newfound cause as “an unpaid position.”

“We’re Not Broke” will be shown for free at the Prineville Public Library at 6 p.m. Tuesday, at the Madras Public Library at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, at the Sunriver Public Library at 2:30 and 5 p.m. Saturday, and at the Sisters Public Library at 3 p.m. May 12.

For more information, visit http://werenotbrokemovie.com/

Or, stop and chat with Schaffer about it.