Title: Inequality for All
Director: Jacob Kornbluth
Screenwriter: Jacob Kornbluth
Cast: Robert Reich
Screened at: Review 1, NYC, 9/11/13
Opens: September 27, 2013
Leave it to the reactionary columnists with The Wall Street Journal to come up with a headline like this one (on September 10th): “The Weak Recovery Explains Rising Inequality, Not Vice Versa.” John B. Taylor holds that ….“tax cuts in the past 30 years are [not] responsible for the widening income distribution.” Our president “blames tax cuts that began under Reagan for today’s slow growth. The data don’t back him up.” Oh, but the data certainly do back up that tax cuts for the rich are largely responsible for our present inequality of income, at least according to Robert Reich, the 4’11” former labor secretary for the administrations of Ford, Carter and Clinton. The author of twelve books in the field of economics which generally have a left-of-center political bent is not only a brilliant person, one who thinks and speaks clearly, but a charmer. And a charm is what you need to rivet the attention of a class of some two hundred students meeting together for Reich’s course at the University of California at Berkeley.
Reich’s chief point under which he narrates and illustrates “Inequality for All” is that it’s not just a fact that the four hundred richest Americans control an equal slice of the economic pie of, get this, the bottom one hundred fifty million of us. Let that sink in: add up all the wealth of just four hundred folks, then add up the wealth of one hundred and fifty million Americans and the sum of assets would be…equal.
Did those four hundred Americans with eight-figure and nine-figure salaries and savings earn their money? Maybe yes, probably no, but Reich does not argue whether they earned the bucks or not. His thesis is that such a division of money is what causes our entire economy to break down as it did during the stock market crash of 2008. Why so? This is because the four hundred rich dudes are not “job creators” as the dinosaurs on Channel 5 like Bill O’Reilly insist that they are. The job creators are…we, the middle class customers of goods and services. Since seventy percent of our economy is supported by private sales (and presumably the rest by government orders), it is essential that these hundreds of millions of customers have the money to buy goods. It doesn’t matter whether they buy what they need or buy for conspicuous consumption. Their spending fuels the economy, granting a measure of prosperity to the stores from which they make their purchases and the workers therein. If the middle class does not have the money to spend, businesses have to retrench, close down, lay off workers. In a vicious cycle, these poor workers will not be able to spend and so more businesses must close and workers will be laid off.
What’s more, because of the maldistribution of wealth, Amazon, a giant corporation with millions of customers in the U.S., is able to turn out goods with sixty thousand employees. If thousands of individual stores had to produce these goods, they could employ perhaps five hundred thousand employees. Bigness may be good for consumers, or at least with the ones who have the cash, but as more businesses close and workers are laid off, the rich will get richer and the poor—you know the rest.
“Inequality for All” is anything but an eighty-nine minute lesson on what has been called “the dismal science.” Dismal may be the condition of the middle class today, but Reich is an incredible teacher whose narration rivets attention. What’s more he has at his beck and call a dazzling array of graphs, especially bar graphs that illustrate the way middle-income wages have become stagnant, requiring many women to enter the labor market not so much to show how liberated they are but simply because of their financial needs. Especially convincing is his equation of graphs with a bridge, showing that the large columns that suspend the bridge stand in for the money going to the top earners while the rest of the bridge is level or even sloping downward.
Reich may not be Michael Moore, but he has a rich sense of humor, a self-deprecatory one especially about his height, which resulted from a genetic disturbance not inherited from his parents. He has quite a bit more charm than Al Gore, who may have graduated with honors from Harvard University but whose heart-felt “An Inconvenient Truth” was as stiff a doc as is Mr. Gore himself. Reich is not altogether pessimistic about America’s economic future, but given the robotics that have resulted in layoffs even within companies that manufacture products inside the U.S. and the globalization of our economy as executives look for the cheapest places to make their goods, there seems no great future for masses of American workers. And given that during the Eisenhower Administration our I.R.S. put a marginal tax rate of 91% on the rich, now 35% or 39%, the Tea Party shows chutzpah in its watchword “Taxed enough already.” Yet as government subsidies to public colleges like Berkeley have declined with declining government revenue, colleges have had to raise tuition, adding to a vicious cycle wherein many capable students are not able to afford higher education.
Not mentioned in the doc is the government bailout of brokerage firms, banks and auto companies, though archival films of the largely unfocused Occupy Wall Street are on tap. Reich was bullied as a kid because of his height, which formed the basis of his political view that masses of Americans are bullied by the big corporations. Needless to say, that’s not the whole source of his politics: he did graduate summa cum laude from Dartmouth and won a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford to study philosophy, politics and economics. This documentary clearly shows the mixing of those three disclipines which, combined with Reich’s warm personality and electrifying delivery, make “Inequality for All” the Best Documentary of the year so far.
Rated PG. 89 minutes © 2013 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – A-
Acting – A
Technical – A-
Overall – A-