The people who most need to see and understand director Jacob Kornbluth‘s newest movie Inequality for All, (for instance everyone involved with the Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity,) will at best ignore it, and at worst launch into incomprehensibly obtuse “critiques” based on small, inconsequential details. This is a shame, because not only does the film’s star and presenter, former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, outline the history and scope of the escalating crisis of economic inequality, he also opens some possible avenues towards a solution, and even offers up the possibility of optimism.
At 85 minutes the film is snappy and filmed with bright video crispness and perfect sound. Pleasing animations illustrate the statistical analysis, and should be familiar to anyone who has seen Reich cover these ideas on YouTube. What this seamless presentation style does is lower all barriers between the audience and Reich, allowing us to concentrate on the man and his ideas.
Such a technique would be disastrous if the the man at the center of the effort were a boring, dry academic. Fortunately Reich is a powerful, commanding speaker with a dexterous command of the facts and figures needed to make his case. Reich has Fairbanks disease, which is the cause of his diminutive stature (he stands under five feet tall.) This and other biographical details are woven into the movie’s narrative for two reasons. One is to present Reich as a figure we can relate to. Far from simply being an entitled Ivy League academic and Rhodes Scholar (which he is, after all) Reich portrays himself as a man of the people. He was always that kid who was too small and bullied by his peers. He comes from blue collar roots: his father sold dresses and his mother help at the shop. He is unashamedly pro-union.
The other reason to concentrate on Reich as a person is that the story of economic inequality in America is also Reich’s story. Reich has been fighting this battle against economic disparity for over thirty years. At one point, near the end of the movie, Reich allows himself a bit of bitter reflection, wondering if his entire life has been a failure. After all, he has been ringing the bells of doom for decades, and his ideas and policy solutions have been ignored, even as the prophesied doom strikes us, over and over again.
The film detours at times off Reich and onto a collection of Americans who are living under the burden of our current economic inequality. We all know the stories. Families where both parents work full time jobs only to barely scrape by and accrue nothing in the way of concrete savings or any hope of a happy retirement. These people are taxed at more than 30% of their income, even as the very wealthy are paying taxes in the range of 11-15%. Under such a system are dreams being crushed even as the very wealthy end up with more money than they can possibly spend.
As Reich explains part way through the film, the economy right now is doing great, but the middle class and the poor are not feeling the effects. In the current economic boom, it’s a good time to be the 1%, the rest of us merely endure.
The problems our world experiences due to economic inequality are exacerbated by the effect such money has on our politics. A beleaguered and uninformed middle class can be easily manipulated into believing that the cause of all our problems is not due to a structural defect in the way we regulate our economy, but because of immigrants stealing our jobs, terrorist Muslims infiltrating our society, or as a punishment from God for allowing gay marriage and atheism.
Meanwhile the very rich use their money to buy the favor of candidates, paying lobbyists to convince legislators to pass changes to the laws that favor making the rich even richer, giving them more power with which to warp the system. This is part of what Reich calls the Vicious Cycle, and it won’t be enough to simply do away with Citizens United, we need to reduce the power of the 1% to unduly impact the political system, and this means taxing their wealth and modifying economic incentives.
There is no such thing as a free market. All markets operate by the rules we, as a society, put in place. We have the ability to modify rules when certain people, who are infinitely inventive and always looking for loopholes that lead to wealth, break or game the system. At that point it is important to close loopholes and erect barriers to such exploitation. Markets work best when they are managed and planned, just as managed and planned farms work better than wild fields for generating food.
Inequality for All is based on Reich’s 2010 bestseller Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future and won a U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Achievement in Filmmaking at the Sundance Film Festival. It premieres in Providence on Friday, October 18th at the Avon Cinema on Thayer St. RI Future, the Economic Progress Institute and other progressive organizations in the Ocean State are holding a special screening at 4pm, followed by a conversation about the film at the English Cellar Ale House, 165 Angell, just off of Thayer.
After this special performance the film will be at the Avon for at least an entire week’s worth of showtimes.