On Kornbluth’s “Inequality for All”

Robert Reich

Jacob Kornbluth’s film, Inequality for All, takes the dry premise of producing a documentary film about the macroeconomic topic of income inequality and turns it into a vivid exposé on the life and times of veteran economist Robert Reich, a former Rhodes scholar whose research into inequality was the basis for President Bill Clinton’s “Putting People First” campaign (another Rhodes scholar) and is now presented to students at UC Berkeley in his popular Wealth and Poverty Course. By making the vertically challenged but wonderfully astute Reich the protagonist, Kornbluth forms an appeal to pathos that a film about economics wouldn’t typically do. Throughout the course of the film, Reich’s staid business clothes almost become a superhero costume as we learn about his ideas about and heartfelt beliefs in income equality in the United States.

English: Income inequality, United States, 197...

The film uses personal interviews with Reich, new and archival footage and infographics to demonstrate how the rich people in American society have been increasingly earning higher wages than the average Joe, whose wages have stagnated. During one of his lectures, he ardently insists that “something happened in the 1970s” (Reich) that prevented American society from reacting to the stagnation. A review of the film by Carole Cadwalladr for British publication, The Guardian, summarizes that “a combination of anti-union legislation and deregulation of the economy” boosted the economy while promoting income inequality, a phenomenon that was masked as women started working, everyone worked more hours a week, and consumers used surging house prices as a form of credit. Reich explains that this unhealthy trend came to a screeching halt in 2007, leaving a grossly enormous income gap between the very rich and the middle class.

While I find Reich’s ideas sound and his personality humble, the film’s inclusion of millionaire Nick Hanauer, is what saves the film’s main idea from the wrath of a devil’s advocate. Here’s a guy who earns millions of dollars, has the latest Audi and a nice house, and yet feels like he’s paying too little tax. The millions Hanauer makes as co-chair and CEO of the Pacific Coast Feather Company sit tight in his savings accounts, instead of going to government spending or being disbursed as wages to middle class laborers that could use it to purchase goods in the otherwise booming American economy.

Eric Liu, Nick Hanauer, The True Patriot book,...
Eric Liu, Nick Hanauer, The True Patriot book, 7-1-08 show. (Photo credit: kuow949)

Hanauer’s words are effective because, in being “one of the 1%” (Cadwalladr), his voice is that of a “have” in the land of “have-nots”. People on the shorter end of the stick of income inequality obviously clamor for more money – but what do the privileged say? According to Hanauer, they too see something wrong with the situation. Hanauer’s testimony posits disunion between two ends of an economy that need to draw closer to each other.

Opposite Hanauer is Erika and Robert Vaclav, a middle-class family where paying $400 a week in after-school care for their daughter is a must if Erika wants to keep working at Costco. Robert lost his job as Circuit City a manager when the retailer turned defunct.

Robert Reich
Robert Reich (Photo credit: Steve Rhodes)

The film evokes strong emotions through its weighty statistics and its portrait of Reich, whose standing ovation at the conclusion of his last class lecture also finishes off the film. Lambasting of failed macroeconomic policy in the film is also present, such as when Reich discusses Ronald Reagan’s bust of the union of air traffic controllers during his time in office.

Reich also defeats the typical American response to income inequality – upward mobility – by noting that becoming a millionaire like Hanauer isn’t as easy as it may seem. “42% of children born in poverty in the USA will stay there. In Denmark it’s 24%” (Reich).

In a September 2013 interview with Bill Moyers about the film, Reich and Moyers agree on a lost period of “shared prosperity” (Moyers) between 1946 and 1978 that serves as a sharp contrast to the latest figures of income gains from 2009 – 2012, which show that the top 1% of Americans took 95% of those gains.

Though the negatives are bountiful, what’s not in grand supply in the film are concrete solutions.

Robert Reich
Robert Reich (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Reich moves his class audience by insisting that some of them will be changemakers, by refuting cynicism and alluding to the social activism of the 60s, and by suggesting that a light is at the end of the tunnel with his warm demeanor. But is that really going to accomplish anything?

Bridging the income gap is no easy feat, something Reich is aware of. In the middle of the film, upon recollecting the memories of his work under the Clinton administration as labor secretary, Reich “looks downcast” (Cadwalladr) as he wonders whether his life has been a “total failure” (Reich). Though it’s unlikely that Reich is a failure by any means, it goes to show that more than one person is necessary to make a change on such a widespread phenomenon.

Deterrents to the change Reich wants exist. When Moyers and Reich discuss the aforementioned period of prosperity, Reich immediately notes that the period was not socialism, in clear connection to the harsh labeling that Reich has endured by media pundits such as Bill O’ Reilly. People like O’Reilly are newsmakers that influence how many Americans see their nation. Many of these folks are the same ones that claim that the rich shouldn’t be taxed more heavily than they already are because they’re job creators, lending themselves to a fallacy of argument known as the undistributed middle. Just being rich (point A) won’t lead directly to more jobs (point C); you’ve first got to invest that money somehow (point B, which is ignored).

Bill O'Reilly - Caricature
Bill O’Reilly – Caricature (Photo credit: DonkeyHotey)

If newsmakers are naysaying folks like Reich down through their senseless rhetoric, and if presidential campaigns are being funded by rich people (another topic that’s discussed in the film), what chance do educated college students have in standing up to these odds? As Reich himself acknowledges, he grew up in an era where changing the world was the cool thing to do. That kind of activism is no longer as ubiquitous, with apathy being a major deterrent in educated youth that would otherwise take to the streets and fight for  cause.

Robert Reich of the Roosevelt National Advisor...
Robert Reich of the Roosevelt National Advisory board, as Secretary of Labor (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Reich, I think, wants to first tap into that long lost activism and then inspire his students to be changemakers. College students have potential, as made evident when college students from all parts of the United States – accompanied by an older demographic – protested in multiple U.S. cities for comprehensive immigration reform. Their efforts warranted the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Act, a piece of legislation I’m familiar with because I benefit from it. The same ardor and passion demonstrated by youth in this context can also work in promoting income equality. In the film, Reich refutes the belief that the economy is “out there” or that it’s a “natural” force that can’t really be controlled. He supports this point by noting how the marginal tax rate for the very rich has dropped significantly throughout the century, from as high as 90% to as low as 35%. These changes were brought on by policy, which in turn was brought on by human beings acting upon and affecting the American economy.

Reich’s failure to posit a stratified plan for action means the film was made to promote awareness rather than call to action. It seeks to inform viewers of the problem and let them know that it needs fixing. Viewers of the film who have the means to effect change – economists, policymakers and rich people – will understand what to do. For the rest of the audience, perhaps a sequel will propose more specific solutions.

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