Like fellow Clinton administration veteran Al Gore, former secretary of labor Robert Reich has for years been barnstorming the country, preaching an inconvenient truth — that economic disparity is endemic in our country, that it’s getting worse, and that it threatens the survival of our democracy and of capitalism itself.
Not as inventive as Gore’s film, Jacob Kornbluth’s “Inequality for All” presents Reich’s position by patching together lectures from his “Wealth & Poverty” course at the University of California, Berkeley. That, and many, many charts and graphs. The latter repeat variations on the same theme: how the pattern of increased concentration of wealth in the top 1 percent of the population, combined with a policy of tax cuts and reduced federal spending, exactly mirrors the major economic declines since the Great Depression of 1929. Point taken, and often repeated, and though the film includes hard-luck stories from victims of the latest downturn, it doesn’t quite have the resonance of images of receding glaciers and stranded polar bears.
To inject some personality, Reich engages in self-deprecating humor about his diminutive stature. He also provides some glimpses into his own background, such as how when he was bullied for his size in school he enlisted the protection of other boys. One of those protectors was Michael Schwerner, who would later be murdered along with two other civil rights workers by the Klan in Mississippi in 1964. This incident shocked Reich into recognition of the “real bullies” in the world, those who victimize the powerless with impunity. That, and the examples of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, inspired him with the possibility of changing the world, until a chance meeting with fellow Rhodes Scholar Bill Clinton put him in a position where he could actually do something.
Mostly, though, the film rails at the idea that raising wages and taxing the top 1 percent is an attack on “job creators,” insisting that for business to thrive it requires consumers with sufficient income to be able to spend, and the investment of government funding in infrastructure to stimulate more jobs. Cogent arguments, perhaps, so why couldn’t the film allow for other points of view on the subject from respectable sources? Instead, by way of discussion, “Inequality” shows eye-rolling snippets of fatuous comments on Fox News.
Another problem with “Inequality” is that it offers nothing new or surprising. That was not the case with global warming when Gore’s Oscar-winning documentary on the subject came out in 2006. But the inequity of economic distribution, though an inconvenient truth, is hardly an unreported one. The spate of similar films on the subject goes back at least to Michael Moore’s “Roger & Me” (1989), and includes “Enron: the Smartest Guys in the Room” (2005), “Inside Job” (2010), and, most recently, “Money for Nothing: Inside the Federal Reserve” (2013). And that’s not even including the fictional features. But their impact has been minimal at best; and, as Reich indicates, with such developments as the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, allowing unrestricted contributions to presidential campaigns, it’s not likely to get any better.
And who’s to blame? Reich acknowledges that neither he nor the Clinton administration did enough to rectify the situation. Such acceptance of responsibility is refreshing, and might be a first step to achieving economic equality for all.Peter Keough can be reached at email@example.com.