There’s lots of talk about economy, but for all the pontificating and bloviating about taxes and jobs and poverty, is there any one person who can explain what happened, how we got here, and how we might fix it? Actually, there is, and his name is Robert Reich, the Former Labor Secretary under President Clinton, UC Berkeley professor, and author of the book “Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future,” which the new documentary “Inequality For All,” directed by Jacob Kornbluth, is based on. The situation is grim, to be sure, but it’s also deceptively simple, at least in the words of Reich, who makes these concepts particularly easy to understand but also crucially urgent: it’s the middle class we should be focusing on. Despite Reich’s clear cut answers about how the middle class has been systematically oppressed for the past 35 years, he (as well as the film) maintains a hopeful, non-cynical, and ultimately inspiring outlook for the future.
“Inequality For All” is part Reich lecture and part Reich biopic. The film is structured around Reich’s Wealth and Poverty class at Berkeley, which is overflowing with eager students wanting to learn at the foot of the economic master. The man has White House credentials stretching back to the President Ford, but he chooses to teach, because he feels that’s the best way to inspire social change in an increasingly fractured and tense society. You may feel inspired to pull out your notebooks and settle in like the students, because in many ways, the film is like taking a lesson from Reich on income inequality. That’s not to say that the material is dry or boring in any way, in fact, it’s positively gripping, and Kornbluth has broken up the lecture with a loose narrative about Reich’s daily life of talks and appearances, as well as his personal history. This is interspersed with the stories and struggles of average middle class Americans who are doing everything right and still struggling to make ends meet, juxtaposed with the life story of a 1-percenter, Nick Hanauer, one of those millionaires who wishes he could give more back to the economy.
Reich’s main argument is this: when the middle class is healthy, the economy is prosperous. Because the United States is a consumer-based economy, when the middle class (the largest population) has disposable income to spend on consumption, the economy grows, jobs are created, houses are bought, businesses flourish, etc. This seems like a common sense system, and was, in fact, the m.o. in the U.S. in those booming post-war years. It wasn’t until the late ‘70s and early ‘80s when Ronald Reagan led a union busting charge and lowered taxes on the richest of the rich that the middle class began to see their wages plateau and their cost of living go up. Not to mention competition from outsourcing, globalization, and technological advances that essentially destroyed the manufacturing jobs that nurtured a healthy middle class. These were the ideals that he fought for with Bill Clinton, an old friend whom he met on the boat to England as Rhodes’ Scholars. And while Clinton presided over a particularly prosperous period in American life, Reich still believes they didn’t do enough to turn back the tide on the unstoppable forces of campaign finance, lobbyists, Wall Street, and globalization.
Though Reich is often labeled derisively as a “Communist” or “Socialist” by the likes of Bill O’Reilly and other Fox News blowhards (he’s in fine company with other proponents of economic reform and fair wealth distribution like Warren Buffett and his Republican colleague Alan Simpson), he’s really a Capitalist, just one who believes in the proper regulation of capitalism. As he puts it, the free market doesn’t really exist: it’s up to the government to decide what the rules are for the market, and clearly, the trends of deregulation in the financial markets and lowering taxes on the wealthy in the name of “job creation” has only allowed the rich to get richer, hoarding billions while average families add more hours, more jobs, and take second mortgages just to make it through the week.
While it all seems very dire and bleak, especially when Kornbluth cuts in footage from Tea Party rallies and Occupy Wall Street, which, when compared in this way, are revealed to be the same primal scream of frustration at the unfair hand we’ve been dealt. But when Reich steels himself and discusses why it’s important to stand up to bullies—recounting his own childhood facing schoolyard torment as a result of the Fairbanks disease that stunted his growth—it’s heartbreaking but also truly inspiring. That a documentary about economics could be so personally emotional and affecting is remarkable. And to learn from Reich in this film, as his students at Berkeley do, is a treat and a privilege. Which is why his teaching is so important. His final speech to his class (and us) exhorts everyone to do the right thing, to look out for others, to stand up for what’s right. To save the world. Won’t we all take a lesson from Professor Reich? [A-]