According to the Victorian Era historian Thomas Carlyle, economics is the “dismal science.” Carlyle was reacting specifically to Thomas Malthus’ grim predictions about the dire results to be expected from the global population explosion, but the name stuck – and for good reason, in the view of many who suffered through excruciatingly dry economics classes required to fulfill our high school Social Studies requirements.
I was one of those, so you might think that I’d be the last person in the world to urge you to get out and see a documentary film about economics, replete with the sort of charts and graphs that used to make my teenaged eyes glaze over. Surprise! Inequality for All, coming to the Rosendale Theatre on November 23, 25 and 27, is not just enlightening and chock-full of crucial information about the current state of the economy and where it’s going; it’s also marvelously entertaining.
A large part of what makes Jesse Kornbluth’s documentary so much fun, and so easily digestible, is the fact that the potentially dull content is delivered by the inimitable Robert Reich, best-known for his stint as US Department of Labor secretary in Bill Clinton’s cabinet. Reich’s frequent commentaries on NPR’s economics program Marketplace are popular as much for his wry delivery as for their admirable clarity of content, even for the layperson.
Inequality for All takes that winning combination to the next level, and manages to engage our rapt attention for nearly an hour-and-a-half, inviting us into Reich’s packed lecture hall at the University of California at Berkeley to experience snippets of his wildly popular seminar on “Wealth and Poverty.” The camera then follows several returning adult students back to their lives in the real world, where they’ve experienced job losses or wage reductions and are hoping to improve their families’ standard of living by going back for a college degree. Those colorful animated charts and graphs break Reich’s theses down into understandable chunks, but the interviews with real people sorely impacted by the recent economic downturn add a powerful human dimension to what might have been not much more than an unusually slick PowerPoint presentation.
Reich’s central premise is that the growing gap between rich and poor – now at its highest since just before the stock market crash of 1929 – is by far the most significant threat to the economy in America and the wider world. He points out that middle-class consumer spending is the driver of 70 percent of economic activity in the US, and even manages to find members of the wealthiest one percent who are more than willing to ridicule the trickle-down theorists’ notion that they are “the job-creators.”
One of the film’s recurring interviewees is venture capitalist and bedding manufacturer Nick Hanauer, who observes that although he makes between ten and 30 million dollars per year, he can only sleep on one pillow at a time. He admits that he has no idea how most of the wealth that he invests is actually used, other than to create ever-new speculative financial instruments of the sort that brought the banking system to its knees in 2008. “The most pro-business thing you can do is to help middle-class people thrive,” Hanauer avers.
Reich talks us through plenty of snappy visual aids illustrating the historical cycles of the US economy during the past century, showing among other trends how middle-class wages have flattened out since the post-World War II boom. He explains how the strategies for coping with that income loss – women entering the workforce in unprecedented numbers, people taking on longer work hours and juggling multiple jobs, borrowing on credit cards or against artificially inflated home values – are no longer enabling middle-class families to stave off disaster. And he persuasively illustrates how the system is increasingly rigged against workers, as the influence over government by corporate lobbyists skews the playing field to such a degree that capitalism no longer functions healthily according to its own commonly accepted “rules.”
If this all sounds like dismal news, Reich’s sparkling personality leavens the sobering narrative throughout the film. He’s funny and self-deprecating, making frequent jokes at his own expense; in response to a hostile interview on Fox News, he gestures to his four-foot-ten-inch frame and asks, “Do I look like Big Government to you?”
One might think that the 2008 collapse might have spelled the end of the fashion for trickle-down economics, but these are still hard times for Keynesians, of whom Reich is probably the most visible and respected in the US after Nobel Prizewinning New York Times columnist Paul Krugman. Near the end of the film we see the usually upbeat and feisty Reich showing his age and looking a tad discouraged, but he offers some moving glimpses into the formative experiences that keep him going. He shares stories of being bullied as a child on account of his height, and finding a champion in an older boy named Michael Schwerner. If you’re old enough that the names Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner mean something to you, that tidbit will enhance your understanding of why Reich isn’t ready to give up the fight for greater economic equality.
In Robert Reich’s view, the decks are stacked, but all is not yet lost. America’s own ebullient postwar economy provides a model that can be revived, he argues. This “virtuous cycle” of prosperity stoked by well-paid middle-class consumers is the only antidote to the current “vicious cycle” of downsizing, globalization and wage cuts. Is anybody out there listening?