“Inequality for All,” the new documentary that centers on Robert Reich’s exploration of the deepening chasm between the ultra-rich and everyone else, opened this weekend. It took in $140,000 at the 28 theaters where it’s playing now. Please try to resist comparing these box office figures to the $35 million weekend gross for “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2,” which played in 4001 theaters. Try instead to find out whether “Inequality for All” is playing near you.
Reich, best known perhaps as Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Labor and since then as a prolific pundit/writer, these days teaches at Berkeley, where his classes apparently fill large auditoriums. He is smart, witty, and an effective educator. With clips from his lectures and interviews, combined with great graphics, viewers will get a good intro to how the economy got so screwed up since the 1970s.
The film’s emotional punch comes more from a series of interviews with people we generally think of as “middle class” but who in recent years have been having a harder and harder time getting by. There’s also one billionaire, pillow entrepreneur and venture capitalist Nick Hanauer, who explains that part of our economic problems are caused by the fact that people as rich as he is can’t spend their money fast enough to affect an economy in which most consumers can’t afford to consume the goods and services they need.
Reich and the film-makers want us to know how bad it’s really gotten.
A single top income could buy housing for every homeless person in the U.S.
On a winter day in 2012 over 633,000 people were homeless in the United States. Based on an annual single room occupancy (SRO) cost of $558 per month, any ONE of the ten richest Americans would have enough with his 2012 income to pay for a room for every homeless person in the U.S. for the entire year . These ten rich men together made more than our entire housing budget.
For anyone still believing “they earned it,” it should be noted that most of the Forbes 400 earnings came from minimally-taxed, non-job-creating capital gains.
“Out of 141 countries,” states another fact on the film’s web-site, “the U.S. has the 4th-highest degree of wealth inequality in the world, trailing only Russia, Ukraine, and Lebanon,”
According to a study cited today in “Too Much,” a weekly newsletter from the Institute for Policy Studies, it would take $175.3 billion to lift 46.5 million Americans to the poverty line. That’s just 58% of the amount by which the nation’s 400 richest individuals saw their fortunes increase over the past year. I could go on.
These facts are not facts of nature. They result, Reich explains, from globalization and technological change but also from changes in tax policy, an attack on unions, divestment in higher education, and a corresponding increase in control of the nation’s politics by those who control most of the money. “With money comes the capacity to control politics,” he says.
From a “virtuous cycle” of rising middle class incomes in the post-WW2 economic expansion, we entered a vicious cycle of contraction when wages for most workers peaked in the 1970s. With upward mobility new trending downward, the squeeze on the middle class is a threat to democracy.
Reich winds up by saying “history is on the side of positive social change.” Perhaps, but “history” in that sense is no more a fact of nature than the drastic cuts in the marginal tax rates of high-income individuals. History is up to us.
This film doesn’t explain everything. For example, it leaves out the story of the people – mostly people of color – who were excluded from the “virtuous cycle” of the 1950s and ‘60s. He doesn’t devote sufficient attention to the de-regulation of finance responsible for so much of the rising wealth of the 1%. I think he still is too wedded to the notion that more education in technological fields will tilt the labor market back in the right direction. But the film is entertaining as well as informative, and can spark some of the conversations we need to be having. Go see it if you can.