Inequality for All (2013) / Documentary
MPAA Rated: PG for thematic elements, some violence, language and smoking images
Running Time: 89 min.
Cast: Robert Reich, Alan Simpson, Nick Hanauer
Director: Jacob Kornbluth
Review published October 4, 2013
Inequality for All is a documentary by Robert Reich, perhaps best known to the public as the Secretary of Labor during Bill Clinton's presidency, in which he explains, mostly in layman's terms, the state of today's U.S. economy, especially in the trend where the country's wealth that has accumulated exponentially for the top 1% of wage earners, while the middle class earnings have remained stagnant. While a 90-minute documentary on why the economy is stagnating for everyone but the wealthiest might seem like it would make for a dry, statistic-laden movie, Reich's personal and affable approach, including bringing out his often self-deprecating sense of humor, as well as showcasing the plights of actual people caught up in the economic downturn's aftermath, keeps the tone buoyant and the issues relatable for even those who have no mind for complex economic theories. It's not an exciting or explosive 90-minute piece, but it is consistently interesting, witty, insightful, and, dare I say, entertaining -- well worth the short investment in time for the amount of thought it manages to provoke.
Reich's best asset, which he uses to good success in Inequality, is his ability to explain, in clear, concise terms that most people can understand, the forces that are in play in the nation's economy, as well as the benefits and the ills of the by-products of these forces when one or more of them go out of balance. Reich uses a good deal of spiffy animated graphics (akin to the intro to "Mad Men") and charts to illustrate his points, showing how such things as average earnings incomes, taxes, the decline of unions, the increase of lobbyists, the deregulation of the financial sector, and many other factors, all have led to to the stagnation of the middle class, and how a weak middle class is not good for anyone, including those earning lots of money at the top. Interestingly, he even ties in how disparity in incomes also leads to increased polarization in politics, leading to such mobilized factions as the Tea Party and the Occupy movement.
Some of Reich's words come from his lectures at the University of California at Berkeley, where he works as a professor of public policy, which he sees as a place where he hopes to inspire activism among his students to feel an imperative to let their voices be heard to a government that is largely built to only hear the voices of those wealthy enough to contribute ever-increasing sums of money to political campaigns. Reich also heads out to the public for various interviews, getting personal stories from those working multiple jobs only to find themselves barely scraping by, and those who are doing quite well. Reich takes a more matter-of-fact approach to exploring the problem that is refreshing for a documentary that has emotional hardships to mine from, appealing to us more on an intellectual level, while still putting a human face on the statistics. And he does so by showing us the opinions of both rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, and showing us point by point on how we're all in this together, and should be striving to protect the middle class, even if we're a member of the top 1% of wage earners.
Reich also shows that much of the stagnation in incomes started in the late 1970s, when the technology industry started to boom, and globalization, especially in the production of parts and overseas assembly of consumer products, began to take hold -- something Reich could be keenly aware of first-hand, having also worked as an economist for the Ford and Carter administrations. We ultimately lead to today, where we have the top 400 richest people possessing more wealth more than the bottom 50% of the people in the United States combined -- and the shift continues in favor of the already rich. While Reich considers the ability to accumulate wealth a good thing, he cautions that the current situation makes it easier for the wealthy to become super-wealthy, while those who are in the middle class are slipping into poverty at faster and faster rates. He posits that this is not sustainable for economic growth, as the middle class is where most of the spending comes from, whereas the poor cannot afford much beyond their means, and the rich put most of their wealth into savings, or global corporate and financial investments, rather than back into the American economy.
While Inequality for All is a good source of education, with many illustrations, on the danger of the current trajectory of the economic conditions in the United States, and much of it is rather centrist in terms of both outlook and temperament, some might feel that the call to activism ultimately reveals an agenda. After all, the man is persistently referred to on Fox News as a socialist, and even a communist, because he advocates for such things as higher taxes for the wealthy and more parity between the average corporate worker and the CEO's that lead them -- things that, Reich contends, were commonplace when America's economy had been booming and were not when it had been on the decline. However, Reich would tell you that, for most of his life, his views had been considered very centrist, and only because the political conservatives have shifted so much further to the right does his mainly common sense views on the problems and solutions seem radical to them now.
The only nitpick I have for Inequality for All is similar to the one I have for the comparable Al Gore documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, which is that it spends needless time in pumping up its 'star' as likeable, a leader, and a champion. Showcasing bits of comedy he did with Conan O'Brien does push forward the notion that he is funny and willing to mock himself, but it has much more to do with Reich than it does the dire consequences of deregulation of the financial sector to the national economy. The film also ends with an emotional outpouring from the students attending Reich's final lecture of the session at Berkeley, in which he gets a standing ovation and celebratory embraces. While it's nice to see that his words have had a profound effect on the men and women in a college course, its inclusion here seems self-serving to make one of the cappers on what is otherwise an on-point documentary. Along with the mention of his book and the phone number to text at the end of the film, the appearance self-promotion cheapens the overall effect to the point where it begins to feel less like a call to action and more like an infomercial for Reich's public image and political clout.
The film ends with the not-so-subtle suggestion that, now that we can see the nature of the issues and should be righteously upset, we should do something about it. While in and of itself, this might seem like the ultimate goal of this ostensibly educational documentary, Reich does a very good job in using a metaphor on his diminutive size. Being small all of his life made him a target for bullies, so to protect himself, he allied himself with those bigger boys who could protect him. But bullies don't just exist in grade school, and they don't just beat you up physically; they exist in the world of the economy, finance, and industry, and the wealthiest act in a manner in which they can entrench their wealth by keeping their distribution of that money as low as possible, which means lower wages for their workers, reduced health care, while minimizing the tax burden for themselves. He contends that his own desire to educate the public is his means as a political commentator to be the one to help protect those who no longer have a voice in the arena of ideas from those bullies, and impels his viewers to stand up for themselves as well.
Such activism may ruffle the feathers of those already inclined to think that anything that is meant to disrupt the free market and redistribute wealth is a bad thing, but it is also very likely that those who feel this way would not ever watch a documentary by an economist like Robert Reich. However, Inequality for All is definitely a film that strives to reach the ears of listeners in the political middle, neither extoling the virtues of the far left, nor condemning the beliefs of the far right, seeing the extremes as by-products of extreme social and economic shifts in the country. While the corporations, billionaires who contribute millions to campaigns, and political PACs have the ear of the politicians in Washington, Reich contends that there is no one looking out for the little guy. Only by making our voices be heard, with the facts on our side, can we hope to protect the nation's prosperity from the current alarming rate of economic inequality. Regardless of where you stand in the political spectrum, Reich's common-sense approach, married to director Jacob Kornbluth's visually appealing presentation, makes for a compelling case that only those predisposed to rejecting any message based on the messenger could find offense in.
©2013 Vince Leo