In his inaugural address on Monday, President Barack Obama spoke eloquently about America's need to level its economic playing field. "For we, the people," he said, "understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it. We believe that America's prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class."
The cadence is pure Obama, but the substance could have been cribbed from any number of books, articles and lectures produced over the past four decades by former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich. The documentary "Inequality for All," premiering at the Sundance Film Festival and picked up just this morning by The Weinstein Company's Radius division, is director Jacob Kornbluth's attempt to bring Reich's gospel of a broader, fairer prosperity to an audience big enough to do something about it.
The film gives Reich, who served as Secretary of Labor during President Bill Clinton's first term (1992–96), plenty of space to humanize himself: he makes a number of jokes about his diminutive stature but also talks frankly about Fairbanks syndrome, the rare condition that stunted his growth, and he even does a bit of dancing at the end. This is not the Robert Reich of the Sunday morning talk shows, who slashes away at his conservative adversaries with righteous fury. And yet, viewers may find themselves wrestling with their own feelings of anger and frustration at a problem that has only gotten exponentially worse in the years since he began talking about it.
Kornbluth has been to Sundance twice before, with the narrative features "Haiku Tunnel" and "The Best Thief in the World," but "Inequality for All" is his first documentary. It grew out of a series of short videos he and Reich made in conjunction with MoveOn.org. "I am not an economist," Kornbluth acknowledges, but that's exactly why he wanted to make the film. "I feel that this has to be accessible to everybody, and so I made a film that is accessible to me and the people I know.
The Huffington Post spoke to Robert Reich about "Inequality for All" at Flanagan's Irish Pub and Restaurant, on Main Street in Park City, Utah.
The Huffington Post: Why make this documentary?
Robert Reich: I have been writing about these issues for more than 30 years, I have been lecturing about them, I have been on television, I have been on radio, I have written books, I have been Secretary of Labor, but I still find that people have a very hard time understanding what is going on. They are scared, they are bewildered, they are cynical, they feel like change is almost impossible, they feel, with some justification, that both political parties are in bed with big corporations on Wall Street. What this film actually does -- and this is mostly Jake -- is cut through the morass and, with great zest, humor, and feeling, enable people to get it.
What do you think is the main thing that is holding us back from taking effective action against income inequality?
Partly cynicism. We are cynical toward politics and our democracy. And partly because we do not understand that the market cannot work without rules of the game created by the government. We create the market through rules that we undertake in a democracy, and we have power over it. We do not work for the economy; it should be that the economy works for us.
Is it fair to say that there are two audiences for this film: regular people who need to get more engaged but also prosperous people, who have what you consider to be the erroneous belief that low taxes promote prosperity?
That is exactly right. The rich would do better with a rapidly growing pie than with a bigger share of a pie that is barely growing at all. They would do better in a society where people collaborated politically so we can solve our problems, than in a society where politics are basically gridlocked. That is why we call it "Inequality for All." Everybody is affected by this growing menace of widening inequality.
Isn't that a hard argument for wealthy people to accept, if the top 1 percent used to make $300,000 and now they are making $20 million? Clearly, they are doing much better than they were when the top income-tax bracket was over 90 percent.
They won’t continue to do much better. What happens, and we know this historically, is that an economy is more fragile when you have this kind of inequality. The job creators are not at the top -- job creators are the large middle class and the ones who aspire to join the middle class and whose job activities generate jobs. If they don’t have money, there won’t be jobs. If we don’t have a public sector that is investing money in public education, basic R&D and infrastructure, we will not have a widespread prosperity. What we learned in the first three decades after the second World War was that the rising tide literally and figuratively lifted all boats.
You acknowledge that you were a combative presence in the Clinton administration, but in the film you seem almost warm and fuzzy.
I am a warm and fuzzy kind of guy. Well, I don’t know about warm and fuzzy, but I think I have always tried to use humor. Let's put it this way: Washington is plagued by a kind of notion, an ethos, where people don’t take things seriously enough, in my view, but they take themselves too seriously. I have always tried to do the reverse.
Do you have a number in mind of what the top tax rate should be?
There is really no "should" about it. If we went back to the first three decades [after World War II], when we enjoyed widespread prosperity with major public investments, the top tax rate was never below 70 percent. And even when you include all the deductions and tax credits, the average tax rate was roughly 52 to 56 percent for three decades, and we did really well. Everybody, including the people at the top, did extraordinarily well. That appears to be out of bounds in political thinking as a possibility, and it should not be.
There is also a difference between income tax and capital-gains tax, isn't there? Most wealthy people are not getting the bulk of their money through wages.
Capital-gains taxes were also much higher. In the 1980s, they were in the 20-percent range. But the top 100 richest Americans now have more wealth than the bottom 150 million Americans. The six Walmart heirs between them have more wealth than the bottom third of Americans. Why not even consider a wealth tax? Even a small surtax on wealth will generate enough money for us to make substantial investments in public education.
Do you think there is any gas left in the Occupy movement?
Well, undoubtedly it generated huge energy, but it needs to be as organized and disciplined as the Tea Party, if not more so. People need to be willing to get their fingers dirty, if that is the proper expression, if they want to be involved in real politics. I think the Occupy movement has been enormously successful putting these issues on the forefront, but it needs to move beyond that now.
What is the first thing people reading this can do to combat income inequality?
I think individuals have got to be more actively involved in recruiting candidates and even putting themselves up for office at the local level, at the state level. I tell the young people in my classes that this is their country, and the true test of their commitment and patriotism is to get involved. Citizenship is not just about paying taxes and reporting for jury duty and voting. It is about active engagement.