Economic inequality is the leading issue of our time but you'd never know it to judge by a recent screening in New York of the film Inequality for All. Jacob Kornbluth's documentary showcasing Robert Reich (released in 2013 and available on Blu-Ray and DVD) unfurled in the hind quarters of the obliging Bunga Bar on 14th Street. Not only was the event sparsely attended -- the cluster of viewers looked to be predominantly retirees. The exception was organizer Tracey Keij-Denton -- who might have stepped out of an Athleta catalog -- head of Democracy for NYC, a local group of Democracy for America (founded by Howard Dean after his presidential campaign), which helps elect progressive candidates.
That economic injustice is not, for Gen Whatever, as consuming a topic as, say, Kanye West and Kim Kardashian's cover on Vogue, feels especially dismal following on the Supreme Court's decision to give the deep pockets a clear field to control our entire political system. I mean, really, must one be a candidate for AARP to take an interest in politics and the larger world that lies beyond one's caper-sized purlieu? The lack of social awareness in the U.S. is astounding. According to my informal survey, a cab driver in Paris knows more about what's going on in his country than many Americans with advanced degrees.
Inequality for All goes a long way in bringing viewers up to snuff on the country's dominant issue. Unfortunately, Kornbluth's film lacks the urgency and passion of Charles Ferguson's masterwork Inside Job. Or the work of other great documentarians, such as Alex Gibney and Erroll Morris. You want Inequality to be angrier. At least, in focusing on Robert Reich, who has battled much adversity (his small size is the result of a rare genetic disorder), the film is infused with his warmth and courage. His packed lectures at Berkeley are the film's most hopeful image.
Happily for most of us, the info conveyed in Inequality is on the level of economics for dummies. Fact is, the sheer difficulty of that discipline may explain the prevailing indifference and ignorance. Similarly, it's hard get your mind around the devilish ingenuity of the high-speed trading shenanigans exposed by Michael Lewis in Flash Boys. For some things you do need a degree in rocket science.
Here's some of the takeaway from Inequality that stuck in my craw: Of all developed nations, the U.S. has the most inequality. The richest 400 have more wealth than half the country's population. Says Reich, "certain people in the U.S. are doing better than anyone has in the world." Tell me, please, why aren't citizens taking to the streets?
How did this happen? Well, to take just one example, under Eisenhower the top tax rate was 91 percent. Then came Reagan, dropping the taxes on the mighty. Currently Warren Buffett pays 17 percent; Mitt Romney finally 'fessed up to 13.9 percent. "I became a true pain in the ass," says Reich, as, when Labor Sec, he saw inequality growing worse. "Ultimately it's the undermining of democracy. People abuse their wealth by lobbying for politics that entrench their wealth."
Reich's solution is to reinvest in the middle class, which keeps the economy stable and chugging along. See, the rich don't buy enough, we middles are needed as consumers. However, look around you and you'll see the middle class running on all cylinders just to stay in place. Reich interviews more than a few young couples, both working long hours yet struggling to make the rent or sliding downhill.
What jolts the film from its occasionally hectoring tone is the fascinating one per-center Nick Hanauer, a powerhouse Seattle-based entrepreneur. Happy to share his indignation about a rigged system that helped hoist him to the top of the heap, Hanauer calls up FDR's "I welcome their rage." Hanauer is out to bust the myth of the capitalist "job creator." John Boehner and his ilk speak in craven terms of titans of commerce as job creators. But according to Hanauer, "rich people don't create jobs. What does lead to more employment is a circle-of-life-like feedback loop between customers and businesses and only consumers can set in motion this virtuous cycle of increasing demand and hiring. In this sense, an ordinary middle class consumer is far more of a job creator than a capitalist like me."
Hats off to Tracey Keij-Denton and her team for their efforts to keep the big issues out front and personal.