JB: The stars were clearly aligned for this project. Bob is a wonderful, energetic and charismatic explainer, but this wasn't just cobbling together a bunch of his lectures. So, how did you go about making this such a cohesive piece?
JK: From a story perspective, there were a number of threads to pull together. This was just hard work -- some of the hardest work of my life. We had to kind of keep approaching the question of how to tie it all together from a number of different angles. First, there was figuring out how to weave Bob delivering the message in various settings --- this meant Bob giving talks to various groups, Bob teaching, and Bob giving his main interview (what we called the "spine" interview).
Then, there was balancing Bob's personal biography with the larger story of income inequality -- what I thought of as balancing the need to get to know the messenger so you can hear the message. Finally, there was pulling together the argument of why widening income inequality and why it matters. This fell into two broad categories -- how the growing divide affected our economy and how it affected our democracy. But the other way to think of it was that there are six pillars of the widening income inequality problem -- 1) Tax reform 2) Getting money out of politics 3) Wall Street reform, 4) Raising the minimum wage 5) Strengthening workers' voices (Unions) 6) Investing in education. Each one of those "pillars" needed to be explained, and all of these threads needed to be tied together. Finally, there was blending the personal stories -- of the middle class, students, and "1%", into it all.
This was an incredibly difficult intellectual and storytelling problem. One of the things I'm proudest about is that the film feels coherent -- some have even called it "seamless" -- despite these challenges. And audiences have told me that it hits them in both the head and the heart.
JB: I wholeheartedly agree; it works! You weren't an econ major - at least, I don't think you were. So, first things first. Before you could begin to explain it, you had to completely understand it. How did that part go?
JK: That was much more difficult than even I would have imagined -- and I didn't think it was going to be easy. I had sat around for years reading and discussing this stuff as a more-concerned-than-average citizen, and thought I knew a lot. As I got in to the research, however, I quickly realized that I didn't have close to the ownership of the information to make a film about it. This became clear to me as I was writing failed treatment after failed treatment. You just can't fake it when you are trying to tell a story.
My solution was to just start reading. I started with Bob's books -- he's written 13 of them -- and then reading whatever I could of people disagreeing with him. The whole process took over a year, and it is a period I now think of as a kind of grad school. Truth be told, I absolutely loved this part. It was an intellectual challenge, but pretty engaging.
I think if you watch the film now, it feels like there is a natural flow to the argument. But while making the film, I had to basically put Bob's writing to the side and start from scratch. The structure of the film and the argument had to be built piece by piece. There wasn't any template. Just as an example, the six pillars or areas of change I mentioned earlier weren't in any text when we started. They had to be found organically by the film. Each of the graphs -- even the ones in the classroom that Bob refers to -- were generated by us. To make those graphs, and to choose the points that should be included, took a real understanding of what the argument we were trying to make in the film was. I had to think of it as the film's argument about inequality to tell the story, although it was obviously Bob's life's work the film was presenting.
And all of it had to be understandable to a non-economist like me, but not dumbed down, either. One of my favorite stories is that Bob's son came up to us after an early test screening and said "Dad, I've been hearing you talk about this stuff for 28 years (or whatever), but this might have been the first time I had the slightest idea what you were talking about."
suspension bridge graphic by Reich's website
JB: That must have been gratifying! Let's talk about the suspension bridge graph, which was incredibly effective. Give us the back story on that, please.
JK: This one was pretty simple. Right at the start of my research, I saw the graph in an early draft of Bob's book, Aftershock (though the research is by Piketty and Saez). It showed that the two peak years of income inequality since they started keeping track were 1928 and 2008 (they only have good records since the advent of the income tax, in 1913). In other words, the two peak years of income inequality were just before the two great crashes of the last 100 years. All the years in the middle of the last century -- the time Bob calls the "Great Prosperity", where the US saw the greatest economic expansion in (perhaps) the history of the world -- were years that had much lower income inequality
That seemed to me to be the movie right there. I looked at it and said "that looks like a suspension bridge". The shocking thing was how many other areas that you might not expect where we saw the same "suspension bridge" graph pop up. I had a sense that the banking sector is out of control, for instance, and that this had something to do with the great recession of 2008. Well, I learned in making the film that as income inequality goes up, so does the share of income going to the banking sector. We saw the same thing in the 1920s. So, you see, the share of income going to the banking sector tracks income inequality pretty exactly, and looks like the same suspension bridge. We saw the same type of graph in political polarization. And there are lots of other areas we didn't include -- incarceration rates and infant mortality rates, for instance. Income inequality underlies so much of what affects our day to day experience, its really shocking.
JB: Sounds like another "aha!" moment, Jake. This is a perfect opportunity to take a break. I invite our readers to join us when we return for the conclusion of our interview and another peek into the making of a great film.
Bob and Jake by Kornbluth's website
Inequality for All website