This is a quick review of the Robert Reich film, Inequality for All, which I saw during a special sponsored screening by Moveon.org last night. This film is, as advertised, the economic equivalent of Al Gore's "Inconvenient Truth" and just as good and unsettling.
I think many people are already familiar with the fact that inequality has again grown to historic proportions, but Reich's use of an income graph, superimposed on top of a suspension bridge, with 1928 and 2010 as the two peaks of inequality, may startle even those who have heard the statistics before. Reich also brings out the recent fact (the movie is current up through 2012, at least) that just 400 individuals now "earn" as much as the bottom 150 million Americans, or nearly half the country. Reich was focusing mainly on income inequality. His point would have been driven home even harder had he also included assets, in which case the towers on the "suspension bridge" would be twice as high.
Going further, Reich shows, both in anecdotes - some taken from students of his own standing-room only overflow class at Berkeley - and in studies, that our polarization, indeed, even our democracy, is reaching similar breakdown extremes, precisely matching our economic inequality. It is not just our inequality that is at nearly unprecedented levels, but the inverse possibility of social mobility as well. We have, as he points out, less social mobility with 42% of those born into poverty staying there their whole lives, than even England (30%), which still has a royal aristocracy!
I wish Reich hadn't been so stubbornly non-partisan, lumping together the Tea Party and Occupy movements, as if both were fighting equally for the 99% - a term born solidly out of the Occupy movement, and even ideologically opposed by many in the Tea Parties as one of "whining" and of envy, as several Fox TV and Right-wing politicians put it. Similarly, Reich gives the soft-glove treatment to his life-long friend and former boss, Bill Clinton, whose signoff on the dismantling of Glass-Steagall had as much to do with the gargantuan derivatives explosion, and threatened middle-class destroying IMPLOSION, as anything Ronald Reagan or those more traditionally thought of as "from the Right Wing" did. Reich did not address the role of the big banks in systematically robbing the middle class of everything they produced, as a reason for what he calls the prolonged recovery. But it is no accident that every recovery since deregulation really stepped into high gear since 1980, has been longer and less satisfying than the last. The recoveries are really recoveries for the 1%, not for ordinary workers, who have not seen a raise in over 30 years, as Reich points out.
Reich also did not go far enough in identifying rent-seeking as a particular form of productivity-destroying wealth creation (or really, accumulation), critically distinct from that achieved through entrepreneurship. By failing to distinguish between different types of wealth creation, Reich lends ammunition to those who accuse him of being a re-distributionist, socialist, or even, as Reich cited, somewhat light-heartedly, a "communist." More recently, the far Right pundit Bill O'Reilly has made this claim again, to which Reich is sending out the following in various third party emails:
"In case you missed it, Bill O'Reilly slammed me on Monday night for mentioning, in a New York Times op-ed, that he called me a "Communist" on his FOX News show.
In that op-ed, I referred to his "Communist" name-calling as an example of the kind of incivility that now passes for political debate in America -- of which O'Reilly is a part. O'Reilly took umbrage that I would even bring it up. Apparently he thinks it's perfectly fine to call me names but offensive for me to criticize him for doing so.
Yet O'Reilly refuses to have me on his show to debate any of this -- either his initial charge that I'm a Communist, or his indignation that I mentioned it in last weekend's op-ed. When he first claimed I was a Communist I challenged him to a debate -- a civil debate. He refused. He still refuses. He won't even debate the topic of my op-ed -- the increasing shrillness and divisiveness of Fox News and other media outlets, which are only adding to the vitriol of American politics.
Why won't O'Reilly debate me? What is he afraid of? I don't know but I need your help. Please sign my YouPower petition and tell Bill O'Reilly that instead of talking about me, he should have the courage and decency to debate me."
Reich is right to claim, as he does in the movie, that "we are being pulled apart" as a nation. He is too soft-glove about it, however, perhaps due to his inherent optimism.
Several highlights of Reich's life, both as an agitator, and as a 4' 10.5" "little person," are brought into this partial biopic. Many will be surprised to learn for the first time that Reich suffers from a rare disorder called "Fairbanks disease," which causes his short stature. His reflections on a bullied youth are both poignant and helpful to understanding his proclivity in standing up for the "little guy" throughout his life. His frustrations in doing so are evident, both during his time in the Clinton cabinet, and afterwards. Reich ultimately wonders if his life's work has been in vain, even if he has been a failure, but then concludes in an upbeat way that it is his students who will prove the fight worth it, with their idealism, their ability to change their community, even the world.
Some helpful links are provided at the end of the movie - http://inequalityforall.com/ - as has become customary in films like this. At the screening I went to, which was delayed over 40 minutes due to technical difficulties, a Moveon.org volunteer asked specific guests to talk about their experiences, including a fast-food worker making a little more than $8/hour, after 7 years work, trying to unionize, and an adjunct faculty teacher working toward a Phd, not making much more than that, also represented by an attenuated union. The decline of Unions, says Reich, is yet another "suspension bridge" parallel with the rise in inequality.
We have a very long way to go, and lots of work to do. The "pulling apart" that Reich sees, has led to revolutions in other countries, and it is not impossible for this to happen here, though Reich didn't, or won't, suggest that. Some of the Occupiers and other protesters, who Reich identifies as having their rights to protest squashed, may believe differently.
In short, a movie well worth seeing. I give it 4 out of 5 stars (the "inequality movement" lacks an appropriate icon to use). It tackles the issues, but pulls its punches at the real and necessary solutions - such as ending rent-seeking by changing the economic and tax incentives, ending the debt-based money system, and even establishing public banks and CAFR reform (the last one challenges the very notion that "we are broke" at all, something which would have strengthened Reich's case even more).