Thursday, October 17, 2013

Inequality For All (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

An Economist Explains “Inequality For All”

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Robert Reich is a professor, author of 14 books, a political commentator, and a respected economist. In addition to serving in the Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter administrations, he was Labor Secretary under Bill Clinton from 1993 to 1997.

Having been a professor of economic policy at Brandeis University and teacher in the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, Reich currently serves as a Chancellor's Professor at the University of California.

So he knows his nickels and dimes.

That’s why you will want to hear what he has to say in “Inequality for All,” the new documentary about the widening income inequity in the United States. It’s currently playing at the Tropic Cinema.

“Inequality for All” won a Special Jury Award for Achievement in Filmmaking at Sundance. To make the documentary, Reich was joined by award-winning filmmakers Jacob Kornbluth, Jen Chaiken, and Sebastian Dungan.

Why did he choose to do a movie? “Well, I've tried everything else,” he laughs. “I mean, I've written lots of books, and done quite a bit of television. And the situation keeps getting worse -- with more and more of the nation’s wealth and income in the hands of a smaller and smaller number of people. So when Jake Kornbluth approached me with his proposal, I accepted right away.”

Reich now admits he had no idea how hard it would be to create a movie!

But it gives him the platform he was looking for. “Of all developed nations, the United States has the most unequal distribution of income, and we’re surging toward even greater inequality,” says Reich.

He cites a new study showing that since the recovery almost all the gains have gone to the very, very top. “People who are in the top 1 percent are doing better than they did even before the Great Recession, better than they have done since 1928.”

He makes the point that “most Americans today, even if they have jobs, even if the jobs pay fairly well, are much more insecure than Americans have ever been at work before, at least in living memory, because we have a huge number of contingent workers, huge number of part-time workers, huge number of workers who can’t know what their paychecks are going to be because they’re paid on a contingency fee -- bonuses, you know, working hours, billable hours. That means that they cannot plan, and have to live, to some extent, from paycheck to paycheck.”

This, he says, gives us an economy that is very vulnerable and a democracy that is also very vulnerable, because all of that money at the top is being transformed into political power.

The film points out that “the 400 richest Americans, 400 of them, have more wealth than the bottom 150 million of us put together.” The gap between a CEO’s pay and the typical worker is now at a record 350 times ratio.

“Because of Occupy L.A. and the Occupy movement around America, this country is beginning to discuss an issue and a set of issues it has avoided discussing for years,” Reich says. “And that is the increasing concentration of income and wealth and political power at the very top of this country.”

Director Jacob Kornbluth personalized these issues by telling us about Reich himself. The “star” was uncomfortable with using this biographical material, particularly premises like how being bullied as a child made him grow up wanting to protect the vulnerable.

“When I was a kid, bigger boys would pick on me. I think it changed my life. I had to protect people from the people who would beat them up economically. Who is actually looking out for the American worker? The answer is nobody. Workers don’t have power if they don’t have a voice. Their wages and benefits start eroding. We are losing equal opportunity in America. Any one of you who feels cynical, just consider where we have been.”

Robert Reich concludes, “The economy is a set of rules that are decided upon by our democracy. And if our rules are generating outcomes that are unfair, that don’t work very well, that don’t spread enough of the gains of economic growth to enough people, we change the rules.”

Bill O’Reilly calls him a communist.

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