Monday, June 24, 2013

"Inequality for All": Robert Reich makes a lecture about economic fairness compelling

Inequality for All” is one of the more visible films in the 2013 AFI Docs in the Washington DC area, and last night’s sellout crowd in the small Warner Brothers Auditorium in the Smithsonian Museum of American History provided enthusiastic evidence.  The lines for questions of Clinton ear labor secretary Robert Reich, who narrates the film (directed by Joseph Kornbluth) were the longest I have ever seen  at a QA . The screening of the film was sponsored by The Washington Post
  
Reich makes jokes about his 58-inch height, but is larger than life lecturing a 1000-member class of eager, frankly attractive young adults at Berkeley, whom he says will have the power to change things for future generations. Even though much of the footage of the film consists of his lecture material, there is a lot of interesting and lively animation for mathematical illustration. The style of filmmaking compares to Al Gore's "lecture" film for Paramount Vantage, "An Inconvenient Truth" about global warming, in 2005. 
   
Reich argues that the history of income equality has a “suspension bridge” shape.  It was large before the 1929 crash, dipped to its minimum in the 1960s, and started to creep up and really took off in the mid and late 1970s. 

There seem to be two major forces at work,  One of them was that from World War II until the 1960s (throughout the Eisenhower GOP years of the 50’s), the rich paid very high marginal tax rates.  Those gradually went down starting in the 70s, and really nosedived under Reagan in the 80s. 

The other was compounding effects of technology and globalization.  Companies could generate more real wealth for consumers with fewer employees.  That might be a good thing, but then they could improve productivity with cheaper workers overseas.  As some people got richer, they spent relatively less on consumer goods, compared to middle class and poor people.  They might be much less willing to buy things from salesmen, reducing commission income for some people. 
  
Reich describes a “virtuous cycle” that ensues when the rich pay their fair share, which means that there are enough good jobs, consumers can afford to buy, there are enough local taxes collected, and public education – especially higher education – can be funded.   What we have now is a breakdown in that cycle.  We have a reverse cycle similar to what happens in economic depressions.  (I remember a final exam essay question on the American History final in 11th grade – to explain how a depression cycle works.) 

Near the end of the film, Reich mentions the recent Supreme Court opinion that basically allows the rich to buy public policy with campaign contributions.  (That issue had created controversy for bloggers from the 2002-2005 period, until the FEC ruled on it in a benign fashion.)  In the QA, he suggested that a constitutional amendment be proposed to keep the rich from buying off the politicians.  But there could be indirect consequences for free speech from such an amendment. 

Reich also said that he was a friend of Michael Schwerner, who was murdered in Mississippi in 1964 with two other men when working on voting rights (Wikipedia link), a story I recall well. 


The official site is here. The film does not have a listed distributor yet, but is due for theatrical release in September.   Perhaps Sundance or Tribeca will distribute the film directly (in conjunction with IFC).

The film is based in large part on Robert Reich's 2011 book "Aftershock: The Next Economy and America's Future" (Vintage).

The film was financed in part with Kickstarter.

The theme song from "Nine to Five" (1980, Cilin Higgins, 20th Century Fox) was used in the closing credits, as were a few clips, to illustrate how the workplace has changed and real wages for middle class people have deteriorated.  I recall seeing that comedy in Dallas, TX, in the old Northtown Mall, I think. 
      
Is “inequality” solved by broad-based public policy, especially tax policy?  Or is it also a matter of social capital, the willingness or inclination of people to become more engaged personally in the real problems of others?  That’s the feedback I get personally, but it didn’t come up with the audience when I was there. 

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