'Inequality for All' is a compelling class lecture on the US economy

'Inequality' centers on former Labor Secretary Robert Reich on his speeches around the country, and Reich is an engaging host.

By , Film critic

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    ‘Inequality for All’ director Jacob Kornbluth (l.) and economist Robert Reich spoke together at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah in January.
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Documentaries about economic and social ills too often turn into glorified PowerPoint displays. For all its acclaim and worthiness, that essentially describes “An Inconvenient Truth.”

“Inequality for All,” a documentary featuring Clinton administration Labor Secretary and current University of California, Berkeley, professor Robert Reich, does a bit better, perhaps because Reich, unlike Al Gore, is eminently unstiff. He’s an engaging host for what otherwise might be, well, a PowerPoint display.

Directed by Jacob Kornbluth, the film follows Reich as he crisscrosses the country on the speaking circuit. Interspersed are clips and stills from his past, including stints in the Ford and Carter administrations, as well as snippets from his large “Wealth and Poverty” classroom lectures at Berkeley.

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Reich’s thesis, complete with the requisite array of graphs and flow charts, is derived from his recent book, “Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future.” He demonstrates, with breathtaking efficiency, that the 400 wealthiest people in America make more than the bottom 150 million people combined.
From this Reich derives much woe: serial financial crises, societal polarization and rage, and the diminishment of the middle class, whose wages, adjusted for inflation, have stagnated or dropped. (Paul Krugman in The New York Times recently reported that, again adjusted for inflation, the income of the top 1 percent rose 31 percent from 2009 to 2012, but the real income of the bottom 40 percent fell 6 percent.)

Reich’s point is not simply that such statistics reveal a systemic unfairness. He’s a capitalist after all – not a “communist,” as Bill O’Reilly would have it in a Fox News clip – and to some degree he endorses inequality as an economic incentive. But Reich believes that, as opposed to in earlier eras, low-wage earners as well as those in the middle class believe the stagnating system has been rigged against them. (He cites the statistic that 42 percent of kids born into poverty will stay there.)

He argues that we have to replace “trickle-down with middle-out economics” because “the most pro-business thing you can do is make the middle class thrive.” He disparages the tea party “Taxed Enough Already” anthem by pointing out that the marginal tax rate on the rich during the booming Eisenhower era was 91 percent. Does Reich think we’d be better off with a 91 percent tax rate now? And if, as he says, the rich are getting richer at the expense of the poor and the middle class, how can he argue that a pro-middle-class agenda would benefit the very rich?

These and other questions might more profitably have been debated in the movie by politicos who are a bit more on the beam than O’Reilly. The only super-rich person interviewed is venture capitalist Nick Hanauer, who pooh-poohs the idea that the very wealthy are “job creators.” But Kornbluth isn’t really interested in fashioning a full-on debate here. His film is more in the nature of a testimonial to Reich. If there was any doubt, check out the classroom footage, in which all the reaction shots are adoring. (Wasn’t there even one student who was nodding off or bored or testy?)

Still, Reich’s message hits home, and he’s such an endearing pedant that I didn’t mind all the showboating. Standing around 4 feet, 10 inches tall, he’s a fund of self-deprecating jokes about his height. (To those who accuse him of being in favor of big government, he says, “Do I look like ‘big government’?”) He extols the virtues of his Mini Cooper: “We are in proportion. Me and my car.” 

It’s unseemly, I know, to praise a movie like this for the stand-up-comic affability of its host. But Reich’s engagingness also gives credence to the seriousness of his message. He’s all about fairness, and, in his demeanor, as well as in his presentation, he embodies that ideal. Grade: B+ (Rated PG for thematic elements, some violence, language, and images of smoking.)

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