Last week I went to see a film, Inequality for All. The stars of the film, made by Jacob Kornbluth, are members of the American working class—people who do everything they’re “supposed” to and continue to struggle at a time when the wealthiest members of our society are growing richer and seeking to shed their obligations towards our community.
But the man guiding us to the troubling stories and distressing facts which sum up the state of our society today is Robert Reich, Labor Secretary under Bill Clinton and current public policy professor at UC Berkeley. The importance of Reich’s message, and his on-screen presence are all out of proportion to his own diminutive size—the subject of constant jokes in the film. On campus he is a familiar figure, his courses overflowing at the seams. He has become even more beloved of late, having delivered the Mario Savio Memorial Lecture—commemorating the Free Speech Movement—on the steps of Sproul Hall in 2011 as blinkered administrators turned the campus over to baton-wielding police in riot gear on a dark night for the fabled University of California.
The film has been likened to Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, and indeed, the truths Reich presents—in a film which is no less engaging for the well-designed graphs and charts which help him to make his point—are inconvenient for both those who are actively sabotaging the welfare of our nation and those who would rather just sit back and ignore our problems.
Reich documents how what he calls the “Great Prosperity”—the years between the late-1940s and the mid-1970s (an era which he explains in this post)—was created not only by government insistence on the wealthy giving back to the society which empowered them, but by a strong and pro-active workforce. It is a lesson in economic history which jars many of the assumptions we hold about the U.S. economy.
I watched Inequality For All at the California Theater, and Reich and Kornbluth arrived for a Q&A session at the end of the film. The audience was voluble as Reich and the film’s stars laid out the extent of inequality in the U.S. today, booing and hissing at the greed of plutocrats, the subservience of presidents past, and the spinelessness of the current occupant of the Oval Office. The Q&A ended with a Tea Party plant asking about the “Muslim” in the White House, and while for a moment it looked as though the smirking questioner might be shouted down, Reich intervened and after hearing the question out, drew a parallel to the 1930s, when the world was beset by similar levels of inequality, and when demagogues around the world sought to make scapegoats of members of the community in lieu of addressing economic inequality, but when ultimately, in the United States, the public and their representatives decided that such inequality was intolerable, and did something about it.
If you can see the film (this site lists where it is currently in cinemas) I’d recommend it. Even if you can’t, a visit to the Get the Facts section of its website will be illuminating. And if you’d like to see it but can’t, beginning in 2014 you will be able to see it at home or even host a screening.