Inequality for All: how did it happened?

Haven’t you watched the documentary “Inequality for All” yet? So you can’t miss this article from the Guardian that goes deep into the movie and gives a first overview of what it is really about.

 

“In one sense, Inequality for All is absolutely the film of the moment. We are living through tumultuous times. The economy has tanked. Austerity has cut a swath through the country. We’re on the verge of a triple-dip recession. And, in another, parallel universe, a small cohort of alien beings – or as we know them, bankers – are currently engaged in trying to figure out what to spend their multimillion-pound bonuses on. Who wouldn’t want to know what’s going on? Or how it happened? Or why? Or if it is really true that the next generation down is well and truly shafted?

And yet… what sucker would try to make a film about it? It’s not exactly Skyfall. Where would you even start? Because there are some films that practically beg to be made. And then there’s Inequality for All; the kind of film that you can’t quite believe that anybody, ever, considered a good idea, let alone had the passion and commitment to give it two years of their life.

How did you even come up with the idea of making a film about economics? I ask the director Jacob Kornbluth. “I know! People would roll their eyes when I told them. They’d say it’s a terrible idea for a film.” On paper it is, indeed, a terrible idea. A 90-minute documentary on income inequality: or why the rich have got richer and the rest of us haven’t (I say “us” because although it’s focused on America, we’re snapping at their heels) and which traces a line back to the 1970s, when things stopped getting better for the vast majority of ordinary working people and started getting worse.[…]

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In fact, Inequality for All, which premiered at the Sundance film festival a fortnight ago, is anything but dry. It won not just rave reviews but also the special jury prize and a major cinema distribution deal, and while it owes an obvious debt to Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, it is, in many ways, a much better, more human and surprising film. Not least because, incredibly enough, it’s actually pretty funny. And, in large part, this is down to its star, Robert Reich.

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Reich is not a star in any obvious sense of the word. He’s a 66-year-old academic. And he’s been banging on about inequality for more than three decades. […] These days he’s a professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley and while he’s not a figure we’re familiar with in the UK, he’s been part of American public life for years.

[…] Any synopsis of the film runs the risk of making it seem dry again, but essentially it describes how the middle classes have come to have a smaller and smaller portion of the economic pie. And how, since 70% of the economy is based on the middle classes buying stuff, if they don’t have any money to buy this stuff, it cannot grow. Meanwhile, the government has allowed the super-rich, the “one per cent”, to take more of the nation’s wealth. Half of the US’s total assets are now owned by just 400 people and, Reich contests that this is not just a threat to the economy, but also to democracy.

[…] the film is structured around a lecture, or rather series of lectures: Reich’s incredibly popular wealth and poverty class at Berkeley. But it is only loosely used as a vehicle. There are also news clips and interviews and stylised graphics and archive footage.

And what it tries to do is thread together evidence that many people know about – the increasing struggle of the middle classes to just get by, the way that the top 1% of society has unshackled itself from the rest of us and has seen its income increase exponentially, and the ever-increasing cost of the traditional avenues of improvement, such as higher education – and weave it into a cohesive and convincing narrative. It is, in some respects, a theory of everything.

Reich charts the three decades of increasing median income after the Second World War, a period he calls “the great prosperity” and then examines what happened in the late 1970s to put an end to it. The economy didn’t falter. It kept on growing. But wages didn’t.

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The figures that Reich supplies are simply gobsmacking. In 1978, the typical male US worker was making $48,000 a year (adjusted for inflation). Meanwhile the average person in the top 1% was making $390,000. By 2010, the median wage had plummeted to $33,000, but at the top it had nearly trebled, to $1,100,000.

“Something happened in the late 1970s,” we hear him tell his Berkeley class. And much of the rest of the film is working out what happened. Some inequality is inevitable, he says. Even desirable. It’s what makes capitalism tick. But at what point does it become a problem? When the middle classes (in its American sense of the 25% above and below the median wage) have so little of the economic pie that it affects not just their lives but the economy as a whole.

Reich’s thesis is that since the 1970s a combination of anti-union legislation and deregulation of the markets contrived to create a situation in which the economy boomed but less of the wealth trickled down. Though for a while, nobody noticed. There were “coping mechanisms”. More women entered the workforce, creating dual-income families. Working hours rose. And increasing house prices enabled people to borrow. And then, in 2007, this all came crashing to a halt. “We have exhausted all the options,” he says. There’s nowhere else left to go. It’s crunch time.

It’s crunch time that so many working families understand too well. They may not be familiar with the theory of income inequality but they haven’t been able to avoid noticing that they’ve got less money in their pockets. “I’ve always thought that kitchen-table economics is the most important topic to most people,” says Reich. “Their wages, their jobs, getting by. I’ve always tried to relate economics to where people live. That’s why I was so excited about the film.”

[…] There’s Erika and Robert Vaclav, for example, who pay $400 a week to keep their daughter in after-school care so that Erika can work on the checkout at Costco. “And I’m trying to work out if I should get her a phone so that she can walk home from school alone, and I know she’s OK, or if I should continue paying the money.” They lost their house when Robert was made redundant from his job as a manager at the now defunct electrical retailer Circuit City. And, it gradually transpires, that he’s a student in Reich’s wealth and poverty class at Berkeley. “How much money do you have in your checking account?” Kornbluth asks Erika from off camera as she drives her daughter to school. “$25” she says and her voice starts to crack and waver. […]

The world has changed. Just not in the way many thought it would. We fell victim to what Reich calls “the huge lie“. That the free market is good. And government is bad. Government makes the rules, Reich keeps on reminding us, over and over. And it decides who benefits from those rules, and who is harmed. And increasingly, that boils down to the rich and the poor.

Perhaps the most surprising voice in the film is Nick Hanauer‘s. He’s just your ordinary, everyday billionaire. One of the 1%. Except that he believes that he doesn’t pay enough tax. And that hammering the middle class, the ones who buy actual stuff, who create demand, which in turn creates jobs and more taxes, is simply bad for the economy. “I mean, I drive the fanciest Audi around, but it’s still only one of them… Three pairs of jeans a year, that will just about do me.”

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The system simply isn’t working, he says. It’s put the millionaires and the billionaires, the Nick Hanauers and the Mitt Romneys – the people that Republican rhetoric describes as job creators – at the centre of the economic universe, rather than what Hanauer calls the true job creators – the middle classes.

The problem is, he says, that they’ve been attacked from every side. He was one of the initial investors in Amazon, a business of which he’s “incredibly proud”, but he points out that on revenues in the last three months of 2012 of $21bn (£13bn), Amazon employs just 65,600 people. “If it was a mom and pop retailer, it would be 600,000 people, or 800,000 or a million.”

Globalisation and technology have played their role. But so has the government. For decades, under both Republicans and Democrats the highest rate of tax didn’t dip below 70%. Now, Hanauer says he pays 11% on a six-figure income. Hanauer believes that if he was taxed more, he would be better off, because his company – he’s a venture capitalist and his family own a pillow factory – would sell more products, and he would, therefore, make more money. […]

One of the key moments for Reich was the underinvestment in education, particularly higher education in the 70s. This was when America introduced tuition fees and its workforce started to fall behind the rest of the world’s. […]

We have more people living in poverty who have jobs than those who don’t, according to Oxfam.

[…] One of the key pieces of research that Reich cites is a study of tax data by Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty which shows that the years of peak income inequality in America were in 1928 and 2007. Right before both crashes. “The parallels are striking,” he says. It’s also striking what happened in the years after 1928. How in Germany, to take a random example, worldwide depression also led to a vicious polarisation of right and left. And certain other outcomes.

Could that happen in America? “Oh good heavens, I hope not!” he says. “Though when you go into periods of economic insecurity with widening inequality which puts the middle class under stress, you create fertile ground for demagogues from left or right. The politics of hate. The politics of fear. We’re already seeing that.”

And yet, despite, it all, he remains hopeful. “Change has always been difficult,” he says. It’s why he teaches. If he can’t change the world, maybe his students will.

http://www.theguardian.com/film/2013/feb/02/inequality-for-all-us-economy-robert-reich

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