The economy. The mere mention of that word makes some eyes glaze over and ears tune out. It’s an umbrella term that conjures up images of stock-price displays, bells ringing at the New York Stock Exchange, houses in foreclosure, fat cats on Wall Street, and self-proclaimed experts spouting unintelligible lexicon on CNBC.
So one would assume that a film about the economy would be dry, arcane and rather unentertaining. But Inequality for All, winner of a Special Jury Prize in Documentary Filmmaking at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, proves quite the contrary. Jacob Kornbluth’s first foray into nonfiction film is engaging, amusing, colorful and, most importantly, digestible.
The film focuses on the country’s widening wealth gap in the past 40 years: The richest 400 Americans control more wealth than the bottom 150 million Americans; the six WalMart heirs, more than the bottom 33 million families combined. At present, the United States ranks 64th in income inequality, placing lower than the Ivory Coast and Cameroon. When it comes to distribution of income, why is the US sandwiched among third world countries instead of its G7 counterparts?
Enter Robert Reich—congenial professor, best-selling author and Secretary of Labor under President Bill Clinton. He explains in layman’s terms why this has happened and why such inequality is bad for the economy and for the social fabric of the country. We follow the diminutive Reich, who amply makes up in personality and charisma what he lacks in stature, as he teaches his Wealth and Poverty class at University of California, Berkeley (now the largest undergraduate class there, totaling 805 students last spring) and zips around—in an aptly proportioned Mini Cooper—to union rallies.
Kornbluth, speaking by phone from New York, explains, “Reich has the unique ability to break down complex ideas in a way people can relate to and understand. His stature makes him who he is as a person; it makes him a very compelling character for a documentary. He’s a fascinating person; he’s very likeable on camera. It also helps that I know him very well.”
As to how that relationship came about, Kornbluth recounts, “I met him in 2008. I was trying to make a fiction film called Love & Taxes. I was shooting a test scene, and we needed someone to play a former IRS commissioner in a comic way. I asked [Reich] if he would do it, and he came out and did. I don’t know if the scene worked, but we met each other and stayed in touch. And we were friends reasonably quickly.”
When asked about the genesis of the film, the director explains that it was fairly organic: “I was increasingly worried with what was happening with the economy and my friends who were struggling to make it—even those who came from solid, middle-class backgrounds. And 2008 brought that to a head for me. I felt like I was a little bit trapped in the 24-hour news cycle, and I wasn’t really getting the information [in a way] that was explaining things to me. I met Robert Reich and I asked him simple questions about the economy that I wanted answered. And we started making short, two-to-three-minute videos that I would post on my Facebook page. And thousands of people started watching these videos, so I had a sense that people were hungry for that type of information. I had a sense that my questions were everybody’s questions.”
Using colorful graphics that match Reich’s persona, the film delivers a multitude of depressing facts and statistics: The median income of a male worker today ($39,000) is lower than it was in 1968; stagnating wages coupled with rapidly rising costs in childcare, education and health care have led to the erosion of middle class income; conversely, executive compensation has skyrocketed, with the average CEO being paid 350 times more than an average worker at the same company. According to the US Department of Labor, the median pay in 2012 for CEOs was $9.7 million. The bell curve of income distribution has shifted increasingly to the left, leaving a vast underclass of nouveau pauvres.
But why is that bad for the economy? Because, as Reich explains in the film, the middle class is the engine that drives consumer spending. By undermining the purchasing power of the middle class, we are trapped in a vicious circle of dwindling consumption and slower economic growth. “When middle class consumers have to tighten their belts, the whole economy suffers,” he says. It’s not a zero-sum game.
Even though the last few decades have clearly shown that Reagan-era "trickle down" economics does not work, the director takes great care in not vilifying the rich. Kornbluth sought to include the 1 percent in his film. He finds an enlightened spokesman for that elite: pillow manufacturer Nick Hanauer—CEO, venture capitalist and early investor in Amazon. As Kornbluth notes, “We needed the perspective from the 1 percent, and the more I thought about it, the more I didn’t want it to be a villain. I wanted a person who would share the view that the decline for the middle class is bad for the American economy. The movie is called, after all, Inequality for All. It’s bad for the rich, the poor and the middle class.”
Speaking by phone from Northern California, Reich adds, “The wealth gap is now a chasm…[but] there are no real villains. It’s really a system that has failed to change and adapt. But unfortunately it’s harder to tell a convincing political story without there being any villains. And large numbers of people are angry, frustrated and scared because their paychecks are shrinking and they don’t have jobs. They want villains.”
The documentary is not all figures, graphs and data; in fact, there are some very emotional counterpoints, particularly when the film delves into the personal struggles of some middle-class families. Even more resonant is the personal explanation, close to the end of the film, as to what drives Reich to fight against bullies and defend the weak.
Kornbluth finds the frequent comparisons to Davis Guggenheim’s 2006 film, An Inconvenient Truth, very flattering, adding, “It was a landmark documentary and it was very important film. The fact that that film was successful did help people to see that there was a way that this film could be made. They took what could be perceived as a dry topic and made an entertaining film that could be accessible to audiences.”
With regard to his apprehensions about venturing in the field of documentaries for the first time, Kornbluth concedes, “I had a lot of concerns. One of them was: How do you make a film about such a heady topic as the economy? What does that look like? We didn’t know how the film was going to look like going in; that’s part of making a documentary. And I didn’t know how this was going to turn out. For a fictional filmmaker, that was terrifying.”
Whether his move from narrative into documentary films is permanent, Kornbluth admits, “There’s such uncertainty going out every day, not knowing what you are going to shoot. It’s scary, but it’s also completely invigorating. In fiction filmmaking, I spend my entire time trying to get something truthful, something that feels authentic, and in docs, that’s all you are dealing with. I just loved that. I’m hooked. I’d love to work on another.”
As for Reich’s biggest revelation upon seeing the completed film, his response was very telling: “The big surprise was to see myself over the last 30 years saying much the same thing. The younger version of me on TV and radio warning of the direction that we are going in terms of widening inequality and executive salary and so forth. And yet 30 years later, we are worse than when I began all of this. When I saw that younger version of myself juxtaposed against who I am now, making all of the same arguments, and warning what would happen…it shocked me. I’ve been talking about this for so long and to have the situation become steadily worse makes me wonder whether all the books, all the writing and all the work I’ve tried to do had any effect whatsoever.”
But perhaps the movie will change that. Reich concludes, “My son Sam, when he saw the movie, said to me, 'Now Dad, for the first time I understand what you’ve been trying to say all these years.' I thought that was a hopeful sign.”
Inequality for All premieres in theaters September 27 through Radius/TWC.
Darianna Cardilli is a Los Angeles-based documentary filmmaker and editor.
She can be reached at www.darianna.com.