Inequality Means More than Just Money

By Ben Sutter 10-02-2013
Courtesy 'Inequality for All' website
Courtesy 'Inequality for All' website

Robert Reich pulls up in his silver Mini Cooper, quipping that he and his car are in proportion to each other. Reich, former Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, identifies himself with the underdog, the little man.

His new movie, Inequality for All, looks into the effects of wealth inequality in the United States. Throughout this semi-autobiographical documentary, Reich consistently leans on his self-deprecating sense of humor by poking fun at his own physical stature; he’s 4’10 ½’’ tall. The jokes, however, do lead back to the heavier issue at hand – the American worker is getting squeezed out of the middle class.

The movie showcases the stories of Americans with various economic standing, highlighting the great gap between those on the bottom and those flying high. The differences are stark: from a woman who has less than $100 in her bank account to a man who doesn’t even know the amount he makes a year (more than $10 million and less than $30 million, he estimates). The problem, the affluent man says, is that the rich spend too little of what they earn. Once he’s bought three pairs of jeans, he doesn’t need more, he says. The rich don’t spend $10 million a year, they save it. When the rich save or speculate on that $10 million, the money is removed from the marketplace and no longer contributes to the national economy.

At this point, Reich critiques the notion that the rich are “job creators,” calling that a claim on privilege. The customers of rich people’s businesses are the real job creators. There is no perfect free market, Reich says. "We make the rules of the economy – and we have the power to change those rules." Those rules, he says, have shifted to benefit the rich. Without a voice in the society, the workers have none to protect their interests.

Reich, in front of his University of California at Berkeley class, shows graphs of the continual growth of the economy and of productivity in the U.S. from 1929 to 2011. He juxtaposes this against the rise of wages adjusted for inflation until 1977, after which a growing gap appears between national productivity and working wages.

As wages for the American worker leveled out, Reich describes three coping mechanisms Americans used to keep up financially over the years. First, women set off to work outside the home, largely in order to prop up their family incomes. Secondly, both men and women began to work longer hours, even finding second or third jobs. Thirdly, Americans started borrowing and going into debt, many times cashing out on their homes as collateral. When these defense mechanisms reach their limits, the bubble inevitably bursts, pushing those most vulnerable into free fall.

To answer this, Reich points to the post-World War II economy of the U.S. between 1947 and 1977. The U.S. made higher education a priority, with programs like the GI bill and the expansion of public universities. Reich also holds up the large role unions played in the 1950s, with nearly one third of workers a part of a union.

In spite of its aim to introduce economic concepts Inequality for All is very accessible. Using the economic concepts of the virtuous and vicious cycles, the film introduces its audience to basic understandings of how economists speak, explaining many of the phrases frequently thrown around on news talk shows. Reich makes it clear that inequality is undermining democracy; with money comes the opportunity to control politics. The ability to buy votes in elections on both sides of the political scale is clear and dangerous.

While Reich and his producers certainly intend for the movie to reach the entire spectrum of those interested in the politics of economics, he does a great disservice to himself and to the conversation by so simply laughing off the extreme Right’s defamation of him as a ‘Communist.’ While it certainly is ludicrous for him to be classified as such, Reich does little to remedy the situation.

In the film, Reich clearly does not call for collective ownership of property, but for pushing government to take a vested interest in how workers are treated across the board, from wages to education. However, when faced with this defamation, Reich avoids advancing the conversation, preferring to blow off the accusations to paint his opponents as incapable of having a discussion.

With that said, this film is an incredibly enjoyable watch. The humor sprinkled throughout offers a short reprieve from the numbers and stats and personalizes the story from Reich’s point of view. The film clearly has an agenda — displaying the inequity of the United States — but that agenda is well founded and statistically reinforced. And so, the ending call to action begins with “the movie is over … the work begins now.” Even without viewing the film, the movie website offers various ways to get involved in the fight, and the causes there are worth a look.

Ben Sutter is online assistant for Sojourners.

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