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Income Inequality Is Killing Democracy

Or so argues Robert Reich's new film, opening in the Bay Area this Friday.

How do you sell a documentary film about income inequality to movie distributors? "It wasn't easy to pitch," admits Jacob Kornbluth, the director, of Inequality for All, which opens in theaters in San Francisco, Berkeley, Palo Alto, and San Rafael this Friday. "But Bob has the perfect personality for it." That's Bob as in Former Secretary of Labor and UC Berkeley Professor Robert Reich. The film, which is a little bit like An Inconvenient Truth but about money, focuses on the economic and political consequences of the dramatically high levels of income inequality in the United States—and what to do about it. I spoke to Kornbluth and Reich, both Bay Area residents, by phone.

"I’m not a Communist," Reich says in the film, laughing. In fact, when asked what country he would like to see the United States emulate, he doesn't point overseas. He points back in time. "Look at the Progressive era," he tells me, "or the period after the Second World War."

The film argues that income inequality in the United States has reached levels not seen since right before the Great Depression. In contrast, the period from the late 40s through the 70s, which Reich calls “the Great Prosperity,” saw a relatively egalitarian distribution of wealth—a more broadly shared prosperity.

It’s an issue that speaks to the Bay Area today, as well the country as a whole. After all, Reich says, “rich people have always lived in the hills and poor people on the flatland. But now you can go your whole day without interacting with people from a different economic strata.” You can see it in the way public opinion turned against the BART employee strike, or the endless hand-wringing about the impact of high-tech firms in San Francisco. “What this film does,” Kornbluth tells me, “is provide a broader context for all of that.”

The filmmakers point to several factors that led to the decline of income equality—technical automation, the decimation of unions, and global chains of production (“Globalization,” jokes Reich in the film. “Rarely has a word gone so quickly from obscurity to meaninglessness without any intervening period of coherence.”)

There is a striking moment in the film when one of Reich’s students, who has a wife and kids and who enrolled in college after losing his job, talks about how he won’t use the automated checkout line at grocery stores. “That’s somebody’s job,” he says. 

In his written work, Reich often comes off as the last defender on the walls of New Deal-Great Society liberalism, but, he insists, that doesn’t capture the whole of this thinking. “There’s always winners and losers,” he says. “But other countries, like Germany, do a much better job at retraining workers for a high tech economy. We don’t have the same kind of education infrastructure here.”

Reich has to run, but I chat with Kornbluth a little longer. “See what I mean?” he asks me. “He’s the perfect entry point. It’s way more entertaining than you’d think.” 

 

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