I really like Robert Reich as a public intellectual. In fact, right now, I have a tab open with an article by him that I want to write about. And he’s a great speaker. So I was very keen to see his documentary Inequality for All. But I was disappointed today when I finally got to see it.
The spine of the film is very good. It comes back again and again to Reich speaking to his class at Berkeley on inequality. There are also various interview segments with Reich outside the classroom. But even in these, the focus is scattered. There is a strong case made that the decline in unionization has been the cause of rising inequality since the 1970s. But he goes off on tangents like the effect of education on inequality that greatly distract. I understand what he’s getting at: the society as a whole needs to invest in education. But in the context of inequality, it feeds a tired myth that inequality is just a story of education. It is like having a segment about bicycle accidents in a film about the causes of spontaneous abortions: it gives the viewer the wrong idea.
But the film really goes off track when it gets away from Reich. There are two extended segments with families. One of them dealing with a father having been laid off and another involving a conservative Mormon family involved with trying to get a union started at work. Each are interesting in their way, but they go nowhere. The viewer is left wondering what the point was. That times are bad? That conservatives support unions too? I really don’t know.
Some of the expert interviews were interesting, and I was pleased to see the work of Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez. And Nick Hanauer is always entertaining doing his “rich people only wear one pair of pants at a time” thing. But all of that was more than offset by Robert Reich palling around with Alan Simpson. I don’t mind that Simpson exists or that he is in the movie. But to refer to him as a liberal, is over the top. What Simpson is is an old fashioned (1990s) Republican. Just because the current Republican Party is a hair’s breadth away from fascism, doesn’t mean we should start referring to people like Simpson as anything other than a conservative.
A big part of the film is its use of graphics, which are all excellent. The following screenshot highlights a point that doesn’t get made enough. It shows that things are much worse than stagnant wages would indicate, because the cost of living has been going up relentlessly.
There is also a great animation that shows wages and productivity rising together until around 1970 when the wages stagnate while the productivity gains continue up and up. So the film has a lot of interesting and important information. And in the end, I enjoyed it. It’s hard not to given just how charming Reich is. But I did expect more.