Robert Reich and Inequality for All

Inequality for AllI 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.

Disposable Incomes

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.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

3 thoughts on “Robert Reich and Inequality for All

  1. It was a bit underwhelming. But he didn’t make it; he was the subject. I was hoping the film would include more of his great instructional videos; instead, it was structured around that college class (I’m not as convinced as the filmmakers that a Berkeley college class will be full of future rebels.)

    However Reich came off well. And I didn’t realize how short he was, and how much that’s contributed to him being an anti-bully. It made my SO, generally not interested in this sort of movie (feeling as though it’s preaching to the converted, which to a degree is true) really respond to Reich in a way his internet videos couldn’t.

    My favorite bit — and I wish the movie had more of similar stuff — was Reich at the worker meeting for the geothermal energy company. That was a shining example of a company whose work can’t be outsourced; you can’t bottle geothermal power. And yet there was still a "free market" true believer who didn’t agree with raising wages, who internalized the nonsense about how the Smart People owning the company deserved to be rich, workers like him deserved to be poor, etc. He and Reich had a really great exchange; neither was disrespectful. It made me think Reich can really be a killer labor organizer, if that’s something he continues to have interest in.

  2. @JMF – I think the film went out of its way not to preach to the choir. That was why we got the Mormon family and Simpson. I just don’t think they did a good job of that.

    Yes, I found that exchange compelling. But again: it didn’t go anywhere. But I was amazed by that worker. I couldn’t believe that he said he thought they paid him [i]better[/i] than he deserved. Was the guy suffering from learned helplessness? That’s not even a conservative argument. As I argue a lot, the biggest thing that unions do is not collective bargaining. It is that they create solidarity. They teach workers that they [i]are[/i] important. I felt profoundly sorry for that man. And I always hate it when people denigrate their intelligence. He didn’t strike me as stupid–just deeply confused.

  3. Yeah, if I didn’t make it clear, I thought the fellow expressed himself quite vividly. He obviously wasn’t a moron. That’s what made his interchange with Reich powerful for me.

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