Inequality for All – Engrossing Economics Lesson

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Documentaries have the noblest of intentions than mainstream movies. But, when a politician/economist is the central narrator of a documentary, then it becomes hard for viewers to separate genuine opinions and that of the agenda he advocates. Jacob Kornbluth’s educative and advocacy documentary “Inequality for All” (2013) features Clinton’s Secretary of Labor and current Berkley University economics professor, Mr. Robert Reich, who with his nifty animated statistics and graphs shows us America’s widening income gap and shrinking middle class. As I said, movies like this promote only an agenda or shows contempt for people of the opposite point of view. However, “Inequality for All” is neither patronizing nor pessimistic. Reich, using self-deprecating humor and jargon-free words, establishes a case about income disparities in America.

“The richest 400 Americans have more wealth than the bottom 150 million of us put together,” says Reich. We know this is the case not only in America, but all through this globalized world. We are not hearing these facts for the first time, but Reich’s compelling narration efficiently packages all the known information into one neat tidy packet. The documentary is structured in parallel with the Wealth and Poverty course Reich teaches at UC Berkeley. The central graph of Reich’s narration is the “suspension bridge” graph that shows the similarities between the years 1928 and 2007, two important years that came before a huge economic crash, in terms of the share of all income being earned by the top 1 percent. He compares the average salary of 1970’s male worker with that of the top 1 percent earners back then, and shows how that gap has exploded now (“Four hundred people have more wealth than half the population of the United States” says Reich).

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Another important issue he addresses is the general myth that ‘job creators should not be taxed.’ Reich’s ally, a billionaire venture capitalist, Nick Hanauer argues that “Rich business guys like me aren’t the job creators. Our customers are the job creators.” He alludes that the consumers –middle class people — who power 70 percent of the nation’s economic activity are the real job creators. As rich get richer (thanks to all the tax exemptions), their customers’ or employees wages only dwindle, making fewer people to buy a product.

Mr. Kornbluth and Reich also establish what’s been happening recently, like 2008 crash, housing bubble, the emergence of the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements. All these incidents are analyzed in the context of a globalized economy. Then he plows at the troubling issue of lobbyists and political campaign financing by corporate giants. The documentary takes some biographical turns, when Reich talks about his childhood and the challenges he faced growing up — suffers from a rare genetic disorder, Fairbanks syndrome. He gives personal insights about his acquaintance with Bill Clinton.

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Reich ends with a note of optimism (“I’m still a cockeyed optimist. That’s why I teach”). “Inequality for All” deserves credit for making us learning about economics in an engaging way. It strongly reiterates the well known, but ignored fact: eventually, the excessive concentration of wealth hurts everyone, rich and poor alike.

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