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Lights, Camera, Economics

September 10, 2013
by Pat Joseph
Robert Reich being filmed

Robert Reich brings his message to the big screen.

If charisma were measured in inches, Berkeley political economist Robert Reich would be a very tall man—but he’s short. Famously so, barely 4’11”. It’s not something he hides. To the contrary, he works his height the way a fat comic works his weight, beginning speeches with deadpan openers like, “As you can see, this economy has really worn me down,” and, “I’ll be short.”

Audiences already acquainted with Bob Reich (nobody who knows him calls him Robert) will hardly be surprised to learn that both the short-guy schtick and the charisma are on full display in Inequality for All, the new documentary film in which Reich stars. Nor will they be surprised at the central message of the film: that income disparities in America have been widening since the 1970s, and that the trend poses a grave threat to our democracy.

No, if there’s any surprise at all, it’s that the film got made in the first place. I mean, a movie about economics? The dismal science? You’re not exactly like, ‘Pass the popcorn,’ are you?

And yet, if early screenings are any indication, the film, which opens in theaters on September 27, should be a hit at the box office. Inequality for All has been winning over festival crowds across the country, from Tribeca to San Francisco. At the Sundance Film Festival in January, it won a U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Achievement in Filmmaking, a standing ovation for Reich and director Jacob Kornbluth, and—biggest prize of all—a major distribution deal with the Weinstein Company.

When I asked Kornbluth, whose previous films include Haiku Tunnel and The Best Thief in the World, to give me the elevator pitch for Inequality for All, he laughed.

“Well, I would tend to tell people that I thought widening income equality was the story of our times, and I thought that the best person to tell that story is Robert Reich and that’s why we should make the movie. Now, that was a very mediocre elevator pitch, primarily because it didn’t give a sense of what the film would look like. And so the discussion quickly turned to An Inconvenient Truth because that was the reference people knew.”

To be sure, the comparisons with Al Gore’s 2006 film are obvious and inevitable: Both documentaries are examples of what might be called the slideshow-lecture genre. Just substitute economics for climate science, Reich for Gore, and you get the basic idea. In much the same way that Gore’s keynote presentation is the backbone of An Inconvenient Truth, Reich’s enormously popular Wealth and Poverty course at Berkeley serves as the through-line of Inequality for All. The film continually cuts back to a packed Wheeler Auditorium, where Reich lectures to/performs for a rapt audience of undergrads.

But the parallels run deeper still. People tend to forget that Gore was no newcomer to the issue of climate change when An Inconvenient Truth came out (he published his book Earth in the Balance in 1992). Likewise, for decades Reich has been warning of the growing gap between American incomes. Both men are also exiles of a sort—former Washington insiders whose Big Ideas never really held sway in the capital. In that sense, the two movies are about, but also an extension of, their respective quests to be heard.

And for that, what better tool than film? Reich, a prolific columnist and author of 13 books, freely acknowledges the limitations of the printed word. “Fewer people are buying books,” he said, “and even the books they buy, they’re not reading.” Reich added that it was his son, Sam, a content producer for, who first urged him in the direction of using streaming video as a way to reach a wider audience.

And that’s how it started. Reich and Kornbluth first teamed up to film a series of short video segments—very short, typically just two-and-a-half minutes long—in which Reich explains the political economy in simple, straightforward terms, often illustrating as he goes, with the frame rate accelerated as his Sharpie goes squeaking across the pages of a flip board. (Yes, he draws, too, in a winsome style somewhat reminiscent of Charles Schulz’s Peanuts—all big, round heads and squat little bodies.) These videos, with titles like The 7 Biggest Economic Lies and Robert Reich Explains the Credit Downgrade, are posted to various Internet channels, including YouTube and MoveOn, where they have done remarkably well. One segment, The Truth About the Economy, has logged more than 1.5 million views on YouTube alone.

Kornbluth said it was the success of that project that encouraged him to think bigger. “Obviously Bob writes and speaks about this stuff all the time, but something about the way I was seeing it and presenting it was actually adding something. And it felt like meaningful work.”

After seeing an early manuscript of Reich’s best-selling book, Aftershock, Kornbluth said it clicked: Here was potential for something more substantial—a feature-length documentary film. A movie!

Reich’s own relationship to the movies has been fairly typical, which is to say enthusiastic but also casual and cursory. He remembers, growing up in rural New York, going to the cinema with his grandmother. “She loved the big 1950s musicals,” he told me. “Gigi and South Pacific and all the rest, so I would sit there in the dark with her, usually Saturday afternoon, with nobody else around and we would just watch these fabulous Technicolor movies.” (The same grandmother used to assure Reich that a growth spurt would come any day, but, alas, it never did. Much later, he learned that he has a genetic disease called Fairbank’s Syndrome, a condition he shares with the actor Danny DeVito.)

As he matured, Reich’s own taste in film ran to classics like Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane and Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. “The Capra-corn!” he exclaimed at the recollection. “They used to call it ‘corn’ because it was corny, but I was a sucker for that sort of stuff.”

Reich himself would first go to Washington as a young intern to Senator Robert F. Kennedy. Later, he returned to the Beltway as a Yale Law School grad to serve as an assistant to Nixon’s Solicitor General Robert Bork, whom Reich says he enjoyed despite their ideological differences. (Reich once joked to a Los Angeles Times reporter that he and Bork “disagreed on a few items: the 1st, 2nd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 8th, and 9th Amendments of the Constitution.”)

In college, Reich’s taste in film broadened to include new directors and foreign cinema. As an undergraduate at Dartmouth, he once accompanied a certain Wellesley coed by the name of Hillary Rodham to see Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-up. The story of that long-ago date was dredged up when Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton ran for president. Reich joshed to reporters that he couldn’t remember much about the evening, except that the future First Lady had wanted an inordinate amount of butter on her popcorn.

At Oxford, Reich was a Rhodes Scholar in the same class as William Jefferson Clinton. He spent his free time writing, staging, and acting in plays. Classmates say Reich was the most impressive of their cohorts, and in his memoir, Clinton called Reich the “already famous spark plug of our group.” Needless to say, the two men were physical mismatches (while Reich played thespian, Clinton played rugby); but they were close friends nonetheless, constantly discussing ideas and arguing policy as they strolled the campus. Those arguments carried into the Clinton White House, where Reich was appointed first to head up the president’s Council of Economic Advisors, and later to the Clinton cabinet, where he was reputed to be the president’s “liberal conscience”—the angel of progressivism on Clinton’s left shoulder facing the deficit hawks perched on his right.

Even now, Reich, a professor at Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy since 2006, is introduced almost without fail as the former secretary of labor. (The Late Show host Conan O’Brien once teamed up with Reich to do a cop show spoof. In the skit, O’Brien played Detective Conan O’Brien. Reich was Detective Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich.) The title hasn’t stuck without reason; Time magazine named Reich one of the top ten cabinet members of the 20th century, alongside his idol, Bobby Kennedy. Accomplishments cited by the editors included Reich’s implementation of the Family and Medical Leave Act and an increase in the minimum wage.

Yet, in Locked in the Cabinet, Reich’s memoir of his time as labor secretary, he bemoaned his lack of influence with the administration (he resigned after one term). Reviewing the book in The New York Times, Evan Thomas described the author as “ruefully funny” and “Thurberesque” (for several Mitty-like interludes). But he also found that Reich could come off as “a bit of a noodge, and one begins to sympathize with Mr. Clinton as he glazes over at Mr. Reich’s umpteenth insistence that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting shafted.”

One man’s noodge is another man’s voice in the wilderness, of course. And Reich wasn’t wrong; the poor really were getting shafted, and the middle class to boot. Since taking his leave of the White House in February 1997, the gap between the richest and the rest of us has only grown larger, and no one in Washington—including Barack Obama, whom Reich endorsed over his old movie date in the 2008 presidential election—has done anything substantive to address it.

At the center of Inequality for All is a graph based upon the research of Reich’s Berkeley colleague, economist Emmanuel Saez, and MIT’s Thomas Piketty. By analyzing federal tax returns as far back as 1913 (when, not incidentally, the whole federal income tax thing started), Saez and Piketty found that the share of total income going to the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans peaked twice at over 23 percent—once in 1928, just before the stock market crash of the following year, and again in 2007, just before the global financial crisis. In between those peaks, the graph traces a steep, Yosemite-like valley, at the bottom of which are the boom years following World War II—the so-called Great Prosperity. That was when the top 1 percent of Americans were taxed at significantly higher rates (in the 1960s, the top marginal tax rate hovered at just over 90 percent!) and laid claim to just a little more than 10 percent of total income. The graph is so stark that it becomes the central image of Inequality for All, rendered as the towers and suspension cables of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Throughout the film, viewers are confronted with these kinds of stunning, yet easily overlooked realities. Take, for example, the fact that, adjusting for inflation, the typical male worker in America today makes less today than he did in 1978. Or that the richest 400 Americans now lay claim to more wealth than the bottom 150 million (nearly half the total population) put together. And when you consider that wealth translates into political influence, well, it’s not hard to see how the trend is perpetuated. The richer the rich get, the more they are able to rig the system in their favor. And that’s the problem in a nutshell, according to Reich: The basic bargain has been broken. The system is failing us.

With that as background, you might reasonably expect Inequality for All to be an angry film, dripping with righteous indignation and populist outrage. It’s not. And in that sense it differs from other popular films about today’s financial crisis. There are none of the dopey, in-your-face antics of Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story; nor does it have the take-no-prisoners zeal of Berkeley alumnus Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job. Sure, Kornbluth showcases the ignorance of commentators such as Fox’s Bill O’Reilly (who calls Reich a Communist who “secretly adores Karl Marx”), but no one is held up as a true villain.

In fact, the face of The One Percent in the film is Seattle venture capitalist Nick Hanauer, who (like Warren Buffett) thinks it’s crazy that “guys like him” aren’t taxed more. And the face of the Republican Party is Alan Simpson, the 6’7″ Senator from Wyoming with whom Reich used to lock horns on a public television show called The Long and Short of It. That was back in the good old days when politics could be hard fought yet still collegial.

“Those days are gone,” Reich laments. He blames it partly on the gerrymandering of congressional districts, which makes most seats safe except in the primaries. “In the primaries you’ve got to worry, if you’re a Republican, about someone running to your right. And if you’re a Democrat, someone running to your left. That has polarized us. But as we say in the film, there is also a direct correlation between periods of high polarization and high inequality, and I think that has more to do with the frustrations and anger that people have when they feel like the game is rigged. And when they feel that way, they’re going to buy a very mean-spirited politics.”

The spirit of Inequality for All is anything but mean-spirited, and is fully in keeping with Reich’s philosophy, which rejects what he calls the “bad-guy thesis” of the world. “Human nature is really no different from what it was 30 or 40 years ago when the system worked better,” he says. “You can’t explain the stagnation of median wages and the increasing concentration of wealth in terms of heroes and villains. To understand why we went from a quite equitable economy to one that is now as inequitable as it was in the late 19th century, you’ve got to understand it in terms of the rules of the game.”

Fair enough—but from an entertainment standpoint, I wondered, how do you hold an audience’s interest if you do away with the good guys and bad guys, the Us vs. Them stuff that, for better or worse, most of us thrive on? In large part, the answer brings us back to Reich’s considerable wit and charisma and the assist they get from Kornbluth’s talents as a visual storyteller. But Kornbluth, who admits to a dislike of most social-issue films for being overly didactic, thinks the film works on another, more cerebral level as well. “I think endorphins are released in a person when they understand things that they didn’t before.”

Asked what he most wants audiences to take away from Inequality for All, Reich says he hopes people will get past the idea of the economy as a fixed pie that just needs to be carved up differently. Instead, he wants us to concentrate on growing the economy in ways that work for everyone.

“The reason we chose the title Inequality for All is because of a profound conviction I have that the rich would do better with a smaller share of a rapidly growing economy and a society that was more collaborative than they’re doing now with a very large share of an economy that is growing painfully slowly and a society that’s coming apart.

“It’s not a zero-sum game in which the answer is redistribution from the rich to everybody else. Everybody will gain if we do this right.”

Pat Joseph is executive editor of California.
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