If anything, America's 2008 economic meltdown has prompted more questions than answers in its devastating wake. How did all those billionaires get so goddamn rich? If the Dow Jones is doing so great, why are we still struggling to pay the bills? And what happened to all those jobs we were promised? Robert Reich, former U.S. Secretary of Labor and eminent poo-bah on all matters economic, is here to spell it all out for you in the entertaining documentary Inequality for All.
While rampant home foreclosures, set-in-stone corporate tax breaks, a decimated employment landscape, offshore accounts, and obscenely bloated CEO salaries would make all but the most fervent Ayn Rand devotee's blood boil, Inequality for All approaches its subject in a remarkably candid, non-partisan way. No ideologue with an axe to grind, Robert Reich has the gravitas and expertise to back up the clear-eyed and often surprising facts presented in this film. Director Jacob Kornbluth, whose scant other credits include the underrated 2001 office comedy Haiku Tunnel, supplants Reich's pontificating with appealing infographics and portraits of average Americans from all walks of life.
With Inequality for All, Reich sets out mainly to answer two huge questions - why did the U.S. economy get so bad, and what did we do to make it that way? Reich starts off the discussion by comparing the current U.S. economy with the last time income gaps between the richest and the poorest were at their widest, the late 1920s. Using a graphic that lays it out like a perfect suspension bridge, 1928 and 2007 show the wealth gaps at two peaks, while the intervening years form a huge downward bow in which the 1970s dip to the lowest point. Reich compellingly points out how income disparity was leveled out by various government programs, including Social Security and other New Deal reforms during the Great Depression, and the effort to get the middle class educated (via the G. I. Bill) and creating new jobs (and products to buy!) in the post-World War II boom. Fascinating stuff, and it becomes personal as Reich relates the '60s-'70s economic landscape with his own life in politics. When the income gap starts widening again, it's during the corporate-friendly, union-busting years of the Reagan administration. Couched in a "let's get the government out of our lives" populism, the trickle-down policies of Reagonomics led to huge short-term profits, lots of jobs, and rampant deregulation. When it progresses to the '90s, Reich shares a lot of insights from his period as Secretary of Labor under Bill Clinton in his first presidential term. His efforts to make things easier for the struggling middle class are laudable, yet if anything he seems a little too admiring of his old friend and boss (after all, Clinton signed off on a lot of corporate-friendly measures like the Telecommunications Act of 1996). Inequality also concisely spells out what deregulation brought about through the years: the Technology Bubble of the '90s, the Housing Bubble of the '00s, the globalized, merger-happy George W. Bush years, and the greed-driven, derivative-caused financial collapse of 2008. And so here we are, in our current absurdly lopsided, static economy in which a tiny pool of 400 American billionaires control 62 percent of our country's holdings.
Stats, figures and spiffy graphics are one thing, yet Inequality for All's vitality mostly comes from Robert Reich's ebullient, geek-positive personality. A good-sized portion of the film's running time is devoted to simple, fascinating filmed lectures of Reich addressing his students at UC Berkeley. Instead of the stern and cautious tact taken by Al Gore in An Inconvenient Truth, however, Reich comes across here as a cuddly, compact, teddy bearish oracle of wisdom (Reich's short stature is a recurring motif in this, something he has a healthy sense of humor about). The joy of fact-finding seems to inform Reich's every being. Vignettes of families struggling against debt and joblessness serve as alarming proof that this is a monumental problem, yet Reich's idealism makes for a compelling case for the belief that things will eventually right themselves.
In the end, I'm not sure that I shared Reich's cockeyed optimism when it comes to our current, sorry economic state (were the 1928 Senate and House as inert and lobbyist-controlled as the Congress we have now?). Inequality for All is invaluable as a primer on the yin and yang of business and government control. It's also a great portrait of where we've been, and where we're possibly heading.
Video and Audio:
The Weinstein Company supplied Inequality for All as a pre-release screener disc. As per DVD Talk standards, we will update the video and audio section should the commercial version of the DVD become available.
A few Deleted Scenes (7:26) fill in some more details on Reich's background and family (including an ill-fated campaign for governor of Massachusetts). Behind-the-Scenes Interviews (6:47) with Reich, director Jacob Kornbluth, and producers Jennifer Chaiken and Sebastian Dungan display some of the passion that went into this worthwhile project.
With Robert Reich as a personable guide to the current, lopsided U.S. economic landscape, Inequality for All serves as the most concise, eye-opening documentary on the subject since 2010's Inside Job. Reich's enthusiasm - and his ability to make the complex forces behind our king-sized financial woes accessible - stands in contrast to his diminutive stature. The long and short of it? Watch and learn. Highly Recommended.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and dilettante-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's seen are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.