Covering a broad swath of liberal economic theory in brisk, simply stated fashion, “Inequality for All” aims to do for income disparity what “An Inconvenient Truth” did for climate change, with fellow Clinton administration veteran Robert Reich taking on Al Gore’s role of genial lecturer and soothsayer. Making some strenuous efforts at even-handedness and offering ample visual respite, this is a lively docu that desperately wants to preach beyond the Occupy-sympathizing choir, and it’ll be curious to see if the stark schisms over U.S. fiscal policy prove too wide to traverse.
Like “An Inconvenient Truth,” “Inequality for All” is grounded in footage of a large lecture — in this case, Reich’s “Wealth and Poverty” class at UC Berkeley — with plentiful cutaways for visual aides and interviews. The former Secretary of Labor, Reich has a simple argument to make: The widening gulf between rich and poor is leading to the disenfranchisement of the middle class, which will cripple the national economy if left unchecked. To support it, he traces the entire fiscal development of the country from the Great Depression onward, and does so with a commendable lack of professorial gobbledygook or obvious partisan book-cooking.
Though he lacks Gore’s iconic cherry picker, the diminutive Reich nonetheless surpasses him in charisma, and equals his collection of alarming charts and graphs, most notably a suspension bridge-shaped illustration of income disparity over the last century, with peaks coming first in the late 1920s and then again in the late 2000s. This figure aligns alarmingly well with a plethora of other socio-economic trends.
If the middle class is unable to maintain solvency as costs of living increase and paychecks stay the same, Reich argues, the central engine of the national economy — consumer spending — will sputter and bring the whole system to a halt. One of Reich’s key concerns is the way middle-class workers have compensated for stagnating wages by borrowing, and a shocking line graph shows median salaries lingering unchanging at the bottom of the screen, while median personal debt levels soar off into the stratosphere.
For illustration, director Jacob Kornbluth follows some evocative real-world subjects, including multi-millionaire entrepreneur Nick Hanauer, who cheekily and effectively argues against his own role as a tax-break-protected “job creator,” and a Republican-voting Mormon couple seeking to unionize workers at their hometown Calpine geothermal plant.
Yet the deepest impact is left by a working mother of two whose husband’s recent layoff caused the family to lose its house. Forced to share a small home with another family, she poignantly asks, “How do you build wealth? Not that I want to be wealthy, but just … how do you do it? How do you build wealth when you have no assets?”
While Reich has logged an intriguing career, the pic does dally a bit too idly on his biography. He recalls his time in the Clinton White House fondly, yet admits “frustration” at his accomplishments without delving into too much detail about them, and bizarrely doesn’t mention Clinton’s substantial role in furthering the financial deregulation trends that would come back to bite the world economy in the ass a decade later.
Yet there are certainly lessons to be gleaned from Reich’s journey through politics. As he acknowledges throughout the film, the central message of rising economic inequality is one he’s been preaching for three decades, and when he started, he was considered a centrist. Only recently, two decades after the end of the Cold War, have those same ideas brought him under charges of radical Marxism by Fox News blowhards.
In one of the film’s most stirring sequences, Reich is drawn into a charged exchange with a roughly eloquent Calpine factory worker who opposes unionization. Reich engages the man in debate with admirable civility and a lack of condescension, and the rest of the docu strives to follow suit (though fiscal conservatives will obviously disagree with many of the film’s arguments, it scarcely ever resorts to straw-man chicanery). But it underlines the many brick walls financial reformers face, and the struggle “Inequality” with have to undergo to reach those most in need of convincing.
Tech tasks are all efficiently executed, and the film drifts by swiftly on the back of a jaunty score and low-key animated flourishes.