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No One Talks About the Poor Anymore

The Persistence of Inequality

by BECKY O'MALLEY

Almost by accident, the other night I saw the new documentary Inequality for All, which features Robert Reich, now Professor of Public Policy at the University of California here in Berkeley. I know, I know, Paul Krugman called him a “non-economist”. . In fact, Krugman once wrote of Reich “talented writer, too bad he never gets anything right.”

But he’s a pretty good teacher and journalist, skilled at communicating important points so that other non-economists like me understand them. This new movie, which relies heavily on animated graphs, is very simple, and much of it is incontrovertible.

I didn’t plan to see it, because I’ve read many of his columns and heard him often on the radio. What brought me there was that I’d agreed to entertain my eleven-year-old granddaughter for the evening, and her mother, who’d seen the film already, thought she’d enjoy it. And, surprisingly, she did.

A plus for the junior set is Reich’s self-mocking comic touch. He’s a master of the short end of the shtick. Well over four feet tall, he misses no opportunity to turn this genetic fact into funny stuff, starting with the lead -in scene where he drives up to the U.C. Berkeley campus in his Mini-Cooper. (You can watch this in the trailer on the film’s web site)

Admittedly, my granddaughter was also intrigued by the idea that the movie was rated PG-13—she was looking forward to something shocking. The girl in the box office didn’t even ask her age, and in truth nothing in the film, except possibly a clip of Jon Stewart employing his signature bleeped-out “fuck”, could be considered remotely racy. The numbers, however, were scary, as I expected.

The theme is simple, and very familiar to those—well, to those to whom it’s familiar. It’s a cliché in some circles: The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. Some of us knew that already.

In fact, if you don’t have time to take in an hour and a half movie, you can quickly get the message, complete with clever animation, in this YouTubed short with Reich’s voice-over narration.

The night my granddaughter and I went, we expected to have the theater to ourselves, because when her parents saw it the night before in San Francisco there were only four other people in the audience. But when we got to the Berkeley theater, I was surprised to see a long line of people with nametags waiting to get in. As I got closer, I recognized quite a few heavy duty Berkeley honchos, including both the current and the former U.C. Berkeley chancellors and their wives and our state senator, a former mayor of Berkeley who also happens to be married to the current mayor.

Clearly, this was some sort of delegation of Very Important People who’d been bussed in for the event. In our seats before it started, we learned that the group, whoever they were, would be treated to a Q&A session with the filmmakers after the showing.

The meat of the message, also visible on the trailer, is a graph showing that income inequality in the United States has had two peaks, one in 1928 and one in 2007, which in animation looks a lot like the Golden Gate Bridge. The rest of the film is devoted to re-stating this lesson in many different ways, and to attempting to explain how this happened. It’s leavened by lightly inserted clips from Professor Reich’s lengthy, impressive CV, scenes from his U.C. class and vignettes from the lives of workers struggling to establish a toe-hold in the middle class.

In fact, the film’s subtitle is “A Passionate Argument on Behalf of the Middle Class”. It comes down squarely within the truism popular in the latter part of the 20th century, that we’re all proud members of the middle class, regardless, increasingly, of our income. It’s just that many in what used to be called the working class are finding it hard to stay in the shrinking middle.

Another featured player in the movie is Nick Hanauer, venture capitalist and scion of a mattress manufacturing family who’s not ashamed to tell the audience that he makes too much money, in fact an obscene amount, though he doesn’t explicitly call it that. He’s emphatically not middle class—he’s also listed in the credits as one of the major funders of this Kick-Started production.

It was his segments that made the strongest impression on my granddaughter. She found it hard to believe that someone would claim not to know whether he made three million or ten million dollars a year. She is certainly able to count her own single digit resources better than that, as evidenced by the precision with which she spent her full snack bar allocation on popcorn to share.

The production is called by its backers a documentary. It is that, in the sense that its information is accurate and its characters are real people, but it should really be labeled propaganda, in the non-pejorative sense of the word. Its mission is to teach and persuade—with another cliché as its takeaway, the cynic’s version of the Golden Rule: Those who have the gold make the rules.

Will it change anyone’s mind?

After the lights went up a man and a woman—I didn’t catch their names or titles—stood up in front with microphones. After the obligatory thankyous to individuals and foundations who had paid for making the film (KickStarter was involved) they asked the audience for their reactions.

Almost everyone seemed to be part of the special group with the nametags, and they were a polite lot. The first commenters were generally complimentary. One asked if there had been problems getting distribution. No, the woman said, in fact they had quite a few theater slots already and more in the works. Another questioner said that the cost of going to movies, with tickets, babysitters and parking, was prohibitive for many young families—would there be CDs or streaming? Somewhat apologetically, the woman explained that in order to get theater distribution, they had to promise not to release the film elsewhere until after the first of the year, but something would be done then.

Another question: how much does Hanauer, the mattress manufacturer, pay his workers? The speakers seemed unable or reluctant to answer this, but the man finally said that the workers are paid according to the industry standard, because Hanauer believes in playing by the rules until it is possible to change the rules for everyone.

He referred the speaker to inequalityforall.com, the film’s web site, for the six specific actions Reich recommends to accomplish rule change. What he liked about working with Reich, he said, was that in his lifetime (he’s forty) most things economic seemed to have been getting consistently worse. Reich showed him, he said, how bad trends could be reversed, as they have, in the past in this country, for example by the Progressives at the turn of the 20th century, the New Deal and other social movements.

Then someone not wearing a name tag asked if the problem could be the overwhelming power of 21st century capitalism. (Okay, full disclosure, it was me.) The man seemed genuinely nonplussed by this question—said something about not being an economist, just a filmmaker, and tried to move on.

But the next couple of questioners followed up in the same direction. One, a woman who said she was from Colombia and had been to Cuba a few times, suggested that trying to fix massive income inequality with the recommended small steps was like convincing yourself that changing your light bulbs will stop climate change—emotionally satisfying but ultimately ineffective. An African-American man in the back of the theater wondered why the film didn’t say much about the genuine bad guys on the other side, people like the Koch brothers and the Tea Party.

And then the time for talking was up. There was some discussion about followup: the filmmakers again touted the website, and the state senator suggested sending out lots of emails, I’m not sure to whom.

My granddaughter and I had finished our popcorn, and it was past her bedtime, so we went home. She said she’d learned some interesting new facts, but maybe she was just being polite.

I still had the same question: would the film change anyone’s mind, or is it just preaching to the choir? And does that matter? Because the choir needs some encouragement if it’s going to go on singing.

When I got home I checked out the website. It’s a marvel of animation, plenty of click-though activities to keep you busy.

One section, entitled Take Action, started with a quote from Professor Reich:  “We make the rules of the economy – and we have the power to change those rules.” 

Six actions are proposed, each followed by a “show me how” click menu with its own list of things to do:

·Raise the Minimum Wage

Help turn the jobs we have into ones that will boost the economy, not bust it. Ensure full-time jobs have wages and benefits for people to afford basics.

·Strengthen Workers’ Voices

Don’t let big employers take away the fundamental right of people to stick together to speak up for themselves at work; public policy should support workers who choose to form a union.

·Invest in Education

Ensure everyone has access to a great education spanning from early childhood to post-secondary.

·Reform Wall Street

Ensure the financial sector is working honestly and accountably to prevent it from taking over our economy.

·Fix the Tax System

Ensure everyone is contributing their fair share; reverse the “great tax shift” – tax policies that shifted taxes from rich individuals and corporations to the rest of us.

· Get Big Money Out of Politics

Overturn Citizens United so that corporations can’t spend unlimited amounts of money on campaigns, and in return affect public policy and spending priorities.

Well, sure, but it’s that last one that still seems to me to be the real problem, the one that makes all the others difficult if not impossible to accomplish. It’s cliché #2: the people with the gold make the rules.

As of this week, the power of big money has once more overwhelmed democratic process. A few rich guys seem to have bought themselves enough House seats to stop government, any kind of government, from doing anything. And the problem’s not just in Washington: the excesses of global capitalism are making a mess of Europe.

How, then, are we going to change the rules? How, exactly, do we have the power to change them?

Reich’s role in making the rules throughout his career is problematic. He’s had important positions in at least three national administrations, positions of power, and yet the rules continue to shift toward the rich and away from the poor. How can the rest of us do better?

No one talks about the poor any more, do they? Or even the working class. It’s all about the middle class, and yet using Reich’s own statistics we learn that many in the United States spend their whole lives without a prayer of ever making it into the middle class. We seem to have decisively lost the War on Poverty, once thought to be as powerful as the New Deal.

From the website I learned the name of the earnest young man who’d been answering questions in the theater: Jacob Kornbluth, the one with the “filmmaker” title. He’s the younger brother of Josh Kornbluth, who’s made a nice career making fun of his Communist upbringing in comic monologues like Red Diaper Baby, which I saw and laughed at. No wonder Jacob seemed nervous when I tentatively suggested that capitalism itself might be the cause of inequality. If you can’t believe in either communism or capitalism, what does that leave for you to believe in?

What should I tell my granddaughter—or Jacob—to do to save the world?

After seeing Inequality for All, I still don’t know, and I doubt if any of the name-tagged muckety-mucks in the theater had their minds changed by seeing it .

Before the show I happened to recognize the name on one tag, that of a top-tier administrator’s wife who’d been a board member of a music program for disadvantaged youth that U.C. Berkeley had cancelled last spring. I asked her what had happened (though I already had heard much of the back story). The union, she said, it was the fault of the union—and I remembered that I’d been told that when teachers had charged a manager with capricious firing, the university decided just to axe the whole program rather than deal with the union grievance.

After seeing the film, will she take to heart Reich’s second action, Strengthen Workers’ Voices ( “Don’t let big employers take away the fundamental right of people to stick together to speak up for themselves at work; public policy should support workers who choose to form a union.”) and speak up for the fired teachers?

I wouldn’t bet on it.

Becky O’Malley is Editor of the Berkeley Daily Planet.