Inequality for All isn’t boring. Which is surprising, considering it’s a 90-minute documentary about the declining wage-earning capability of the American middle class, as explained through a series of lectures by Robert Reich, a former labor secretary under President Bill Clinton. It includes charts and graphs and at least one scene in which an economist points at a computer screen and talks about IRS tax data. But as a narrator, Reich is engaging and endearing—he continually makes corny, self-deprecating jokes about his height (he’s 4-foot-11)—and presents complex economic information in a way that neither confuses nor condescends.
Reich first met Clinton in 1968 during a Rhodes scholarship cruise across the Atlantic. When Reich became seasick, Clinton brought him chicken noodle soup. He left the Clinton administration in 1996 and has since become an economics professor at the University of California at Berkeley. According to Reich, the country’s housing crisis, recession, and slow recovery—and even the political stalemates in Washington—can be traced back to 1978. That’s when, because of factors such as the rise of globalization and shrinking union membership, income inequality started to rise. He’s written extensively about this issue; his 2010 book, Aftershock, is the inspiration for the movie.
Reich is an engaging and endearing narrator
In 1978, Reich says, the average male U.S. worker earned $48,000, adjusted for inflation, while the average member of the 1 Percent earned $390,000, or eight times as much. By 2010 that middle-class guy’s wages had declined to $33,000, while the 1 Percenter was making $1.1 million, or 33 times more. Reich says that the wealthiest 400 people in the country today have more money than the bottom 150 million Americans combined. The accuracy of these numbers can be debated—according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median income for men in 1978 was actually $39,000. (The bureau agrees that it has since decreased to about $33,000.) But the gist is correct. The White House’s Council of Economic Advisers says that since 1970, the percentage of people who are middle class has fallen from 50 percent to 42 percent. And a 2012 report by the Congressional Research Service says that the wealthiest 10 percent of households went from controlling 67 percent of the country’s wealth in 1989 to almost 75 percent in 2010.
Inequality for All touches on the consequences of such a divided economy in somewhat expected ways. It follows around a struggling Costco (COST) employee who makes $21 an hour and can barely afford to support her family. It features Nick Hanauer, the benevolent billionaire who observes that his feather pillow company relies on a middle-class customer base. “Even the richest people sleep on one or two pillows,” he says. There are clips of Warren Buffett asking for his taxes to be raised, again.
The strongest moments aren’t the personal sob stories but the explanations of the abstract economic trends that allowed them to happen. Take that student loan debt: According to Reich, increased globalization meant jobs that didn’t require college degrees were outsourced overseas, making a degree more important to people’s future success. Recently, many public universities have seen a reduction in their state funding, leaving them to raise tuition—which, given stagnant or declining wages in the U.S., makes it more difficult for middle-class families to afford. In the 1960s, public college tuition was about 4 percent of median family income; today it’s almost 25 percent, according to Reich. People still need that degree, and they pay for it any way they can, usually by going into debt.
The film stops short of assigning blame. Wall Street isn’t even mentioned until almost halfway through, and Reich says several times that 1 Percenters shouldn’t be faulted for wanting to stay as 1 Percentery as possible. The only person he seems mad at is Ronald Reagan, for busting up the unions in the 1980s. To that end, director Jacob Kornbluth is organizing a grass-roots campaign for labor unions to hold viewing parties when the film is released. He has said he hopes to launch a movement.
Despite his occasionally defeated tone, Reich remains confident that America will move in the right direction. “Anyone who feels cynical about social progress,” he says at the end of the film, as images of the women’s suffrage movement flash on the screen, should “just consider where we have been.”