Documentary Sidebar : “Inequality For All”

Posted: April 30, 2014 in movies
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Once in awhile we like to get our hands dirty around here by delving into “real world” topics, and let’s be brutally honest — as far as societal crises go, the widening gap between the rich and the poor in the US is well past the boiling point, We’re headed towards banana republic status if we continue down this road, with a small handful of very well-to-do individuals and families controlling nearly all the wealth generated by the economy, while those who actually generate that wealth — namely, the rest of us — fight over the meager table scraps they leave behind for  us to try to eke an existence out of.

It’s not a new phenomenon, to be sure, but it’s been a steadily-growing one for the past few decades now, and regardless of which of the “two” major political parties are ostensibly running the show, the ever-widening-and-deepening chasm between the “haves” and the “have nots” has continued to metastasize.

All of which is enough to make me wonder — how come the peasants haven’t shown up at the gates with pitchforks in hand yet? Because honestly, it’s well past time to do so.

Of course, while everyone knows this a problem on an instinctual, “gut” level, there exists a massive media machine designed to hoodwink us all on an intellectual level that, hey, this whole thing is all in our heads, and that if we go after the rich — often laughably referred to as the “productive” class (yeah, they’re so productive that they can’t even manage to run banks that operate at a profit while being given billions — even trillions — in taxpayer-funded bailout money for free while simultaneously charging interest to the rest of us) — we’ll be cutting off our nose to spite our face because, gosh, we depend on these people for our livelihood. Ever notice how the media in general — not just Fox “news” — only brings up the spectre of “class warfare” when ideas such as raising taxes on the wealthy are mooted, yet pretty much completely ignores the very real, and hyper-aggressive, class war that the ultra-rich have been waging against everybody else (and, sadly, winning) for so long now?

Why is that, do you suppose? Could it be because, for all its purported (and demonstrably false) “liberal” bias, the fact is that the entirety of the mainstream media is owned by gigantic multinational corporations that are headed up by the very same modern-day robber barons that are at the root of this crisis? Just a thought.

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The Wall Street crooks have pulled out every trick in the book to keep middle class purchasing power — and thus corporate profits — nice and high without actually paying folks more : from credit bubbles to tech bubbles to housing bubbles, you name it, they’re tried it. The problem is, those bubbles have all burst now and we’re all staring at the very real problem of a middle class whose income has steadily eroded since the 1960s but whose spending is necessary to keep the beast that is the US economy fat and happy. You’d think that at some point the folks who own the corporations would realize that they’re in big trouble if people don’t have enough money to be their customer anymore, but evidently all the creative energy that could and should have gone into both strengthening, and expanding, the middle class has gone into cooking up the next hustle designed to obfuscate the stark reality that the standard of living that Mr. and Mrs. Middle America are used to is being purposely eroded for the short-term gain of a very few at the top of the economic pyramid.

One guy who’s been following this situation very closely is UC Berkeley professor Robert Reich. Best known for his diminutive physical stature and big ideas, Reich served one term in Bill Clinton’s cabinet as secretary of labor before becoming burned out at his inability to change things and retreating to the safe confines of academia. Maybe he should’ve toughed it out longer, but according to what he has to say in his newly-released documentary, Inequality For All, it sounds like his ideas for restoring some economic fairness in the country were deemed to be a bit too radical for Clinton’s “Republican Lite” agenda and that he probably would’ve been shown the door had he opted to even try to stick around after the 1996 election anyway.

Reich and director Jacob Kornbluth do a pretty solid job in Inequality For All of reducing the scope of this seemingly-insurmountable challenge to an abstract level that everybody can understand, and do a nicely demonstrate how the purposeful decimation of the labor union movement in the private sector has gone hand-in-hand with the rising income gap, beginning in the late 1970s, really picking up steam under Reagan in the ’80s, and frankly continuing unabated ever since. Sure, their movie is loaded with graphs and charts, but it’s all very simple to understand for even the most previously-economically-unaware audiences.

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Real life stories of formerly-middle-class individuals who have fallen behind add a welcome human dimension to the proceedings, as does Reich’s reasonably interesting personal history, which is interspersed here and there throughout. The guy remains almost disarmingly upbeat in the face of a political system that effectively froze him out, and you’ve gotta admire his dogged tenacity in explaining to anyone who will listen how income polarization had led to political polarization and social polarization. At the end of the day you’re left with the distinct impression that this is stuff everybody can and should understand, but is being purposely blown off by the very people who benefit most from it. Shit, he even manages to get former hard-right Republican senator Alan Simpson to go on the record as saying that income inequality is the the biggest problem facing our country today and that its attendant socio-political divide is threatening to rip our democracy apart at the seams.

Where Reich comes up short, though, is in offering solutions to the problem. At film’s end he simply directs people to go to the his website and find resources there — which is probably well and good, but how many people will get off their asses and actually do it? The very economic elites who are profiting the most handsomely from the current inequality gap have a vested interest in fostering an attitude of pessimistic resignation among the populace by way of their bought-and-paid-for media mouthpieces, and I’m not sure if 90 minutes of Reich speaking truth to power are enough to stem that tide of bone-idle economic weariness.

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Still, I guess it’s a start. And while Reich and I would probably disagree on how directly and forcefully to bridge the inequality gap (his site proposes pushing for marginally higher taxes on the rich and bumping up the minimum wage while I support a both a very large increase in the minimum wage and the institution of a maximum wage, for instance), he’s at least willing to put his neck on the line at least a bit as one of the few notable public figures who sees this problem for what it is. He’s also been aggressive in terms of getting this modest documentary onto platforms where it can attract a large audience (I watched it on Netflix, for instance, and it’s also available on DVD and Blu-Ray) without having to go through the cable TV networks, even the “progressive” ones of which have been more and more cool to his message the more understandably strident he has become over time.

And who knows? Maybe his “baby steps” approach will be enough — if it’s ever actually enacted. But I’m keeping my pitchfork handy just in case.

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