The great divide

Robert Reich breaks down the economic breakdown in 'Inequality for All'

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arts@sfbg.com

FILM Whatever the wisdom of Obama's strategy for Syria, public response has made it clear that most Americans no longer want the US to meddle in foreign affairs — at least not if it costs money and might embroil our troops in another endless, winless imbroglio. This is a little flummoxing, since not so long ago we gave another president a free pass to invade countries for far more dubious reasons, and are still paying the price for those rubber stamps in many, many ways a decade later.

So why the turnabout? It's pretty simple. Not only is 9/11 an increasingly distant memory rather than a recent open wound inviting retaliatory action (no matter how reckless or misguided), but the economic downturn has shifted Americans' attitude toward (an even bigger than usual case of) "The hell with other people's problems, what about me?" For good or ill, there is no injustice we feel more keenly, or care about more deeply, than that we suffer ourselves.

Yet the explanations proffered as to what happened to make us so enraged (and broke) are utterly contradictory. We're still the richest country on Earth — richer than ever, in fact — so why do so few citizens feel that fact even remotely relates to their everyday reality?

Jacob Kornbluth's Inequality for All is the latest and certainly not the last documentary to explore why the American Dream is increasingly out of touch with everyday reality, and how the definition of "middle class" somehow morphed from "comfortable" to "struggling, endangered, and hanging by a thread." This lively overview has an ace up its sleeve in the form of the director's friend, collaborator, and principal interviewee Robert Reich — the former Clinton-era secretary of labor, prolific author, political pundit, and UC Berkeley professor of Public Policy. Whether he's holding forth on TV, going one-on-one with Kornbluth's camera, talking to disgruntled working class laborers, or engaging students in his Wealth and Poverty class, Inequality is basically a resourcefully illustrated Reich lecture — as the press notes put it, "an Inconvenient Truth for the economy."

Fortunately, the diminutive Reich is a natural comedian (he's spent a life honing self-deprecatory height jokes) as well as a superbly cogent communicator, turning yet another summary of how the system has fucked almost everybody (excluding the one percent) into the one you might most want to recommend to the bewildered folks back home. He's sugar on the pill, making it easier to swallow so much horrible news.

Reich takes us through the gamut of horrible figures: how the US now has the most unequal distribution of wealth among all developed nations (by far); how as adjusted for inflation the average male makes less than he did in 1978 while the average "person at the top" makes two-and-a-half times more (over $1 million annually as opposed to just under $400,000); how general productivity, profits, and costs of living have continued to rise since then, while 99-percenter wages flatlined; how eerily the stats on 1928 and 2007 mirror each other, in terms of peak wealth concentration and unregulated financial-sector speculation. (We all know what happened in 1929 and 2008: ka-boom, or rather, ka-bust.)

Contradicting the "trickle-down theory," Reich stresses that the very, very wealthy can't spend enough to uphold their share of a US whose well-being is now 70 percent dependent on consumer purchases — it behooves everyone for that money to be spread around more evenly, because "What makes an economy stable is a strong middle class." (He also makes the point that contrary to even common liberal wisdom, globalization hasn't significantly reduced the number of American jobs — only the amount that they pay.)

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