The movie is, in fact, a documentary, but one more disturbing than international criminal conspiracies and more devastating than any “Sharknado.” It’s about income inequality. As Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich intones in the film, “Of all developed nations, the United States has the most unequal distribution of income, and we’re surging towards even greater inequality.”
“Inequality for All,” directed by Jacob Kornbluth and set to be released nationwide on Sept. 27, comes at a critical moment for America. Sept. 15 marks the five-year anniversary of the collapse of Lehman Brothers — fueled by a toxic combination of deregulation, subprime lending and credit-default swaps — that precipitated the 2008 global economic crisis and laid bare the rot at the heart of our economic system. It was largely this orgy of greed that led the first Occupy Wall Street protesters to Zuccotti Park on Sept. 17, two years ago next week.
In the half-decade since Wall Street’s self-induced crash, the country has hovered between outrage (that the perpetrators walked off scot-free and bonus-laden) and apathy (that anything will ever break the iron bond between Congress and the financial industry).
Until now, hopefully. Following the diminutive Reich on his “statistics-driven and impassioned” crusade, “Inequality for All” throws into sharp relief the numbers and stories we hear. Combining footage from Reich’s electrifying Berkeley lectures with interviews, news clips and rich graphics, the film weaves a compelling narrative about how and why, since the late 1970s, income inequality has risen to crisis levels.
The facts are breathtaking. In 1978, according to Reich, a “typical male worker” made $48,302, while the typical top 1 percenter earned $393,682, more than eight times as much. In 2010, even as overall gross domestic product and productivity increased, the average male worker’s wage fell to $33,751. Meanwhile, the average top 1 percent earner was making more than $1.1 million — 32 times the average earner.
Reich cleverly illustrates how the graph of American inequality over the past century looks like a suspension bridge — peaking in the 1920s, leveling out because of strong, progressive policymaking in the 1950s and 1960s, and spiking again from the Reagan years through the present. We see the consequences in middle-class families that have fallen off that bridge and are struggling to stay afloat.
The film’s most refreshing figure may be Nick Hanauer, a millionaire pillow company CEO who made a fortune as an early investor in Amazon.com. Hanauer acknowledges that he earns 1,000 times the average American but that he will never generate a proportionate amount of economic activity — because he will never need 1,000 Audis or 1,000 pairs of jeans. As he puts it, “Even the richest people only sleep on one or two pillows.”