Sunday, April 27, 2014

Inequality for All (72 Productions/Weinstein Company, 2013)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Inequality for All is a quite interesting 2013 documentary hosted by UC Berkeley economics professor and former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich (who, incidentally, pronounces his last name to end with the soft “sh” sound instead of the hard “k” of the German word from which it derives) that, as its title suggests, is about the growing inequality of both income and wealth in the U.S. and how that’s harming the U.S. economy and its ability to provide for all Americans. His argument will be familiar to the dwindling share of Americans who actually have access to, and consume, progressive media — which, with FCC chair Tom Wheeler’s unilateral declaration of the end of “Net neutrality” and the impending takeover of Time Warner by Comcast (whose CEO has openly called his customers’ Internet connections “my pipes” and said he ought to have the right to censor customers’ access to any Web site of which he personally disapproves) that share of the country is likely to shrink even further as the Internet becomes as overwhelmingly a transmission belt for Right-wing pro-corporate ideas as all other media, especially electronic media — but the essence is that around the late 1970’s corporate leaders and their political allies in both the Republican and Democratic parties managed to undo the progressive consensus that had held in American politics and economics in the previous 30 years. In one of the most-quoted parts of the film Reich says he’s often asked if there’s a country he can point to that’s doing economic policy in what he would consider the right way, and he says, “Yes, the United States — between 1947 and 1977.” His argument was that in the wake of the Great Depression and World War II, the U.S. made a major investment in educating its workforce. At the same time government generally supported the right of U.S. workers to organize unions — the percentage of the U.S. workforce represented by unions reached a height of 35 percent in the mid-1950’s, and this put pressure on non-union employers to raise wages to compete for better workers — and as a result middle-class incomes kept increasing, workers spent this money on consumer products, government got high tax revenues which stimulated the economy (the highest marginal tax rate on incomes in U.S. history, 91 percent, was charged in the 1950’s under Dwight D. Eisenhower, a Republican — though his progressive tax policies and warnings against the military-industrial complex would be considered Left-wing fringe views beyond the pale of both major parties today!), which increased middle-class incomes and gave middle-class people more money with which to consume, which enabled companies to grow, in what Reich called “the virtuous cycle.”

Beginning in the late 1970’s, all that changed; the corporate elites became more aggressive in their demands on the political system, both corporations and individuals demanded that taxes be lowered (oddly, given where he’s working these days, Reich doesn’t mention California’s Proposition 13 and its role as a bellwether not only for the Right-wing demand to “starve the beast” by reducing government’s tax income but also for the ease with which the corporate Right would be able, then and again and again later, to induce lots of ordinary non-rich, non-1 percent people to vote for things that would enrich their corporate bosses and increase income inequality in the U.S.), President Reagan’s firing of the air traffic controllers sent a signal to workers that the President does not want you to join a union and to employers that the government would not only turn a blind eye to but actually assist union-busting efforts, and at the same time the watch word among both parties became lowering taxes and deregulating, dismantling the carefully constructed controls that had been put into place during and after the Great Depression to prevent the financial speculation that had given rise to the 1920’s stock market boom in the first place. Reich traces how the working people who had considered themselves “middle class” responded to this attack on their fortunes (in both the literal and figurative senses of the word): first, by sending women into the workforce (Reich uses Dolly Parton’s record “Nine to Five” to illustrate these sequences), then by working longer hours (he notes that Americans work longer hours today than the famously workaholic Japanese — though he doesn’t mention that major advertisers and mainstream political and economic commentators have sold the American people on the virtues of a longer-than-usual workday — notably that bizarre Cadillac commercial that ran during the recent Winter Olympics that boasts that Americans are better than those panty-waist weaklings in Europe because they work longer hours), and finally by borrowing, mostly on the equity in their homes (he doesn’t mention the explosion in credit-card debt that was even more devastating to many Americans, particularly people who hadn’t owned homes for long enough to build equity), until the entire speculative bubble in housing prices collapsed overnight in 2008 and created what Reich refers to as the second depression (and argues was caused by the same thing — financial speculation — as the one that started in 1929).

What all this deregulating, de-organizing, de-industrializing and globalizing — as communications and shipping networks improved (most Americans have never heard of “container freight” and don’t realize how much of the devastation of America’s manufacturing base has stemmed from it — container freight makes it far easier for companies to make components in one country and then ship them for assembly in another, always taking advantage of the lowest wages they can pay and still get the quality they need to make the final product salable) it became easier and easier to move production away from high-paid U.S. workers to low-paid or virtual slave labor forces elsewhere — did was break Reich’s “virtuous cycle” and substitute a “vicious cycle.” As workers get paid less, they buy less; they also pay lower taxes, which means government is forced to disinvest and cut back programs that help everybody (like strong public education systems, both K-12 and higher education); as people buy less, companies cut back productions and either lay workers off altogether, cut their pay or move their production to other countries with cheaper labor, and the economy sinks further into stagnation (at best) and decline (at worst). Coming in at 90 minutes (not too long to get boring) and with vivid illustrations (notably the suspension-bridge diagram which shows what happened to America in between its two peaks of income inequality, the 1920’s and the 2000’s), Inequality for All is a first-rate documentary, obviously influenced by the success of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth (also a film that tried to use tricks to make an intellectual indigestible subject palatable and comprehensible to an ordinary audience), though despite the filmmakers’ (the director is Jacob Kornbluth, the production company is an independent — probably a collapsible — called “72 Productions,” though in a film so full of numbers it’s odd that the number in the company name is never referenced or explained — and the distributors are the Weinstein Company) best marketing efforts it’s almost certainly the sort of thing that will only draw audiences that already agree with its basic conclusions. In an effort to break that, various organizations set up programs around the film to get it screened in private homes where people of various political, economic and social persuasions could talk about it informally afterwards — but as one reviewer pointed out, the film is surprisingly weak about what audiences moved and persuaded by it can actually do about the issues it presents.

Indeed, the film’s most chilling moment comes when workers at Calpine (a geothermal-energy company in Utah), in the middle of a union organizing drive and an aggressive anti-union counterattack by company management, are shown at a meeting and one man says that the company pays him and treats him better than he deserves, and he doesn’t resent the rich because he’s convinced he could have been rich if he’d only had the talent and drive to do so. This is the task of any ruling class that wants to stay in power: to convince the vast majority (O.K., let’s call them the 99 percent) that their control is not only the natural order of things but ordained by laws beyond human ken, either divine laws (historically the medieval social order held itself in place because the church preached that everyone was in the place that God had decided they should be in — the king because God had decided he should be king, the lords because God had decided they should be lord, the serfs because God had decided they should be serfs) or the impersonal laws of “The Market.” Reich is properly withering about this common but cockamamie notion that “The Market” exists outside of human guidance — particularly outside the rules set up by governments under which commerce is allowed to take place (including those pesky little laws against things like slavery and child labor) — but as theologian Harvey Sachs argued in The Atlantic in 2001, “The Market” (in quotes and in capitals to distinguish it from the ordinary use of the term “market” as simply a place where goods and services are bought and sold) has not only become a religion, it’s gradually displacing all other religions as the basis by which the modern-day corporate ruling class justifies its power and convinces the rest of the world that it deserves to rule and that challenging its power is like challenging the existence of gravity or the need to breathe air.

As Reich’s vicious cycle continues — and as the political system becomes more and more simply a bought-and-paid-for dispenser of favors to the corporate elite, and the whole idea of “democracy” (which, as James Madison noted in Federalist #10, the U.S. was never supposed to be anyway) becomes more and more theoretical (yes, Americans still get to vote and “choose” their political leaders, but only from a narrowing menu of choices the corporate rich who fund the political campaign system allow them) — the very ideas he is championing here slowly but surely fall out of the political and social and intellectual marketplace (sorry for that old metaphor). What you end up with are phenomena like the Tea Party movement — which one commentator compared to a putative mob of French revolutionaries storming the palace at Versailles and demanding that the aristocrats pay even lower taxes — and Occupy, which offered a persuasive indictment of corporate power but only a few odd and inchoate ideas about what should replace it. (Reich’s film depicts both the Tea Party and Occupy with considerably more optimism than they deserve.) In short, Inequality for All is a first-rate film that expertly does what it set out to do, but it’s hardly going to be much more than a teeny-tiny speed bump for the express train taking us to even greater and more gruesome levels of economic, social and political inequality.