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Inequality For All

It’s easy to see how people who are Leftists might expect Robert Reich to be anti-capitalist, just as easily as Rightwingers would expect the same. As it turns out, Inequality for All shows the economist to be a Keynesian, social welfare liberal who would like to reform the most extreme cruelties of capitalism, but is not interested in fundamentally ending inequality or capitalism, let alone creating a democratic economy. The film reminds me of Al Gore’s award-winning Inconvenient Truth, and not just because both are focused on similar, self-important white men who think they have figured out something that others haven’t, for which they need to spread The Good Word. The style of the two documentaries are equally similar: they feature fancy PowerPoint graphic presentations (that neither likely assembled themselves) and a self-laudatory biopic-style that focuses on the hard questions they have nobly confronted during their lifetimes.

As an individual, Reich is generally likable. He makes lots of self-deprecating “short person” jokes about himself. For those who are familiar with the free-market propertarian Milton Friedman’s height, the contrasts are ironic. He is personable and manages to insert himself into a variety of situations in which he can speak with “average” people, just as often as he speaks to elites. The film shows part of his privileged background, including his own flattering portrayal of his early friendship with a young Bill Clinton—who later taps Reich to be his Secretary of Labor.

The graphics of his presentations—which he gives in front of a standing-room-only auditorium at the University of California at Berkeley for a course about social inequality—are impressive. They show the long-term changes in inequality, worker productivity, union membership, and many other measures of note; all move in the wrong direct for those concerned with justice. The major trends are telling: the heights of inequality occur in the US in 1928 and 2007, right before the stock markets collapsed.

While he speaks of unions and even speaks to a group of workers considering unionization, the film does not explore labor unions in any philosophical depth. Neither the practical economic benefits of union membership are presented nor the traditional syndicalist demand of worker control.

Discerning viewers may notice some gaps in Reich’s logic and concerns. For example, he ignores key factors that enabled the incredible growth or an American middle-class following WW2. He tells others he does not idealize other country’s economies, but rather thinks the US did it right in the mid-20th century. Unfortunately, Reich is thereby overlooking a wide array of unique qualities of that time period that are unlikely to return. Notably, post-war America was unchallenged economically by all of its prior competitors in Europe (and Japan). That economic dominance (which Wallerstein argues found confluence with dominant American political and military power) allowed the US to buy-off a large part of the American working-class and give them a slightly higher standard of living. Of course, the deeper factors that led to American productive potential are also something worthy of discussion—which Reich avoids: stolen Native land, African slave labor, and the exploitation of materials, labor, and markets abroad. In other words, America’s New Deal and Keynesian was based upon American hegemony and violence. (Of course, the same could be said for Europe’s.)

Related to these oversights, there is little intersectional analysis. Race is almost completely absent and the same is generally true for gender (although Reich does talk about the increase in female employment). The most significant consequence to these omissions and other problems is framed early in the film by Reich himself who notes that some inequality will always exist. While he seems honestly interested in reducing inequality—which is good—he also seems a bit too committed to capitalism (even stating very clearly his advocacy of it and his rejection of critical perspectives, including communism).

As with any documentary that focuses on the ideas of a single person, it is difficult to tell (without reading all their work) whether or not the film itself omitted the important details of contention, or if the film makers accurately presented the individual and their flaws. Since the film presents Reich favorably, it also seems to present as him as a messiah of sorts (see yet another similarity with An Inconvenient Truth). One gets the feeling that Reich alone has the answers and that he possesses a missionary zeal to inform others to these problems—in doing so, we have yet another case of an intellectual side-lining countless activists who have fought around the same issues Reich is advocating.

Criticisms aside, Inequality for All does an excellent job with making the case that inequality exists, is bad, and should be reduced. It stops short of a holistic critique of the systems that create that inequality, but it comes part way. For those who want to find better ways to critique American capitalism and its negative impacts, this film provides a decent starting point.

Topics: social class, inequality, unions, economic sociology