ROBERT REICH WEARS many hats. He is a professor of Public Policy at UC Berkeley. He brought his economic expertise to Republican Gerald Ford and Democrat Jimmy Carter's administrations. As Secretary of Labor during Bill Clinton's first stint in the White House, Reich oversaw an increase in the minimum wage and was an outspoken advocate of everyday Americans.
Reich is the focal point of the 2013 documentary 'Inequality For All.' His central assertion in the film is that while inequality drives the free market, severe wealth inequality makes the market stagnant. When the gap between the haves and have-nots is such that the bottom 47% of Americans have no wealth (and likely have significant debt), and 400 billionaires at the top have capital comparable to 80 million families, everyone loses out.
While I felt aligned with Reich's agenda from the beginning of the film, I did wonder how he would substantiate the claim that massive wealth inequality is bad for the very rich. I hoped that his rationale would go beyond some sort of moral-ethical dilemma of the one-percenters. As the film progressed, I got the quantitative documentation I was looking for.
During 'Inequality,' we follow a number of people, some billionaires, some struggling to keep enough food on the table for a family of four. The most telling interview came from the successful, thoughtful billionaire named Nick Hanauer. When asked about his yearly salary, he responds "anywhere from 10 million to 30 million." He acknowledges this is an absurd amount of money for one person to collect.
Hanauer describes how the gulf between ordinary Americans and a small circle of billionaires is actually bad for his business, and for the free market in general. As it turns out, billionaires only need a few pairs of blue jeans a year; they only purchase one or two pillows when necessary.
According to Hanauer, if his money was more evenly allocated throughout working class Americans, more consumers would be able to afford a new pair of jeans, and he would move more pillows. Sales would increase. Despite incredible capital and his position on the top of the economic ladder, Hanauer's bank account is hurt by inequality. The wealth disparity limits the free market system and each agent, rich or poor.
The documentary is not short on ways to address the widening wealth gap in the United States. Each facet of Reich's plan is rooted in years of economic research, not in dogma or partisan ideology. Some suggestions are a no-brainer. Decades ago, Japan showed the world that investing in education can be profitable for everyone. As Japan developed, officials prioritized training the workforce and made trade schooling widely available. Now, Japan is one of the wealthiest countries in the world.
Other calls for action are a thorough reform of Wall Street, more equitable tax policies, and greater oversight in the power of amassed wealth in the political system. Whether campaign contributions come from a multi-millionaire or a multi-national corporation, a small number of oligarchs are assuming the arms of democracy and monopolizing the ears of politicians, as per the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United.
While the challenge is great, Reich wants his viewers to feel empowered. Empowered to demand change, to refashion 'equality' from a buzzword to a basic requisite of the American way, to make sure that every person's voice is heard in their political system, regardless of the number of zeros and commas in his or her paycheck.
- Inequality for All - another Inconvenient Truth? (guardian.co.uk)
- On Seattle's Raise of the Minimum Wage (tomasatlarge.wordpress.com)
- Tax the Rich, Save the Economy (in Presents) (thetyee.ca)
- Robert Reich: We Can Save the Economy If We Get Serious About Taxing the Rich (alternet.org)
- Movie review: Inequality For All shows how rich get richer (canada.com)