The great divide

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.)

There are man-and-woman-on-the-street interviews — not just with those on the losing end of this equation, but with one company-owning Richie Rich who freely admits current tax rates, loopholes, and so on mean people like him pull far less than their fair weight society, job creators or no. (On the other hand there’s Mitt Romney, who shifts the silver spoon to the side of his mouth long enough to decry the “envy” and “class warfare” behind all income-inequality debate.)

We also hear from the usual chorus of reactionary hysterics, like the Fox yobbo who swears Reich surely must “secretly worship Karl Marx” to hold the opinions he does. Doesn’t he realize that all government is bad, and all things free market inherently good? Never mind that the “Great Prosperity” — America’s economic golden age from 1947 to 1977 — was precisely the time that unions were strongest, the middle-class flourished, the rich were taxed up the wazoo (and seldom complained about it, at least publicly), and the government kept close watch on Wall Street and corporate hijinks. That so many have come to accept an economic logic blatantly opposing everything that made that period prosperous for almost everyone testifies to decades of brilliant conservative propaganda.

Now we live in an era where duly employed (even doubly employed) people see their homes foreclosed upon, and higher education is a crippling financial burden many can afford only at the price of possibly lifelong debt. Yet we’re told that minimum wage laws are for crybabies and upward mobility remains a matter of, y’know, really wanting it.

Having seen all this coming a long way off (he admits by the end of his post under old college buddy Clinton, “I became a true pain in the ass” to anyone who’d listen), Reich prefers not to say “I told you so” but “Here’s what you can do” — despite Citizens United and other developments that have drastically reduced citizens’ influence on public policy. Depressing as much of what he says is, he’s such a mensch that hearing him say it here is still pretty enjoyable. *


INEQUALITY FOR ALL opens Fri/27 in San Francisco.