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‘Inequality for All’: Inconvenient truths about U.S. incomes

Economist Robert Reich lectures “Inequality for All.”

Economist Robert Reich lectures in “Inequality for All.”

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FOR ALL’ ★★★1⁄2

Radius-TWC presents a documentary directed by Jacob Kornbluth. Running time: 85 minutes. Rated PG (for thematic elements, some violence, language and smoking images). Opens Friday at Landmark Century Centre and Renaissance Place.

Updated: October 28, 2013 6:48AM

Though it’s tempting to imagine the 400 people who earn more than half of the American population combined rubbing their hands greedily and cackling with glee while watching it, there’s not much good news for the rest of us in “Inequality of All.”

Even so, economist and Washington insider Howard Reich manages to infuse this enlightening/infuriating documentary on extreme income disparity in the United States, and the corollary marginalization of the middle class, with an optimistic spirit. One that may or may not be justified.

This first attempt at a documentary by indie filmmaker Jacob Kornbluth (“Haiku Tunnel”), a special-jury award winner at this year’s Sundance festival, draws on material from Reich’s best-seller “Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future” and his Wealth & Poverty class at UC-Berkeley. Much of it is filmed live, during Reich’s lectures to a packed hall of undergraduates, including PowerPoint illustrations (as well as an essentially liberal perspective) that are bound to draw comparisons to the Oscar-winning “An Inconvenient Truth.”

Reich is a more lively speaker than Al Gore, however, frequently working jokes about his sub-five-foot height (his growth having been disrupted by a genetic disorder) into his presentation, and many of the film’s statistical interludes have been entertainingly animated as insurance against eyeball-glazing. Kornbluth also cuts away from time to time for personal stories from struggling middle-class families and even exhibits a rare sub-species of millionaire venture capitalist advocating increased taxation for the rich. There’s no reason to fear that you might slip into a coma while viewing “Inequality for All.”

Slipping into a fit of apoplexy might be another matter, though, regardless of political persuasion. Reich scoffs, by the way, at accusations that he is a socialist and/or a communist, pointing out that while he did serve as secretary of labor for President Clinton, his first Washington appointment was in the administration of Gerald Ford.

Reich has nothing against income disparity in general, noting that the incentive to acquire wealth is a fundamental element of capitalism. It only becomes a problem, he says, when the game is rigged in a way that favors the few in such an extreme way that the majority can no longer aspire to prosperity, which in turn poses a threat to the overall economy. As well as the principal of equal opportunity as “a moral foundation stone on which this country was built.”

The problem, Reich argues, is that as of the pre-crash year of 2007, income distribution in this country was precisely as it was in the year before the Great Depression, with 1 percent of the population raking in 23 percent of all earnings. That peak was reached as a result of gradual increases in government deregulation over the past few decades. And largely at the expense of the middle class, whose income leveled off in the 1970s and has been stagnating ever since the institution of trickle-down economics.

As an alternative, Reich suggests a “middle-out” approach, bolstering the middle class by strengthening labor unions, increasing wages and increasing taxation of the wealthy — in effect, replicating the conditions that contributed to the post-World War II prosperity boom. This, he declares, would contribute not only to the well being of a much larger number of people but to the economy in general, which is 70 percent dependent on consumer spending.

Unfortunately, “Inequality for All” is a little vague on how to achieve that goal compared to “An Inconvenient Truth,” which ended with numerous suggestions on how individuals could actively address concerns about global warming. Reich is essentially content to exhort us to hang in there and be optimistic, stating his belief that “history is on the side of positive social change” and pointing to the existence of the Occupy movement and even the Tea Party movement as reactions to recent economic policies and conditions.

During a recent interview about the film on “The Daily Show,” Reich also said he believes we are approaching a tipping point in public opinion about this issue, quoting Winston Churchill’s opinion that Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing “after they have exhausted all other possibilities.”

Which can take a considerable amount of time.

Bruce Ingram is a Chicago free-lance writer.

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