As the political wrangling pushes the nation towards a government shutdown, a new documentary explores the fiscal and moral topic of economic inequality. Filmmaker Jacob Kornbluth and former Labor Secretary Robert Reich sat down to discuss the making of the timely film which explores how stagnant wages, technology and globalization have lessons rooted in American history.
Billy Tatum: Robert, you’ve managed to take a very deep issue and covert it into Schoolhouse Rock terms. Where were you when I was in school?
Robert Reich: You can still come back to Berkeley. (LAUGHS)
Jacob Kornbluth: That’s how I felt. I had never taken the class, but when we started making the movie, I thought “Man, this is the class I wish I could’ve taken in college, from the teacher I wish that I could’ve taken it from.” Taht’s when the classroom became part of the film. It wasn’t part of the film in the initial conception.
Billy Tatum: What was the genesis of the film? The problem’s been around for years.
Robert Reich: And I’ve been writing about it and trying to do something about it. I’ve been in Washington and I’ve been banging my head against the wall. One day Jake came into my office and wanted to do this film based on my most recent book. I was skeptical, let’s put it gently.
Jacob Kornbluth: I had in my mind that this sense that someone without an economic background, that I was a perfect first audience for this stuff. If I could get it, everybody else could get it. I realized that in the bigger economy, I had been trapped in the 24-hour news cycle. I kept hearing people discuss income inequality and what was happening to the economy after the crash in 2008 and I didn’t understand what was going on. I didn’t get it. I was frustrated with that. I understood that the democrats thought this and the republicans thought that, but I didn’t understand what had happened. I didn’t have any context for it. I was hoping to do some sort of a story that put this all in context. Then, his book was just paradigm shifting for me. I hadn’t thought about it in that way. I didn’t realize that this widening income inequality was affecting our economy and our democracy. I had understood it in moral terms, coming into it. I figured that it just wasn’t fair that people had this amount and everyone else had that little, but now I had a new framework to understand it. It was bad for our economy overall, and it was bad for our economy also.
Billy Tatum: How did you come up with the economic bridge?
Robert Reich: That was Jake’s idea.
Jacob Kornbluth: That was the “ah ha!” moment that made the movie come together. At the beginning of his book is this graph and it has 1928 to 2007 and it looked to me, so clearly like a suspension bridge. I thought “Is it really that clear, that before the two biggest crashes of this century was the most concentrated income in the hands of the one percent?” And when I saw that, I thought that I had to know more. I knew that there was enough in there to be intriguing to me that I really wanted to understand it more, but it was more of the visual “ah ha,” that made the movie make more sense to me.
Billy Tatum: Why pick this time to make the film?
Jacob Kornbluth: It would be an interesting thought experiment to have made the movie earlier, a few years earlier, so that it came out around 2008. I really woke up to this around 2008 when the economy crashed. What I realized was, like a lot of people of my generation, were pretty cynical about politics or we didn’t feel like we could participate. I had never really participated and I had just reached my personal limit. I had to get this and felt like I had to do something about it. In that way, I bet there are other people like me, who had to this point, invested in economics and politics and hope that they turn around. I think that, in a certain way, it’s not just of this moment. I feel that it’s not pinned to one news cycle. I feel like it’ll be useful for people to see next year and it would’ve been interesting for them to see it last year. It’s one of those stories that’s a little bit bigger and little less pinned to one time. I can see it useful in a bunch of different eras.
Billy Tatum: In the movie, you don’t blame Wall Street, but cite a systemic issue.
Robert Reich: It’s not a blame game. One of the things I tell my students is that if you want to understand what’s been going on and what needs to be done, you want to get out of the blame game. The left want to blame the rich and corporations. Some of the people on the right want to blame the poor and government. Neither of those frames of reference get you anywhere and they’re not even truthful. You’ve got to understand the dynamic itself, how we got into this position. Why is it that globalization and technological change have not had nearly the same effects of pulling societies apart and creating massive economic insecurity elsewhere. It’s a failure of understanding that we can change the rules of the game and have a much more prosperous society overall. It’s not a zero-sum game in which the only way the middle class and the poor gain is if the rich lose. The rich would be better off with a smaller share of a rapidly growing economy and a less vitriolic society than they are now.
Jacob Kornbluth: What you just said is how the dots connect in this film is really where my framework got rocked and where I felt it was a paradigm shifting idea for me. It wasn’t just one thing. It wasn’t just campaign finance reform needs to happen, although it does. It wasn’t just that Wall Street reform needs to happen, although it does. It was that they’re all connected.
Billy Tatum: When was the moment that you overcame your cynicism?
Robert Reich: Cynicism is the largest obstacle to social change. Part of the course and even part of the movie is historical. You’ve got to understand that we’ve been here before. We’ve continued to save capitalism from its own excesses again and again. We did it in the Progressive era from 1901-1916. We did it in the Great Depression, the New Deal of the 1930s. We expanded equal opportunity in the 1960s. It’s a never-ending challenge. The problem is in the last thirty-five years, we as a country, have not been as vigilant as we need to be. It’s possible. We know it’s possible. Cynicism is dangerous because people throw up their hands and say “It’s not possible. Why should I even try?” That’s the end of the road.
Jacob Kornbluth: An interesting point that comes up around this topic is generational. Bob always says that when he was growing up, he had examples of social change happening in front of his face. It was sort of a given. Robert Kennedy, the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam war. He lived through a bunch of things and saw change happen. For me, I never saw that. I grew up in an entire period of feeling as though we weren’t really affecting change at all, that we were sort of losing our democracy and that we weren’t in control. I feel much more optimistic making it now than before I made the film. The other thing is that there are these tipping points. There are these things that when you feel as though you can’t see your wait out of something, but as he said, if you look at it historically, whenever we get to those points when it feels like you can’t do anything about it, everybody rallies around and something happens. There’s a tipping point. There’s a change and sometimes it feels like it’s overnight. Although I don’t want anyone to think that this happens quickly. I like to think of it as a long fight. I think that we could find the tipping point soon. We’re at an extreme right now. If we step out of the moment and our partisan fights, we see this economy and this democracy is dysfunctional because of how unequal the society has become and we need to do something about it.
Billy Tatum: Do you and Jacob have other projects that build on the work you’ve done in this film?
Robert Reich: I’m going to find out better next time what the work entails. (LAUGHS) We’ve become very good friends over the last couple of years working on this project and others. There’s a great deal of trust. I trust Jake’s artistic judgment. He has extraordinary abilities as a filmmaker. We’ve talked about a television show and variety of things. I hope this is just the beginning.
“Inequality for All” is playing in limited release nationwide