Even a casual news-watcher likely has been bombarded recently with datapoints about inequality: 400 Americans have more wealth than half the total U.S. population, for example, and the typical male worker earns only $33,750, compared to the $1.1 million earned by someone in the top 1 percent.
Enough repetition and these staggering facts can seem trivial – just a few more numbers about the sorry state of the U.S. economy. A new movie aims to show the multitude of reasons these figures matter – and largely succeeds.
That's no small task. "Inequality for All," a new documentary from economist Robert Reich, takes on the ambitious task of showing the broad reach of the growing wealth gap.
The film manages to be exhaustive without being exhausting. Reich and director Jacob Kornbluth cover an astounding amount of ground. Starting with the expected rundown of troubling facts and figures, the film expands outward to an array of hot topics that many audiences may not see coming: the decline of unions, the rise of women in the workforce, campaign finance, K Street lobbyists, falling income tax rates, the Occupy and Tea Party movements, and where iPhone parts are manufactured, to name a few.
Though the film initially seems to have bitten off more than it can chew, it is in its breadth that "Inequality" finds its greatest strength. Moving through these wide-ranging topics at a fast clip, the film conveys not just that inequality is growing to a troubling degree, but it makes the case that the phenomenon affects every corner of American life, from Americans' wallets to the halls of power. It's more information than any journalist can hope to provide in a 600-word story on inequality, and far more than any politician can fit into a sound-bite about the 99 or 47 percent, and therein lies the film's value.
The high-level look at inequality's causes and effects is so engrossing that when the movie stops to look at people on the ground, it tends to drag. The delves into the lives of real Americans, from the Costco worker supporting her children with only $25 in her checking account, to the venture capitalist who pulls in up to $30 million a year, are necessary to put meat on the bones of Reich's ideas, but "Inequality for All" is at its best when it is tying those snippets into the U.S.'s broader, fundamental economic problems.
Anchoring the film is the funny, professorial presence of Robert Reich. Often (perhaps a little too much so) we hear the 4'11" economist make a self-deprecating joke about his diminutive stature. Though he's clearly outraged at the information he's relaying, Reich maintains a relaxed tone, even sitting and holding a cup of tea at one point as he expounds.
"Inequality for All" will be educational for any non-economist audience, though not all viewers will enjoy it equally. Reich assures a lecture hall of Berkeley students at the start of the film that political identifiers like "conservative" and "liberal" are "increasingly irrelevant as you get deeper and deeper into the subject" of inequality. That may be true, but the film laments the decline of unions and blasts the Republican talking point that labels wealthy Americans as "job creators." That is perhaps to be expected from a liberal economist who served as Labor Secretary to Bill Clinton, but it could also easily alienate more conservative viewers.
With that in mind, it's unclear exactly how many minds the film could change. Many who already believe the 1 percent are ruining American politics will nod in agreement, and many who believe that complaining about inequality amounts to "class warfare" will likely scoff. Politics aside, the film remains a remarkably comprehensive dive into a very complicated topic, but then again, it's hard to put politics aside, as Reich reminds us.
The film's final segment reminds viewers of the vitriol of the early Tea Party and Occupy movements, as frustrated Americans took to rioting on Wall Street and screaming on the lawn of the Capitol building.
So when Reich ends on an optimistic note, giving the hall of college students what amounts to an economic pep talk, it's hard not to feel a pang of cynicism.
"Is this going to just be a partisan fight? Are we just going to have class warfare in this country? No!" he says. "I believe in you. I believe that some of you are going to change the community, our society, maybe even the world."