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Some of us have long known that Robert Reich, who served as secretary of labor in Bill Clinton’s administration, is a pretty engaging speaker. He has always been sort of a “fighting young priest who can talk to the youth” sort of economist - the kind you wish you’d had explaining rational choice theory and monetarism back when you were in school. You might have still ended up with a skull full of mush but at least you’d have been entertained.

Still, it comes as a minor revelation how well the diminutive Reich can carry this programmatic advocacy doc - built around a course he teaches at the University of California at Berkeley - about why the rich keep getting richer and why that is a bad thing for our hopes for a good society. He’s dynamic, obviously bright and it only feels a little over-the-top when his students give him a standing ovation at the end. Reich is about a hundred times more at ease than Al Gore was in the similarly positioned An Inconvenient Truth (though for me, part of what gave that film its power was the obviously uncomfortable policy wonk’s earnest passion, which served as an antidote to the default political glibness). Reich is naturally funny, Reich apparently genuinely likes to be among people, and Reich understands that most Americans - regardless of their particular circumstances - have no real idea how much of our nation’s wealth is concentrated in so few hands.

I thought I did, but Reich stunned me by pointing out that more than half of America’s wealth is owned by the 400 richest Americans. On its own, that might not be such a bad thing, because capitalism depends on a system of incentives for productivity and invention - those who contribute more ought to earn more. But the problem comes when the richest of us don’t share their wealth by plowing profits back into the economy by expanding their companies and paying higher wages. When the middle class doesn’t share in these gains, Reich says, you get a “downward vicious cycle” of falling consumption, which leads in turn to company layoffs, falling tax revenues, government program cuts, less educated workers and higher unemployment.

Globalization, technological innovation and government deregulation of industry are some of the factors contributing to the widening gap, which Reich illustrates rather succinctly by breaking down which countries benefit from the sale of an iPhone. Japan(34 percent) and Germany (17 percent), with their highly skilled tech sectors, make off with the bulk of the revenue, while China, where the devices are actually assembled, gets only 3.6 percent. (The U.S. scrapes off 6 percent.)

Director Jacob Kornbluth employs some handsome graphics to illustrate Reich’s points, along with a couple of case studies, including a religious Mormon family that votes Republican but became pro-union after experiencing layoffs; and a struggling Costco clerk who lost her home after her husband was laid off from his job as a Circuit City manager in the months before the company went under. (He explains that one of the company’s survival strategies was to lay off their most experienced and best employees because they were the most expensive. It didn’t work.)

But the most effective witness - more effective than Reich himself - is venture capitalist Nick Hanauer,who multiplied his inherited millions (his family owns a pillow company) by investing early in Amazon.com. Though he risks being decried as a class traitor or guilty liberal, Hanauer points out that though he can afford the best products, he still needs only “one or two pillows.” He scoffs at the notion that people like himself are “job creators” entitled to lower income-tax rates. The middle class, he says, are the real job creators.

“When somebody calls themselves a job creator, they aren’t describing the economy, although that’s what it sounds like,” he says. “What they are really doing is making a claim on status, privilege and power.”

Hanauer may be right, but as John Steinbeck once observed, America is a country without any “self-admitted proletarians,” where even the poorest see themselves as “temporarily embarrassed” millionaires.

Inequality for All 87 Cast: Documentary with Robert Reich Director: Jacob Kornbluth Rating: PG Running time: 89 minutes

MovieStyle, Pages 38 on 10/25/2013

Print Headline: Inequality for All

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