Income inequality in the United States is widening, says Robert B. Reich, former Labor Secretary, now U.C. Berkeley Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy, in the documentary film “Inequality for All.” Directed by Jacob Kornbluth, the film examines the causes of the widening income gap in the U.S.. and argues that the rules of capitalism have been rewritten in ways that undermine democracy. Not since the years leading up to the stock market crash of 1929 has the United States experienced such extremes in income and concentrations of wealth. Middle class wages have remained flat for years while the incomes of a few, primarily in the form of capital gains, have skyrocketed.
An award-winner at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, the film made a recent appearance at “A Night at the Movies with a Purpose,” Cazenovia Forum’s June 6 event at the Catherine Cummings Theater on Lincklaen Street. David Rubin, Dean Emeritus and Professor at the S.I. Newhouse School of Communications at Syracuse University and moderator of local public television’s “The Ivory Tower Half Hour,” introduced the film and lead a thoughtful discussion among audience members about Reich’s central claims following the screening.
Income inequality is unavoidable, Reich argues. However, how much is acceptable? How much can we, as a society, tolerate? When do extremes in income become a problem?
Political changes beginning in the 1970s — deregulation, lowered top marginal tax rate, the erosion of unions, Supreme Court rulings that favored large corporations over individual workers combined with the growth in technology and global markets — shifted economic clout away from the middle class and toward an increasingly wealthy portion of the top 1%. According to Reich, 400 individuals own half the wealth of the entire country.
For Reich the middle class is the foundation of a stable economy. Their consumer spending — not the spending of the super wealthy — drives 70% of the economy. Despite economic growth, wage stagnation and proportionally higher taxes among the middles classes than the super wealthy has stressed the middle class to the breaking point. To maintain spending, Reich argues, middle class families require two incomes, work increased hours, and take on precarious levels of debt. For Reich, the consolidation of extraordinary sums of money among a small sector of the population undermines democracy. Wealthy individuals buy influence through lobbyists and campaign donations, according them the power to re-draw the rules that shape the formation of a free market. To narrow the income gap he proposes investing in education, raising the top marginal tax rate, and reforming the election process.
During the discussion that followed the screening, audience members generally agreed with Reich’s analysis of the present economic situation and expressed concern about the broader consequences of wide income inequality. Rubin found the film to be a compelling call for change. What Al Gore’s film “An Inconvenient Truth” has done to draw attention to global warming, Rubin said, Reich’s film does for income inequality.
The evening closed with a comment about the history of the middle class. Was the post-World War II period of economic growth, wage increase, low income inequality — Reich’s “virtuous cycle” — part of a much larger cycle of economic variability? Or, as Reich claims, can using a pre-1970s rulebook to govern the financial playing field revitalize the middle class, more equitably distribute wealth, and ultimately narrow the income gap?
The next Cazenovia Forum event is scheduled for Friday, September 12, 2014 at the Catherine Cummings Theater when Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick will speak on civic engagement. For further information see http://www.cazenoviaforum.com
Susan Light is a member of the Cazenovia Forum Board of Directors