"Inequality for All" – Is it the new normal?

Oct. 19, 2013 @ 07:03 PM

The small viewing room at the Carolina Theatre in Durham was packed on a recent Saturday evening.  We were all excited to see "Inequality for All," the new documentary featuring former Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich. He has always seemed to me to be a straight-shooter whose ideas were well-grounded in not only economics, but in common sense.
Part of the documentary included Reich in a lecture hall teaching at the University of California. He is an entertaining lecturer for sure. He proceeds to make the case for creating an American economy that is directed at helping the poor and middle class. Reich clearly explains how, by investing in critical infrastructure like education, transportation and health care, we can create a rising economic tide that benefits everyone – even the 1 percent at the top of the economic ladder.   
The documentary is a "how-to" manual for fostering an economic expansion that can be shared by everyone in our country. Reich's policy proposals include requiring living wages, raising the minimum wage, supporting the right of workers to organize, investing in education, reforming Wall Street, fixing the tax system in which the rich pay a lower tax rate than those in the middle class and lowering the ridiculous amount of money spent on our political system.
He sums up the problem that exists in our country as the "Vicious Cycle": "When the middle class doesn't share in the nation's economic gains, wages stagnate, workers buy less, companies downsize, tax revenues decrease, government cuts programs, workers are less educated, unemployment rises, deficits grow, wages stagnate, etc."
He calls his proposed solution the "Virtuous Cycle": "When we support a strong middle-class, wages increase, workers buy more, companies hire more, tax revenues increase, government invests more (in schools and infrastructure and research), workers are better educated, economy expands, productivity grows, wages increase, etc."
This past legislative session in North Carolina was clearly a lesson in the Vicious Cycle that further expanded the yawning divide between the economic classes in our state with a long list of regressive new laws: The most drastic cuts to unemployment benefits of any state – thereby punishing those who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own --denying health care coverage to a half-million North Carolinians, spending less per pupil in our K-12 public schools while giving taxpayer dollars to private schools, shifting taxes from the wealthy to the middle class, raising interest rates on consumer small loans, passing laws to disenfranchise voters, and well, you get the picture.   
Reich advances several compelling statistics to bolster his argument. Among them:
-- The top 1 percent holds more than 35 percent of the nation's overall wealth, while the bottom 50 percent controls 2.5 percent.
-- The richest 400 Americans have more wealth than the bottom 150 million Americans combined.
-- In 1970, the top 1 percent took home 9 percent of the nation's income – today they take in 23 percent.
-- 42 percent of U.S. children are born into poverty and will not escape it. In Great Britain, it's 30 percent; in Denmark it's 25 percent.
-- In the '70s, the average CEO made just under 50 times more than the average employee. Thirty years later, the average CEO makes 350 times more than the average employee.
-- Between 1948 and 2010, productivity went up by almost 250 percent, but wages only increased just over 100 percent.
-- In the 1990s, Americans worked 300 more hours a year than workers in other developed nations.
-- Since 2007, 41 states have reduced their support for higher education, meaning that tuition and fees have risen.
In addition to sobering statistics, the documentary tells several compelling real-life stories – some of them heart-breaking – and even features an interview with a well-known one-per center, conservative former U.S. Senator Alan Simpson.
Reich asks, "Who is looking out for the American worker? Who is actually working in Washington and in state capitals to improve the well-being of the American workforce?"
To which we might reply: Who indeed?  
It may sound a little corny, but Reich's best moment comes when he makes the point that "politics isn't about what's going on in Washington, but right here in this room."     
There was generous applause in the theatre at the conclusion of the film. Let's hope that this is a phenomenon that's repeated in theatres all across America in the coming weeks and months.
If you get a chance, go see the movie. You can also check out Reich's discussion guide at www.Inequalityforall.com.

Bill Wilson is the deputy director of the North Carolina Justice Center.