Robert Reich is the Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy, former U.S. labor secretary in the Clinton administration and the central figure in the much-talked about new documentary, “Inequality for All”. The film explores the yawning income gap between the rich and poor in the United States.
We recently caught up with Reich to ask about his hopes for the film, the country and the American legacy. The film debuts in theaters today (Friday, Sept. 27).
Q: Everyone knows that the rich in America are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, while the middle-class population is shrinking. What will viewers of “Inequality for All” learn that’s new?
The extent of inequality in America is much larger than most people realize, and the negative consequences for our economy and democracy are far worse.
Q: What is the film’s overarching message?
We can reverse these trends if we understand why they’re occurring; and we must reverse them.
Q: How do you envision the audience for “Inequality for All”?
The movie is intended to be useful (as well as entertaining and engaging) for almost everyone — even those who call themselves conservatives.
Q: What does it say (if anything) about economic inequality, money and power that, at the outset of this project, you turned to the do-it-yourself Kickstarter model to raise needed capital?
We had to work very hard to raise the money to do this film, and we’re very grateful to a huge number of people who contributed through Kickstarter. Also grateful to a handful of people who are very well-off but who understand the dangers ahead if we do nothing. The wealthy would do better with a smaller share of a rapidly growing economy — rapidly growing because more Americans have the purchasing power to buy what the economy is capable of producing than they’re doing now with a large share of an economy that’s barely growing at all.
Q: What about those who say economic inequality is what capitalism is all about, that smart and talented entrepreneurs who take chances reap much deserved monetary rewards?
The issue isn’t inequality per se. Obviously some inequality is necessary in order to give people enough incentive to work hard, invest and innovate. The real issue is whether we’re now reaching a degree of inequality — the widest gap in 80 years, the most concentrated income and wealth in a century, as median households do worse and worse – that’s bad for our economy, democracy and society.
Q: Clearly you don’t think the train has completely pulled out of the middle-class station. What do you propose that people do to improve conditions and make a difference?
First, they need to understand what’s been happening and why, and also why the current trend is so dangerous. That’s the point of the movie.
Next, they need to join with others — organizing, mobilizing and energizing a movement to change the rules and alter public policies so that the economy’s gains are more widely shared. Since the current recovery began, 95 percent of the gains have gone to the richest 1 percent. We need changes in tax policy, financial regulation and educational investments, a higher minimum wage and earned-income tax credit, means by which low-income workers can unionize and many other steps.
There is no magic bullet, no single solution. But to get any of this done, we also need to get big money out of politics.
Q: If you were to do a more futuristic version of this film, what would the U.S. economic ladder look like in 10 years? 30?
If the current trends continue, the top 1 percent will probably be receiving more than a quarter of total national income a decade from now, and will have over half of the nation’s wealth. (The richest 400 Americans already have more wealth than the bottom 150 million put together.)
Q: Is there a cutoff where the inequality trend may be irreversible?
At some point, the economy can’t maintain itself with this degree of imbalance, because the vast middle class (and all those aspiring to join it) won’t possibly have the purchasing power needed to keep the economy going. And our democracy will be a democracy in name only; in reality, it will be a plutocracy. Some would say it already is.
Q: How does UC Berkeley influence your work and hopes for the future?
I love Berkeley. Our students give me hope for the future — their idealism, their courage, their energy. I’m proud that we’re the best public university in the world. I’m proud of our economic diversity. We have more students who are eligible for Pell Grants, and therefore from poor families, than the entire Ivy League put together.