SIFF Film Review – Inequality For All
Inequality For All
Every year, I make a list of films I would like to review at the Seattle International Film Festival, and this year I was particularly interested to see Inequality for All, Jacob Kornbluth’s documentary about economist Robert Reich and the problems he sees with our country’s extremely large income gap. (The top 400 richest people in the United States own one half of the country’s wealth.) Inequality For All analyzes this issue using a class Reich teaches at U.C. Berkeley as a framework. There is a lot of data given here, so I will focus on the three things that stuck out most for me.
The first point is the idea that it is not the wealthy who create jobs, but the spending of middle class people. The example given is that rich people only sleep on two pillows, so having more money isn’t really going to increase their pillow purchases very much. They will buy and replace pretty much the same as a middle class family would. However, if the middle class weakens, they aren’t going to be buying as many pillows as they normally do. They’ll use what they have longer. In a nutshell, rich people don’t really spend enough on consumer goods to stimulate the economy; their wealth tends to go toward investments in the financial markets in order to create more wealth, rather than “job creation.” The purchasing power of a strong middle class is what Reich asserts is the most important economic driver, and when that is weakened, our economy tanks. Jobs only get created when people can buy things. Therefore, economic policies should be focused on bolstering the middle class and the poor instead of the rich.
There’s a lot of information to support that assertion, and it is presented in a clear and forthright manner. But it’s not the only point Reich makes. He also reminds us that publicly owned companies must answer to their shareholders, who demand an ever-increasing amount of profit. At a time when people are spending less, it is harder and harder for companies to keep increasing profit; they will get it by squeezing the worker if they have to. And, if labor has no one representing them in the government, then squeezed they will be. Reich also posits that it is hard to have a working democracy when money is too concentrated in one sector. It makes it much easier for the wealthy to buy governmental representation, which is not exactly how our system is supposed to work.
This is a fascinating film. I do have an MBA, and am inclined to find the subject matter interesting, but the data and ideas are presented so clearly, I do not think your average non-business-degree-holding viewer would have any problem following along. (The film received a round of applause at the screening I attended, so I assume everyone else was as into it as I was.) There is one important thing I think was missing, though: a clear statement clarifying that correlation and causation are not the same thing. The first thing one learns (or should learn) in any statistics class is that just because two things happen within the same data set, one does not necessarily cause the other. They are correlated, but causality may not be there. Assumption of causality is often a mistake made when analyzing data. For instance, a while back there were a lot of articles about the fact that people who took supplements were dying earlier than those who didn’t. Most articles assigned causality to the supplements, when in actually, the two facts were only correlated. There is a large chance that other factors were an issue in the cases of premature deaths. (Like maybe people were taking supplements because they were already sick.) Anyway, Reich presents a lot of information, and most of it seems to be clearly correlated, and while he never explicitly assigns causation, it is implied. I just want a little more accuracy in the framing of the data. (For the record, I totally bought his argument. I just think statistics need to be handled very carefully. Data is subject to interpretation, and that should be made clear.)
I realize that this review is kind of on the dry, analytical side, but I’d like to assure you that this movie is not at all boring. Reich is a personable guy, who likes to poke fun at his own shortness, and who genuinely appears to care for the working class and poor. The filmmakers delve a little into his personal story, but the numbers are what take center stage here. And let me tell you, this film has some of the most entertaining and useful graphs and charts I’ve ever seen in a film. The animation used in the opening credits is very well done, and the same talents are used to make dry facts look very interesting. This is an important film dealing with what may be the most crucial economic issue of our times, and it is entertaining as hell.