Sundance Interview: Robert Reich and Director Jacob Kornbluth of 'Inequality for All'
The former Secretary of Labor explains what's wrong -- and what's right -- with money and wealth in America and his new documentary.
Most documentary filmmakers struggle and strive to find and film an interviewee with inside skinny, deep knowledge and first-hand experience with the subject. In his new documentary "Inequality For All," director Jacob Kornbluth ("The Best Thief in the World," "Haiku Tunnel") takes a look at the U.S. Economy .... with Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor under President Clinton, whose work at the highest levels of government goes back to the Ford administration. Warmly funny and self-effacing -- but never fast and loose with the facts -- Reich is a natural on-camera, and Kornbluth's film conveys the issue of the widening spread between the richest and the poorest cleanly and clearly with visual graphs that never overwhelm or under-think. We spoke with Reich and Kornbluth in Park City.
MSN Movies: How did the idea of working together on this documentary happen?
Jacob Kornbluth: Well, we both live in Berkeley so that helped a lot. (Laughs) We live reasonably close by each other so it was convenient. And I wanted to understand ... I'm not an economist, and I wanted to understand the economy and some of the things that were happening in our country that me and my friends were worried about, and he's one of the guys that I think was speaking most clearly about it. So I basically told him "I'm a filmmaker and can we start making some short videos?" -- really small things where he explains stuff to me and my friends. I posted it on Facebook. These videos started to go viral, and hundreds of thousands of people watched them. And we thought about them as explainers rather than opinion pieces. He explains stuff so clearly. He breaks down these complex …
Like "Graduate Schoolhouse Rock. "
Kornbluth: (Laughs) I like that, actually. But he was so clear about this stuff, and people liked the stuff so much that it sort of ... we started working together more and more. And we also got along, is an easy way to say it, too.
Robert Reich: He's a wonderful guy. He really is a wonderful guy. And just about the same time Jake (Kornbluth) was talking about doing his short videos, one of my sons who's in the business -- he's a director, actor, he does videos -- said to me, "Dad, if you want to reach young people in a serious way about all these issues of economics and politics you've got to think seriously about two and a half minute videos." And Jake (approached me) after my book "Beyond Outrage." The fates are conspiring! So we did all of that, and then the movie was a natural (next step) as I had just written a book about what had happened to the economy. I was teaching a giant course in Berkeley. Jake, you read the book ...
Kornbluth: ... Well the book really changed the way I thought. I certainly heard the words income inequality. I had heard 99 percent and one percent. And I had heard these bandied about, but I didn’t understand, really understand, what had happened in 2008. And he wrote this book that changed the way I thought about it. It really was a shift from "These are the bad guys doing bad things" right then and with the bailouts and whatever, which I think is an important story. But Bob was putting it in this book in a larger context: What's been happening to the economy over 40 years and it stepped out of the partisan fray, got above it a little bit and to me was that wonderful feeling of your brain sort of clicks in and sort of, "Aha, I get it" in some way that a non-economist like me could understand. And I thought that would make a great movie.
I was at the premiere and saw the film, and with the footage from Mr. Reichs' class, I thought "Oh, it's all going to be his Berkeley lecture." I rolled my eyes a little bit, to be blunt. But then when you actually went into the lives of the students in the class I found that very smart. When did that idea occur to you?
Kornbluth: You know, one of the great things is most of these issue films know where they're going before they start. But we didn't, to be honest, and that was a burden and a strength. Like, we got into shooting this, and we were in his classroom, and I was looking at the faces of those students and wondering, "What are they thinking? What's their future going to be like? What are they doing?" So we just started talking to them. I mean, it was just an organic process, and I think it's one of those things that you like to think about as what you're seeing the thing right in front of your nose. And when you're in the classroom and you see them, that was just in some ways like a really simple choice.
A lot of documentaries about social issues kind of like wouldn't make the cut in like a university debating squad. So when you started to talk about Citizens United and how that really tips the balance I was like, "Okay, interesting." But I have to ask you Mr. Reich, was Citizens United possibly the worst Supreme Court decision of all time?
Reich: No, the worst Supreme Court decision was Dred Scott.
Reich: The second worst in my view was Bush against Gore, which the Supreme Court never should have taken. It's a political issue. It diminished the Court's respect. But number three, or maybe tied for second, number two, is undoubtedly Citizens United ... because it would be one thing if the Supreme Court said the First Amendment protected unlimited amounts of money donations to campaigns at a time in our history when we were not witnessing certain extraordinary concentrated income and wealth at the top, but for the Supreme Court to not recognize that fundamental structural reality and basically open the flood gates to big money was just inexcusable.
And that's the thing about Citizens United that it seems to change the rules of the game so irrevocably that you have to ask what options do average American voters have, aside from like tumbrels and pikes and barricades in the streets?
Reich: Well look, technically the decision is fairly narrow. The Supreme Court assumed for example that Congress would pass very strict disclosure laws in terms of what people were, who was actually behind the money. There's still legally a possibility to have a campaign finance reform that provides public financing for elections that does not violate Citizens United. Lower courts have interpreted Citizens United in ways that I don’t think the Supreme Court intended so that can be revisited. And lastly we could have a Constitutional amendment, and I think that there is groundswell for that to reverse Citizens United.
But I mean if you look at things like "The Frozen Public" by Lazare, the possibility of doing a constitutional amendment is impossibly tilted against even passing these days. Is that not the case in terms of a minority population holding the majority hostage?
Reich: Well it's not impossible. We've had a number of Constitutional amendments. In fact the film "Lincoln" shows you how it is possible to actually have in that case the 13th Amendment. But the mere threat and possibility of a Constitutional amendment does have an impact on the Court itself. Remember this was a 5-4 decision. There are a lot of people, you know, four people on the Court who felt that this was absurd, and I think several of them were very articulate about why the decision was wrong. So it's one vote short of being reversed.
And one of the Justices said it's hard to imagine the biggest problem with our electoral system is the absence of money. But moving away from that, there's so much great qualitative display of visual information in the film going back to the metaphor of the suspension bridge, overlaying datum over that. How hard did you cram on your Edward Tufte ("The Visual Display of Quantitative Information") to get that done?
Kornbluth: Well, information visualization is a big part of telling this story. But just to kind of boil it down for you, I mean the suspension bridge that sort of came out as the metaphor where you have these peak years, 1928 and 2007, the peak years of income inequality over the last century, that's at the beginning of Bob's book. And it was the reason the graph that I thought made clear, 'cause right after 1928 you have that one crash, and after 2007 you have another. That graph is what made me want to make the movie in a most kind of specific and simple way. And I thought it looks like a suspension bridge. I mean I really just thought that's what the shape looks like. And so these things, the information visualization for this film, were meant to be as simple and intuitive as we possibly could. We wanted it to not seem too clever but be clear in a way. And so we looked at a lot of different stuff and went through a lot of different versions before we landed on something that I feel like I sort of got there. But I should give a shout out to Brian Oakes; the guy who did the graphics is brilliant, and he did great, great work.
Reich: I think the graphics are absolutely terrific. The music is great. You know, you put together a wonderful team. It's inevitably Edward Tufte's book, "The Visual Display of Quantitative Information" I gave to Jake on his birthday. (Laughs)
Kornbluth: He gave it to me on my birthday as a sort of congratulations for my film. It's funny that you mention that.
(Laughs) I feel like this is already becoming the nerdiest interview ever. Not to talk about Mr. Reich in front of his face, but was his clear, good humor and capacities for conveying this stuff in a non-dour, non-sour way an imperative part of the doc?
Kornbluth: I think, again not to talk about him in front of his face here, but he was absolutely the best person to tell this story for a number of different ways. One is he can speak about being inside the system and outside the system with credibility. And secondarily he's such a warm presence on camera to be clear as a filmmaker. He's like you could feel his humor coming through. He's very self-deprecating but can still carry the sort of gravity of the story like this. It's just a remarkable combination, and I think he's maybe the only guy who could tell this story in the way that it was, or the only spokesperson. I mean if I had the choice ... I happen to live in Berkeley close to him, but it was an accident of fate. I mean I feel like he's the best person if I had to come from the other side of the world to tell this story. He's the only guy who I feel like could do it justice.
And also to play Devil's advocate, what would you say to somebody who comes away from the film thinking, "Well God, if the Secretary of Labor couldn't change anything, what chance do we have?"
Reich: Well, that's exactly the point. Nobody who's worked in Washington thinks that the change agent in this country is Washington. Washington follows. Washington responds. The only way that change occurs is when enough Americans understand the nature of the problem and understand the gap between the present reality and what we all want together and are willing to press for. In other words, an informed citizenry is the vehicle. It's not going to happen from (insiders). That's why we are so passionate about the film.
John Steinbeck said that you can't make equity happen in America because even the poorest American thinks of themself as a temporarily embarrassed millionaire, that the game isn’t rigged and that any day the dice could come up double 12 and they could win it. How do you break through that sort of negative side -- the American Dream is one thing, the American Hallucination is another?
Reich: It's actually changed dramatically over the last three years. In fact it's changed. It's starting to change. That hallucination, as you call it, began changing with the bailout of Wall Street and the colossal failure of the housing bust. So many Americans say, poll after poll after poll now, that they believe that the game is rigged, that their children will not live as well as they live, that they can't make it no matter how hard they work. And that frustration and anger, in my view, explains not just the Occupy movement but also the Tea Party movement and the kind of political gridlock we are now living in.
Kornbluth: And if I could…
Kornbluth: … add to that, one of the things that was surprising to me about this was how patriotic I felt making the film and how much it made me sort of re-fall in love with America in a way. That can sound like a platitude, but what I mean to say is like some of these aspirational qualities that are fundamentally American, they're not all bad that people want to, that they have this ambition. Like, it feels like it's part of the American DNA to want to feel like you can be rich. And I don’t know if this film wants to say that that's a bad thing. I think what we're saying is it's okay to have that aspiration and to have some of the things that I feel like conservatives and Republicans want. But when income and wealth gets this far divided, those opportunities are lessened. A lot of the things that people are striving for can't be achieved. I don’t know if that's clear enough, but that's kind of something that I felt strongly making…
Reich: It comes ... I hope it comes out (that way) in the film. Most people who have seen it so far, my random sample, they do say it does come out. This is not a zero-sum game in which you have to redistribute for the wealthy to everybody else in order to come out with a decent society. It's a positive-sum game. That is, the wealthy would do better with a smaller share of a rapidly growing economy.
Which is the whole "A rising tide lifts all boats" argument. But why is it the boats in this equation always seem to be yachts?
Reich: Well, it's really only the last 30 years that the boats have been rising tide have lifted the yachts and the little dinghy's and rowboats have been sinking. For the first three decades after the Second World War, the rising tide really did lift all boats. Through most of the ... in fact, even if you go back to just after the Gilded Age in the Progressive Era between 1901 and the early 1920s, again the rising tide lifted all boats. That's generally how an economy works. The aberrations occur when you get into these strange periods such as we've been in for quite some time:. When the economy is not working for everybody, when actually it's working for fewer and fewer people. And what we try to show in this movie is that the kind of concentration of income and wealth we're now seeing and we've been seeing in this country for the last 30 years is not only an aberration but it is a fundamental problem for the economy. This is not solely a matter, or even primarily a matter, of fairness. The economy cannot function well with a middle class and all those aspiring to join it in such trouble.
Statistics can be ... tricky. The one thing I was wondering was looking at the graphs of the inequity, reporting on violent crime went up in the '70s not because violent crime went up, but because reporting got better. People felt like coming out more. I was wondering if in any inequality equations, do you factor in things like a) the rising outsourced slash perma-lance slash contractor or temp worker trend affecting the economy negatively? And also illegal and immigrant labor -- are those factors that would actually make the picture worse than it is or are they factored in?
Reich: Everything is factored in except undocumented workers. It's very hard to get data on them.
Because they're ... undocumented.
Reich: Yeah. But a number of studies have been done showing that the negative effect on wages is very ... the impact of undocumented workers is extremely small, and it's only in areas of the country we have a lot of undocumented workers. And it's small because mostly the undocumented workers are taking jobs that most of the rest of the native-born don’t want to take. ... is before taxes and transfers. After taxes and transfers it's even worse. because the income tax system over the past 30 years has become so much more regressive.
One final question for both of you, how do we reverse the classic "What's the Matter with Kansas?" problem where people can be convinced to vote against their own economic self-interest for candidates who promise backward movement on social issues? How do you break that connection between the Republican party being the party of certain values but really just basically doing tax cuts for the rich?
Kornbluth: Well, I think, by replacing the narrative would be my simple answer. I think people have a story that they put all these facts into, and I don’t think that you convince them with graphs. But I think you give them an alternative story that sort of can help explain their existence and where they are. I hope this film can help play a role in that. But I think that's why I kind of wanted to make the film, is to change the story or sort of reform the story about how the economy evolved to where it is, to where we are. So I hope that makes an impact in that way, personally.
Reich: I want to second that and go a little bit further. Americans are incredibly confused about what's happening. They don’t connect the dots. They see a lot of disparate phenomena, and they're frustrated. This is a fertile soil for demagogues on the right, or the left for that matter, to blame others. And that blame could be immigrants. It could be the rich. It could be corporations. It could be government. It could be France, or China. The merchants of blame are having a field day. Some of them are on the left. Some of them are on the right. But what we hope to do with this movie is to enable people to understand what's happened, to connect the dots, and therefore to really be responsible and effective citizens.