Review: Inequality for All

“We are in proportion, me and my car.  Facing the world” — Robert Reich

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So opens the film “Inequality for All” — with Dr. Reich in his little Mini Cooper on his way to an engagement.

I’ve been waiting to see the movie for a while.  Living in the sticks has its downside, and one is getting to see art-house style films.  I only got to see Waiting for Superman in the theater because I was on a date in Charlotte, NC (please don’t ask….) where one tiny theater was showing it.   My neck of Virginia is fantastic for many things — beautiful mountains, great small businesses, communities — but good documentaries are not one of them.  So when it finally appeared on Netflix, I popped it into my Husbands DVD list and waited for it to arrive at the farm.

One of my interest personally and academically is wealth and personal income through the lens of their effects on law, policy, and public administration.  And upon reflection, most of my “big-girl” jobs have touched on income — the one I have currently runs into income head on.

However, the current issue is income INequality.   From the 1970s to now the average wage has flat-lined or decreased.  In 2010 the average American worker makes about $33,757 per year, where the average TOP earner makes $1,101,089 per year.    Further, while the middle class is defined as individual making between $25,000-$75,000 per year.  Whereas the BOTTOM of the top 1% makes $380,000 per year.

Did you know that a single top income could buy housing for every homeless person in the United States? Or that the poorest 47% of Americans have NO wealth?  [CITE: Inequality for All]

The film “Inequality for All” dives into the historical roots of income inequality, capitalism, business and innovation, and policy.  Your tour guide is Professor Robert Reich of the University of California Berkeley.  The film follows Professor Reich from his very very large Berkeley classroom to his speaking engagements.  (Sidenote:  Dr. Reich can I please take your class?  Can you webcast a Virginia girl in?!).

The entire film left me with pages and pages of scribbled notes.  The film is about Dr. Reich, his research, his work, and the issues of wealth in the United States.  Yet, there were two parts that really struck me personally:

The first, was an interview with a former manager at Circuit City.  He talked about getting laid off, and asked if he saw the cuts coming.  They cut folks who had been there so long they were “making too much.”  He said he could see the patter looking back on it, that the signs were there that he was going to loose his job due to places like Amazon.com He said:

“Because I’ve been in retail so long I don’t go through the automatic check out lines, and one of the main reasons is because I know every time I go through that its taking a little bit of someones job away.  Its not that I think I am going to save their jobs in the long run, but I know that I will slow down the transition a little bit.”

How many times do you go through the automated line at your local grocery store?  I just think of it as saving time, but I realize from my time in retail that it also is cutting cost through wages.  If one person can run six self-check out lines at my local big-box grocery then six people loose their jobs.  As a consumer, I win my time back from waiting behind the coupon queen and person who counts change like they have nothing but time.  Yet, over all folks are loosing out.

Another part of the film follows Deborah Frias and Moises Frias, a young couple with one small child.  Deborah works as a litigation assistant at a law firm, and Moises works as a bus operator.  Deborah went back to school to make a better living for her family.  The couple was asked if they knew how much was in their bank accounts right now.  They responded:

Deborah: “Mine is less than $100, so I’m going to say less than $80?”
Moises: “Yesterday it was about $30.”
Deborah: “*laughs* and that is with us working!

So this isn’t about folks freeloading as the common meme would lead one to believe.  Mrs. Frias throws her hands up and inquires to the camera “How do you build wealth?”  She wants to know how to build wealth when you don’t have assets.  She wants to know how to become upwardly mobile, but I worry we do not have an answer for this.  Sen. Marco Rubio discussed this in a retort of President Obama’s speech on income inequality.  On FOX News’ “Fox & Friends” in January 2014 Sen. Rubio discussed that the government must focus on “opportunity inequality” not “income inequality”.  He stated:

 

“The issue is not whether the cashier at Burger King makes less than the CEO,” he added. “The issue is whether that cashier gets stuck being a cashier for five, ten, 15, 20 years and can’t move up.” [Source: Mediaite]

 

See the film yourself and make a decision; even if your politics makes you see Reich in a less than admirable light.  His statistics are sound, you can look them up. I also enjoy how he makes historical links between technology, automation, women entering the workforce, so on. I personally found  the most compelling parts of the film were the interviews with common folks.  The former Circuit City employee, the Frias family, the Rasmussen family…but my two cents is that this is a huge issue — more so than what folks would like for you to think.  A shrinking middle class is NOT good for capitalism, since consumer spending is 70% of America’s economy.  Who sustains that consumer spending?  The middle class.  The shrinking middle class.  Further, the effects of this inequality on millennials like myself — folks who have tapped out their student loans, and although are employed (some gainfully, some not) still live at home and are barely making it.

Oddly I just found out today that I have reached my limits for Unsubsidized Federal loans.  I found this out wondering why my loans had not been pushed to my account, so I can purchase some text books for this semester.  They ended up having to reduce my loan amount, which will take me right to the limit.  Hopefully the funds will hit my account no later than Monday.  However, I am at best (if the Academy lets me get through my dissertation with as little push-back as possible), one full academic year from finishing my Ph.D.   One full year where the only federal loans I could apply for is the Graduate Plus loan, which I am already using to fill the void of Federal Subsidized loans which I tapped out (thank you law school — my undergrad is paid off; I owe for my Masters and this Ph.D).  I am blessed with a fellowship which covers my tuition — but what about those who aren’t?  What about those folks who hit that financial wall and then just… well what can you do?  Do you try to take out private loans?  Do you try to balance academics with work (which is difficult, and I applaud folks who keep a full time job AND go to school full time, or part time)?  Do you quit?  *shrugs*  Just something else to consider….

So has anyone seen the film?  What did you think?  Do you believe that there is income inequality?  Do you believe that this is even an issue — even if there is inequality?

 

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