The 99 percent of un-exceptionalists

Submitted: Sep 14, 2013
By: 
Badlands Journal editorial board

 The military/industrial/cultural complex is engaged in a propaganda campaign to persuade the stubbornly opposed 99 percent of  Americans  to bomb Syria to punish its government for its alleged use of chemical weapons. It is all part of a plan for exceptional people like they suppose themselves to be, to rule the Mideast.

However we, the suborn majority, have less sociopathic things on our minds than – in the name of spreading democracy – to lose more relatives in a civil war in Syria to make oil-corporation executives and Saudi sheiks richer and Israel a safer theocracy … --blj

 

 

But, Trumka continued, “We are a small part of the 150 million Americans who work for a living.  We cannot win economic justice only for ourselves, for union members alone.  It would not be right and it’s not possible.  All working people will rise together, or we will keep falling together.”

 

To that end, and in perhaps the most radical restructuring of labor since the AFL and CIO merged almost 60 years ago, the convention endorsed the expansion of the AFL-CIO’s membership to include non-traditional labor organizations, including non-profits organizing low-wage workers. – Michael Winship, Consortiumews.com, Sept. 11, 2013

8-2-13

Huffington Post

July Jobs Report Masks Real Problems In U.S. Labor Market

Mark Gongloff

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/08/02/july-jobs-report-unemployment-rate_n_3690424.html

Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke has said the official U.S. unemployment rate could mask the real problems in the labor market. He got proof of that in July's jobs report.

The unemployment rate dipped to 7.4 percent in July, the lowest rate since December 2008, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported on Friday, down from 7.6 percent in June.

But payroll growth was anemic, wages dropped and more discouraged workers headed for the sidelines, continuing the slowest job-market recovery since World War II.

"The U.S. job market appears to be stuck in the slow lane," Adam Hersh, economist at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank, wrote in a statement. "Despite the modest gains in this report, we’re still not moving fast enough to repair the unemployment hole or to deliver a pay raise for the majority of workers in America."

Employers added just 162,000 jobs to non-farm payrolls in July, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported on Friday, down from 188,000 in June, which was revised lower from an initial reading of 195,000. Together, revisions to May and June figures subtracted 26,000 jobs from payrolls, another sign of weakness.

Economists, on average, had expected 185,000 new jobs in July and an unemployment rate of 7.5 percent, according to a Bloomberg survey.

The unemployment rate, meanwhile, fell in part because 37,000 workers dropped out of the labor force, meaning they gave up looking for work. The labor-force participation rate, which measures the percentage of working-age Americans who are working or looking for work, fell to 63.4 percent in July, near a 35-year low.

The civilian employment-population ratio, which measures how many working-age Americans actually have jobs, was flat at 58.7 percent, near the lowest in 30 years and down from more than 63 percent before the recession.

The Fed has promised to keep its target interest rate near zero at least until unemployment is below 6.5 percent. But Bernanke, aware of the loss of workers from the labor force, suggested in a speech recently that he'll have to keep the jobless rate in context, saying it "probably understates the weakness of the labor market."

The "U-6" unemployment rate, which adds together unemployed people, those who are working part-time because they can't find anything better, and some people who have recently just given up looking for work in despair, was 14 percent, down from 14.3 percent in June.

The median duration of unemployment fell to 15.7 weeks from 16.3 weeks in June, the lowest level since May 2009, but still higher than during every other recession since 1967.

Average hourly wages fell 0.1 percent in July and are up just 1.9 percent in the past year, barely enough to keep up with inflation. The majority of the jobs that have been created during the recovery have been low-paying jobs, worsening income inequality and keeping the economy sluggish.

"Really we have become a nation of hamburger flippers, Wal-Mart sales associates, barmaids, checkout people and other people working at very low wages," Daniel Alpert, managing partner of New York investment bank Westwood Capital, told Yahoo Finance's Daily Ticker. That's why job growth is "not increasing consumption or the ability to go out and buy stuff."

Altogether employers have added about 1.35 million jobs so far this year, or 192,000 per month. About 6.7 million jobs have been added since the labor market bottomed in February 2010, while the unemployment rate has dropped from a peak of 10 percent in October 2009.

Still, the job market is a long way from being fully healed of the damage done by the Great Recession. The total level of non-farm payroll jobs is still about 2 million below its peak in January 2008. Adding in the number of jobs that should have been created in a healthy economy, we could have a "jobs deficit" of more than 8 million jobs, estimates the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank.

The right-leaning Hamilton Project, another think tank, estimates the jobs gap at nearly 10 million. At this year's pace of job growth, 192,000 jobs per month, it will take 7 years and 9 months to close that gap, according to a calculator on Hamilton's web site.

 

 

 

 

 

9-11-13

Consortiumnews.com

A Desperate Fight for the Middle Class

Between a Congress dominated by Tea Party extremists and a Supreme Court controlled by corporate partisans, hopes for addressing America’s worsening income inequality are dim. But union leader Richard Trumka says the fight is more crucial than ever, writes Michael Winship.

By Michael Winship

http://consortiumnews.com/2013/09/11/a-desperate-fight-for-the-middle-class/

As described by AFL-CIO senior writer Kenneth Quinnell, “The AFL-CIO is going to expand existing forms of participation in the labor movement and create new forms of membership that are available to any workers not already covered by a collective bargaining agreement or who are not members of unions or represented by unions.”

 

“It’s time to turn America right side up!” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka exhorted those in attendance at the labor alliance’s quadrennial convention in Los Angeles on Monday. Time, he said in his keynote address, to change the ratio of power, to put the 99 percent in charge rather than let the richest one percent dominate government, politics and society.

“Since 2009, the pay of America’s corporate CEOs has gone up nearly 40 percent,” Trumka noted. “Imagine for a second what kind of country we would live in if ordinary people’s incomes had increased like CEO’s. Almost no one would live in poverty.”

Trumka recognized that the number of Americans in unions continues to decline although the AFL CIO is “13 million strong — we are today, as we have been since the time of Abraham Lincoln, the biggest, strongest, best organized force for economic justice in America.”

But, Trumka continued, “We are a small part of the 150 million Americans who work for a living.  We cannot win economic justice only for ourselves, for union members alone.  It would not be right and it’s not possible.  All working people will rise together, or we will keep falling together.”

To that end, and in perhaps the most radical restructuring of labor since the AFL and CIO merged almost 60 years ago, the convention endorsed the expansion of the AFL-CIO’s membership to include non-traditional labor organizations, including non-profits organizing low-wage workers.

As described by AFL-CIO senior writer Kenneth Quinnell, “The AFL-CIO is going to expand existing forms of participation in the labor movement and create new forms of membership that are available to any workers not already covered by a collective bargaining agreement or who are not members of unions or represented by unions.”

Monday was the first full day of the AFL-CIO convention. The Syrian crisis prevented President Obama from making a scheduled appearance (he sent brief videotaped remarks instead) but Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, despite Syria-related intelligence briefings and negotiations, was able to move her planned Monday address to Sunday afternoon at the convention’s opening half-day. It was a barn-burning call to arms.

“When important decisions are made in Washington, too often, working families are ignored,” she said. “From tax policy to retirement security, the voices of hard-working people get drowned out by powerful industries and well-financed front groups. Those with power fight to take care of themselves and to feed at the trough for themselves, even when it comes at the expense of working families getting a fair shot at a better future.”

Warren bluntly condemned the government sequester as “stupid” and sharply criticized the Supreme Court. “According to a recent study,” she said, “the five conservative justices currently sitting on the Supreme Court are in the top ten most pro-corporate justices in a half century — and Justices Alito and Roberts are numbers one and two — the most anti-consumer in this entire time.

“The Chamber of Commerce is now a major player in the Supreme Court, and its win rate has risen to 70 percent of all cases it supports. Follow this pro-corporate trend to its logical conclusion, and sooner or later you’ll end up with a Supreme Court that functions as a wholly owned subsidiary of big business.”

She concluded: “Our agenda is America’s agenda. The American people know that the system is rigged against them and they want us to level the playing field.  That’s our mandate! I’ve already fought and lost my share of battles in Washington, and I’ve been around long enough to know that Washington is a tough place.  Real reform isn’t easy.  But I also know this:  If we don’t fight, we can’t win. But if we fight, we win.”

Before the convention began Sunday afternoon, the morning was devoted to a short conference on inclusion and diversity, important to a labor coalition for too long criticized as “pale, male and stale.” Today, women and minorities play a prominent role in organized labor, although when it comes to age it was pointed out that reportedly only seven percent of union members are under 35.

The older among us at the convention are half-jokingly described as “seasoned,” so a highlight of the morning was the appearance of civil rights hero the Rev. James Lawson, soon to be a seasoned 85. He trained many of the movement’s leaders, including John Lewis, in the techniques of non-violent civil disobedience.

At the conference, he condemned what he called the “spiritual wickedness of plantation capitalism. … Seven of ten people in the world work at or below a poverty level that is simply another name for slavery.”

Serving up two aphorisms relevant to all in attendance at this year’s convention, Rev. Lawson pointed to the words of the Greek philosopher Thucydides, who when asked when justice would come to ancient Athens, said it would come when the uninjured were as outraged as the injured. And the Methodist pastor cited Proverbs 29:18 — where there is no vision, the people perish.

Moyers & Company senior writer Michael Winship is president of the Writers Guild of America, East, and is attending the AFL-CIO convention as a delegate. 

 

9-9-13

Alternet.org

 

Elizabeth Warren's Powerful Speech: Supreme Court Is on the Path to Being a "Wholly Owned Subsidiary of Big Business"

The five conservative justices currently sitting on the Supreme Court are in the top ten most pro-corporate justices in a half century.

September 9, 2013  | 

 http://www.alternet.org/economy/elizabeth-warren-slams-corporate-supreme-court?page=0%2C0&akid=10905.259010.cvP0Kv&rd=1&src=newsletter894199&t=11

The following is taken from a transcript of Sen. Elizabeth Warren's remarks to the AFL-CIO convention in Los Angeles on September 8.

When important decisions are made in Washington, too often, working families are ignored.  From tax policy to retirement security, the voices of hard-working people get drowned out by powerful industries and well-financed front groups.  Those with power fight to take care of themselves and to feed at the trough for themselves, even when it comes at the expense of working families getting a fair shot at a better future.

This isn’t new. Throughout our history, powerful interests have tried to capture Washington and rig the system in their favor. But we didn’t roll over. At every turn, in every time of challenge, organized labor has been there, fighting on behalf of the American people.

At the beginning of the 20th Century, when factories were deathtraps, when owners exploited workers and children, and when robber barons amassed the kind of power and influence that made them think they were modern day kings, the American people came together under the leadership of progressives to bring our nation back from the brink. And labor was there, leading the way.

Labor was on the front lines to take children out of factories and put them in schools. Labor was there to give meaning to the words "consumer protection" by making our food and medicine safe. Labor was there to fight for minimum wages in states across this country.

Powerful interests did everything they could to block reform. But our agenda was America’s agenda, and we prevailed.

A generation later, when our country was mired in the Great Depression, when people were on bread lines and looking for work, we fought back.  We created jobs by investing in infrastructure and public works. We brought light and power to our poorest and most remote areas. We established federal laws on wages and hours. We enshrined into law the right to organize. We made banking boring and put real cops on the beat on Wall Street. And because we believed those in old age should not be mired in poverty, we created Social Security.  And all along that journey, labor was there, leading the way.

Once again, the powerful interests did everything they could to stop it. But our agenda was America’s agenda, and we prevailed.

When political injustice threatened to break our democracy, members of the labor movement were there, working for jobs and freedom, marching right alongside the Reverend Dr. King, fighting together for the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.

When hard working families were getting squeezed, labor was there, fighting alongside our beloved Ted Kennedy, and now we have the Family and Medical Leave Act, we have the Lilly Ledbetter Act, and we have continued to protect Medicare.

And in 2008, when the economy crashed and it was time to reign in financial predators and Wall Street banks, labor was there—you were there—standing shoulder to shoulder with me, standing with President Obama, and fighting for consumer protection. And thanks to those efforts, we now have a strong Consumer Financial Protection Bureau – with a confirmed Director to lead it. And just so everyone knows, that little agency has already returned half a billion dollars to families who were cheated by big financial institutions and helped tens of thousands of consumers solve their problems with big banks.

In every fight to build opportunity in this country, in every fight to level the playing field, in every fight for working families, we have been on the front lines because our agenda is America’s agenda.

But let’s be clear, we have always had to run uphill. We have had to fight for what we’ve achieved. Powerful interests have done everything they can to block reform. They attacked Social Security and Medicare. They attacked pensions and public employees. They attacked bank regulation and consumer protection.

The powerful interests have attacked so many of the basic foundations that built a strong middle class – and too many times, they have prevailed.

Even today, our work is uphill. The powerful interests fight us on every battlefield they can.

Look at the increasing corporate capture of the federal courts.

According to a recent study, the five conservative justices currently sitting on the Supreme Court are in the top ten most pro-corporate justices in a half century – and Justices Alito and Roberts are numbers one and two – the most anti-consumer in this entire time. The Chamber of Commerce is now a major player in the Supreme Court, and its win rate has risen to 70% of all cases it supports.  Follow this pro-corporate trend to its logical conclusion, and sooner or later you’ll end up with a Supreme Court that functions as a wholly owned subsidiary of big business.

Look at where we are on the “Too Big to Fail” problem.

Five years ago, experts said the banks had to be bailed out because there was too much concentration in banking and one failure would bring down the entire economy.  Now the four biggest banks are 30% larger than they were five years ago. The five largest banks now hold more than half of all banking assets in the country.  Because investors know they are too big to fail, those big banks get cheaper borrowing, which, according to one study, adds up to an annual $83 billion subsidy from taxpayers—another benefit of being Too Big to Fail.

What about reform? The Dodd-Frank Act was an incredibly important achievement, but since it passed, the big banks and their army of lobbyists have fought every step of the way to delay, water down, block, or strike down regulations. When a new approach is proposed – like my bill with John McCain, Angus King, and Maria Cantwell to bring back Glass-Steagall – you know what happens – they throw everything they’ve got against it.

One more: take a look at what’s happening with trade deals.

For big corporations, trade agreement time is like Christmas morning. They can get special gifts they could never pass through Congress out in public. Because it’s a trade deal, the negotiations are secret and the big corporations can do their work behind closed doors. We’ve seen what happens here at home when our trading partners around the world are allowed to ignore workers rights, wages, and environmental rules. From what I hear, Wall Street, pharmaceuticals, telecom, big polluters, and outsourcers are all salivating at the chance to rig the upcoming trade deals in their favor.

Why are trade deals secret?  I’ve heard people actually say that they have to be secret because if the American people knew what was going on, they would be opposed.  Think about that.  I believe that if people would be opposed to a particular trade agreement, then that trade agreement should not happen.

Finally, look what is happening in our states.  Republican governors in Indiana and Michigan push for so-called right to work laws, and in Wisconsin Scott Walker and the legislature he controls have declared war on working families by ripping the guts out of collective bargaining agreements.

The fight continues to rage, and the powerful interests continue to be guided by their age-old principle: “I’ve got mine, the rest of you are on your own.”

 

But we’re guided by principle too.  It’s a simple idea, and all of you know it as an old labor idea – we all do better when we work together and invest in our future.

We know that the economy grows when hard working families can improve their lives. We know that the country gets stronger when we invest in helping people succeed. We know that our lives improve when we care for our neighbors.

And we know that even though pundits and big corporate lobbyists in Washington might need to be dragged kicking and screaming – we know that America agrees with us.

On almost every issue of economic concern, our values are America’s values, and our agenda is America’s agenda.

We believe that Wall Street needs stronger rules and tougher enforcement – and you know what? So do more than 80% of people. [3] Wall Street will fight us, but the American people are on our side.

We believe in raising the minimum wage – and so do 71% of people. [4] The Republicans will fight us, but the American people are on our side.

We believe in preventing cuts to Social Security benefits – and so do 87% of Americans. [5] The Washington insiders will fight us, but the American people are on our side.

We believe in rebuilding our infrastructure and in passing legislation to create jobs – and so do 75% of Americans. [6] The Tea Party will fight us, but the American people are on our side.

And we believe that the sequester is stupid. And, you know what? A majority of Americans—including a majority of Republicans agree with us too. [7] We ought to be making smart choices about where to cut and where to invest. Washington will fight us but the American people are on our side.

It was less than a year ago that the American people overwhelmingly re-elected President Obama and gave us a mandate to fight for middle class families.

We have a mandate—a mandate to build a fair tax code, one that isn’t rigged to give breaks to big oil and billionaires while it crushes working families. We have a mandate to invest in the future – in infrastructure, in research and innovation, and in education. And we have a mandate to create jobs – jobs right here in America, jobs for hard working people!

So here’s my message:  Our agenda is America’s agenda. The American people know that the system is rigged against them and they want us to level the playing field.  That’s our mandate!

I’ve already fought and lost my share of battles in Washington, and I’ve been around long enough to know that Washington is a tough place.  Real reform isn’t easy.  But I also know this:  If we don’t fight, we can’t win.

But if we fight, we win.  The Budget. Immigration. Minimum wage.

Uphill battles?  You bet.

But however tough the challenge, however steep our climb, I am proud to stand with you, to march with you, and to fight side-by-side with you.

Our agenda is America's agenda and if we fight for it, we win.


 

9-13-13

cOUNTERPUNCH.COM

Sasha Abramsky's "The American Way of Poverty"

How the Other Half Still Lives

by CHARLES R. LARSON

http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/09/13/how-the-other-half-still-lives/

Some of us can remember reading Michael Harrington’s ground-breaking study of poverty in the United States: The Other America(1962).  Sadly, Sasha Abramsky’s The American Way of Poverty: How the Other Half Still Lives is an updating of Harrington’s book—just as vital today as ever and, above all, the strongest critique of our failures as a nation to mitigate poverty that I have ever read.  I didn’t say eliminate poverty because we will never do that, but you would think that with America’s vast economic wealth we ought to be able to assist those at the bottom and make their lives a little less miserable.  Abramsky isn’t even writing about the people the right consider worthless, as less than human.  Rather, his study is a “narrative of millions of Americans who had economic security, enjoyed something of the comforts of an affluent society, and then lost it.”

Perhaps this review should end here.  CounterPunch readers are already informed about the reasons why we have failed: prejudice, greed, a lack of empathy by those at the top and their enablers in congress, a rigged tax system to mention the most obvious reasons.  If you already have billions of dollars (the Kochs, the Mars, the Waltons) you probably need a few more.  The idea of a living wage is unfathomable to most of these people, protected 24/7 inside their bubbles, so they don’t have to encounter the great unwashed.  As the system continues to work for them, they get richer and richer and everyone else gets poorer.  As the economists, Jon D. Wisman and Aaron Pacitti, have demonstrated, “Between 1983 and 2007, total inflation-adjusted wealth in the U.S. increased by $27 trillion. If divided equally, every man woman and child would be almost $90,000 richer. But of course it wasn’t divided equally. Almost half of the $27 trillion (49 percent) was claimed by the richest one percent — $11.7 million more for each of their households. The top 10 percent grabbed almost $29 trillion, or 106 percent of the total. Meanwhile, the bottom 90 percent suffered an average decline of just over $16,000 per household.”

And these figures are about what happened before the economic downturn, which is also why the details in Abramsky’s book are so horrifying.  Part I of The American Way of Poverty chronicles the lives of the recent poor, people who lost their jobs in the downtown and now live lives of quiet desperation.  Many are educated; they had decent jobs before the debacle.  Now they have little or nothing because the part-time jobs many of them have acquired pay the minimum wage and no benefits.  Abramsky writes tellingly of their loneliness and embarrassment at their current lot, their diversity (not just ethnicity, but age and education), and their resilience when given a chance.  And their children, the saddest factor of all.  “In May 2012, UNICEF reported that of the world’s developed countries, the United States had the second highest rate of child poverty, with more than 23 percent of its kids officially poor.  Only Romania, still struggling to shed itself of the awful legacy left by Nicolae Ceauşescu’s dictatorship, had worse numbers.”

Question: What do you say to America’s children living in poverty?  That their parents are riff-raff and they need to get their parents to work harder?  Will that comfort them and give them hope?

Abramsky cites Marshall Ganz: “What turns poverty into a scandal rather than a tragedy is the political landscape out of which it bubbles. ‘It makes a difference if we treat it as a bug [in our system] or a feature,’ argued longtime community organizer and Harvard Kennedy School of Government senior lecturer Marshall Ganz.  ‘Is it a bug in the system for which we provide a safety net, or a feature of the system?  It’s a moral, , and economic crisis.  It’s a process of suicide.  When countries stratify themselves into a wealthy few and an impoverished many, they go down the tubes.” My hunch is that conservatives care not at all if the country implodes as long as they can increase their money and hide inside their bubbles.  Abramsky calls it “poverty in the land of plutocrats.”  Too bad that naming it won’t alleviate the problem.

Page after page of terrifying statistics are buffered by astute observations that one wishes could be widely discussed, even though discussion in America is mostly shouting.  The poor continue to be blamed for the country’s finances, even though Abramsky shows that most people in poverty are not on welfare.  Tragedies resulting from natural disasters and corporate downsizing get treated as the fault of residents of impacted areas and the recently-fired.  The two million bankruptcies each year ought to tell us something about the desperation of our people, but they don’t.  The median yearly wage peaked in 1973.  1973?  Yes, 1973.

Question:  If corporations are people, shouldn’t corporations pay the same taxes as people?  If my taxes for years have averaged 28 to 34 percent, shouldn’t corporations pay the same?  How naïve can I be.

We all know the whole system is rigged.  Lousy education keeps the uniformed uninformed.  Talk radio and barf TV supports the corporations that operate them. Even The Wall Street Journal (Sept 3) admitted that “Some of those who have left the labor force are unlikely to return.  More than 9.9 million Americans were receiving federal disability payments in August, 1.8 million more than when the recession began.  Experts suspect many of the new recipients would have kept working in a healthier economy; research as found that once people begin receiving disability payments, relatively few return to work.”

The second half of The American Way of Poverty provides multiple solutions for alleviating poverty in the United States but they all involve money, mostly tiny increases in taxes or the implementation of new taxes (again, almost microscopic in size), such as taxing financial transactions (stock sales, for example).  But Abramsky himself is not particularly optimistic about their implementation in this “politically deranged environment.” Conservatives generally do not want to invest in the future (education, for example).  For decades, we have known what to do—how to fix Social Security and Medicare, for example—but we prefer to let conservatives drag the country into darkness.

What do I know about any of this?  I’m a retired professor of English.  Let me provide an analogy.  Why can’t young people, students, write well?  Simple explanation.  Writing can only be taught by students writing exhaustively and teachers marking their papers (also exhaustively).  With five sections of English and thirty students per class, no teacher can mark the papers that need to be assigned.  Solution?  English teachers need to teach much smaller classes so they have sufficient time for paper marking.  But that won’t happen because additional English teachers will need to be hired and that costs additional money.

It’s the same with all of Abramsky’s solutions described in his book.  More money that the rich and their political enablers cannot afford.

Go figure.

Sasha Abramsky: The American Way of Poverty: How the Other Half Still Lives

Nation Books, 355 pp., $26.99

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.  Email: clarson@american.edu.

 

1-20-13

Hitfix.com

Sundance Review: Robert Reich thrives in the 'Inequality For All' spotlight

There will be a knee-jerk desire to compare Jacob Kornbluth's "Inequality For All" to Davis Guggenheim's "An Inconvenient Truth."

 

Both Sundance-launched documentaries feature members of the Clinton Administration giving illustrated lectures that attempt to expand issues of vital importance beyond dry liberal talking points.

 

So far be it for me to break from the expected pack: What "An Inconvenient Truth" was for environmental science, "Inequality For All" absolutely is for economic inequality. 

 

For whoever ends up acquiring and distributing "Inequality For All," there are empirical advantages to that comparison. "An Inconvenient Truth" took in nearly $50 million worldwide, making it the most lucrative PowerPoint presentation in history. It also won a Documentary Oscar in a year that featured Amy Berg's "Deliver Us From Evil," as well as "Jesus Camp" and "Iraq in Fragments."

 

That's high achievement for a documentary which, if we're being honest, was admirably persuasive, but fell short of any high level of filmmaking. 

 

"An Inconvenient Truth" was a filmed position paper and it will probably be a valuable classroom aid for years to come, but it's not a good movie. 

 

So while "Inequality For All" may deserve its easy linkages to "An Inconvenient Truth," that may also be selling the new documentary short. I'm not going to get into the relative political values of their arguments, but when it comes to artistic values, this isn't a close one.

 

Kornbluth's documentary is provocative and smart. It's also energetic and fun. It's "An Inconvenient Truth" for economics, but it's also much better. I may with that "Inequality For All" did a bit more, but what it does, it does well.

 

More after the break...

 

The biggest qualitative difference between "Inequality For All" and "An Inconvenient Truth" is that "Inequality For All" takes as its central focus a political figure you'd actually want to spend 90 minutes with.

 

On "An Inconvenient Truth," we graded Al Gore on a very generous curve. Because it was the loosest we'd ever seen the former Vice President, we decided he was likable, rather than just "Likable by Al Gore Standards." We were still being lectured at by Al Gore, but it beat the heck out of other times he'd lectured at us over the years.

 

No such curve is required when spending 88 minutes with former labor secretary and current UC Berkeley professor Robert Reich. The tone is established immediately when, before the opening credits, Reich sits down behind the wheel of his Mini-Cooper and announces, "I sorta identify with it. It's pretty little. I feel like we are in proportion." Reich, whose physical stature was determined by a genetic disorder, takes his economic theorizing very seriously, but he's also able to poke fun at himself and to find a wry humor in the absurdities of our economic disparities, which find the 400 wealthiest people in the US making more than the bottom 150 million. 

 

The humor carries over into the documentary's jaunty pace, which owes much to Marco d'Ambrosio's score and to animation by Brian Oakes, which is introduced in the credits and carries through to make the ample statistics go down smooth.

 

The basis for the film is Reich's book "Aftershock," as well as his Wealth and Poverty lecture course at Berkeley. The premise of the course is that while some inequality is both inevitable and serves as an incentive in a capitalist economy, peak economic inequality leads to financial crisis, and financial crisis leads to the diminishing of the middle class, as more people are working more hours for less money and accumulating more debt than ever before. And this is a bad thing for the ultra-wealthy and the ultra-poor alike, even if the pundits on Fox News want to spout about "class warfare."

 

Reich, who laughingly disputes repeated Fox News claims that he's a Communist or a socialist -- a distinction more than a few talking heads fail to process -- cites ample evidence that the economy is strongest when the wealthiest pay a higher tax rate, that the work force is most stable when unions thrive and that billionaires are buying elections on both sides of the aisle and threatening to cripple democracy as we know it. It has a lot to do with Reich's own work and also with the research of Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty and it needn't necessarily be thought of as "partisan," though it'll be read that way. Reich is happy to remind us that his first government job was in the Ford administration. 

 

Kornbluth, whose previous Sundance films were on the narrative side, tracks Reich's arguments in the classroom and lets him directly address the audience. He follows Reich as he travels the country for speaking engagements and weaves a biographical sketch that lays the foundation for both Reich's personal quest for social and economic justice, but also the relationship with Bill Clinton that earned him his greatest prominence. 

 

The story is then expanded with a slew of smaller stories involving people struggling on either side of the imbalance. We meet several small families that have either lost their modest homes or find themselves with mere pittances in savings accounts, or both. Perhaps more interesting, though, is pillow magnate and venture capitalist Nick Hanauer, who pretty much drops a bomb on the basics of trickle-down economics and expresses incredulity at his meager tax rate. And then there are the bigger stories that have to be included, like the Occupy and Tea Party movements, which Kornbluth mostly dodges, perhaps leaving them for future Sundance docs. [I have my ticket for "99% - The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film" on Sunday night. If that doesn't work, maybe I'll try to catch "Citizen Koch."  Sundance is nothing if not fond of recurring themes.]

 

Reich's self-deprecation is hardly limited to his height, as he reflects on  his own track record in government. "I do ask myself whether I've been a total failure," Reich muses as he thinks back on the opportunities to reinvest the Clinton Era surpluses into facets of the middle class infrastructure. But even in his regrets, they're more nebulous than tangible. The economic problems Reich is lamenting are problems he also, at  least to some degree, predicted years before.

 

That leads to what is probably my biggest real frustration with "Inequality For All": It proves there's a problem. It won't prove there's a problem for anybody who didn't already know/suspect, but if economic inequality troubles you. "Inequality For All" will royally piss you off, as many a good documentary is designed to do. The end, however, is as feeble a call-to-action as I can recall in a documentary filled with this much umbrage. Reich closes his class by telling them that he hopes they make a difference. The documentary closes by sending viewers to an official website that is currently nearly devoid of content. It's one thing to say "Be aware!" and it's a viable additional thing to say, "Don't let this happen [even if it's already happened]." But if you have a man as engaging and full of ideas as Reich basically steering the entire film, those are hollow, after-the-fact warnings that fail to put interested viewers in position to do anything new or different. Your typically audience member will not be able to raise the tax rate on the rich, nor to reverse the flow of jobs outside of the United States or to step in and prevent both liberal and conservative billionaires from buying elections. The documentary doesn't want to endorse any active movements, nor to propose ways in which a new movement could actively reshape the debate. If this were just a problem documentary, this wouldn't bother me, but it's an advocacy documentary that fails to ultimately advocate effectively. After 88 minutes, Reich will have viewers ready to follow him into battle, but he needs to lead a charge.

 

"Inequality For All" is a well-made polemic. It's lively and funny and infuriating and Robert Reich is as appealing a presenter as you could hope to find for a crisis that many people might find hard to embrace otherwise.  It starts a conversation, but it left me hanging. perhaps Festival exposure will help that conversation continue after the theater lights go up.

 

9-10-13

Washington Post


From ‘Inequality for All,’ a challenge for America

By Katrina vanden Heuvel

http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2013-09-10/opinions/41917153_1_income-inequality-reich-sharknado

“Chilling.”

That’s how one reviewer describes the experience of watching Harvey Weinstein’s latest film. Only the movie in question isn’t “Erased,” Weinstein’s pulse-pounding thriller about an ex-CIA agent on the run. Nor is it “Only God Forgives,” in which Ryan Gosling finds himself caught up in a gritty underground world of Thai drug smuggling, prostitution, rape, and murder.

The movie is, in fact, a documentary, but one more disturbing than international criminal conspiracies and more devastating than any “Sharknado.” It’s about income inequality. As Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich intones in the film, “Of all developed nations, the United States has the most unequal distribution of income, and we’re surging towards even greater inequality.”

“Inequality for All,” directed by Jacob Kornbluth and set to be released nationwide on Sept. 27, comes at a critical moment for America. Sept. 15 marks the five-year anniversary of the collapse of Lehman Brothers — fueled by a toxic combination of deregulation, subprime lending and credit-default swaps — that precipitated the 2008 global economic crisis and laid bare the rot at the heart of our economic system. It was largely this orgy of greed that led the first Occupy Wall Street protesters to Zuccotti Park on Sept. 17, two years ago next week.

In the half-decade since Wall Street’s self-induced crash, the country has hovered between outrage (that the perpetrators walked off scot-free and bonus-laden) and apathy (that anything will ever break the iron bond between Congress and the financial industry).

Until now, hopefully. Following the diminutive Reich on his “statistics-driven and impassioned”crusade, “Inequality for All” throws into sharp relief the numbers and stories we hear. Combining footage from Reich’s electrifying Berkeley lectures with interviews, news clips and rich graphics, the film weaves a compelling narrative about how and why, since the late 1970s, income inequality has risen to crisis levels.

The facts are breathtaking. In 1978, according to Reich, a “typical male worker” made $48,302, while the typical top 1 percenter earned $393,682, more than eight times as much. In 2010, even as overall gross domestic product and productivity increased, the average male worker’s wage fell to $33,751. Meanwhile, the average top 1 percent earner was making more than $1.1 million — 32 times the average earner.

Reich cleverly illustrates how the graph of American inequality over the past century looks like a suspension bridge — peaking in the 1920s, leveling out because of strong, progressive policymaking in the 1950s and 1960s, and spiking again from the Reagan years through the present. We see the consequences in middle-class families that have fallen off that bridge and are struggling to stay afloat.

The film’s most refreshing figure may be Nick Hanauer, a millionaire pillow company CEO who made a fortune as an early investor in Amazon.com. Hanauer acknowledges that he earns 1,000 times the average American but that he will never generate a proportionate amount of economic activity — because he will never need 1,000 Audis or 1,000 pairs of jeans. As he puts it, “Even the richest people only sleep on one or two pillows.”

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