A (Very) Late Review of Inequality for All


I just watched Inequality for All, and it’s great. Crystallizes everything we all should have been angry about since 2008 if not, like Secretary Reich, since the Reagan Administration. Rising income inequality in the US has poisoned our democracy which has in turn poisoned our economy (etc.), and the two effects have waltzed hand in hand for decades now, dropping us dozens of places in world rankings of every indicator of prosperity.

But there are two points the filmmakers either missed (or, more likely) chose to ignore, at least in terms of a holistic picture of the post-crash situation in the States. Reich mentions polarized politics and correlates them with inequality. Somewhat fair. But while the rest of the film draws on parallels between our own time and the period between the Gilded Age and the Great Depression, politics at that time were nowhere near as polarized (contentious, maybe, but not along ideological party lines).

While he brings up both Occupy and the Tea Party as exemplars of dissatisfaction with wealth inequality, he equates them erroneously, failing to mention the (pretty critical) differences. Both were ostensibly set off by big money interfering with government (TARP and Citizens United, for example). But while Occupy advocated polices that were at least oriented towards amelioration of the situation, the Tea Party (partially and significantly funded by the Koch Brothers) pretty much lobbied for the rich and against themselves.

Which illustrates the problem that Inequality ignores—politics in the States has become a matter of faith, and a good chunk of Americans, if not 50% of the country, takes on faith the line that continuing the trickle-down policies of increasing inequality begun under the Reagan Administration will somehow solve the same crisis they precipitated.

And then movie-Reich omits climate change. Say that the moviemakers win the economic argument wholesale. Movie-Reich restores his “Virtuous Cycle,” making massive investments in the middle class, jump-starting labor, public education, employment, and common-man wages. Consumption explodes, quality of life increases, America returns to the Golden Interim kind of situation it had between 1950-1980. What else happens? What’s the externality?

Besides ruining the kickass symmetry

Besides ruining the kickass symmetry

Robert Reich’s a brilliant economist, and I imagine he’s thought about climate change, but the film leaves it out. You’ve got to draw a line somewhere. Problem being not that climate change is (necessarily) more important than the collapse of democracy in the US right now but that it will be soon and no matter how many middle Americans you get to the shop-at-Costco bracket from the shop-at-Walmart bracket, there’s a problem on the horizon whose solution is diametrically opposed to the entire consumption-as-economic-engine philosophy.

Even if we recover along the lines that Inequality lays out, even if we turn it all around, all the best science around says the world at large is headed south. Maybe, big maybe, not the US or Europe (except for the Southwest). But the whole belt of the world, all of Central and South America, the Middle East and the upper half of Africa at least, South Asia and the Pacific, all of them are decades away from calamitous changes to their regional climates and to the conditions that made their territories habitable.

Drought and storm cycles causing massive erosion and ruining agriculture, sea-level rise that will wipe out the world’s coastlines and its lower-slung countries, fishery and wildlife die-offs, disastrous losses of biodiversity, the proliferation of exotic disease, all of them will destroy quality of life and the hurricanes, typhoons, and super-weather-conditions soon to come will just kill people. Resource scarcity will begin as crises and snowball into conflicts.

There’s a scene in the third episode of this last season of The Newsroom where Toby from The Office plays a disillusioned EPA rep and doomsays his way through a five minute interview. It seems of whether it’s supposed to shock us or be played for laughs which kills me because there should have been some telegraphing on the most on-the-nose progressive show in the last ten years that it’s all true. And even if there were something we could do about it, there’s nothing we will.

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