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Saturday Night Viewing: Inequality for All

By Martie Hevia | Blue Beach Song™

As you probably know from reading my Sunday Morning Reading blog posts, one of my great pleasures is waking up early on a Sunday morning with a hot cappuccino and reading an eclectic collection of articles from all kinds of magazines and newspapers. But I must confess that I have another guilty pleasure, I love cuddling up in bed, late on a Saturday night, watching a great video, film or documentary in the dark, lost in the storytelling, swept up by powerful images and sounds. Whatever your guilty pleasures, here is my Saturday night viewing suggestion. Enjoy! -Martie

Documentary: Inequality for All

This documentary is narrated by former Clinton Labor Secretary and U.C. Berkeley Public Policy and Economics Professor, Robert Reich, who helps us understand how and why the extreme inequality we are now facing poses a real threat to our democracy. Professor Reich explains how policy changes in the last 35 years have stacked the deck against the middle class and how it is the members of the middle class who are the true “job creators.”

Okay, you may be thinking that documentaries just aren’t sexy, especially when the subject is economics! That may be true, unless you are someone like me who finds intelligence very sexy. Combine intelligence with a great sense of humor, as the Inequality for All documentary does, and you have me hooked. But this documentary is more than sexy, it has heart and awards to boot, including the Sundance Film Festival Special Jury Prize and the Traverse Film Festival Best Documentary award.

If intelligence, humor, heart, and awards, aren’t enough to convince you to watch, then the compelling personal stories of the people to whom we are introduced – from a venture capitalist who earns $30 million a year to a Costco worker who ears $21.50 an hour – along with convincing hardcore facts that supply endless ‘Are you serious?!?’ moments should be.

The historical data is hard to dispute, whether you swing left or right of the political spectrum, the facts are what they are, and they are shocking.

  • The top 1% holds more than 35% of the nation’s overall wealth and about 25% of its income.
  • The 400 wealthiest Americans own 62% of the nation’s wealth, more wealth than the bottom 150 million combined.
  • With their 2012 income, any ONE of the ten richest Americans would have enough to pay for a room for every homeless person in the U.S. for the entire year.
  • The U.S. ranks 64th in the world on income inequality (i.e., 63 nations are
    more equal than the U.S.) and by far, has the most unequal distribution of income of all developed nations.
  • In 1970, the top 1% of earners took home 9% of the nation’s total income. Today, they take in approximately 23%.
  • In 1978, the typical male worker earned $48,302; while in 2010, that worker earned a typical $33,751. In 1978, the top 1% earned an average of $393,682 and in 2010 they earned an average of $1,101,089.
  • Between the 1970s and 2010, the median disposable income decreased while household expenses increased. For example, disposable income in the 1970s was $35,143, in 2010 it was $26,578; housing cost in the 70s was $15,579, in 2010 it was $21,684; healthcare expenses in the 70s were $1,686, in 2010 they were $7,082; college expenses were $903 in the 1970s, and in 2010 they were $1,833.
  • Between 1948 and 2010, productivity increased by nearly 250%. During the same time period, wages increased just over 100%.
  • In 2009, (during the recent recession), top hedge fund managers each earned more than $1 billion.
  • 70% of the U.S. economy is based on consumer spending and the middle class represents 70% of that spending. A shrinking middle class reduces spending and demand for goods and services, which reduces the need for workers. Conversely, a growing middle class increases spending and demand for goods and services, which requires hiring additional workers to meet that increasing demand. This is why people in the middle class are the true job creators.

What struck me most were the clear parallels the film highlighted in the historical data between 1928 (before the Great Depression) and 2007 (before the Great Recession). In both years, for instance, the top 1% took home more than 23% of total income in the U.S.; the wealthy put much of their money in the financial sector, which bloomed as a result; the financial sector invested in a limited number of assets: housing, gold, & speculation; and only a small percentage of workers were represented by unions. The film points out that middle class incomes have stagnated or dropped over the same period during which the American economy has more than doubled and all that money went to the top earners. The last time wealth was as concentrated as it is now was 1928, on the eve of the Great Depression.

History shows, as this film makes clear, that our prosperous years were between 1947 and 1977. The factors that stood out during those thirty years included the fact that the top tax rate ranged from 91% to 70%, compared to less than 34% in recent years; the top 1% took home less than 10% of the nation’s income, compared to nearly 25% now; the average CEO pay was approximately fifty times greater than what the average employee earned, compared to 350 times greater now; more than 33% of all workers were represented by a union, but less than 12% today; the ratio of debt to household income hovered near 1:1, but closer to 12:1 in recent years; and by the late 1950s, the U.S. had the best-educated workforce in the world, in part because higher education was affordable, since 1985 college tuition has soared more than 500%. Staggering facts.

In the end, perhaps the most important question addressed in the documentary is how and why income inequality threatens our democracy. Professor Reich explains that the ability to control politics comes easily to the top few where so much wealth has accumulated, “It’s not that people are rich, it’s that they abuse their wealth…”

The film makes a good case for how the contribution of huge amounts of money to political candidates by the wealthiest has given them access to political power thereby entrenching inequality by securing subsidies, bailouts and policies that lead to even greater inequality. “Concentration of wealth leads to political control in fewer hands and therefore undermines democracy.” The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, allowing the super wealthy and corporations to contribute nearly unlimited amounts of money to political candidates, has dramatically increased the quantity of money in politics, and that has skewed where power resides, away from the majority of citizens. “Political polarization mirrors income inequality. When inequality is high, polarization increases. People who believe the system is rigged against them get angry. Both Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party are vestiges of this anger – and so is the scapegoating of minority groups and immigrants.”

Inequality for All is an engrossing documentary, that holds you with humor, with heart and with mind-blowing facts. You not only walk away feeling smarter, feeling informed, but perhaps with a new perspective and understanding of why we are where we are today, and why it matters to us as individuals and to our democracy.

Hope you get the chance to see it.

(Inequality for All Trailer)

Happy viewing and I hope you enjoy the documentary. -Martie

The documentary is available on Netflix, that’s where I saw it, but look around the Internet, your local theaters, or the Inequality for All website for availability. It will open your eyes. -M.

Martie Hevia (c) 2014| All Rights Reserved

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