Robert Reich sells the real deal about the ongoing financial crisis
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
As Labor Secretary under President Bill Clinton, Robert Reich was the lone voice raging against the madness of the economic machine. He knew the system was rigged and had been for some time; that was why Clinton hired him in the first place. They had been Rhodes Scholars together, familiar with one another, but obviously were two bright students preparing to blaze off on their separate paths. Reich studied the system, issued alarms, the kinds of warnings that no one caught up in the current system could recognize as indications that something was wrong because everything appeared fine. We were experiencing growth – an economic boom spurned in part by a technology speculation bubble. There were jobs and investment in ideas. People were spending money, but when we should have stopped spending at such record rates, we spent more, building debt, a growing fascination with personal debt that eclipsed any notion of saving, except for among the wealthiest.
There’s a curious logic at play. The wealthy, for all of the conspicuous consumption we imagine within their bracket, never spend at a comparable rate to those below them – the middle and lower classes. They don’t, intriguingly, because at a certain point, the wealthy – defined here as multimillionaire to billionaire entrepreneurs, film moguls, sports team owners, athletes and other entertainers – end up being given things like tax breaks, swag, stock options and percentage points. They have money, and then they are granted even more; it is handed to them. What’s the line from Dire Straits? “Money for nothing and the chicks for free.”
In Jacob Kornbluth’s “Inequality for All,” Reich makes a plain and simple case about a system that so many economists, investment professionals and members of the government would rather remain a great and perpetual mystery. That’s not to say that there are easy answers or quick fixes for the mess we find ourselves in, especially on the global front, but what he’s trying to do, lifting the curtain to expose the back room tricks, is allow for some common sense and self-interest to influence the decisions we make as voters, collective citizens and individuals struggling to achieve a version of the American Dream – one that works within this modern frame of reference.
The documentary comes across like a college lecture, because many of the segments are actually taped during Reich’s appearances as a guest lecturer, but he’s no blowhard know-it-all. The well-heeled economist is an engaging man of the people, self-deprecating and empathetic, as willing to share personal anecdotes, painful memories and sentimental flashes to convince us that he is one of us. He appreciates these factors and decisions – playing out on the grandest of scales – touch his daily world as much as ours.
So what is the takeaway from this 2013 Sundance Film Festival Documentary Special Jury Award-winning film? Should we storm the Wall Street barricades again, like the Occupy Movement? Or raise our voices and prop up self-serving suits, sending them to Washington to, once they arrive, call their own shots? All of that sounds political, too much so for a film review, even moreso because I can’t say I believe in the rhetoric and the obviousness of the moves.
There’s something far more basic that Reich is aiming for with the film. He wants us to be more aware of the process and the stakes. He wants us to seek informed outcomes, solutions rooted in the choices and options before us in our lives everyday. That is where real change likely begins. What will you buy and when? How should you spend and when should you save? What will you study? What will you be and what will you do with your life?
Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com.