The powerful documentary Inequality for All was an unexpected hit at the recent Sundance film festival, arguing that US capitalism has fatally abandoned the middle classes while making the super-rich richer. Can its star, economist Robert Reich, do for economics what Al Gore did for the environment?
Former US labour secretary Robert Reich at an Occupy Los Angeles rally in 2011. Photograph: David Mcnew/Getty Images
In one sense, Inequality for All is absolutely the film of the moment. We are living through tumultuous times. The economy has tanked. Austerity has cut a swath through the country. We're on the verge of a triple-dip recession. And, in another, parallel universe, a small cohort of alien beings – or as we know them, bankers – are currently engaged in trying to figure out what to spend their multimillion-pound bonuses on. Who wouldn't want to know what's going on? Or how it happened? Or why? Or if it is really true that the next generation down is well and truly shafted?
Any synopsis of the film runs the risk of making it seem dry again, but essentially it describes how the middle classes have come to have a smaller and smaller portion of the economic pie. And how, since 70% of the economy is based on the middle classes buying stuff, if they don't have any money to buy this stuff, it cannot grow. Meanwhile, the government has allowed the super-rich, the "one per cent", to take more of the nation's wealth. Half of the US's total assets are now owned by just 400 people – 400! – and, Reich contests that this is not just a threat to the economy, but also to democracy.
And what the film tries to do is thread together evidence that many people know about – the increasing struggle of the middle classes to just get by, the way that the top 1% of society has unshackled itself from the rest of us and has seen its income increase exponentially, and the ever-increasing cost of the traditional avenues of improvement, such as higher education – and weave it into a cohesive and convincing narrative. It is, in some respects, a theory of everything. Reich charts the three decades of increasing median income after the second world war, a period he calls "the great prosperity" and then examines what happened in the late 1970s to put an end to it. The economy didn't falter. It kept on growing. But wages didn't.
The figures that Reich supplies are simply gobsmacking. In 1978, the typical male US worker was making $48,000 a year (adjusted for inflation). Meanwhile the average person in the top 1% was making $390, 000. By 2010, the median wage had plummeted to $33,000, but at the top it had nearly trebled, to $1,100,000.
"Something happened in the late 1970s," we hear him tell his Berkeley class. And much of the rest of the film is working out what happened.
Some inequality is inevitable, he says. Even desirable. It's what makes capitalism tick. But at what point does it become a problem? When the middle classes (in its American sense of the 25% above and below the median wage) have so little of the economic pie that it affects not just their lives but the economy as a whole.
Reich's thesis is that since the 1970s a combination of anti-union legislation and deregulation of the markets contrived to create a situation in which the economy boomed but less of the wealth trickled down. Though for a while, nobody noticed. There were "coping mechanisms". More women entered the workforce, creating dual-income families. Working hours rose. And increasing house prices enabled people to borrow.
And then, in 2007, this all came crashing to a halt. "We have exhausted all the options," he says. There's nowhere else left to go. It's crunch time.
It's crunch time that so many working families understand too well. They may not be familiar with the theory of income inequality but they haven't been able to avoid noticing that they've got less money in their pockets. "I've always thought that kitchen-table economics is the most important topic to most people," says Reich. "Their wages, their jobs, getting by. I've always tried to relate economics to where people live. That's why I was so excited about the film."
… In the UK, Royal Bank of Scotland, having covered itself in glory in the Libor interest-rate fixing scandal, is currently contemplating bonuses for its investment banking division of £250m, according to reports last week. This, to put it another way, is the annual wage bill for at least 12,500 of its call-centre workers. Because this isn't just an American problem. It's a British one too.
"If there was upward mobility it would be OK," says Reich in the film. "But 42% of children born in poverty in the USA will stay there. In Denmark it's 24%. Even in Great Britain, where they still have an aristocracy, it's 30%."
It's probably a shocking statistic for Americans to hear. The problem is that by every index you can measure, inequality is worsening in Britain. There are fewer opportunities to overcome the barriers of your birth in the UK than in any other country in Europe. One of the most chilling moments in Inequality for All for a British audience is that how, faced with the same choices that America had in the 70s, we have, in the last year or so, taken the same path.
One of the key moments for Reich was the underinvestment in education, particularly higher education in the 70s. This was when America introduced tuition fees and its workforce started to fall behind the rest of the world's. When opportunities for those from low- and middle-income backgrounds began shrinking: precisely where the UK is today.
It's not just that wages have remained flat in America – as they have in the UK – it's that the expenses of everyday life have soared, in particular education and healthcare.
Last October, an independent commission in the UK led by the Resolution Foundation predicted that in 2020 wages for low- to middle-income families would be the same as they were in 2000. And yet everything else will have gone up. We too are facing the crunch.
In December, the Office for National Statistics found that richest 10% of people in Britain own 40% of the national wealth. In London and the south-east, one in eight households has almost £1m of assets. The bottom half of the country has no net property wealth and only £4,000 in pensions savings. For them, there is just rising prices. And the ever diminishing possibility of things ever being different for them or their children.