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Robert Reich on America's Widening Income Gap: It Must Be Talked About for 2016 (Q&A)

The subject of the hit doc "Inequality for All," Bill Clinton's former Secretary of Labor, and its director Jake Kornbluth speak with THR about the film, which won a special jury prize at Sundance and has grossed over $1 million.

Inequality For All Film Still - H 2013
"Inequality For All"

Could a 2013 Oscar long-listed documentary about America's economic woes impact the outcome of the 2016 presidential election? Its director and famous subject hope so.

Last week, I met up at the Four Seasons in Los Angeles with the director and subject of RADiUS-TWC's Oscar long-listed documentary feature Inequality for All, Jake Kornbluth and economist/economics professor/former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, respectively, to discuss the film and its focus: the causes and effects of the widening disparity between the income of America's wealthiest citizens and that of everyone else in the country.

"It’s hard not to be grandiose about it, but I’ll level with you," Reich, 67, told The Hollywood Reporter. "Our hope is that we change the national conversation in time for it to affect 2016 and beyond, so at least the issue of inequality is right there, front and center, and even the Republicans have to talk about it."

Shortly after President Bill Clinton's re-election in 1996, Reich decided to step down from his position in the Cabinet to spend more time with his young children. Not long thereafter, he began teaching at Brandeis University, where his signature course was "Wealth and Poverty." In 2006, he left Brandeis for the University of California, Berkeley, where he continued to teach the course. It was out west that Kornbluth, 40, an indie filmmaker with two narrative features under his belt, first connected with Reich and convinced him to tape several YouTube videos about the American economy and then, eventually, to cooperate with a documentary feature about his life and work.

The resulting film, Inequality for All, had its world premiere at January's Sundance Film Festival, where it received standing ovations after each of its screenings -- which only grew louder when Reich stepped into the spotlight after the credits began to roll -- and where it was awarded the U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Achievement in Filmmaking. RADiUS-TWC picked it up there and released it theatrically on Sept. 27. Over the month-and-a-half since, it has received rave reviews (it's at 91% on RottenTomatoes.com) and performed extremely well at the box-office (grossing $1.15 million so far, more than any issue-oriented doc since Waiting for Superman three years ago).

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Harvey Weinstein, whose The Weinstein Co. is the parent company of RADiUS-TWC, emailed me the following statement upon learning that I would be speaking with Reich: "As I told Bob [Reich] when we met at Sundance, Inequality for All hones in on the most important issue of our time. The film is resonating across the country -- demonstrated by the fact that it has already crossed $1 million (a rarity for an issue-oriented doc). RADiUS has done an outstanding job getting the film out there and I can't tell you how many people have come up to me asking for an intro to Bob. He's our new movie star!"

We'll find out soon if Academy members are as bullish about the film as Weinstein: voting to determine the short-list from which the five best documentary feature Oscar nominees will ultimately be chosen closes on Friday. In the meantime, here is the transcript of my conversation with Kornbluth and Reich.

I don’t know if you know this, but I was one of your students at Brandeis...

REICH: Oh, is that right?

In "Wealth and Poverty," actually...

REICH: No kidding? All right! [high-fives Scott] That’s fabulous.

Yeah, when I first heard about the film  I didn’t realize it was actually sort of structured around that class. So when I started to watch it, I was—

REICH: It’s the direct lineal descendant.

KORNBLUTH [to Scott]: How had it changed? How had it? Could you tell?

I think you’ve certainly incorporated multimedia more...

REICH: Yeah, I think I used a projector at Brandeis. Also, the classroom was smaller.

Yeah. That looks like a huge class at Berkeley...

REICH: It was 805 students with a waiting list. For next term I’ve got already 500. So it’s a big difference.

KORNBLUTH: It’s pretty amazing to step into that class and feel it. You know, the energy of it, it was like a concert almost.

REICH: What year were you?

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I graduated in 2008...

REICH: I left Brandeis in--let’s see, it must’ve been 2005.

Yes, I think I was a freshman when I took your class. And I agree with what Jake said -- it was such a fascinating course that parents of students who were taking the course who lived in the tri-state area would sometimes drive up and just stand in the back of the classroom so that they could listen in. It was a big treat.

KORNBLUTH: Well, I had no idea, honestly, when we made the movie that the class was going to be a part of it. I just showed up at the class. It wasn’t the first thing we shot. We were just shooting some of it. And I wanted to take the class kind of, you know?

REICH: Yeah, I said to Jake, you know, “If you really want to get into this and you want to understand this subject, you ought to come to the class.”

KORNBLUTH: And we brought cameras. And then it felt like the spine of the movie, eventually.

REICH: And I said to the students, “Look, if you don’t want your face on the film, I’ve gotta—for the privacy law and everything else, sit up in that back area. Otherwise, you’re fair game."

And was this shot this past year?

REICH: 2012.

And how long have you been teaching the class? I'm sure it has evolved a lot over the years...

REICH: Well, it started at Brandeis. It started as a graduate class in the Heller School [for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis]. I didn’t really have the plan in my head. I just wanted to integrate politics, economics and sociology. It wasn’t being done anywhere. And it was clear that inequality was getting out of control. It could’ve been ’98. Yes, it was ’98 because it was my second year at Brandeis. And inequality--I thought it was a big deal. Now, frankly, nobody else in those days thought it was a big deal.

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Because everybody was riding high, right?

REICH: Everybody was riding high but, you know, the trends were worrying. And so, by your year, by 2005-- You remember. I mean, I was talking about how dangerous these trends were towards the economy.

Totally, yeah.

REICH: You know, and that there was going to be a day of reckoning because you just couldn’t have that much—

KORNBLUTH: Do you have a memory of that?

Absolutely. I have my notes, still. They’re in Connecticut, but I kept everything.


REICH: So that’s—

KORNBLUTH: That pre-dates the crash. That’s three years before the crash.

Totally. And so, by the time I graduated in May 2008, things were, I think, ominous, but nothing had really happened. When was the big crash?

REICH: Oh, the big crash was that summer or fall.

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Yeah, so that’s when I came out into the real world...

KORNBLUTH: Wow. Welcome to your professional life.

REICH: It’s still going on. I mean, the students who graduated in 2009 and ’10 got the brunt of it and they’re still having problems. The 2012-ers that are in the film did a little bit better, but you know, it’s still a huge problem.

And when you start out so behind in a way like those ’09, 2010, sometimes you don’t catch up.

KORNBLUTH: That’s right.

How do you make up for if you don’t have work experience? After a couple of years, as things get a little better, they’re going to hire people who do...

REICH: Now you’ve got retirees who are clogging up the job queue because they don’t want to retire. And these young people have got a lot of student debt and, you know, they’re not going to move out. They’re going to move back in with the parents. So a lot of the stuff that I was talking about with your class and, you know, sounding the alarm about when nobody was listening—

KORNBLUTH: Well, see, that’s the thing about the film. I was having the same conversations that you’re talking about having with your friends. I’m older than you, but we were just as worried. And this is the story, right? I mean, this is what’s happening to people. And man, it’s really hard if you haven’t taken this class or don’t know this stuff to get it. It just really is. It’s one of those rare times when there’s the biggest story happening right under our noses, and people kind of know it, but—

REICH: It’s really the story of the generation.

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KORNBLUTH: Yeah, it absolutely is.

REICH: I mean, it’s the biggest story of their generation, if not, for the country. And I think that’s why we’ve had such a response from young people, from the recent graduates, who don’t normally go to movies. I mean, you know, people between 22 and 35 are not big moviegoers—

KORNBLUTH: Not documentary-goers!

REICH: Well, certainly not documentary. They’ll go to blockbusters. But they’re not even that big into blockbusters. I mean, you’ve got a little bit of a dip. Teenagers will go. But, the college crowd is hard to get. We're getting huge responses from college audiences.

I don’t know if you can even anticipate with this Congress but what do you think the next couple of years hold? Is there any hope for any kind of meaningful change? Or, is this just the way it’s going to be?

REICH: Well, at least for a time -- that is, the next few years -- I don’t see much changing, honestly. I think the big question mark is 2016. And our hope -- now, it’s hard not to be grandiose about it, but I’ll level with you -- our hope is that we change the national conversation in time for it to affect 2016 and beyond, so at least the issue of inequality is right there, front and center, and even the Republicans have to talk about it.

KORNBLUTH: And they haven’t been resistant so far, really. Like, even though I think you’d imagine that this would play out in a more partisan way, I haven’t really-- I’ve talked to plenty of Republicans who think it’s a big issue, too. My alma mater is Michigan State. I just went back and screened it there, and it was a pretty split audience, politically. But, you know, both sides of the aisle said, “We’re terrified," because it’s the economy, right? I mean, they’re worried about what’s going to happen to their jobs. That’s really what the people are thinking about. And I think that plays across the aisle.

REICH: You know, we had a number of screenings with the top one percent before the release. I screened it in Silicon Valley -- I mean, everybody was top one percent and half of them were Republicans, in fact, more than half of them -- and they gave a standing ovation. You know, people said, “I have not thought about it this way.” And so it’s important to reach beyond people who would normally be receptive.

The Tea Party obviously has impacted things in a lot of ways, but in terms of the way that the Republican Party's approach to economic issues, what do you see as their impact? It seems to me that they are less about big corporations and things that the establishment Republicans has always looked out for. So in that sense, is that actually one positive impact of the Tea Party?

REICH: Well, as the film shows, the Tea Party grew out of the same Wall Street bailout that the Occupy Movement grew out of, and it is really just the mirror image. I mean, the anger, frustration, suspicion, distrust of big centralized power, whether it’s big corporations or big government -- it is exactly the same. And I think that even with the Occupy Movement, the sentiment is still there -- I mean, the expression is not there, but, as I go around the country, people are still fairly pissed. And so I don’t think the division is left or right as much as it is populist versus establishment.

But have these movements forced the establishment to be a little more receptive to populist concerns about the things you guys focus on in the film?

REICH: Well, we don’t know yet, but you know, the question is, how bad does the economy have to get, in terms of slow -- I mean, ridiculously anemic -- growth? And how bad does the politics have to get, in terms of polarization and big money dominating everything, for there to be a tipping point? I mean, I personally think we’re very close.

Well, if we had defaulted, what do you think would have happened?

REICH: Oh, that would’ve been truly economic Armageddon.

But it seems like a lot of these guys were ready to do it and are ready to do it again...

REICH: I don’t think they’re ready to do it again. I think cooler heads are prevailing, but I think the question you just asked me a moment ago is really the key question. That is, what about reforms that are going to spread prosperity more broadly and get us back to some sort of a balance? I mean, things have been so unbalanced since the recovery began, in ways that I couldn’t have foreseen in 2005, when you were taking the course. But, 95 percent of the economic gains since the recovery began in 2009 have gone to the top one percent -- 95 percent. I mean, that is not sustainable. And yet, there’s nothing slowing that down.

KORNBLUTH: That’s been a big difference since the film came out. I remember as we were making it, the economy had crashed, and there was, of course, a hope that the economy would recover, but questions about how to handle it. The basic premise of the film was that if the structure wasn't fixed, then the recovery would be stagnant, and that’s exactly what’s happened. It’s grown in the Bay area, where I live -- people have rebounded quite a bit -- and in LA and certainly in certain other areas it’s doing a lot better. But when I go back to the Midwest, where I lived, it’s not. It really isn’t and they’re really feeling it. And not only that, but it’s been so long now that nothing’s worked out that they’re just feeling less hopeful about it, you know? They feel a little bit let down and you can feel the frustration really building. So, I have certainly noticed that in the last few years.

REICH: Well, you know, I’m getting emails every day from places where the film is being shown -- like Boise, Idaho and Tulsa and Cincinnati -- and people say we nailed it, and it can’t go on and that they’re at their wit’s end. Well, you know, they don’t describe themselves as Republicans and Democrats and I don’t think most of them think of themselves as that. They’re just basically struggling and they think that this recovery is a sham.

KORNBLUTH: But you know, I gotta say, my favorite comments have come from the people who are feeling the economic squeeze but who didn’t think that they could "get it" [as in, understand the issues at the center of the film]. It feels like too big of a topic for them. They don’t really like economics and politics. And then they say, “Oh my God, there was all this information, but I still was able to follow it.”

Right. Well, guys do make it understandable...

KORNBLUTH: Accessible, yeah.

REICH: Well, Jake really deserves huge credit. I mean, my respect for you [Kornbluth] is boundless because, you know, to take an entire course and books and boil it down to 90 minutes and make it, you know, as compelling-- I don’t know. We had an ongoing debate -- a friendly debate -- during the course of putting it together about how much of my personal story should be in it, because you know, I’m only interested in the story of inequality. But you [Kornbluth] convinced me that the audience has to relate emotionally to the messenger.

[The interview continues after the jump...]