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

Jake, how did you get into economics and what led you to reach out to Secretary Reich about doing this?

KORNBLUTH: Well, I guess I got into it primarily because I grew up [in rural Michigan] poor, with my mom making between $9,000 and $15,000 a year and raising a family of four. I got free lunches, so every year I had to bring in the form that showed how much she made, so that's how I kind of knew; otherwise, I probably wouldn’t have known. I didn’t feel poor, but I was aware that we didn’t have any stuff. I always felt like we were an educated family. I always felt like I could "hang," you know, kind of intellectually or conversationally. But, when you grow up poor, everybody makes you aware of it, so I was always kind of aware of who got what and why and thought about it probably all the way through my life. Like, it’s a lifelong interest that is just about why it’s broken out this way and why people have stuff. That’s the best way I can describe it. But I was more of an armchair thinker about this stuff than a serious one. I was an artist but I wasn’t an activist. I’ve never done anything political. This is my first documentary. And I didn’t know anything about economics, frankly, when I made this -- no formal training. But I woke up after the crash of 2008 and I thought that nothing else seemed to matter. I got obsessed with watching cable news and I felt like the more I watched about why the crash had happened, the less I understood. And so at some point it seemed like if you’re a filmmaker, you should pick up a camera and do something about it. So it was a genuine passion project in that way. It wasn’t motivated. I had no background or reason to think I could do it, but I just felt like, "Maybe I can point a camera at somebody who does know what they’re talking about and we can do something about it." I actually met Bob because we both live in the same town, and I was trying to cast him in a comedy, is the truth of the matter.

That’s great!

KORNBLUTH: It didn’t work out. But, immediately, I think we just got along. And I had all these questions about the economy that I was sort of formulating, and he had some interest in how he could reach younger people. For some reason, he thought maybe they weren’t reading his books. So we had sort of mutual interests, and I started making these short videos -- two-, three-minute long -- and putting them on the Internet. And lots of people watched them! Hundreds and thousands of people started watching these videos, which were very simple, and it just gave me this sense that there was an audience for this stuff that went beyond-- That other people were like me. They kinda wanted to "get" this stuff. They didn’t feel like they were getting it, for whatever reason, from the media and the news, the way it was going. And the big question was, "What’s happened to our generation? What’s happened to the economy?" This almost felt too big to do. It took me a year of just reading, because even when you’re sort of educated about this stuff and you’re reading the news, when you try and make a movie about it, that’s like a level of understanding way past like, "What are taxes? How do they supplant?" And all this stuff that I lost months of my life trying to understand. But it felt like you needed to put the dots together. It wasn’t one thing -- just unions or campaign finance reform or Wall Street reform; it was the way they all kind of work together, and the way economic inequality has been growing and was kind of affecting my life. It kind of defined what had happened to me and my friends. And so that felt like the story. And when I heard this story -- that it’s bad for everybody, that even the rich would be doing better without it -- when the framing of it changed for me, so it was not like, "These are the bad guys" and the "us versus them" story that I’d been told -- that’s when I thought it was a movie because I thought, “Okay, you can connect the dots and show it’s maybe not adversarial, but it is in everybody’s best interest. That’ll maybe change the way people think about it and maybe it’ll change the types of solutions that are on the table to fix it."

REICH: And where did you [Jake] get that framework?

KORNBLUTH: From you. Oh, yeah. The book Aftershock that the movie’s based on—

REICH: The book actually emerged from the course--

KORNBLUTH: Which I didn’t know. I read the book. And actually, you [Reich] gave me a manuscript pretty early on. And it was one of those perfect frameworks. I mean, he [Reich] is such an unbelievable writer and clear thinker. You think you get a story but then when you see it laid out so clearly and simply for you, it’s just-- That’s when the "a-ha" sorta hits you. And I’ve had that a bunch of times reading his work. In fact, when I was trying to understand this stuff and read everybody’s writing on it, his was so clear. It is so to the point.

REICH: I’m curious, in 2005, Scott, I think I was beginning to formulate the notion of "coping mechanisms" -- that is, with stagnant incomes, how is it that people keep going and the economy keeps going without a recession, you know? One is women going into the workforce. Two is everyone works longer hours. And the third coping mechanism, which I remember talking about with you guys, is going into debt. And I remember saying, “But this is going to come to an end. You know, this is not sustainable.”

I’m pretty sure that was the case. I'll be going to my parents' for Thanksgiving, so I’ll get my class notes and check. But, in the meantime, I have to ask you: over the years, other people must have wanted to make documentaries about you. (a) is that the case? And (b), what convinced you that this was the documentary project to actually cooperate with?

REICH: That’s a good question. People have wanted to make documentaries, but I didn’t want to do a documentary about me. I mean, what’s the point? And secondly--  I didn’t really— There were a total of maybe three other documentarians who have ever approached me, but I didn’t have a relationship with them. I didn’t have a working relationship. I didn’t trust them. I didn’t know them. Jake and I had done a series of these videos, and we got to know each other and really like each other. I mean, I respected him enormously. I trust him. And you can’t do this sort of thing without trust. I didn’t even realize how much of my life I was putting in his hands. But I basically did.

KORNBLUTH: You know, it goes both ways. It was my first documentary, so I might not have also known what I was asking for out of him. It was more than I thought. I didn’t realize it was going to take so much of your [Reich's] time. I know you didn’t.

REICH: I didn’t either. [laughs]

So, aside from when you shot in the classroom, when else were you together?

REICH: We did a lot of shoots that were outside the classroom. One, where I’m talking directly to the camera. Jake made it look very easy and seamless, but boy, it’s really hard work.

KORNBLUTH: Well, it wasn’t clear what the story was when we started. There was no script. I mean, it reads now like, "Oh, you’re just telling the story of income inequality," but we didn’t know how the sections were going to break out. We didn’t know what the focus of the film was, really. So it was a really long process of delving in and figuring that stuff out.

REICH: I wrote something that we called "the spine," which was sort of the basic element of the argument. But, very quickly, Jake realized that it was didactic -- too didactic for film -- and it didn’t flow naturally. But, you know, Jake got me to talk to the camera without a script and in a way that was much more conversational and emotionally real than I would ever be normally capable of doing. I mean, I've done a lot of talking to cameras over the last 30 year but, you know, normally it’s a different format. And then, whenever I had any meetings, union meetings or Washington meetings, I would tell Jake and ask him and he'd come. Or, you know, Alan Simpson and I were doing something together and I'd say, “Why don’t you come." Alan and I are good friends. And Fred Wertheimer is an old friend. "Join me. I think there may be something in it.”

KORNBLUTH: That’s true. And a lot of them didn’t work and a lot of them did. We shot I think -- with the archival footage and the film footage -- hours of media that we obviously turned into an hour and a half movie.

As far as choosing what made it into the film and what didn’t, did you both have input, or did you [Reich] just say, “Just do what you can with this?”

REICH: Well, on the stuff that was personal, I really didn’t want to get involved. I mean, I knew I had an informal veto--Jake was not going to do something that I--


REICH: But, it would’ve been inappropriate for me to get involved. As far the argument, though, the substance, we talked.

KORNBLUTH: You know, there is an important point, though: I had to make the argument for myself, even though it was clearly his argument and his life that we were dealing with, because I had to sort of stand behind each one of the points in the story. That felt like an enormous burden in the making of the film, because it’s not just, like, pointing the camera and reflecting light. You have to kind of make this argument in a way that you can stand behind. That was enormously challenging because I had to figure out what was the story that I thought it should be, but also have it be completely true to his worldview. I mean, at the end of the day, you [Reich], I think, were very-- He was very trusting -- scarily so -- and generous with his time.

REICH: Extraordinarily so. [laughs]

KORNBLUTH: [laughs] I think it wound up feeling, at the end of the day, like a wonderful and true collaboration. But each one of us was in our own worlds for much of it. He had his agendas of what he wanted to see happen in the film and I had mine. And then we sort of talked about it, you know, like, "Well, what do you want?"

REICH: I have worked, as you can imagine, both in government and academia, with huge numbers of people on a lot of projects, and I’ve never had as pleasant and lovely a working relationship. I mean, really.

That’s great. One thing that I wanted to ask you is this: You could have gone and done what a lot of former government officials do and sort of sell your soul to become a lobbyist for a considerable amount of money, but instead you became a teacher and it seems to me, from the film, that the reason you want to teach is that it offers you an opportunity to reach a lot of people, and especially young people. So, with regard to this film, was the main appeal that you could do that on a much larger scale?

REICH: Exactly, exactly. I mean, I chose to teach. I choose to teach because it is exactly as you put it. It is the best way of seeding the future. I mean, "the multiplier effect." You know, I teach 800 or 500 graduates a semester; you know, there are going to be x-percentage of them who are going to take these ideas, and even if they’re not going to become President or an official, they’re going to be there and they’re going to do something with it. So yes, doing a film is a natural extension. And, you know, I don’t think I expected a response. I mean, first of all, getting in to Sundance—

That’s a big deal...

REICH: That was a big deal, and I was sort of, "Wow!" You know? And then getting a jury award, I thought, “Holy cow. What is this?!”

KORNBLUTH: Yeah, it was fun because you [Reich] didn’t really know, you didn’t know like, what to expect.

REICH: I didn’t, really.

You [Reich] went with him to Sundance, right?

REICH: Yeah. And then having, you know, Sony Pictures, and Magnolia, and Harvey Weinstein and everybody, you know, wanting to [distribute] it, I thought, “This is really interesting and wild!”

KORNBLUTH: Yeah. I think that was an interesting point that you made, though, because it took me a long time to learn that the reason -- the underlying reason [for why Reich does the work that he does] -- is that he wants to educate, he wants to reach out and educate people. It took me a while to sort of land that, but it sounds like you picked up on it.

Well Jake, for any first film to get into Sundance is an awesome accomplishment. But did you ever imagine that your film would be this well received, where it not only gets into Sundance, but it wins a jury award there and has now grossed over a million dollars nationwide? That doesn’t happen for issue docs...

KORNBLUTH: For a doc? Right. Actually, somebody said it’s the best box office for an issue doc since Waiting for Superman. That’s pretty good. No, it’s my first documentary. I’ve made fiction films before that have been at Sundance, but I just never made a documentary. I didn’t know what I expected from this. What was great about it is I didn’t care. I thought I wanted to do it because I kinda couldn’t think of anything else. And it was like that sort of, you know, mad passion -- just like, "I want to tell this story. I want to do it right." And that’s sort of full-stop, you know? And what’s weird is that most of the film business isn’t that. I mean, people pretend it is, but it’s not that. But in this case, from very early on, I knew that I was driven to do it and that was kind of all there was to it. But then when we were getting ready to go to Sundance, I was like, "I hope Bob can come up. I would love to see a standing ovation." But they don’t usually give standing ovations at Sundance. Like, it’s rare, you know? He doesn’t know, by the way, that it’s rare. But I told my wife, "I kinda secretly hope we get one. I don’t want to say that out loud." And then, the first screening, you know, we go up there and it’s just like, "What’s going to happen?" And this eruption, you know?

REICH: Every screening, every screening.

KORNBLUTH: I think it was honestly because he [Reich] was there.

REICH: I don’t know.

KORNBLUTH: I think when you see the film and you see him afterwards, it’s a pretty emotional experience.

REICH: I’m still getting emails from around the country from places I would never have imagined people saying that there was applause at the end.

So it's playing tremendously even when you're not there...

REICH: Jake's background is comedy and I think that’s one of the reasons why this film works. Because I like comedy. And, you know, right from the beginning, people told us they laughed, and they cried, and they had a really strong emotional reaction. You know, people usually can’t absorb a lot of facts, but if they’re emotionally connected they can.

KORNBLUTH: The anecdotal evidence is somebody comes up and says, “All at dinner I was complaining to my friend that I didn’t want to go see this. I didn’t wan to go and see something heavy, you know? Like, the economy, politics, you know, come on. I want to go out and have a good time. They dragged me to the movie. And now it’s my favorite movie of the year." You know? Those are the funny ones.

REICH: I still think it should’ve been titled, Sex, Violence and Inequality.

KORNBLUTH: Yeah, Sex, Violence and Inequality.

What would you like people to leave the movie and do? And what, realistically, do you think we are in for for the next four or five years?

REICH: Well, I want to change the actual conversation, not only making this issue understandable to people but also putting that in absolutely the center of the debate over the economy and domestic policy and everything else, every place else we’re going, including our democracy. You know, one of the hats I wear is a chairman of the group Common Cause. It’s non-partisan, but it is dedicated to making our democracy work by getting big money out of politics. And I think the scenarios are either, over the next four, five, six years, we get serious about reforming the system or the demagogues on the right or left or both take over. It’s a big blame game and it can get out of hand. Blame games -- when people are angry, frustrated and scared -- we know, historically, can get ugly.

KORNBLUTH: The best of these kinds of movies release endorphins because they change the way you think because your brain feels like it opens up and sees things in a new way. And, coming out of movie, I hope that people understand this issue better. When I’ve seen stuff like this, it sort of filters down in big ways and small ways. It changes my worldview in a big way, but then maybe I change some of my actions, some day-to-day things that don’t feel big but, I think, taken accumulatively, matter. These are personal things, though. That’s on a very personal level, and this is a very big issue. So it’s really interesting to think about how changing the way you think about a big issue can filter down and into people.

REICH: But that’s the only way society changes, Jake. I mean, look at the Progressive Era, look at the '30s, look at the '60s. These all were premised on people changing the way they thought.

KORNBLUTH: Yeah. Well, I mean, we hope it goes there and that it filters in, gets in a little bit. I think it’s hard because it’s so polarized out there and I think it’s hard for people to take in new stuff, but I feel like it’s getting in, you know, somewhat. And I hope that for the next four years-- I mean, look, I was afraid when we were making the film that the economy might not come back if we don’t fix the structural problem. And you know, it’s been a bunch of years since the Great Recession, and it still hasn’t for most of America. And so yeah, like Bob said, what happens if we just don’t fix it, if we just leave them behind? Like, where does that play out? I mean, when you’re a young person and you don’t get a job for a bunch of years, your earning power for your whole life is diminished. That’s terrible. That’s a terrible outcome. This issue, of all of the other issues that seem big to us, feels the most kind of day to day relevant. Everybody’s so worried about what’s happening to their pocketbook. Even if you think you’re sort of middle-class or doing well, I know there’s tons of anxiety out there, and I don’t think we’re doing anything about it. I don’t think the conversation is up to the challenge that the problem is presenting, and that terrified me just as somebody who’s not in the day to day policy discussions. So, I don’t know where that leads us in 2016. But, I’m a little worried.

REICH: Well, you know, as somebody who has dedicated a big chunk of his life to public policy and improving this country, the false debates we’re having probably scares me almost more than anything. So, you know, my books, the class, the movie are all, you know, ways of hopefully getting the national conversation back on track.

Well, I thought it was great, the movie, and I really appreciate you guys doing this and it was great to see you, Mr. Secretary...

REICH: It was great to see you.

KORNBLUTH: Thanks for coming out.

REICH: Yeah, thank you. I can almost remember you in that class.

No way...

REICH: I can.

There were too many...

REICH: You sat on the left of me.

Yes. That is true. 50/50 guess... [laughs]

REICH: I remember!

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg