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Economist/professor Robert Reich (left) and director Jacob Kornbluth.

Jacob Kornbluth and Robert Reich

Minding the Gap

Sep 27, 2013 Jacob Kornbluth
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In conceptualizing a documentary about today’s widening income inequality among U.S. citizens, filmmaker Jacob Kornbluth, who was born in the early 1970s, reflected on his own upbringing and how his mother raised a family of four, on her own, with less than $15,000 a yearin some years, much less than that. Kornbluth, knowing that the topic of his film, Inequality for All, was abstract and that viewers would be hit with a barrage of facts and figures, understood that its narrative needed personalizing, so he brought in a central character: political economist and professor Robert Reich, who served as Secretary of Labor during Bill Clinton’s first presidential term.

Reich is a charismatic teacher and narrator through the film, which traces the country’s path toward income inequality, pinpointing political, sociological and technological changes that occurred in the late 1970s and early 1980sincidentally Kornbluth’s formative years. Inequality for All won a special jury award at Sundance this year and has been called An Inconvenient Truth for the economy. While economics might not be a topic as visually alluring as climate change, the graphics in Kornbluth’s film highlight staggeringly worrisome trends in wages, upward mobility and the erosion of the middle class. Complementing the data and history lessons are biographical sections on Reich and profiles of individuals and families trying to navigate the country’s widening income gap. One subject was found in Reich’s Wealth & Poverty lecture course at UC Berkeley.

Under the Radar spoke with Jacob Kornbluth and Robert Reich last week in Los Angeles.

Chris Tinkham: Jacob, how did you first meet Robert?

Jacob Kornbluth: We met ‘cause I was trying to cast a role in a fiction film that I was making with my brother.

Robert Reich: And I’m a frustrated comedian.

Kornbluth: I don’t know if you knew at that point what you were getting yourself into.

Reich: You said you were doing a comedy.

Kornbluth: I did. You knew that.

Reich: And you wanted to cast me as Sheldon.

Kornbluth: Sheldon Cohen, the IRS commissioner. Shows you what kind of comedy it was. But we met there…. He and I started talking about how things worked video-wise and struck up a friendship. And then we started making videos, first on a personal level, and then eventually for MoveOn and The Nation as a series.

What was the film you were making?

Kornbluth: The film’s called Love and Taxes, and it’s not done yet. I got distracted by this, in a way. And now I’m actually finishing it up.

Reich: And I’m not in it. Am I in it?

Kornbluth: You’re in it.

Reich: I’m still in it?

Kornbluth: You’re back in. I figured it out. It’s pretty funny.

What inspired you to approach Robert for the role?

Kornbluth: That, I have no idea. [Laughs] It was so long ago. I think we were looking for an untraditional casting of a role. It was meant to have somebody who had some gravitas. [Cohen, at the time] was the youngest IRS commissioner in history. If I’m not mistaken, he was IRS commissioner under Lyndon Johnson. At this point, he’s old and he’s giving advice to a guy who has a tax problem. And so we wanted somebody who had gravitas to play this role but maybe who wasn’t an actor. And we started thinking into public life, who might be the right person for this. And, actually, it turns out you knew Sheldon Cohen in some way.

Reich: Mmm hmm.

Kornbluth: So we thought, “This is perfect.” Plus, he happened to live nearby. [Laughs]

Reich: I was the only one he persuaded to do this.

How did Inequality for All get off the ground? Did you conceive it and pitch it? Was it pitched to you?

Kornbluth: It was my idea. I asked Bob if he would be up for it, and he didn’t know what he was getting into. I think he thought it would be just like going on TV or something.

Reich: I had no idea.

Kornbluth: He said yes, and then I thought, “Uh, I have no idea how to make a documentary [laughs], so maybe I should ask somebody who has made a documentary if they could help out with this.” And I met this producer, Jen Chaiken, who had some experience with narrative films and some experience with non-fiction films. So I asked her if she would meet and talk to me about this and give me some sort of insight into it. And we would up working together. She and her partner, Sebastian [Dungan] wound up producing the film. It took about a year to get there. Sebastian, Jen and I didn’t feel confident enough in a story about the economy. We felt we had to learn more about the topic. But that’s basically how it started.

When you were looking for personal stories, did you want to find one in Robert’s class?

Kornbluth: It wasn’t that calculated. I was sitting in the class, watching the lecture, and I became fascinated with the faces of the kids in the class. I kept wondering, “What are they thinking? Are they worried about their own financial future? Are they feeling optimistic? Are they feeling cynical?” And so I wanted to talk to them. After every class, I would pick some students out of the room, and I’d ask if they’d come aside and just have a conversation with me. I wound up meeting one of the subjects for the film that way. He was older than a traditional college student. It turns out he had been laid off from his job and gone back to school to try and make a better future for himself and his family. He wound up being a character in the film. There’s another character that I met at a union rally that…

Reich: A couple.

Kornbluth: ...a couple that Bob had invited me to film and check out. You’re looking around the room, and you’re curious about what everybody in there’s thinking and feeling, and you just wind up talking to them. So, the discovery of the characters in the film was a very intuitive, organic process, and came out of the people that Bob was running into in his normal working life of getting the message out.

Robert, in the film we see Reagan’s policies discussed, specifically with respect to unions and taxes. What was the end game with those changes? Was the goal to create the income inequality we have today?

Reich: I don’t think so. I would doubt it. People who look at unions as impediments to economic efficiency or who believe that the rich need more tax breaks, because they are the job creators and economic benefits trickle down to everybody else, this was a view, a kind of an ideological view exemplified by Ronald Reaganand some othersit’s still around. I don’t think they intended inequality. I give them the benefit of the doubt. But unfortunately it contributed to widening inequality in the end.

In the film, Nick Hanauer, the venture capitalist, discusses his relatively modest spending habits. In terms of spending, has the psychology of the rich changed over the last 40 years?

Reich: Not so much in regard to spending. I think it’s changed in regard to shame. Forty years ago, a CEO would have felt it unseemly to be taking home more than 40 times what his average employee was earning. It was socially inappropriate. Fifty, sixty years ago, we had just come through the Second World War, we had come through a depression together. But, even by the 1950s, by the 1960s, there was still a set of social norms about the CEO pay, the pay of Wall Streeters, and I think that shame disappeared. It was no longer felt unseemly. In fact, by the 1970s and 1980s, the notion was the Gordon Gekko idea, “Greed is good.” I think that did mark a turning point sociologically in the country. And it so happens that that was just about the same time that the gap really started widening, the income and the wealth gap.

Then there’s Nancy, the Mormon Republican who sees her wages and benefits cut. How did the Republican Party become the party of greed and religion, two conflicting values?

Reich: We avoided in the film Republican/Democrat, conservative/liberal. What I say to my students is that it doesn’t matter whether you’re Republican or Democrat, or liberal or conservative. Our goal is to get you to examine your assumptions, shake you up a little bit, think more deeply about all of these issues. There’s just too much blame going on. It’s easy to blame the Republicans. It’s easy to blame some Democrats. The blame game gets you nowhere.

What do you hope can come from people seeing this film and talking about it?

Reich: Well, it’s important not to be grandiose about it. My hope is that this changes the national conversation about what’s happening to the economy, about widening inequality. That it empowers people, gives people a sense of their own efficacy, in terms of doing something about it. And that it begins a movement to actually reverse the trends.

Kornbluth: I can say, for my part, that I made this movie ‘cause the more I heard about this topic, the less I understood. I wanted to understand what was happening to the economy and to the country I live in. On that level, for me, it’s already donewhat I wanted to do. It’s helped me to understand it. Now I’m interested to see if it can help other people get there. I hope that people can step out of thinking they know what they’re going to get out of a film like this, and maybe it will challenge their assumptions like it challenged mine.

Inequality for All opens today in select cities. Click here to find opening dates and theaters.




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