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‘Inequality for All’ Star Robert Reich: U.S. Economic Divide Is Getting Worse and Worse

The former labor secretary talks with TheWrap about the growing threat of wealth disparity

At 4 feet, 10 inches and a resume long in academic and government posts and scant on big screen experience, Robert Reich may be the most unlikely leading man of the fall movie season.

Yet the diminutive former U.S. Secretary of Labor is front and center in “Inequality for All,” serving as a dry-witted ambassador of sorts while guiding audiences through the problems of wealth disparity.

The film’s director Jacob Kornbluth said that he knew that he couldn’t make such a dense, data driven film without Reich. He was an admirer of the UC Berkeley professor’s work as a commentator on shows like “Hardball” and “Marketplace,” and thought he had the ability to ground a kind of “Inconvenient Truth” for the economics crowd.

“He was always my vehicle for tying the issue of economic inequality into a story of our times,” Kornbluth said. “I never would have had the guts to make this movie if I didn’t know how good he was on camera. I’d seen how he can take the most complex issues and break them down into something I can easily understand.”

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The resulting tutorial debuts on Sept. 27.

It’s a film and topic that proved to be prescient. New data released this month shows that the divide between rich and poor hit its widest levels since 1920s. Last year, the incomes of the top 1 percent of Americans jumped roughly 20 percent, while those of the remaining 99 percent only increased 1 percent, according to a new study by economists at the Paris School of Economics, Oxford U. and Berkeley, where Reich teaches.

The movie, which intersperses scenes of Reich’s career and classroom lectures with interviews with everyone from a struggling Mormon couple to a wealthy Amazon.com investor, argues that this pay gap helped precipitate the recent economic crash. He argues that these unequal levels of distribution were only previously seen in the days leading up to the Great Depression of the 1920s and ’30s.

If it continues, Reich maintains it could threaten American democracy by giving wealthy corporations and lobbyists a toxic influence on the political process.

“It’s getting worse and worse and it’s the key to understanding everything that’s going on in our country right now,” Reich told TheWrap. “It’s the reason the economic recovery has been so disappointing.”

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Though the subject of income inequality has often been portrayed by the media as one of greater concern to members of the left, Reich insists that it is not ideological in nature. Elements of the country’s two major political parties may be more aligned than is immediately apparent. He believes that two recent forces of protest that attracted very different political constituencies were responding to the bail out of big banks and what it represented.

“The Tea Party attacked the government and the Occupy Wall Street movement attacked the wealthy, but both movements emerged from the same event,” he said. “They both believed the deck has been stacked against them.”

Kornbluth said that he also had a mounting sense of unease in recent years as he found that more and more of his friends were struggling to make a living and put a little away for the future.

“I have no background in economics or politics, but I got the sense that something was wrong by talking with friends and finding out that we were all struggling with some version of economic insecurity,” Kornbluth said. “My community didn’t feel as cohesive as it did 40 years ago and we didn’t feel as good about the direction that the country was going in.”

Kornbluth said the film is intended to stir debate, but there’s a social action component, too. The film’s distributor Radius TWC has created a website that is full overflows with economic data and asks visitors to signs petitions that advocate a number of causes dear to Reich’s heart such as tightening Wall Street regulations and raising the minimum wage.

For his part the former labor secretary says he recognizes that reducing the divide between the “have nots” and the “have lots” will require a range of policy prescriptions and new ideas.

“There’s a lot of confusion about this issue, but one of our goals with the film is to change the framework of the debate, so it doesn’t become a partisan issue with people hurling blame at the rich,” Reich said. “We want to create an arena of common understanding. This is not going to be solved overnight. There’s no magic bullet or easy solution.”

Nor does Reich believe President Barack Obama has been inattentive to the issue, noting that he has said publicly that a prime focus of his second term will be bolstering the working class.

“The problem for any president is that being in the White House is like trying to drink through a fire hose,” Reich said. “You can’t predict the next crisis, so it’s easy to be distracted from your larger vision or goals.”

As for a return to the public sector, Reich hasn’t ruled it out, but his often contentious time as a member of the Clinton White House seems to have tempered any idealism.

“I would go back into government if the president asked me, because I believe it’s my civic duty,” Reich said. “But I wouldn’t do it with a happy heart and a skip in my walk.”