ST. PAUL LEGAL LEDGER CAPITOL REPORT
Policy wonks are abuzz everywhere over French economist Thomas Piketty’s dense and monumental book, “Capital in the 21st Century,”and about the seeming inevitability of widening inequality under global capitalism.
But a poignant scene in the movie “Inequality for All” brings home that reality in a way that charts and graphs can never capture.
A struggling West Coast couple, Deborah and Moises Frias, explain how they are doing all the right things: working two jobs, paying bills, getting more training, raising their beautiful daughter together. But Deborah almost tearfully confesses that they still have less than $100 in their checking account and they simply don’t know how they will save for the future.
The movie also focuses on an older and more affluent Mormon couple, Ladd and Nancy Rasmussen, who were dealing with a recent layoff and a pay cut, and who are concerned not so much for their own finances as for the future of their children, who lack health insurance. And Ladd, it turns out, is trying to organize workers at his renewable energy plant.
Stories like these — combined with killer graphics that illustrate the obscenity of skyrocketing wealth and income at the very top, and virtually no wealth at all for the entire bottom half of American households — make “Inequality for All” one of those classic transformative socio-economic documentaries.
The 90-minute movie was released last fall and has been compared in its impact on economic policy debate to the effect of “An Inconvenient Truth” on the issue of climate change. Critics and online audience reviews are uniformly high. The Rotten Tomatoes website gives it a rating of 96 percent among top critics. Amazon reviewers have given it a 4.7 out of 5 star average, and rogerebert.com puts it as 3.5 out of 4.
This is a must-see film, regardless of whether one agrees with narrator Robert Reich and his practical and progressive solutions to our inequality crisis. The movie’s tour of all 50 state capitals comes to St. Paul this month and will be screened at
6 p.m. Monday, May 12, in Room 10 of the State Office Building. (My organization, Growth & Justice, is sponsoring this showing and asking for donations, but there is no admission fee.)
This is not a Michael Moore screed, with ambush interviews or taunting of hedge fund managers and corporate CEOs. Instead, the movie features some of the wealthiest capitalists in the nation — such as Warren Buffet and Amazon investor Nick Hanauer — explaining why higher taxes and public investment in human capital are desperately needed to level the field. Their basic argument is simple and powerful: inequality and the decline of the middle class will reduce demand and be bad for business in the long run.
But Reich does get down to brass tacks with a very specific “to do” list that will help a growing movement of folks who are intent on doing everything they can to reverse the trends. And the very encouraging news is that Minnesota policymakers already have begun to tackle most of the items on the to-do list.
The movie’s website, inequalityforall.com, lays out six major state and national public policy initiatives that will reduce inequality, along with “Show Me How” links that elaborate on each. Here are the six big ideas, and my own take on Minnesota’s response so far:
Make work pay, through minimum benefits and wages that employers are legally obligated to provide. Minnesota has enacted one of the largest minimum wage increases in the nation, and it is expanding health care coverage to tens of thousands of previously underinsured residents.
Invest in education and workforce training, improving the earning power of the next generation. Much more needs to be done to improve workforce equity, but policy changes and funding increases that put more training and credentials in reach of more young and incumbent workers have been provided by the 2013-14 Legislature.
Reverse policies that diminish bargaining rights and union representation of workers. Efforts to organize child-care workers and big-box retail employees are meeting with mixed success, but public opinion seems to be swinging back in support of organized labor.
Undo the great tax shift that dramatically reduced rates for the wealthy. Minnesota took a big step forward by undoing the tax cuts for the very top incomes in the 2013 session.
Reform Wall Street to prevent speculative and predatory behavior by financial institutions. Not much can be done from St. Paul to regulate and reform Wall Street, but Minnesota’s attorney general and its state government are doing their part in oversight and catching the worst of the predators.
Get big money out of politics with campaign finance reforms that reduce the enormous and growing influence of wealthy interests on policy decisions. This one needs a lot of work and recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions won’t make it any easier.
Changing course on inequality will not be easy, perhaps comparable to turning an aircraft carrier. But they do and must turn. States like our own, and most Western democracies — including the United States from 1932 to the mid-1970s — have proven that they can alter the course and correct capitalism’s natural maldistribution of resources, while still reaping the benefits of a free enterprise system. Movies like “Inequality for All” will help build the public will to do just that.