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Robert Reich’s ‘Inequality for All’ is a searing indictment of the status quo

During the height of the Occupy Wall Street movement, wealthy defenders of the status quo were quick to assert that protesters were practicing “class warfare.”

But as the documentary “Inequality for All” makes clear, a class war has been waged for decades, and its victims have been the middle and working classes.

The result? A rigged system that has produced growing economic inequality and pushed upward mobility out of reach for millions, backed by heavily lobbied government policies tilted toward the rich and powerful.

“Of all the developed nations today, the United States has the most uneven distribution of income and wealth by far – and we’re surging toward ever greater inequality,” says Robert Reich, the economics professor and former Clinton labor secretary.

Reich says the wealth of the 400 richest individuals in the U.S. – now 64th among nations in income equality – is equal to roughly that of the bottom 150 million Americans, helped by a tax rate that has gone from 91 percent when the country’s economic health was booming all the way down to the present 35 percent.

“Inequality for All” follows the template of “An Inconvenient Truth,” a film that brought attention to the dangers of global warming. Reich, whose decades-long mission to reverse these trends provides the film’s narrative, presents plain-spoken lectures on economic history in a “Wealth and Poverty” class held before a packed hall of UC-Berkeley students. He is also seen meeting with people struggling to make ends meet, as well as Nick Hanauer, an enlightened billionaire manufacturer.

The film is not particularly cinematic, but as in “An Inconvenient Truth,” there is a reliance on creatively presented and easily digestible graphics that in simple terms explain the stark transfer of wealth that began in the late 1970s, picked up steam during the Reagan administration and accelerated again under George W. Bush.

Reich, a former Rhodes scholar and Harvard professor, combines self-deprecating humor – some at the expense of his pint-sized height, caused by a genetic disorder – and an academic earnestness.

He recalls his first encounter with Bill Clinton, when the future president brought him chicken soup to sooth an unsettled stomach, and his years serving as labor secretary.

He also reveals that Michael Schwerner, one of three civil rights workers killed in 1964 during the “Freedom Summer” campaign in Mississippi, had been a protector in his youth against bullies who picked on him for his height. Schwerner’s death led him to commit to fight other bullies – those “who beat people up economically and subject them and their famlies to real harm.”

Among them, Reich posits, is a struggling family whose main breadwinner was laid off from a managerial job at Circuit City.

The man no longer checks himself out at self-service lines, he explains, because he realizes it’s yet another way in which jobs are being eliminated from the shrinking middle class.

Reich concludes with a note of optimism as he urges people to fight for economic fairness.

It’s a shame “Inequality for All” will probably be seen mostly by people sympathetic to Reich’s point of view. But as political satirist Barry Crimmins has said, “even the converted need a night out now and then.”