In the documentary Inequality for All, former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich asks "when does wealth inequality become a problem; where is the point where inequality no longer works democratically?”
Reich goes on to state that the United States has the highest inequality of all developed nations today. The typical male worker in 1978 earned about $48,000 adjusted for inflation while the average person in the top one per cent made about $400,000. By 2010, those same groups earned about $33,000 and about one million dollars respectively. Today the top 400 richest people have more wealth than half the population of the United States.
The problem of income inequality is framed using history, politics, economics, and interviews from people of different classes. The fundamental question posed in the documentary is: how did income inequality get this bad, and why?
Systems theory is the idea that the individual intersects with both local systems (school, church, community, etc.) and larger environments (media, nationalism, globalism, etc.).
In one case study Reich presented, a husband and wife who worked at Costco and Circuit City. They earned enough to purchase a small condo, but when the market crashed in 2007 they moved in with friends because the husband lost his job. The failing national economy directly impacted family life due to the parents' increased stress and the children no longer having their own home. The husband attributed the loss of his job to the creation of Amazon, which employs 10% as many people as traditional mom and pop stores; the creation of an international business designed for profit directly impacted the family. The husband turned the situation into an opportunity to go back to school, where he was a student in Reich’s class and learned about wealth and poverty. His personal story impacted viewers of this documentary around the world and allowed Reich’s information to resonate in a more personal way. In this story, there is a constant influence between the private/family sphere, the community, and the national/international environment.
Another example of systems theory in the documentary is Reich’s life story. He grew up in the era of MLK and JFK, which inspired him to believe social change was possible. His family owned a business, which gave him a sense of autonomy and an interest in economics. These role models empowered him to obtain a world-class education and was a Rhodes Scholar with Bill Clinton. Their friendship allowed Reich to practice and implement his economic theories as Secretary of Labor and subsequently disseminate his practical experience through books for citizens and university teaching positions.
The events and situations in this documentary can also be seen through the lens of conflict theory, which states that conflict is the norm in human interactions ("us vs. them"). Conflict theory is seen throughout the documentary as Reich explains the widening income inequality gap.
As the workforce became more educated under the GI Bill, more workers were part of labor unions, which was a buffer against income inequality. Reagan, who decreased taxes for the wealthy, also fought the air traffic controller union, beginning a war against unions which made way for income inequality.
A present-day example of conflict theory in the documentary was the American middle class worker (the old economy) vs. the wealthy (the new global/technological economy). Scenes from the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements clearly depicted resentment people felt over decades of stagnant wages and increased costs of living while the rich got richer.
Throughout the documentary, Reich used the suspension bridge graph shown at the beginning of this article to show how the middle class suffer in the moments of greatest wealth inequality. Reich charges that this conflict between reality and our democratic values is the moment when we need to stand up and advocate for social change.
It was particularly interesting to think about the documentary through the lens of Social Construction theory, or the ways we think about and use labels to structure our experience and analysis of the world. Four common labels are Advantaged, Contender, Dependent, and Deviant.
In the 1970s, as wages stagnated, one way the middle class coped with widening income inequality was to take women out of the home and into the work force. Women moved from Dependent to Contender.
Depending on which era of U.S. history Reich spoke about, the middle class and wealthy also switched categories. In the moments where income inequality was less disparate, the wealthy were portrayed as Advantaged and the middle class were portrayed as Contenders. As Wall Street became more deregulated, finance became the fastest growing sector of the economy, which led to the crash of 2007. In this scenario, Wall Street and its wealthy investors were portrayed as Deviants rather than their usual Advantaged status.
When a Democratic process or institution disenfranchises the middle class, the Advantaged become Deviant. For example, when Reagan, who holds the honorable office of president, decreased taxes for the wealthy dramatically. When Clinton weakened regulation of Wall Street leading to the creation o stock options, he can be seen as Deviant. When the Supreme Court passed Citizens United, which allowed corporations to give enormous sums of money to campaigns in exchange for access to politicians, the Supreme Court was can be seen as Deviant.
I think Reich’s closing remarks, which try to empower the viewer to use their voice and energy to motivate social change and narrow the gap of income inequality, can be seen through the lens of each theory. In systems theory, he uses a widely disseminated documentary to empower the individual with the knowledge and inspiration “to change your community, society, and perhaps, the world.” In conflict theory, he encourages the viewer to challenge the current norm that the United States is the most unequal developed country in terms of wealth distribution. Through social construct theory, Reich asks those of us in the middle class to become contenders, so that we may all become Advantaged through the Virtuous Cycle, where prosperity begets prosperity.