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Reich, left, and Kornbluth wanted their movie to be more entertaining than other issue-driven films.

Minding the Gap

With a Sundance award–winning documentary, Robert Reich and Jacob Kornbluth take on income disparity.

Former secretary of labor Robert Reich teamed up with director Jacob Kornbluth for Inequality for All, a documentary exploring the financial disparity between the very wealthy and everyone else. (For more info on the film, which Radius TWC released in select cities on September 27, go to inequalityforall.com.) Recently, Reich and Kornbluth talked to senior writer Chuck Salter about the project.

What made you think this topic was movie material?

Jacob Kornbluth: The economy had just crashed in 2008, and I was desperate to understand the whole story. I thought, If I want to know this stuff, maybe other people do too. I want to see this movie.

Robert Reich: You came to me and said, "Why don't we do short videos about public issues?"

JK: My friends and I were debating the public option for the health care bill, but nobody knew what it was. In two minutes, you told me. I put that video on YouTube and my Facebook page and hundreds of thousands of people saw it.

RR: I began to doubt what I had been doing for 25 years, which is writing books.

To what extent was An Inconvenient Truth an influence?

JK: I have a little fatigue, as I think a lot of people do when they hear the words issue-driven films. They think they aren't going to see a movie that's entertaining. This had to be fun.

RR: I have enormous respect for the director and for Al Gore, but I wouldn't say An Inconvenient Truth is exactly entertaining.

JK: It was a model to the extent that you have a messenger who is part of the story and a message, and those are woven together to make the story more powerful. One of the most interesting things about you [turns to Reich] as a messenger is your humor and warmth.

RR: Hopefully, everybody has a sense of humor. If you can tap into that, people open themselves up to possibly learn something. But Jake, we're probably going to be attacked by the right and the left. Everybody will see things that don't confirm their views and their biases.

JK: When we started, I thought I was going to travel around and talk to people and get a real sense of anger. But that wasn't the feeling I got. There was this need for information.

RR: What I encounter is cynicism--about politics, big government, big companies. It's not anger. Most people feel powerless. I began to think of the film as a vehicle for giving people more control, an understanding of where they are and why.

Reich at a 2011 Occupy protest in San Francisco

Mr. Reich, you've been studying the economy for more than 40 years. What's different now?

RR: You have the largest degree of inequality--the most concentrated income, wealth, and, arguably, opportunity is at the very top. And you have a middle-class median wage that keeps dropping. By some measures, the gap is wider than it's been in 100 years. It's dangerous.

JK: I'm 40 years old. This has been the story of my whole life.

RR: People need to understand that they have a self-interest in reversing the trend. It's not just that it's the moral thing to do. Our democracy cannot be sustained if we continue on this trajectory.

JK: I think this is the most important issue of our times. Me and my friends, even those of us who have decent jobs, we are really scared about finances.

Increasingly, Silicon Valley is taking on real-world problems. Can it help with the income gap?

RR: [Silicon Valley] is largely a force for good, but it can be a force for much, much more good. There is a tendency for people in that community to wall themselves off and say, "As long as we're inventing, as long as we're making money, everybody else is fine." The technology community ought to know better than anybody that the rules of the game are fashioned not by God, not by nature, but by decisions made by government. They determine the winners and the losers. The economy can be organized in a way that innovation and efficiency and growth are important, but so is making sure that more and more people are recipients of the economic gains.

The sort of changes that you advocate in the movie and on your website--tax reform, Wall Street reform, getting money out of politics--require long-term commitment. Can it be done?

RR: My formative years were in the 1960s, and I saw the civil rights movement. I saw the progress. I was against the Vietnam War and a lot of us felt that we had a role in bringing that to an end. So there's a sense of political efficacy. Also, I'm a student of history. Time and again, where things get off track, when the American public understands the issue, we, unlike most countries, fix what needs to be fixed.

JK: I battle cynicism every day. It's helpful to be around you [points to Reich] and get the sense of collective action having an effect. I'd like to be part of something like that, something I believe in wholeheartedly [that's] working.
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[Photograph by Brian Finke | Reich Image: Jeff Chiu/AP/Corbis]

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