Robert Reich and Jacob Kornbluth didn’t set out to make a movie. Kornbluth simply wanted to understand President Obama’s health care bill. Ultimately, though, that curiosity led to an unlikely Hollywood duo–a former U.S. secretary of labor and a largely unknown comedic filmmaker–and a fascinating new documentary, Inequality for All.
They met four years ago, before the health care bill became a law and so bitterly divided Republicans and Democrats that their dispute led to the current government shutdown. “My friends and I were debating the public option for the health care bill, but nobody knew what it was,” says Kornbluth.
He knew he and his friends weren’t alone. He decided to make a short web video explaining the issue. And he asked Reich, a professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, to do the explaining. They didn’t know each other. Kornbluth, a self-described “proud non-economist,” had devoured Aftershock, Reich’s book on the economic crisis. Reich, a longtime regular on the Sunday morning talk shows, agreed to try something different.
“In two minutes, you told me [what the public option was],” Kornbluth tells Reich in the latest installment of Fast Company‘s Creative Conversations series. “I put that video on YouTube and my Facebook page and hundreds of thousands of people saw it.”
And, says Reich, “I began to doubt what I had been doing for 25 years, which is writing books.”
The two went on to make a series of web videos about such weighty topics as taxes, unemployment, and financial reform for MoveOn.org. Their big hit, “The Truth About the Economy,” scored more than 1.6 million views on YouTube.
The more he learned from Reich, the more Kornbluth wanted to tell the larger story: the economic narrative of how the United States reached the current historic income disparity. “I’m 40 years old,” Kornbluth says. “This has been the story of my whole life, this massive shift in wealth from what was a middle class to a much more stratified economy, which is radically imbalanced at the top.”
In the course of making the movie, he and Reich learned why each was so passionate about inequality.
“You reveal something in the film that I have not been very public about,” Reich tells Kornbluth during their conversation in Fast Company‘s offices. “Partly because of my height and my reliance on older boys to protect me, and partly because of what happened to one of those older boys in the Civil Rights movement [His friend, Michael Schwerner, traveled to Mississippi and was killed by the Ku Klux Klan], by the time I was 18 or 19 I felt that the most important thing I could do was help the vulnerable in our society.”
The issue is personal for Kornbluth because of his upbringing as well. “I grew up with my mother raising a family of four on between $9,000 and $15,000 a year,” he says “I got free lunches at school, which all the other kids knew made me one of the poor kids. Education was my way out. But I have this constant fear that I’m going to run out of money. With me and my friends, even those of us who feel successful or have decent jobs, we are really scared. There is nothing more personal than that fear of not having financial stability.”
Be sure to read Reich and Kornbluth’s extended conversation in the November issue and check out more from them on FastCompany.com, including this recent video. They talk about why, despite how divisive and seemingly intractable income inequality is, they’re optimistic things will change.
For more information about Inequality for All, distributed by Radius TWC, go to inequalityforall.com.