Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich calls growing inequality a moral issue

Robert Reich has beaten the drum of income equality for so long, he’s probably destroyed several drums. For the former secretary of labor and current U.C. Berkeley professor, the beat goes on.

Since serving in the Clinton administration, the unabashed liberal Democrat has written many books on the subject, and he’s been a fixture on cable news programs. Reich recently added movie star to his resume with the 2013 documentary film “Inequality for All,” which is both biopic and economic call to arms.

Robert Reich

The film, which follows Reich as he attempts to raise awareness of the country’s widening economic gap, will receive a free public screening at San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El on Thursday, May 1, followed by a Q&A with one of the film’s producers, Jen Chaiken, an Emanu-El congregant.

Directed by Jacob Kornbluth, a Berkeley-based filmmaker and the brother of monologist Josh Kornbluth, the 89-minute film has been out on DVD since January, and is also available for instant viewing on Netflix.

Reich, who is Jewish, says outreach to faith-based communities has been part of the film’s marketing strategy from the start.

“So much of the issue of widening inequality is fundamentally a matter of public morality and social ethics,” Reich, 67, says. “Judaism is concerned not just with charity but also the underlying social structure of society. Not only doing individual good works but taking responsibility for how society ensures broad-based prosperity as well as adequate provisions for the poor.”

The Scranton, Pa., native says he grew up in a middle-class home that embodied Jewish values. Born with a condition known as Fairbanks disease, Reich never grew taller than 4 feet 10 inches, suffering much bullying as a child. That played a role in his career path, which has been about fighting for the proverbial little guy.

The former Rhodes Scholar first served in the White House during the Ford administration. He also served as an assistant to the late Judge Robert Bork, a conservative favorite. But he became nationally known when his friend from the University of Oxford, Bill Clinton, appointed him labor secretary in 1993.

That’s when his mission to make economic policy more comprehensible took shape.

DVD cover of 2013 film

“I’ve always thought of myself as a teacher,” he notes. “Even in the Clinton Cabinet a large part of my job was explaining to the public why certain policies were critically important. The fundamentals should be understandable to everyone. That’s the way our democracy works best.”

These days, Reich believes that democracy is threatened.

He says income inequality has widened, with the top-earning 1 percent of Americans accounting for 23 percent of the nation’s income, the bottom half only 2.5 percent. He also cites recent Supreme Court rulings — one that struck down a key section of the Voting Rights Act and another (the ruling on the Citizens United case) that further concentrated election clout in the hands of powerful corporations and the wealthy.

Reich hopes citizens will unite to oppose these developments. He wants Congress to impose public funding for national elections, mandate greater donor transparency and begin the process of amending the Constitution to overturn Citizens United.

“The amendment process is difficult,” he says, “but the mere undertaking will put pressure on Congress and the Supreme Court to reconsider.”

Though he continues to sound the alarm, Reich remains upbeat because he is “absolutely certain we will save capitalism from its own excesses, as we’ve always done.”

He points to the Progressive Era at the turn of the last century, as well as the New Deal, as moments in American history when those ideals manifested.

He also points to the Clinton years, though he says he wishes more could have been done. “We are a remarkably resilient society,” he adds, “in terms of our ability when we understand what’s at stake, to put ideology aside and get on with what needs to be done.”

His optimism even covers the normally divisive topic of climate change. He sees that challenge as an opportunity for individuals and governments to invest in non-fossil fuel remedies, spurring a greener economy.

Having moved to Berkeley from New England in 2006 to accept his U.C. Berkeley post, Reich calls the Bay Area “paradise,” noting he has developed “new taste buds” to enjoy California cuisine.

But he observes that people falling out of the middle class do not live in paradise, and so he keeps up the quest for a more just world.

Says Reich: “People at minimum have to write their members of Congress, and not just form letters. Also it’s necessary to reach out to people with whom we disagree. Begin with your own family. Talk to them. We learn best by talking to people who disagree with us.”

“Inequality for All” will screen at 7 p.m. Thursday, May 1, at Congregation Emanu-El, 2 Lake St., S.F. Free. www.emanuelsf.org or (415) 751-2535

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Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.