Movie Review: Robert Reich tries to Talk America into “Saving Capitalism”

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Robert Reich started warning about the ticking time bomb of American financial inequality shortly after quitting the Clinton Administration, where he’d been a fairly frustrated Secretary of Labor.

Twenty years ago he gave speeches fretting about the “rage” and “resentment” welling up within the electorate over a financial/taxation/”fixed” system that has been moving money “upward,” creating a nation of the increasingly well-off haves and a burgeoning, once middle-class majority of have-nots.

In the decades since, he’s repeated versions of this message, the “myth” of “the free market” and the selling of that myth by businesses and their Congressional lackies and media mouthpieces to an increasingly unheard, unlistened-to public. He’s written books, popped up on cable news and done commentaries on Public Radio fretting about the day that “somebody” figures out “how to bottle that rage,” dealing a potentially fatal blow to American democracy.

“Saving Capitalism” isn’t an “I told you so” book, or documentary. It’s “America, what went wrong” from a guy who should know.

Reich lays out the history of how this happened (It started under Reagan) and voices frustration at his role in it (he was heard-out but voted down by the de-regulation happy Goldman Sachs alumni working in the Clinton White House, and the GOP Congress that ended economic banking customer/economic protections like The Glass-Steagall Act).

And he tilts at the windmills of American division, the knee-jerk belief, schemed for by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, preached by Reagan, reinforced as GOP Gospel via politicians and decades of cynical right wing media tirades, that “government IS the enemy.”

The documentary started life as a tour in support of the book of history and urgent suggestions that the man who popularized the phrase “corporate welfare” sees as solutions. But Reich turned it into a listening tour, visiting Missouri farmers and harrumphing Kansas business leaders, irked that 30 years of getting all the breaks in the tax code and regulatory front has made them demonized “scapegoats.”

Reich is trying to alter the national mindset, trying to repeat the oft-stated alert that the billions that businesses and business organizations pour into influencing elections and politicians has warped a system that brought a higher living standard and rising expectations to generations after World War II. Businesses figured out in the ’70s that political power equaled market power, Reich says. And our elected representatives have let them so tilt the playing field that we’re doomed to a shrinking future of diminished expectations, financial insecurity and political instability.

Keep an eye out for life expectancy, crime and wage stagnation statistics in the coming years, and don’t bet on him being wrong.

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The diminutive, soft-spoken Reich is a persuasive speaker, whether you hear him for a few soundbites on TV or in longer commentaries on radio or in books. And while “Saving Capitalism” the movie is light on contrary voices (Nobody was willing to go on camera saying “Everything’s fine. The system works great just as it is!”) and a bit murky in the “action” stage of its arguments, it still makes for an eye-opener, especially for those unfamiliar with Reich’s career.

“The system is always going to be regulated,” he argues.  But now, all the regulation is aimed to help businesses and hurt working people and consumers. Banks get fresh protections from consumers who want to sue them for misdeeds. Whole segments of government have their hands tied by a business-appeasing Congress.

What Reich is hoping for appears to be a “post-Democratic/Republican” discussion, by finding common ground with knee-jerk conservatives like Congressman Dave Brat, a vocal critic of “crony capitalism,” a waking up of farmers and rural voters who see their profit margins shrinking as a result of big business-coddling trade and farm policies and a general recognition that powerless people cannot keep voting out of misdirected rage.

And maybe he’s hoping to reach that core of politicians who recognize that however rich the current perversion of the American System might make them now, or when they become well-paid lobbyists after faithfully serving the needs of their wealthy, well-connected donors, that this warped “influence industrial complex” is unsustainable.

Good luck with that last one.

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MPAA Rating: unrated

Cast: Robert Reich, Congressman Dave Brat

Credits:Directed by Sari GilmanJacob Kornbluth, based on the book by Robert Reich. A Netflix release.

Running time: 1:12

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