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NCG Program Summary: Robert B. Reich and Jake Kornbluth’s Economic Inequality Media Project

Monday, July 7, 2014

At NCG’s 2014 Annual Conference we had the immense pleasure of featuring former Secretary of Labor Robert B. Reich as one of our keynote speakers. Hot on the heels of his film Inequality for All, Reich presented an overview of the growing economic inequality in our country.

As many of you know, the issue of income inequality isn’t going away. And neither is Reich.

Last month we were delighted to hear from Reich again, this time to partner on a special invite-only program for foundation leadership. Reich and filmmaker Jake Kornbluth originally partnered on a series of videos which led up to the feature-length film Inequality for All. At the convening on June 25th Reich and Kornbluth briefed funders on their current work—launching the Economic Inequality Media Project to educate and mobilize the public around the growing challenge of widening wealth and income inequality.

Recognizing that millennials use social media to get information, the Economic Inequality Media Project intends to reach a larger audience through a form of popular education.

Vicious Cycle

“The economic performance of the U.S. is working directly against the poor and working class.”—Robert B. Reich

Reich describes the U.S.’s recovery from the Great Recession as “anemic.” The major problem is that there is not enough purchasing power in the poor and middle class to keep the economy going. If 70% of economic activity is consumers and if the middle class and poor have no purchasing power due to low wage jobs (and wages not increasing to match inflation and cost of living increases) then it’s no wonder that “the economy can’t function.”

“Widening inequality destabilizes the economy and politics.” –Robert B. Reich

Head + Heart

Reich is confident that once Americans understand the nature of the problem, they’ll put ideology aside to solve it. The only challenge is helping everyday people who don’t have a background in economic understand why inequality is happening and what it means for our society in the long term.

Kornbluth told funders that he didn’t feel the debate in this country was up to the level of the problem. There is a “real need for this context—complex issues explained in a way that everyone can understand it.”

When they screened Inequality for All at Sundance the first respondent from the audience marveled that the film was an emotional experience—one they hadn’t expected. “If you want to capture brains and hearts [on this issue], you need film and social media,” Reich explained.

While Inequality for All has raised awareness on the issue of economic inequality there is still work to be done. Kornbluth believes we are at a unique moment, that there exists an opportunity to build on the momentum of the film.

The Economic Inequality Media project intents to produce high quality content and tools for advocacy groups that are passionate about the issue of income inequality.


Reich and Kornbluth answered questions from the audience. Following is a summary of the questions and responses.

Q: Recently Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York launched a task force to address the issue of economic inequality—are mayors seen as potential allies in this effort?
A: Cities are leading the charge in many ways, i.e. Seattle raised the minimum wage. However, the problem is that many issue need to be addressed nationally—taxes, the education system, earned income tax credit, Wall Street. Big action can only happen in Washington.

Q: Inequality for All didn’t explicitly tell me what I could do—what action I could take. What can I do?
A: We made the decision not to make the movie prescriptive. A lot of what you can do is just beneath the surface. We do have a website where we’ve put information on what people can do, what actions they can take to address the issue.
But there is no single magic bullet. The biggest issue is political will.

In phase two, we won’t be advocates of any particular action, but rather explain the importance of particular actions in order to create dialogue across party lines.

Education is the first step because a lot of people don’t understand the issue well.

We can do more good by not pushing a specific policy, but rather by partnering with groups who do the work. We want to stick to idea level.

Q: What message can be given to Philanthropy—what can be done?
A: It’s critically important that funders continue to do what they do to help the poor and middle class directly.
But changing people’s minds regarding what’s happening in this country…structural changes in government will have more impact on those communities.

Q: Regarding the repose to the film—what has been the most negative response, most dramatic transformation? What’s been the pushback?
A: Interestingly the pushback has been from the cynicism on the Left—those who are afraid that there is no hope.
We have to believe it’s possible to turn the tide or we cede Democracy to monied interests. We have to believe we can do it. It’s been remarkable the number of conservatives who liked the film. It’s really important to battle against cynicism. We have to believe something good can happen.

Q: How do you plan to partner with the organizations dong the work?
A: It’s in progress. We have a network of organization who’ve already used the film for free screenings. But we’d like to hear from organizations that have ideas about how to use the film or the new project.

Q: Do you have ideas of what videos you’ll produce next? Could you do one on the tax code?
A: How many of you know what the stepped up basis of wealth at death rule is? There’s a lot that the everyday person doesn’t know about how wealth is transferred in this county.

I think that many people believe they can’t control the economy. But the economy is not the weather. It doesn’t just happen to you. You can control it—that’s a powerful message.

Q: I’ve read your Tales of a New America—would you consider making videos about the narratives highlighted in that book?
A: That book talked about four basic narratives in American politics. Two positive and two negative:

  1. The Triumphant Individual: the rags to riches narrative (positive)
  2. The Benevolent Community: Americans rolling up their sleeves to pitch in and help each other (positive)
  3. The Mob at the Gates: the threat to our survival, i.e. scapegoats (negative)
  4. The Rot at the Top: that there is a conspiracy at the top to hold down the rest (negative)

We’re thinking of doing videos on all of the narratives. It’s important to know the meta political narratives that are out there.

Q: People of color have been dealing with these issues for a long time. How does race play a role in the discussion?
A: Race has been used by the other side to divide and conquer. Everyone is in a very precarious position and that means we have the opportunity to make powerful coalitions.

Q: I feel like your movie was more than just facts. It appealed to people’s emotions. Do you have an understanding of how to translate that into action?
A: It was intentional to address both the head and heart. You have to hit them both.