Thursday, April 14, 2016

If You Haven't Seen These Two Documentaries . . .

Well, you ought to.
Which documentaries?
First, Inequality for All. This film features former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, who is now Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. The first thing that becomes apparent in this film is that Reich is delightful. He is humorous and passionate and very bright. The second thing that becomes apparent is the sobering reality Reich is passionate about—not just that we are experiencing historic levels of inequality in this country, but the economic ramifications of that inequality.
The largest ramification is the assault on America’s middle class. At one point in the film, Reich lays out the three sequential strategies middle-class families have employed to maintain their standard of living in the face of shrinking pay. The first strategy was for women to enter the workforce. When this was insufficient, middle class couples started working either extra jobs or overtime. When this strategy also fell short, families started going into debt to pay their bills. The financial crash of 2008 and the Great Recession have now rendered that strategy unviable, and a growing number of middle-class families are now in deep trouble.
Inequality for All moves back and forth between the auditorium where Reich teaches a popular class at Berkeley and his visits to the homes and workplaces of those who are affected by the squeeze on the middle class. Some of the graphics he uses in his class to illustrate how insane things have become in America are simply mind-boggling. And the people he visits, including one Mormon family, put real faces on the numbers and show how devastating today’s trends can be.
In stark contrast to the struggling families, the film also includes a few conversations with Nick Hanauer, an entrepreneur and venture capitalist and self-proclaimed 0.01 percenter, who simply eviscerates the logic of trickle-down economics. He is the rare billionaire who gets it. He has written an open letter to his “fellow zillionaires,” in which he says, among other things:
But the problem isn’t that we have inequality. Some inequality is intrinsic to any high-functioning capitalist economy. The problem is that inequality is at historically high levels and getting worse every day. Our country is rapidly becoming less a capitalist society and more a feudal society. Unless our policies change dramatically, the middle class will disappear, and we will be back to late 18th-century France. Before the revolution.
And so I have a message for my fellow filthy rich, for all of us who live in our gated bubble worlds: Wake up, people. It won’t last.
If we don’t do something to fix the glaring inequities in this economy, the pitchforks are going to come for us. No society can sustain this kind of rising inequality. In fact, there is no example in human history where wealth accumulated like this and the pitchforks didn’t eventually come out. You show me a highly unequal society, and I will show you a police state. Or an uprising. There are no counterexamples. None. It’s not if, it’s when.1
Back to the documentary, though. Two more things are apparent in this film. First, that a large portion of America does not see how serious this problem is. But Hanauer is right. That day will come. And if we don’t reverse the trend, the pitchforks will come too. Second, that Reich has fought these trends for decades, and yet he has been fighting a losing battle. At the end of the film, the sadness of this funny, optimistic, passionate (and diminutive) man is poignant.
As Mormons, this theme ought to resonate loudly with us. Joseph Smith spent his entire tenure as prophet trying to create a society that eliminated inequality. But I fear we have become more died-in-the-wool capitalists than followers of the principles Joseph taught. We keep voting for politicians whose policies exacerbate rather than alleviate the problem. Yes, I’m talking about Republicans, who are dead set on giving more tax breaks to the filthy rich and opposing policies that would ease the burden of the middle and lower classes.
Anyway, if you haven’t seen the documentary, watch it. It’s available on Amazon Prime, Netflix, iTunes, and probably other venues I’m not aware of. Or, if you don’t subscribe to any of these platforms, do as we did the first time we watched it—pick it up at your local library. It’s well worth the time.
The second documentary is Merchants of Doubt. This film is primarily (but not completely) about climate science and how the fossil-fuel industry is now using the same sort of disinformation campaign that the tobacco companies used for fifty years to throw up a smokescreen about the health effects of cigarettes. I can only describe this documentary is disgustingly fascinating.
The Merchants of Doubt website describes the film’s message thus: “The U.S. scientific community has long led the world in research on public health, environmental science, and other issues affecting the quality of life. Our scientists have produced landmark studies on the dangers of DDT, tobacco smoke, acid rain, and global warming. But at the same time, a small yet potent subset of this community leads the world in vehement denial of these dangers.” This film investigates the source of these denials. Unsurprisingly, they can be traced back to the corporations whose profits rely on products that create serious human health concerns or, in the case of global warming, that create serious risk to the very existence of millions of species of plants and animals and have the potential to irreversibly alter the nature of human existence on this planet.
It took us fifty years to sweep away the arguments of these merchants of doubt in the tobacco arena. We don’t have that much time to accept the truth and deal aggressively with global warming. But where one major political party has swallowed the disinformation hook, line, and sinker, America is far behind other advanced societies in addressing this crucial issue.
Like Inequality for All, Merchants of Doubt is a sobering look at a divisive but serious problem that many Mormons have dismissed as irrelevant. If you are in the dismissive crowd, you need to watch both films. If you are already concerned about these issues, you still need to watch these films.
1. Nick Hanauer, “The Pitchforks Are Coming . . . for Us Plutocrats,” Politico Magazine, July/August 2014,


  1. Roger, I will watch "Merchants of Doubt" when a complimentary documentary titled "Merchants of Fear" is available dissecting the champions of climate change. As a trained scientist I have no doubts about the effect of humans on our climate, nor do I doubt that there are serious problems with the way that we use energy that need to be addressed. But I have no sympathy for the chicken little prophets of doom who want us to believe that the sky is falling so that they can remake society. I believe that is why this has become such a divisive issue, not because the opponents are stupid or deniers while the proponents are on the side of the angels, but because the proponents have taken a legitimate policy issue and turned it into an existential crisis that can only be remedied by them seizing the reins of our economy and remaking it in their image.

  2. Fair enough, but who is doing more harm, those who may overstate things to try to get us off our lazy duffs or those who are intentionally obscuring a serious problem that may have permanent consequences, and for very questionable reasons?