DEREK CARSON, Staff Writer
BENNINGTON -- Sen. Bernie Sanders hosted a free screening of the documentary "Inequality for All" and an interactive town meeting style discussion on the topic of income inequality on Sunday, and touted the event as the first of its kind in Vermont.
"I was elected to the House of Representatives in 1990, and began serving in 1991," said Sanders in his opening remarks, "Since then, I’ve participated in hundreds of town meetings, in every town in Vermont, but this is the first time we’re holding four simultaneously."
The documentary, which is just under two hours long, was shown at locations in Bennington, Brattleboro, Middlebury, and St. Johnsbury. Sanders participated from the Middlebury location. The documentary debuted at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, and was directed byJacob Kornbluth, and produced by Jen Chaiken and Sebastian Dungan.
"Of all the issues facing our country, income inequality is the most profound," said Sanders, "70 percent of the GDP is determined by consumer spending. If the middle class does not have disposable income, then we can’t create jobs."
The documentary features Robert Reich, an economist, professor, and author who was Secretary of Labor during the Clinton Administration. In a lecture to his students at the University of California Berkeley, Reich said, "Many of you call yourselves conservatives. Many of you call yourselves liberals. You’ll find those labels mean less and less as we get deeper into this conversation."
Reich framed that conversation around a graph that showed percentage of total income controlled by the top one percent of the population. The graph, Reich pointed out, resembled a suspension bridge, peaking twice, in 1928, immediately before the Great Depression, and in 2007, immediately before what is being referred to as the Great Recession. During the period of time that the percentage of wealth controlled by the top one percent was lowest, from the mid-1940’s to the mid-1970’s, America’s economy boomed.
"There’s no such thing as a totally free market, anywhere," said Reich, "The government sets the rules that define the market. The question is, who do those rules benefit?" Reich argued that the middle-class, not the wealthy, are the true job creators in an economy. "There’s no way you can grow the economy without a strong, vibrant, and growing middle class," he said.
Reich has been diagnosed with multiple epiphyseal dysplasia, or Fairbanks Disease, which effects the process of ossification, which allows bones to grow. Because of this, Reich stands at only 4 ft. 10 inches tall, and was often the target of bullying as a child. He describes his experiences as playing a large role in his politics. "I have to protect people from the bullies," he said in the film, "If you don’t have a voice in society, you don’t have anyone to protect you."
Reich also spoke about the idea that bringing manufacturing plants back to the United States would be to create working-class jobs. He suggested that it would not create as many jobs as proponents belive, due to this increasing automation of factories. "We have this romantic idea that we can get manufacturing back. But when those manufacturing plants open, they’re filled with computers and machines."
"He’s a great educator, and he does a great job with issues that the American people really need to know more about," said Sanders of Reich. While Sanders said he agreed "with about 95 percent of what Reich has to say," he did note that the Clinton administration, when Reich was secretary of labor, was responsible for pushing through the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, which Sanders said he opposed at the time and blamed on many U.S.companies leaving the U.S. to open manufacturies in other countries. "In my mind," said Sanders, "the deregulation of Wall Street in the Clinton administration directly led to the financial crisis."
Sanders rotated through the four locations, offering often in-depth responses to citizens’ questions. While questions were supposed to center around the documentary and the subject of income inequality, topics ranged from extremely to only vaguely topical. Sanders answered questions on a variety of topics, from benefits for the unemployed, state-sponsored education, and political campaign finance, to an off-topic iquiry about whether Sanders would issue a public apology for the U.S.-sponsored coup d’etat that put Augusto Pinochet into power in Chile in 1973.
On the subject of publicly-funded education, Sanders said "Hundreds of thousands of young people are not going to college because they don’t want to come out deeply in debt. It is incredibly important, for all the reasons indicated in the Reich film, to invest in education." Sanders also spoke out in favor of campaign finance reform, saying, "We have to look closely at public funding of elections." Sanders pointed to a small handful of billionaires, including casino owner Sheldon Adelson, who provided $93 million campaign donations during the 2012 presidential election, the highest of any individual. Adelson hosted three Republican presidential hopefuls in Las Vegas this weekend. "[Wealthy donors] can put more money into a political campaign than [Mitt Romney and Barack Obama] combined, and at no effect to their wealth. It would be like you spending $50."
"If we don’t get our act together," said Sanders, "we are going to end up in a country where our economics and politics are controlled by a handful of individuals."
Sanders was pleased with the town meeting, saying, "I think the experiment worked. We were able to hear from people from three other communities." Over 50 people turned out to the Bennington viewing location, more than for the original Burlington showing that convinced Sanders to take the film screening on the road. For his part, Sanders said that the duties of an elected official are not just to vote, but to educate the public on important issues.
One citizen, from the St. Johnsbury location, thanked the senator for hosting the event. "Thank you for hosting this very important and enlightening film," he said.
In the documentary, as Reich was closing out his lecture to the UC Berkeley students, he referenced the struggles of the civil rights movement of the 1960’s, saying, "If anyone feels cynical about social progress, just look where we have been."
Derek Carson can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @DerekCarsonBB