The One Percent
Last night I watched The One Percent, a documentary filmed by Jamie Johnson, heir to the Johnson & Johnson fortune.
The One Percent — as the title implies — focuses on income disparity between the rich and poor in the United States. I was drawn to the documentary when I noticed that it came out in 2006, long before the financial crisis and the Occupy Wall Street movement began.
“If Johnson was talking about ‘one percent’ back in 2006, he must have been at the forefront of the movement,” I thought. “Let’s see what this is documentary is all about.”
This documentary is based on an important question: Is income disparity in the U.S. a problem? Or is there nothing wrong with income disparity as long as the bottom 50 percent have a better quality of life? What’s more important: relative poverty or absolute poverty?
These are important questions, and they deserve to be treated with intellectual rigor. Unfortunately, Johnson’s documentary lacks the complexity, nuance and critical thought that these issues deserve.
The movie is pure punditry. The quotes are cherry-picked to cast the wealthy in the worst possible light. Johnson seems to be more interested in reinforcing his audiences’ ideas than he is in authentically exploring a complex issue.
Punditry, of course, exists on both sides of the fence. Regardless of which “side” it supports (as if complex economic theories could be boiled down to two sides), punditry over-simplifies the topics that affect our lives. Economics cannot be reduced to chants and cliches.
Johnson, for example, has managed to create an entire documentary framing “rich vs. poor” without ever asking the question, “where does money come from?” He seems to believe that money falls from the sky into the laps of a privileged few.
That perspective comes from his own experience — as heir the Johnson & Johnson fortune, a circumstance of birth brought him unimaginable wealth — but his own good fortune does not sufficiently explain how the laws of competition, supply, demand, wages, job creation and incentives govern our society.
Johnson has access to some of the world’s most intriguing interview subjects: Nobel-winning economist Milton Friedman, former Presidential candidate Steve Forbes, and former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich. He had the opportunity to pose thought-provoking questions that could lead to insightful commentary. But in every conversation, Johnson seems more interested in advocating his own arguments than in listening to his interview subjects’ answers.
This documentary panders to class warfare. Income disparity is an important issue that merits rational discussion and critical thought. Unfortunately, Johnson’s movie deprives this issue of the analysis it deserves.
Thanks to Great 8 for today’s photo.